A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers and says, “Five beers, please.”
The ancient Romans may not have been known for their joke-telling skills (think Roman number V), but it seems they more than made up for this with their ability to execute a proper practical joke. In fact, a new discovery in Croatia points to 4th century Romans as the first users of an innocent-looking wine bowl that spilled its contents on unsuspecting drinkers, although the idea for this gag actually goes back to one of the most famous Greek mathematicians in history.
“This is the earliest example of a physical practical joke, certainly for the Romans.”
Proving one can get paid to study just about anything, that statement came from a study co-authored by archaeologist Dr. Richard Hobbs, the Weston Curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum, and published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. Hobbs writes that the bowl was found in Vinkovci, Croatia, in early 2012 and archeologists originally assumed it to be just another bowl or vessel for drinking wine. However, one unique aspect of this particular bowl inspired Hobbs to look for its true purpose.
As reported in the Daily Mail, that aspect was the shape attached to the bottom of the bowl. Hobbs recognized it as a representation of Tantalus, a Greek mythological figure (possibly based on a real person) who allegedly killed and ate his son and was sentenced to spend eternity in Tartarus (a deep abyss used for torturing the wicked) standing in a pool of water under a fruit tree with the fruit always just beyond his reach and the water receding when he went to drink it.
This horrible story apparently inspired someone to create the Tantalus bowl or cup (photos here), which had a tube hidden inside the figure – a tube which led to a hole hidden on the bottom. When the liquid being poured into it reached a certain level, it was siphoned into the hole and the contents spilled onto the lap of the unsuspecting cup holder. Laughter and merriment ensued, just like today when people are victims of practical jokes.
The Tantalus cup sounds like a dribble glass, but that prank simply has holes hidden in a design on the side so that the liquid leaks when the cup is tipped. The Tantalus cup has a much more elegant design based on the physics of a siphon and can be traced to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who is more famous for his theorem: "In a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal [to the sum of] the squares of the two other sides” or a2 + b2 = c2. Pythagoras wasn’t exactly a prankster and his invention was better known as the Greedy cup after its true purpose – to keep drinkers from imbibing too much.
“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.”
Those joking Romans. Hobbs thinks the silver Tantalus cup possibly belonged to Valentinian I (aka Emperor Valentinian the Great) or his brother and co-emperor Valens, who were born in Vinkovci and ruled there in the 4th century. That could be tough to prove, since there are no stories of Valentinian beating up his brother for pulling the practical joke on him.
FYI … they’re called “practical” jokes because they’re physical rather than oral or written and are supposed to be lighthearted and embarrassing, but not cruel.
Hobbs is working on a model of the Tantalus bowl, which is on display at a museum in Zagreb, so that he can test the siphoning theory.
Let the other employees at the British Museum beware, especially on April 1st.