Roman jokes

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Ancient Roman jokes are usually recorded by ancient writers to be used as a rhetorical device, and many of them are apparently taken from real-life trials conducted by famous advocates, such as Cicero.

One of the oldest Roman jokes, which is based on a fictitious story and survived alive to this time, is told by Macrobius in his Saturnalia:[1] (4th century AD, but the joke itself is probably several centuries older):

Some provincial man has come to Rome, and walking on the streets was drawing everyone's attention, being a real double of the emperor Augustus. The emperor, having brought him to the palace, looks at him and then asks:
-Tell me, young man, did your mother come to Rome anytime?
The reply was:
-She never has. But my father frequently was here.

(The modern version is that an aristocrat, having met his exact double, asks: "Was your mother a housemaid in our palace?" "No, my father was a gardener there").

An example of a joke based on double meaning is recorded in Gellius (2nd century AD):[2]

A man, standing before a censor, is about to testify, whether he has a wife. The censor asks:
-Do you have, in all your honesty, a wife?
-I surely do, but not in all my honesty.

(the pun is in the expression used for in all your honesty - orig. ex animi tui sententia, typically used in oaths - which can also be understood as to your liking).

Some of the jokes are about fortune-tellers and the like, and are probably of Greek origin. An example (1st century BCE):[3]

A runner going to participate in the Olympic games had a dream, that he was driving a quadriga. Early in the morning he goes to a fortune-teller for explanation of the dream. The reply is:
-You will win, that meant the speed and the strength of the horses.
But, to be sure about this, the runner visits another fortune-teller. This one replies:
-You will lose. Don't you understand, that four ones came before you?


  1. ^ Macr. Sat. 2.3
  2. ^ Gell. IV 20
  3. ^ Cic. div. II 145