Thirteen Dad Jokes from Ancient Rome for Father’s Day

Mike Fontaine |

Not for the Laughtose Intolerant

Cicero would wear this with pride (source)Cicero would wear this with pride (source)
Dad jokes. You’ve heard the term before.

What are dad jokes, exactly, though? Urban Dictionary, that fount of all wisdom, tells us:

DAD JOKE: An indescribably cheesy and/or dumb joke made by a father to his children. For example,

Daughter: Dad, we should go back soon.

Dad: Why?

Daughter: I’m hungry.

Dad: Hi hungry, I’m dad!

Daughter: Shut up with the dad jokes, they aren’t funny!

It’s not easy to explain exactly why it’s so enormously satisfying to make a joke like that once you hit a certain stage of life. But it is, and while the feeling may not be universal, it does seem to be widespread.

I say that because you might not think that Ancient Romans told dad jokes 2,000 years ago, but they did. In fact, they even had the very same joke that’s quoted by Urban Dictionary. (Don’t believe me? Keep reading.)

In honor of Father’s Day, here are thirteen of the best dad jokes handed down to us from antiquity. Many of them are quoted by Cicero, the Consul of Rome in 63 B.C.E. Others are Cicero’s own jokes, and one of them is an actual dad joke that Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, made to his daughter Julia.

Read on and see if all these years later, they can still get a laugh. (Latin lovers: a link to the Latin original is pasted just below each joke; click the source author’s name to get it.)

1. A witness named Sixtus Annalis had damaged Cicero’s client at a trial, and the prosecutor kept pressing the point over and over: “Tell us, Cicero, what can you say — if anything — of Sixtus Annalis?” Whereupon Cicero began to quote lines from the sixth book of Ennius’s Annals (which sounds very similar to Sixtus Annalis in Latin):

♫“Who could ever disclose the reasons for breathtaking warfare … ?”♫ (Quintilian)

2. This soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night and was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends asked why he hadn’t show up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped,

“Oh, it’s okay — he said he broke an arm.” (Cicero)

3. [A.] In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto?

[B.] A slow one! (Cicero)

4. A very short witness at a trial comes up to the stand. “Mind if I ask you something?” says Philippus. “Keep it short,” snaps the judge. “No problem,” he replies,

“I just have a tiny bit to ask.” (Cicero)

5. “I’ll come have dinner at your house,” a man tells this one-eyed friend of mine,

“I see you’ve got a place for one.” (Cicero)

6. Seeing his son-in-law Lentulus, a short fellow, girt with a long sword, Cicero asked,

“Who tied my son-in-law to a sword?” (Macrobius 2.III.3, translated by Bob Kaster)

7. There was a candidate running for office whose father was believed to be a cook. When he went to ask a man for his vote, Cicero, who was standing by, piped up,

“Roast assured — I’ll support you!” (Quintilian)

8. When Marcus heard that someone with awful body odor had died, he said:

“Finally! He won’t smell anymore.” (Quintilian)

9. Philippus told a smelly guy,

“It seems you’ve … (sniffing) … goat me surrounded!” (Cicero)

10. Here’s that dad joke the Emperor Augustus made to his daughter, Julia:

Julia was getting prematurely gray and took to plucking her gray hair in secret. One day her father surprised her hairdressers with his arrival, and they stopped their work. Pretending not to notice the gray hairs on their garments, Augustus chatted about some other topics for a while before steering the conversation around to the topic of age, then asked his daughter whether — some years hence — she would rather be bald or gray: when she replied, “I, father, would prefer to be gray,” he reproved her fib by saying,

“Then why are these women trying so hard to make you bald?” (Macrobius 2.5.7,translated by Bob Kaster)


11. A man bought a miniature candlestick. When people asked why, he replied,

“It’s to use at brunch.” (Quintilian)

12. In the finale of a speech, a man thought he’d moved his audience to pity. Once he sat down, he asked Catulus, “Do you think I moved them to pity?” “Oh hell yeah,” replied Catulus,

“I don’t think anyone’s so hard-hearted that they didn’t find your speech pitiful.” (Cicero)

13. Last of all, here’s a classic from Plautus, the greatest comedian of Ancient Rome. Notice how some things never change?

One Father: Should I call you my hope or my salvation, Pseudolus?

Pseudolus: Both!

Another Father: Hi, Both! (Pseudolus 709–710)

Urban Dictionary would be proud.

Mike Fontaine is Professor of Classics at Cornell University. His latest book, How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, was published by Princeton University Press in March. The translations here come from there. Links to other work may be found just below.


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Mike Fontaine

Cornell University professor of classics; former LLiR professor; author of Funny Words in Plautine Comedy; Advisory Board member


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