The World’s First Practical Joke?

Much of what we know about classical humour comes from a Roman joke book containing 265 gags known as the Philogelos – translated as Laughter Lover, according to historian Mary Beard, who presents BBC history programmes.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • A chatty barber asks his customer how he would like his hair cut. The customer replies tersely: ‘In silence.’
  • A patient complains to a doctor about feeling dizzy half an hour after waking up.  The doctor replies: ‘Get up half an hour later.

But what was not known until recently is that the Romans may have also been quite the practical jokers.

A bowl with a sculpture inside it was found in Vinkovci, eastern Croatia, back in 2012 but its use was initially not known until it was examined by Dr. Hobbs, curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum. Hobbs believes it could have been owned by Roman emperors.

The sculpture on top of the bowl is Tantalus, a Green mythological figure who was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree. He could not reach the fruit and the water always receded before he was able to take a drink which led to his eternal punishment.

The discovery may have appeared to have been a simple bowl to drink from, but the sculpture leads onto a pipe that causes the liquid to drain from the bottom when the bowl is filled to a certain height.

The result: an unsuspecting dinner party guest soaked in wine, while everyone around the table laughs at the guest’s misfortune.

The Tantalus cup sounds like a dribble glass, but that prank simply has holes hidden in a design on the side so that the liquid leaks when the cup is tipped. The Tantalus cup has a much more elegant design based on the physics of a siphon and can be traced to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras.

Pythagoras’s invention was better known as the Greedy cup after its true purpose – to keep drinkers from imbibing too much.

Dr. Hobbs is working on a model of the Tantalus bowl, which is on display at a museum in Zagreb, so that he can test the siphoning theory.

If Hobbs is doing his testing at the British Museum, perhaps I can be an “unsuspecting” volunteer; I’m in town for the next couple of months and I’ve got a change of clothes if the siphon works.

And speaking of Roman humour, I came across this one-liner today, thanks to Paul Seaburn.

A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers and says, “Five beers, please.”



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