The Jests of Hierocles, and a Greek rascal named Minoides Minas

While reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson this week, my eye fell on a note telling me that Johnson published an article with a free translation of the “Jests of Hierocles”.  Such a text was unknown to me, so I did a little research.  I find that it is very obscure, and seems to have attracted little recent attention.

It seems that there is a collection of witticisms, mostly of the “Irish joke” form, which is preserved in bits and pieces in some miscellaneous manuscripts.  It begins with a series of “pedant” or “absent professor” jokes – the Greek word is scholasticos.

A number of these jokes were widely known in the 19th century, because they appeared in a school textbook, and were welcomed “for having to many a youngster enlivened the dreary waste of the Analecta Minora.”[1]

The text, such as it is, was edited by Eberhard in 1869, in a volume containing merely 86 pages.[2]  This edition, with the introduction in Latin at the back, may be found on Google Books here.  The contents are attributed to Hierocles, possibly a sophist of the 5th century AD in Alexandria (but probably not) and Philagrius, a similarly doubtful figure of the same date.

A look at the list of manuscripts given by Eberhard is not encouraging:

  • A – “a copy of a Paris manuscript, I don’t know which, made by Minoides Minas”
  • M – Munich Greek 551, folios 284-288 (15th c.)
  • V – Vienna Greek 192, fol. 104-109 (15th c.)
  • e – editions of Rhoer and Boissonade.

An English translation of the work, made from that edition, does exist, made by the unfortunately named Charles Clinch Bubb.[3]  From this we learn that the translator often found the point obscure, and the Greek doubtful.  But he does reprint the Johnson article as an appendix.

JSTOR contains little.  There is a 1951 article by Rapp about the collection from 1950, which is mainly concerned to introduce the collection in general terms, but corrects some of the misapprehensions of Bubb.[4]  Thankfully this has much interesting information at the end:

The best and most recent edition of the collection was published in Berlin in 1869 by Alfred Eberhard (Philogelos, Hieroclis et Philagrii Facetiae, Berlin: Ebeling & Plahn). It consists of 264 jokes, a very few appearing twice. Eberhard’s work is based largely upon three manuscripts, known as A, M, and V.   V (Vindobonensis) is of the I 5th century, and contains 68 jokes. M (Monacensis) is also of the Isth century; it consists of 125 jokes. The largest collection, A, with 258 jokes, is not only the most complete but the most exasperating and elusive of Eberhard’s three major sources. It is an apograph made in the robber-baron days of scholarship by a man with the name of Minoides Minas. Of Minoides Minas, Eberhard has this to say: (p. 58)

“He was a Greek who was famous for the number of books he discovered, destroyed, stole, and concealed. He openly rifled the libraries of Greece and Asia, and copied off these jokes from some manuscript or other; whereupon he proceeded to hide all traces of what anybody would want to know about them.”

Boissonade, noted French classical scholar and contemporary of Minas, published an edition of this jokebook in Paris in 1848, using Minas’ apograph. Twenty years later Eberhard, who was hoping to put out a complete and scholarly edition, made every effort to see the apograph. But his repeated letters to two Parisian scholars got no reply; so he was forced to use Boissonade’s text for A. Basing his work largely on careful comparison of these sources, together with some early editions which stemmed from an independent source, Eberhard finally edited his Philogelos.

The Philogelos, as we have it, is really not one joke book, but two. It seems to have been compiled from previous collections made by two different men: Hierocles and Philagrius. Codex A and M mention both names. V mentions only Hierocles; but it is possible that Philagrius’ name dropped out of V, as Eberhard suggests, because Hierocles’ appeared first and because most of the jokes were his. Further evidence that we have here two joke books, not one, lies in the fact that some of the jokes appear twice, in slightly different wording; and yet never more than twice. From two separate joke books then, those of Hierocles and Philagrius, somebody appears to have made a new collection. Who he was we do not know; nor do we know what other sources he may have used, nor the titles of the two original joke books. This anonymous compiler probably provided the title Philogelos.

Before the discovery of codices A, M, and V, 28 of these jokes were known to exist. They were found appended to a 10th century manuscript of Hierocles’ work, the “Commentary on the Golden Words of Pythagoras.” The ascription of the jokes to the philosopher Hierocles was at first not seriously questioned, and in 16o5 Marquard Freher edited both works together. For the next one hundred and fifty years, these 28 jokes achieved a wide popularity; so that Johann Adam Schier, whose edition appeared in 1750, was able to list an Index of Principal Editions which had appeared before him. Schier lists seven leading ones, implying there were many others. By this time, this collection of “asteia,”or “facetiae,” was being printed separately and for its own sake for the light-minded; and at the same time kept appearing as a reluctant and bizarre appendages to the Golden Words of Pythagoras. In view of the subject matter of these jokes there is a delicate, though purely accidental, irony involved. Needham, for example, who rejected the ascription of the asteia to the Hierocles of the Commentary, nevertheless printed the jokes as a sort of appendix, after apologizing as follows: (Peter Needham, Hieroclis Philosophi Alexandrini Commentarius in Aurea Carmina. Cambridge, Eng.: A. & J. Churchill, 1709, p. 459)

“Since there happened to be a few empty pages, and so that nothing might be omitted from my edition, nothing which bore the name of Hierocles, I decided to add these facetiae, as they are called; even though their frivolous themes, and an occasional expression only found in later Greek, lead us to assume that they should not be ascribed to Hierocles, the Alexandrian.”

In the Gentleman’s Magazine for September 1741 (xi. 477-9), when Samuel Johnson was a contributor, there appears an interesting article entitled “The Jests of Hierocles.” A footnote to the caption reads: “The author of the celebrated Comment on Pythagoras.” The article opens with an apology directed to the editor:

“… if you should be censured for inserting any Thing of so little Importance, you may allege, that they have been thought worthy to be preserv’d for many Ages; [and] that they were ascribed to no meaner an Author than Hierocles ….”

Twenty,one of the 28 facetiae are then given in broad English adaptation, a version which is generously padded, and which often takes the surprise out of the “punch line.” The omissions are no doubt due to textual and moral difficulties.

So, for over 1o5 years these 28 asteia circulated about Europe. Not until 1768 was the number enlarged, when Rhoer published 66 jokes based on the 68 which had been discovered in Codex V. Shortly afterwards, the existence of the Augustan Codex (later called Monacensis), with 212 jokes, was noted by Pontanus; who proceeded to publish 109 of them with Latin translations.

That was all, until Minoides Minas ransacked the libraries of Greece and Asia, and became “famous for the number of books he discovered, destroyed, stole, and concealed;” among which was presumably Codex A with 258 facetiae, which Boissonade proceeded to publish in 1848. The Philogelos, as we said, seems to be a merger of two separate joke books, those of Hierocles and Philagrius

The identities of the “Hierocles” and “Philagrius” are completely obscure, and the attributions may be accidental.  Rapp remarks that jokes lend themselves to adaptation in transmission, and although many are clearly pagan, the current dress of them is 9-10th century.

He finishes by adding that the interest in these items collapsed shortly after Eberhard’s publication.  Nothing was then done, it seems, beyond Bubb’s translation.  A JSTOR search reveals very little.

It would be good if someone would grab hold of this and identify the “Paris manuscript”, at the very least.  These pieces of vulgar literature reveal something very meaningful about ancient society, and are well worth preserving and transmitting.

It would be wrong not to quote one or two of the items, so here are a couple that struck my eye:

5o.  A pedant who was a money lender told a sailor, one of his debtors, to furnish him with a cinerary urn and also for his eight year old boys two slave girls of the right size with allowance for growth.

57.  A father advised a pedant who had a child born to him of a slave woman to do away with the child. He replied, “First bury your own children before you advise me to destroy mine.”

76.  The priest upon giving the suppliant’s olive branch to a pedant who was entering the temple of Serapis, said, “The god be propitious to you.” He replied, “The god be propitious to my little pig for I do not need it.”

149.  A witty fellow whilst in the bath was insulted by someone and he brought forward the attcndants as witnesses. The defendant objecting that they were not worthy of credence, he said, “If one were insulted in the wooden horse, he would bring as witnesses Menelaus, and Odyssus, and Diomedes; but the insult taking place in the bath, of necessity the attendants know the matter better.”

Such were the incidents of daily life in ancient Greece and Rome.

  1. [1]Eclectic Magazine 20, 1874, p.597.
  2. [2]A. Eberhard, Philogelos: Facetiae ex Hieroclis et Philagrii libellis excerptae, Berlin, 1869.
  3. [3]C.C. Bubb, The Jests of Hierocles and Philagrius, Cleveland, 1920.  Online here.
  4. [4]Albert Rapp, “A Greek ‘Joe Miller'”, Classical Journal 46, 1951, 286-290 + 318.  JSTOR.

9 thoughts on “The Jests of Hierocles, and a Greek rascal named Minoides Minas

  1. There are recent editions, but they mostly go under the title Philogelos, not the supposed authors. Last I checked, they were all easily buyable either new or used:
    1. Greek text (“Philogelos”) with apparatus by R. D. Dawe, K. G. Saur (formerly Teubner, now DeGruyter), 2000.
    2. Text and facing German translation with full commentary by Andreas Thierfelder, Tusculum collection, 1968. (Also now published by DeGruyter – title page says “Hierokles/Philagrios Philogelos”.)
    3. English translation with explanatory notes by Barry Baldwin, “The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover”, J. C. Gieben, Amsterdam, 1983.
    4. Also: Mario Andreassi, ‘Le Facezie del Philogelos: Barzelette antiche e umorismo moderno’, Rome, 2004.
    I’m working on a little pamphlet selecting the 72 best of these (24 on scholastikoi, 24 ethnic jokes, and 24 miscellaneous) in a Loebish format: facing text and translation with brief notes at the bottom of the page. A few have already appeared on my website.

  2. Aha! So that’s why I could find little! Thank you so much for this – very good to have this bibliography.

  3. I also remember that there is website somewhere with all the jokes, and with a video of an English professor telling them on a stage

  4. I particularly like the title of this translation: “The World’s Oldest Joke Book: Hundreds of Hilariously Terrible Ancient Jokes”

  5. French trans by A. Zucker, “Va te marrer chez les Grecs (Philogelos)” (Paris?) 2008.

  6. Hey, Roger, maybe you need to apply for a job!

    Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts
    Salary: £32,000 to £36,800
    Location: St Pancras
    Job Type: Permanent
    Vacancy Group: Collections
    Category: Curator, Conservation, Collection Care
    Closing Date: 11/15/2015
    Date Posted: 10/15/2015
    Reference: 0045

    The British Library holds an internationally renowned collection of manuscripts relating to the ancient and medieval world. As Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts, with a special responsibility for Classical, Biblical and Byzantine Manuscripts, you will use innovative and traditional ways of interpreting and presenting these collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users. You will manage projects relating to ancient and medieval manuscripts and use your specialist knowledge to support the development, management and promotion of these collections.

    With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject, you will have experience of research in Classics and /or Byzantine Studies and a personal area of expertise relevant to the collection. Strong knowledge of Ancient Greek and Classical Latin, excellent written and oral communication skills in English, and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

    To help transform research on and engagement with these collections, please visit
    Appointments are usually made at the bottom of the pay scale.

    Closing date 15 November 2015.
    Interview Date: 26 November 2015.

    And I’m sure you’ve got readers with those skills!

  7. I would be surprised if the rather recent book by Mary Beard did not include some more informations : Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (University of California Press, 2014); ISBN 0-520-27716-3

Leave a Reply