Jokes, Wit, and Sarcasm

Capito the doctor put ointment on Chryses’s eyes, when he could see a high tower from a mile away, a man from two hundred yards, a quail from twenty feet, and even a louse from one foot. Now, Chryses can’t see the town from two hundred yards, nor the lighthouse (even when its light is burning) from two hundred feet, he can only just see a horse from six inches, and whereas he used to be able to see a quail, now he can’t see a huge ostrich. If Capito manages to give him another dose of ointment, he won’t ever again be able to see even an elephant standing right beside him (Strato, Greek Anthology 11.117).

If there were no doctors, there would be nothing more stupid than teachers (Athenaeus, Wise Men at Dinner 666a; the great physician Galen is one of the guests attending the dinner, but he was so breathtakingly arrogant that he would hardly have regarded this as a personal attack).

Diaulus used to be a doctor, now he’s a mortician. He does as a mortician what he did as a doctor (Martial, Epigrams 1.47).

I was feeling poorly. You came to see me straightaway, Symmachus, accompanied by a hundred student doctors. A hundred fingers chilled by the North Wind took my pulse; I didn’t have a fever, Symmachus, but now I do (Martial, Epigrams 5.9).

Baccara, from the Swiss Alps, has entrusted his penis for treatment to a doctor who’s his rival in love. Baccara is going to be a Gaul (Martial, Epigrams 11.74). [The joke, such as it is, depends on a pun, Gallus meaning both “Gaul” and “eunuch.”]

Yesterday, the doctor Marcus took the pulse of a stone statue of Zeus; even though he is made of stone, today Zeus is being carried out for burial (Lucillius, Greek Anthology 11.113).

Pheidon did not give me a purge or take my pulse – I just remembered his name, got feverish, and died (Callicter, Greek Anthology 11.118).

Among the Lentuli, the children were consistently shorter than their parents, and Oppius joked that the family was going to die out through being born (Quintilian, Education of the Orator 6.3.67).

When Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, broke his collar-bone in battle, the doctor who treated him asked for a considerable fee. Philip joked: “You have the key, so arrange your own payment” (Gnomologium Vaticanum 540). [The joke plays on the word κλείς (kleis), which means both “key” and, because of its shape, “collar-bone.” κλείς is cognate with the Latin word for “key,’ clavis, from which English derives the diminutive form “clavicle” = “collar-bone.”]

Demosthenes saw an unsuccessful wrestler practising as a doctor, and said to him “Now you’ve found a way to throw down many people” (Gnomologium Vaticanum 226).

During their night raid on the Thracian camp at Troy, Odysseus says to Diomedes, “You kill the men, and I’ll see to the horses” (Homer, Iliad 10.481). In his commentary on this line, the great Byzantine philologist Eustathius notes: This line is found as an old joke at the expense of a useless doctor and veterinarian, with the vet giving his brother the task of sending the men to Hades, while he himself slaughtered the horses.

The phrase “sending the men to Hades” is derived from the opening lines of the Iliad, which are the basis of a rather ponderous joke against doctors attributed to Lucian at Greek Anthology 11.401:

A doctor sent his dear son to me, to learn his letters in my school. But, when he had learned “Sing of the wrath” and “he caused countless woes” and the third verse that follows these, “he sent many mighty souls to Hades”, the father no longer sent his son to me to be educated. When he saw me, he said “Thank you, my friend, but my son can learn those things with me, for I myself also send many souls to the Underworld, and I’ve no need of a teacher for that.”

When he was suffering from hardening of the joints, the philosopher Polemon urged the doctors who were treating him, “Keep digging, keep hacking away at Polemon’s quarries”. And he wrote to Herodes Atticus about his affliction, “When I need to eat, I have no hands; when I need to walk, I have no feet; but, when I need to suffer pain, I have both hands and feet” (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 543).