Practical Joke or Practicing Restraint? The Drinking Vessel That Turned Greedy Guests into Wet Blankets
A 4th century silver Roman bowl may be one of the earliest known examples of a practical joke. It looks like a regular drinking vessel at first, but the unsuspecting wine reveler who was given this object at a party would have received a less than pleasant surprise.
The Roman artifact was unearthed in Vinkovci, Croatia in 2012, but Daily Mail reports that the true use of the bowl wasn’t deciphered until it was examined by British Museum archaeologist Dr. Richard Hobbs. “This is the earliest example of a physical practical joke, certainly for the Romans,' Dr. Richard Hobbs, curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum, told Daily Mail .
Inquisitr reports that the silver bowl has a secret pipe placed within it which would begin draining any liquid poured in it if it reached a certain quantity.
It is possible that this specially designed vessel was for an altogether different purpose. Theodoros Karasavvas has reported for Ancient Origins that this type of artifact was invented by Pythagoras.
— Daily Mail Online (@MailOnline) December 29, 2017
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Known as the Pythagorean Cup, or Greedy Cup, this is purportedly one of Pythagoras’s lesser-known inventions. Unlike the practical joke intention attributed to the recently studied Roman Tantalus bowl, Karasavvas writes , “Local traditions in Samos say that he [Pythagoras] made the cup for drinking wine in moderation. Inside, there was a line that defined the maximum level of wine the cup could be filled with. A trickle above that line and the cup automatically emptied its contents from a hidden hole in its base.”
Cross section of a Pythagorean cup being filled: at B, the cup may be drunk from, but at C, the siphon effect causes the cup to drain. ( Nevit Dilmen / CC BY SA 3.0 )
“You can imagine this being passed to an unsuspecting dinner party guest who likes their drink and them holding it and telling a slave to fill it up with wine, and at some point it pouring all over them,” Dr. Hobbs, told The Times .
The Roman Tantalus bowl has another tongue-in-cheek feature – the appearance of Tantalus. Like the person who attempted to drink from the vessel, Tantalus was unable to quench his thirst. In Tantalus’ case his thirst was the punishment of the gods for his misconduct in Olympus. They decided Tantalus should always be left wanting when he reached for the fruit above his head or the water which appeared deceivingly close to his feet, but would drain away when he tried to drink it.
‘Tantalus and Sisyphus in Hades’ (ca. 1850), a wall painting (now destroyed) in the Niobidensaal of the Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany. ( Public Domain )
As an interesting twist to the story, Dr. Hobbs believes that the jokesters who owned the Tantalus bowl may have actually been Roman emperors. Specifically, he named Valentinian I and his brother Valens as the possible tricksters because they were born in Vinkovci, where the silver bowl was found.
The original Roman Tantalus bowl is in Zagreb, so Dr. Hobbs aims to create a replica with which he can perform further tests and analysis.
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Cut-through illustration of a Pythagorean cup. ( Fair Use )
It has been suggested that the Roman joke book Philogelos – translated as Laughter Lover according to historian Mary Beard – is one of our best sources for what constituted humor in ancient Rome. However, Reuters reports the oldest known recorded joke comes from 1900 BC. It is a Sumerian saying: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
Although it sounds a little strange in comparison to today’s jokes, the essence of the Sumerian saying may actually be quite similar to modern humor. As Dr. Paul McDonald, lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, points out :
“Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles. What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes […]”
Top Image: The silver Tantalus Bowl found in Vinkovci, Croatia in 2012 . Source: ©Damir Doracic, Archaeological Museum Zagreb