5 Wonderfully Weird Practical Jokes from Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans were no strangers to having fun... just take a look at the wonderfully weird way they pranked one another! From scaring people with lions to sticking a salted fish on the end of a line, these jests are as timeless as the Eternal City itself.

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Elagabalus and His Wild Animals

This Tunisian lion mosaic looks like one of Elagabalus's pals. De Agostini/G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Often disparaged as one of Rome's most licentious emperors, the epically named Elagabalus ate on silver platters and put gold fabric on his couches (he's also often credited as the inventor of the whoopee cushion). As the "Historia Augusta" puts it, "Indeed, for him life was nothing except a search after pleasures." 

The "Historia" chronicles the misadventures of Elagabus and his menagerie of wild animals. He had pet lions and leopards, "which had been rendered harmless and trained by tamers." To make his guests squeal during the after-dinner courses at banquets, the emperor would suddenly order his big cats "to get up on the couches, thereby causing an amusing panic, for none knew that the beasts were harmless." Elagabalus even sent his lions and leopards to his guests' bedrooms after they were passed out drunk. His friends freaked out; some even died from fright!

Elagabalus wasn't just a cat person; he loved other wild creatures too. He rode in chariots driven by elephants, dogs, stags, lions, tigers, and camels around Rome. Once, he collected snakes and "suddenly let them loose before dawn" in the city near the Circus, causing a frenzy. "Many people were injured by their fangs, as well as in the general panic" according to the "Historia."

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Cleopatra and Antony's Fishy Pranks

Antony and Cleopatra dine together...perhaps on some fish. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo/De Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Marc Antony was sort of an ancient frat bro, so it's no surprise he got pranked, too. One such instance occurred when he was on a fishing date of his many lady loves — Pharaoh Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Roman education of elite Roman youths didn't include Fishing 101. So Antony didn't catch anything; he got embarrassed and was "vexed at it because Cleopatra was there to see," as chronicled in Plutarch's "Life of Antony." So he ordered some of his fishermen to "dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught." Of course, Antony was able to then reel in a few scaly friends.

Cleopatra wasn't fooled, though, and decided to pull one over on her lover. Plutarch says that, "pretending to admire her lover's skill," she invited her friends to watch Antony go fishing the next day. So everyone clambered into a bunch of boats, but Cleopatra got the upper hand by ordering her fishermen to place a piece of salted herring onto Antony's hook!

When the Roman reeled in his catch, he got really excited, but everyone started laughing. Cleo reportedly quipped, "Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents."

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The Julio-Claudian Cousins vs. Claudius

Claudius may well have been pranked after falling asleep at a banquet like this. DEA/G. NIMATALLAH/Getty Images

If you remember "I, Claudius" — either Robert Graves's book or the BBC miniseries — you might think of Claudius as a doddering fool. That's an image propagated from ancient sources, and it appears that his own Julio-Claudian relatives tortured him during his own lifetime. Poor Claudius!

In his "Life of Claudius," Suetonius recalls how Emperors Tiberius (his uncle) and Gaius, a.k.a. Caligula (his nephew) made Claudius' life a living hell. If Claudius arrived late to dinner, everyone made him walk all the way around the banquet room rather than just slip into his own place. If he fell asleep after dinner, "he was pelted with the stones of olives and dates" or attacked by jesters with whips or canes. 

Perhaps most unusually, the courtly bad boys "also to put slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, so that when he was suddenly aroused he might rub his face with them." Whether that was because their coarse bottoms might irritate his face or they were mocking him for wearing feminine shoes, we don't know, but it was still mean, all the same.

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Commodus and the Bald Guy

Commodus loved destructive jokes. DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

The "Historia Augusta" also casts aspersions at Commodus's creepy sense of humor, saying, "In his humorous moments, too, he was destructive." Take the incident that involved a bird pecking a guy to death, which, though possibly fictional, attests to this emperor's brutal reputation.

Once, Commodus noticed someone sitting near him happened to be going bald. Some of his few remaining hairs were white. So Commodus decided to put a starling on the guy's head; "imagining that it was pursuing worms," the bird pecked this poor man's scalp to shreds until it fester[ed] through the continual pecking of the bird's beak."

As Mary Beard notes in her "Laughter in Ancient Rome," joking about baldness was a common imperial trope of humor, but Commodus' version was perhaps the most sadistic.

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Anthemius and His Arch-Enemy, Zeno

Justinian Mosaic in Ravenna.
Justinian Mosaic in Ravenna. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Those who lived in Rome weren't the only practical jokers in the Mediterranean. A fifth- and sixth-century Byzantine mathematician and architect — he helped build the Hagia Sophia for Emperor Justinian IAnthemius of Tralles, as chronicled in Agathias's "Historia," was also a master prankster. 

The story goes that a prominent lawyer named Zeno lived near Anthemius in Byzantium. At one point, the two started arguing, whether over the fact that Zeno built a balcony that blocked Anthemius' view or over triumphing in court, it's unsure, but Anthemius got his revenge. 

Somehow, Anthemius got access to Zeno's basement and installed a steam-pressure device that caused his neighbor's home to rock back and forth like an earthquake hit it. Zeno fled; when he returned, Anthemius also used a hollowed-out mirror to simulate thunder and lightning storms to freak his enemy out even more.

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Silver, Carly. "5 Wonderfully Weird Practical Jokes from Ancient Rome." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/weird-practical-jokes-from-ancient-rome-4018759. Silver, Carly. (2020, August 26). 5 Wonderfully Weird Practical Jokes from Ancient Rome. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/weird-practical-jokes-from-ancient-rome-4018759 Silver, Carly. "5 Wonderfully Weird Practical Jokes from Ancient Rome." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/weird-practical-jokes-from-ancient-rome-4018759 (accessed December 7, 2022).