Dumb jokes never change
July 31, 2019 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Ancient Roman 'Pen' Was a Joke Souvenir (LiveScience): During an archaeological excavation at a Roman-era site in London, researchers found around 200 iron styluses used for writing on wax-filled wooden tablets. One of those styluses, which just debuted in its first public exhibition, holds a message written in tiny lettering along its sides. The inscription's sentiment, according to the researchers who translated it, is essentially, "I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen."

"I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty."
posted by not_the_water (48 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
This certainly gives more credence to the mug seen in Shakespeare in Love.
posted by bryon at 9:49 PM on July 31, 2019 [6 favorites]




Clearly, corny humor had just been waiting for millennia for inexpensive custom textile printing technology to be invented.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:09 PM on July 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


I would actually like a shirt just like that one.

Well, in my size, but otherwise just like that one.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:15 PM on July 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


That's something I've always liked about really old Roman inscriptions. They figured that writing represented speech, so if some object had descriptive writing on it, the object must be talking to you. The oldest Latin inscription is on a brooch called the Praeneste fibula, and it says (in a very primitive form of Latin), "MANIOS MED FHEFHAKED NVMASIOI" which means "Manius made me for Numerius." I was so inspired by this idea that now, whenever I need to write myself instructions about how to handle something like a bill, I do it Old Roman Style: "I am due next week. Pay me off when you get a check on Friday, you cheapskate."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:16 PM on July 31, 2019 [100 favorites]


“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Sumer, 1900 BCE.
posted by little onion at 10:28 PM on July 31, 2019 [8 favorites]


A collection of jokes from the Philogelos ("laugh-lover"), a Hellenistic Roman joke book.
posted by sukeban at 11:00 PM on July 31, 2019 [8 favorites]


What Latin word for shirt / tunic would be correct for this sentence? Would be fun to replace “sharp point” and put the whole wordy thing on a T-shirt.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 12:44 AM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Caesar adsum iam forte

- Ronald Searle
posted by emf at 2:44 AM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


When you turn the pen upside down does the toga slowly come off the person drawn on the pen?
posted by entropone at 3:02 AM on August 1, 2019 [45 favorites]


Also found was a toga embroidered with “this person to whom this arrow points is my companion of sub-standard intelligence”
posted by dr_dank at 4:17 AM on August 1, 2019 [36 favorites]


So "Romani ite domum" is not wordy enough to be a true representation? I feel cheated.
posted by DreamerFi at 4:41 AM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Everytime I read the four lines of text, I keep expecting it to end with "Burma Shave".
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:41 AM on August 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


Ooh, I read about this in the paper at the weekend. Discovered during the construction of Bloomberg's new European headquarters in central London, built where the Temple of Mithras once stood beside the lost river Walbrook. The building is now complete, and the ground floor and basement house the free-to-visit Mithraeum, including a fascinating exhibition of artefacts from the dig, a series of site-specific contemporary art commissions, and the phenomenally atmospheric temple itself. I can't recommend this enough, if you happen to be in London and interested in ancient Rome. If on the other hand you're interested in ancient Rome but you're not in London, there are some rather good digital materials you can take a look at. (MOLA = Museum of London Archaeology.)

Incidentally, the nearby Guildhall Art Gallery has the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in its basement, also open to the public; and if that mention of a lost river piqued your interest, the Museum of London's Docklands branch has an excellent free exhibition on London's Secret Rivers until the 27th of October.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:43 AM on August 1, 2019 [19 favorites]


...and now a plug for my favorite urban British magician detective series of written works (mostly the novels really).
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 4:58 AM on August 1, 2019 [16 favorites]


This fits right in with the theory that my husband and I have about the Romans, that they were tacky AF.

Also, ManyLeggedCreature, thank you so much for hipping me to those sites. I...am unfortunately not in London or anywhere near it, but this shit is my absolute jam and I am taking notes for my next trip. The undercroft at Yorkminster is one of my favorite historical sites anywhere.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:55 AM on August 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


i have had on a to-do list forever "find out what oldest joke is" and i figure i can google and look around, but this is fun
posted by emirenic at 5:59 AM on August 1, 2019


This made my day, thanks. Things like this remind of these lines from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that I think about when frustrated with the state of the world:
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose. . . .

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence . . . .
posted by sallybrown at 6:25 AM on August 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


The Romans were definitely tacky AF. A friend of mine is a classics scholar out of one of the Big Deal Programs, and one of their recurrent complaints about now teaching high school Latin is that they really want to give their students a sense of just how wild and petty and corny and brutal and tender the Romans could be, and the total opposite of the white-statues-on-hushed museums thing. And the most direct way to do that for an intro audience is to show parts of the HBO series Rome, which has a musical intro that shows a series of Roman graffiti, including graffiti of a dude with a giant, like, bigger than him erect dick with two carefully drawn balls. And the rest of the show lined up with that. And then some.

Which is sort of the point, but also, it’s a high school Latin class.

(My friend does manage to show a bunch of it, and then they talk about the inaccuracies in the show, but it always involves a certain amount of lunging for the remote control/pause button.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:26 AM on August 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


Ages ago, I read a fascinating book titled Route 66 AD. Ancient Romans had their equivalent to the Grand Tour, and a modern travel writer decided to follow the route to the most popular Roman tourist attractions, describing both the ancient appeal and providing a modern perspective. (Some places remain popular to this day, others are more obscure)
And, yes, all kinds of souvenir trinkets were available for purchase by travelling Romans. Painters sold portraits in front of the Acropolis where the entire picture was complete except the person's face, which would be drawn in upon purchase to match the buyer.
Frankly, the only thing missing were t-shirts with tacky slogans, so this stylus fits perfectly.

i have had on a to-do list forever "find out what oldest joke is" and i figure i can google and look around, but this is fun
The oldest joke I know of involved a wealthy man on a ship during a terrible storm. When his slaves cried out in terror, he told them not to worry, he freed them in his will.
posted by cheshyre at 6:27 AM on August 1, 2019 [14 favorites]


The Romans were definitely tacky AF. A friend of mine is a classics scholar out of one of the Big Deal Programs, and one of their recurrent complaints about now teaching high school Latin is that they really want to give their students a sense of just how wild and petty and corny and brutal and tender the Romans could be, and the total opposite of the white-statues-on-hushed museums thing.

I have read that in so many cultural ways, Rome was America to Greece’s England.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:32 AM on August 1, 2019 [15 favorites]


I have read that in so many cultural ways, Rome was America to Greece’s England.

I believe it was Aristophanes who coined the phrase "Ooooh, nurse!"
posted by briank at 6:56 AM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


Rome was America to Greece’s England.

Filled with naturalized Germani?

They figured that writing represented speech, so if some object had descriptive writing on it, the object must be talking to you.

Reminds me of the inscription on a comb I read about in a book on Vikings as a kid: "Thorfastr made a good comb". I want to put that instead of "property of whoever" on my labels.
posted by traveler_ at 6:57 AM on August 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


I have read that in so many cultural ways, Rome was America to Greece’s England.

Listening to Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast, I frequently exclaimed to whoever would listen, "OMG these vapid dickweeds!" So, yeah, checks out.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:11 AM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


They figured that writing represented speech, so if some object had descriptive writing on it, the object must be talking to you.

Hamburger chain Whataburger drink cups say "When I am empty, please dispose of me properly" which is both quality recycling advice and psychologically crushing life advice.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:12 AM on August 1, 2019 [20 favorites]


A friend of mine is a classics scholar out of one of the Big Deal Programs, and one of their recurrent complaints about now teaching high school Latin is that they really want to give their students a sense of just how wild and petty and corny and brutal and tender the Romans could be, and the total opposite of the white-statues-on-hushed museums thing.

My daughter went to Boston Latin School, where, as you might expect from the name, students are required to take Latin (four years, to be exact), and her biggest frustration was that in none of those years did she really get a sense for what Romans were like, how they bought food and just lived their lives. Instead, she learned how many parts Gaul was divided into. Well, that and semper ubi sub ubi.
posted by adamg at 8:11 AM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


Speaking of Pliny, Daisy Dunn has recently published a biography of the younger (UK only, coming to the US later this year).
posted by BWA at 8:20 AM on August 1, 2019


Well, that and semper ubi sub ubi

Glad to know that old chestnut is still going in Latin classes this century!
posted by tavella at 8:32 AM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


Painters sold portraits in front of the Acropolis where the entire picture was complete except the person's face, which would be drawn in upon purchase to match the buyer.

Wow, I had no idea the notion of "large painted board with a cutout for tourists to put their faces through" was that old!
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:02 AM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


i have had on a to-do list forever "find out what oldest joke is"

Oldest documented joke, of course. I'm pretty sure early hominids had some form of the "pull my finger" gag, since stage 1 "inappropriate action" humor has been observed in modern apes.
posted by zakur at 9:09 AM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Is this really a joke souvenir, as opposed to just a souvenir?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Things like this remind of these lines from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that I think about when frustrated with the state of the world

OK I know it's a slight derail but that poem always makes me cry. I live in Brooklyn and have sat on the shore in Brooklyn exactly where the old ferry would have been, and when I read Crossing Brooklyn Ferry it really does feel as if he is speaking directly to me. I only wish I could have seen the harbor filled with sailing ships like he describes. And I wish I could somehow go back in time and show him the New York skyline in 2019.

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

posted by showbiz_liz at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


My daughter went to Boston Latin School, where, as you might expect from the name, students are required to take Latin (four years, to be exact), and her biggest frustration was that in none of those years did she really get a sense for what Romans were like, how they bought food and just lived their lives.

[and to complete my triple comment] I was both delighted and frustrated when, several years into Latin classes, we got around to discussing what life in Rome was like for the 99%. Earlier lessons had involved stuff like labeling all the rooms in a Roman villa, learning about Roman dinner parties and how they differed from modern dinner parties, etc. Then one day it's "oh and by the way, the vast majority of Romans lived in apartment buildings with no kitchens and bought all their food from local restaurants" and I was like WAIT why have we not been learning about THEM this entire time??
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:48 AM on August 1, 2019 [22 favorites]


Yes! I took Latin in college with the good old Oxford Latin Series, and we had to translate passages on tests into idiomatic English. The professor was very insistent that the Romans were mostly ridiculous college kids themselves and we should not translate as if these were stately historical passages. Thus I once wrote on a test "...and then Quintus and Gaius got their drank on."
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:25 AM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


My AP Latin teacher consistently referred to Catullus as "the Eminem of the ancient world" and like, yeah, pretty much.

Then one day it's "oh and by the way, the vast majority of Romans lived in apartment buildings with no kitchens and bought all their food from local restaurants" and I was like WAIT why have we not been learning about THEM this entire time??

BRB, going back in time and founding a cart-based meal delivery service called CenaRota.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:29 AM on August 1, 2019 [8 favorites]


Yes! I took Latin in college with the good old Oxford Latin Series, and we had to translate passages on tests into idiomatic English. The professor was very insistent that the Romans were mostly ridiculous college kids themselves and we should not translate as if these were stately historical passages. Thus I once wrote on a test "...and then Quintus and Gaius got their drank on."

I love/hate seeing older, extremely NON-idiomatic translations of stuff like Roman graffiti. I mean, for example: "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!" Like, come the fuck on.

I'd think a translation in the spirit of the actual message would read more like "Sorry ladies, this dick is officially a no-chicks zone. It's all dudebutts all the time from now on. Bye babes."
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:36 AM on August 1, 2019 [18 favorites]


tobascodagama Its related to the Tiffany Effect.

So named because Tiffany was a common given name for women way back as far as the 12th century, it would be entirely historically accurate to have a woman named Tiffany in any bit of European rooted fantasy or historical fiction.

But no one who writes that sort of book uses the name Tiffany because we've got this social attitude that it's a modern name so it'd break imemrsion.

There's a story (no idea if its true or not) that when they were filming Gladiator they intended to have a scene with Maximus doing a celebrity endorsement for a brand of olive oil but cut it because even though gladiators did do celebrity endorsements most people don't know that so they'd think it was some sort of weird modern joke. Whether or not the story is true, it is true that gladiators did product endorsements.

Like Romans living in apartments and eating street food and from restaurants, it just seems weird because it doesn't match our idea of how the past should have looked...
posted by sotonohito at 10:39 AM on August 1, 2019 [14 favorites]


I remember reading the Catullus poem about his girlfriend's bird dying that is like, a sweet lament but then the professor saying "yeah this is actually more him saying "god that bird was such an asshole tho"
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:46 AM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


I read a long time ago that the Classical Latin we teach in schools was reserved for orations, works of literature, proclamations, letters, and so forth, and considerably distinct from the Vulgar Latin everybody used in everyday life, which we don't know that much about, and yet which is the actual ancestor of Romance languages — and that one of our few big sources of information about Vulgar Latin is a cookbook.

Has that view been superseded?
posted by jamjam at 11:10 AM on August 1, 2019


i have had on a to-do list forever "find out what oldest joke is" and i figure i can google and look around, but this is fun

It's not nearly the oldest, but I have read early 20th-century sources complaining about the line "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." (At the time it was an absurd dadjoke, and now it is a genuine statement of a global issue.)

I remember reading the Catullus poem about his girlfriend's bird dying that is like, a sweet lament but then the professor saying "yeah this is actually more him saying "god that bird was such an asshole tho"

My professor, a small and cheerful man, mimed Catullus strangling the bird.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:18 AM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


it just seems weird because it doesn't match our idea of how the past should have looked...

Which reminds me, what's up with movies and TV shows set in ancient times showing all sorts of fallen columns, crumbling buildings, and so on like they look now??
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:20 AM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Low budget for sets.
posted by Quasirandom at 2:41 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day has translations of several useful phrases, like "Is that a dagger in your toga, or are you just happy to see me?"
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 2:58 PM on August 1, 2019


I was both delighted and frustrated when, several years into Latin classes, we got around to discussing what life in Rome was like for the 99%

Yes! I was very, very lucky, I think -- Romano-British history was kind of a blur I didn't understand or much care about until I took an archaeology class and we were trouped around Caerleon and Caerwent by one of the archaeologists who'd excavated there. He was breathtakingly good at bringing the past alive, and getting us to actually feel, just a little, what life would have been like on this frontier. I keenly remember, in particular, him pointing out the remains of underfloor heating and pointedly commenting that there would have had to be someone outside in the cold and the wet stoking the fire, and it wasn't particularly nice to be them.

Anyway, I love this and I love this conversation around it. And I'm excited to see the exhibition about the site the next time I'm in London; it employed a couple friends of mine over the years, and it'll be brilliant to get to see the fruits of their labours.
posted by kalimac at 9:08 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Here's one more hidden bit of Londinium: Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, open to the public on Saturdays only, April - November. This thread has finally prodded me into booking onto a tour to see it.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:06 AM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


I love/hate seeing older, extremely NON-idiomatic translations of stuff like Roman graffiti. I mean, for example: "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!" Like, come the fuck on.

Now 'Goodbye, wondrous femininity!' is most definitely a tame and euphemistic translation of 'vale, cunne superbe!' which has a fairly obvious meaning in english but for sheer effusive style, I absolutely love it. All serious historical specifics of how Romans thought of male sexuality aside, that comes off as someone who is very happy to finally be out.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 6:55 AM on August 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


I'm glad someone mentioned Pompeii graffiti. These past few days, my mind has kept returning to one Pompeii inscription in particular:

"We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus."

Did Gaius and Aulus both die in the eruption? Did one or both die beforehand? Or did they leave town and survive? Did their friendship-- or relationship-- last until their deaths, or did they drift apart?

Usually graffitising or tatooing your relationship is a death-knell, but I hope Gaius and Aulus were an exception.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:40 PM on August 2, 2019


Dear Hollywood: Gaius & Aulus disaster-romance movie. DM me for the address where you can send my million dollars.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:49 PM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


« Older The Game That Broke the Baltimore Orioles   |   The value of billionaires pledges Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments