22 July 2012

Not Quite Forgotten...

Years ago, I attended a talk entitled something like 'Tedius Scholasticus: Another Forgotten Classic'. As it ended, and we packed up to head off down the corridor to the obligatory wine reception, the lecturer next to me sighed, and remarked that that was a classical author he would have been quite happy to have left forgotten.

That said, there are real gems in the minor league of the Classical canon. While not everyone can be a Thucydides or a Lucretius, there are delights to be found in the lower rungs. Two of my favourites are Publilius Syrus and whatever wag or wags were responsible for To Philogelos.

To Philogelos or 'The Laughter Lover' is a bumper fun joke book from the fourth century AD, supposedly compiled by a comedy duo called Hierocles and Philagrius. The jokes, I'm afraid, aren't the funniest, but are worth a read for all that. Here are a few:
'An egghead got a slave pregnant. At the birth, his father suggested that the child be killed. The intellectual replied: "First murder your own children and then tell me to kill mine."'
'An Abderite wanted to hang himself, but the rope broke and he bumped his head. He went to the doctor and got some salve. After rubbing it on the wound he hanged himself again.'
'When a wag who was a shopkeeper found a policeman screwing his wife, he said: "I got something I wasn't bargaining for."'
'A Kymean constructed a huge threshing-floor and stationed his wife on the opposite end. He asked her if she could see him. When she replied that it was hard for her to see him, he snapped: "The time will come when I'll build a threshing-floor so big that I won't be able to see you and you won't be able to see me."'
'A rude astrologer cast a sick boy's horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When she said, "Come tomorrow and I'll pay you," he objected: "But what if the boy dies during the night and I lose my fee?"'
'A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: "Everyone is fine, especially your father." When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: "You have no clue who your real father is."'
'While a drunkard was imbibing in a tavern, someone approached and told him: "Your wife is dead." Taking this in, he said to the bartender: "Time, sir, to mix a drink up from your dark stuff."'
'A young actor was loved by two women, one with bad breath and the other with reeking armpits. The first woman said: "Give me a kiss, master." And the second: "Give me a hug, master." But he declaimed: "Alas, what shall I do? I am torn betwixt two evils!"'
'A young man invited into his home frisky old women. He said to his servants: "Mix a drink for one, and have sex with the other, if she wants to." The women spoke up as one: "I'm not thirsty."'
'A misogynist was sick, at death's door. When his wife said to him, "If anything bad happens to you, I'll hang myself," he looked up at her and said: "Do me the favor while I'm still alive."'
Oh yes, there's far more where they came from. 255 more, to be precise, albeit with some duplication. Some aren't terrible.

Anyway, we used to be very fond of this collection back in my misspent youth. Not so much for the ancient jokes, of course, as for the endnotes. The edition of To Philogelos in our library had a prodigious quantity of endnotes, all detailing how various German academics speculated about why jokes were funny.

They tended to take the form of 'Moellendorf Willamowitz says that this is a pun on "salve", whereas Kromayer argues that this is a references to the sacking of the city by Philip II in 350 BC. Delbrueck thinks this is an allusion to Democritus, who was a famous citizen of Abdera.'

A German friend of mine -- who habitually borrowed this book to bring to the pub and show bemused friends -- was particularly besotted with the endnotes.

The great Publilius Syrus, on the other hand, is a very different kettle of fish: if the notes on To Philogelos filled us with joy, Publius Syrus filled us with wisdom.

Publilius was a Syrian who wrote Latin plays in the first century BC. His plays became famous for his maxims, such that the plays have all been lost but the maxims remain, with other similarly wise sayings being attributed to him. You can read all thousand or so statements in the Loeb volume Minor Latin Poets, Volume 1

Among the sort of things he says are:
'A suspicious mind always looks on the black side of things.'
'An angry man is again angry with himself when he returns to reason.'
'Count not him among your friends who will retail your privacies to the world.'
'In a heated argument we are apt to lose sight of the truth.'
'It is folly to punish your neighbor by fire when you live next door.'
'Look to be treated by others as you have treated others.'
'It is a consolation to the wretched to have companions in misery.'
'Speech is a mirror of the soul: as a man speaks, so is he.'
'There are some remedies worse than the disease.'
'Hares can gambol over the body of a dead lion.'
And so forth. Profound stuff, you'll surely agree. The kind of thing that folk should absorb before jumping to conclusions, thinking oneself into a circle, and then charging around casting aspersions on people.

Um. Anyway, we used to keep it on the handy shelf back in our postgrad days, thinking he'd be a handy man whenever there was a crisis.

'What should we do?'
'Let's find out what Publilius Syrus would say,' someone would say, reaching for the little red book, opening it and random and treating our ears with his mellodious Syrian wisdom.

Great days.

I'm tempted to start a Publius Syrus Twitter account. Just to help people, you understand. 

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