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10 Amazing Ancient Insults
A well-crafted insult is a beautiful thing. Putting together just the right words to cut your opponent to the core is an art form. Masters of insults have been found in all times and all cultures.
If you read history, you’ll discover that personal abuse has changed how events play out at times. So be careful before you let fly with an offensive remark. Thanks to a range of rude gestures, you don’t even have to open your mouth to insult others.
Here are 10 ways that people have been offended in the past and some that might not win you many friends in the present.
10 Ariston vs. Ctesias
Demosthenes is often considered to be the finest public speaker who ever lived. In the ancient world, he was held up as a model for all orators to follow. He did not just deliver his own speeches, however. For the right fee, he would write a speech for someone else to give.
In ancient Athens, both the accuser and the defendant had to act as their own lawyers. Thanks to Demosthenes’s fame, one of these speeches was preserved and we know how Athenians insulted each other.
The rivalry between Ariston and Ctesias went back to their military service together. Ctesias would get drunk, cause a ruckus, and urinate on Ariston’s slaves. Ariston decided to act when Ctesias started mocking him. He told the general in charge. Ctesias did not take this well and beat up Ariston. Matters were left there . . . until they returned to Athens.
One night in the marketplace, a drunken Ctesias passed Ariston. Ctesias went off and gathered his friends and family, who came and thrashed Ariston. What really seems to have riled Ariston is how Ctesias acted once Ariston was on the ground. According to Demosthenes: “He began to crow, mimicking fighting cocks that have won a battle, and his fellows bade him flap his elbows against his sides like wings.”
9 Adding Insult To Injury
Imagine standing in the dust of an ancient battle. You are doing your best to fend off the swords and spears of the opposing warriors. Out of nowhere, something slams into your body. If you are lucky, you are rescued from the fray and taken to a doctor.
Using his rudimentary skills, he pulls a small lump of lead out of you. You’ve not been hit by a bullet fired by an anachronistic gun but by slingshot. When the doctor shows you what knocked you down, you see that something is written on it: “For Octavius’s Arse.”
Slingshots could be deadly, so you would be lucky to live to read the message after you were hit. But they were also a good way to insult an armed enemy at a distance. Archaeological digs have found many Roman and Greek slingshots with inscriptions on them like: “Catch this,” “This is for dessert,” and “Crack your teeth.”
As his forces came under attack by lead shot, one Roman commander found himself being insulted with these words written on the enemy ammunition: “Lucius Antonius. You baldy. You’ve lost.”
8 Giving The Finger
Giving someone “the finger” is perhaps the simplest gestural insult there is. Without the need for words, you have told them exactly what you think of them. But what is “the finger” actually saying? To find out, we have to go back to the gesture’s origin.
Ancient Greek sources are full of instances of “the finger.” Their name for it, katapygon, was also the name of an insult directed at men who were anally penetrated. The link between the finger and the phallus was not purely linguistic as it was thought that the erect middle finger looked like a penis.
The Greek use of “the finger” was not limited to the ignorant. The philosopher Diogenes (pictured above) made a habit of attacking politicians with whom he disagreed by giving them the finger.
The Romans also found the middle finger insulting. They called it the digitus impudicus (the “offensive finger”). They may have learned the gesture from the Germans, who supposedly welcomed the invading legions of Rome by flipping them the bird.
Fighting with fists is so uncivilized. Try flyting instead.
Flyting is a ritual combat using insulting verses to attack your opponent. It has been found in many cultures of Northern Europe and lasted from around the 5th to the 16th centuries. Many scholars compare flyting to modern-day rap battles as originality and inventiveness of insult were the keys to victory.
One famous account of flyting comes from the epic poem Beowulf, but it is relatively tame by comparison to other examples that have survived. Implying that someone is a bit of a coward doesn’t really compare to the god Loki accusing someone of incest:
I will no longer keep it secret:
It was with thy sister
Thou hadst such a son
Hardly worse than thyself.
A Scottish poem records The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie and shows just how far a flyting could go. The competitors accuse each other of terrible crimes, insult each other’s ancestors, and aren’t afraid to turn scatological.
One is accused of having such a “running bottom” that he nearly sank a ship with his waste. When Kennedie calls Dumbar a “sh—t,” it is the first recorded use of that word as a direct insult.
The Vikings were a literate people who prized wit in their heroes. It is not surprising that their language is full of terms that could be used to curse their enemies.
You had to be careful with your tongue, however. An insult to the wrong person could result in immediate death or being given a criminal trial. Under one Viking law code, to accuse another man of being ragr, strooinn, or soroinn was enough to give that man the legal right to kill you. All three words relate to being unmanly.
Vikings also liked to leave their mark by carving runes into rock. In a burial chamber in Scotland, they left such traditional graffiti as “Benedikt made this cross.” They also mocked certain attitudes of some people who had to duck to get into the chamber. “Many a woman has come stooping in here, no matter how pompous a person she was.”
5 Roman Graffiti
Graffiti pops up on walls in many times and places, and ancient Rome had so many walls that were crying out for some writing. In the preserved remains of Pompeii, much of that graffiti has survived.
They used graffiti to offer advice to fellow travelers at an inn: “The finances officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison.” Another bar owner was given the following review: “What a lot of tricks you use to deceive, innkeeper. You sell water but drink unmixed wine.”
Other writers took on more personal targets with their graffiti. “Secundus likes to scr—w boys,” runs one inscription. “Epaphra, you are bald!” and “Phileros is a eunuch!” can also be found among the classical beauties of Pompeii.
From Rome itself, an inscription was found that many modern people may be sympathetic to: Dominus est non gradus anus rodentum! (“The boss isn’t worth a rat’s arse.”)
4 Philosopher Brawls
We like to think of ancient philosophy as a sedate activity in which men with long beards used even longer words to discuss abstract matters. In fact, philosophy can be just as cutthroat as any other human activity. In the ancient world, great thinkers gave some of the greatest burns of all time. In ancient Athens, Plato and Diogenes had a running battle of words.
When Diogenes—of the middle finger we met earlier—ridiculed Plato’s idea of the existence of a higher form of objects, Plato replied, “That is natural enough, for you have eyes, by which a cup and a table are contemplated; but you have not intellect, by which tableness and cupness are seen.”
Plato also called Diogenes a “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes repaid the favor. When he was shown Plato’s expensive new carpets, Diogenes wiped his dirty feet on them. “Thus I trample on Plato’s pride.”
When Plato, who loved defining words precisely, came up with the definition of a human as “a featherless biped,” Diogenes interrupted him. Producing a plucked chicken from under his cloak, he announced, “Behold! Plato’s man!” Plato was forced to amend his definition by adding “with broad, flat nails.”
If one man turned insults into an art form, it is the Roman poet Martial. In neat little epigrams, he summed up the vices of the age and revealed people’s innermost shames.
As his books of witty poems poked fun at real people, they were hugely popular among the Romans. He even turned his pen against the people who sponsored him to write.
Being mocked by Martial was a path to immortality. Who would remember the bibulous Acerra if Martial had not written, “Whoever believes it is yesterday’s wine that Acerra smells of is mistaken: Acerra always drinks till morning.”
There is also the unfortunate Diaulus: “Diaulus had been a surgeon, and is now an undertaker. He has begun to be useful to the sick in the only way that he could.”
Some of Martial’s other epigrams have a more brutal sense of humor. To Manneia, he wrote, “Your lap-dog, Manneia, licks your mouth and lips: it always did like to eat sh—t.” Many others were considered too rude to translate for many years. “Lesbia swears that she has never slept with a man for free. It’s true. When she wants sex, she usually pays for it.”
The Roman statesman Cicero was a great man, as he never stopped telling anyone who would listen. For many years, he harped about how he had saved the Roman Republic by revealing a conspiracy headed by Catiline.
He lambasted Catiline with four speeches of rolling insults: “Is there one youth, when you have once entangled him in the temptations of your corruption, to whom you have not held out a sword for audacious crime, or a torch for licentious wickedness?”
Like Demosthenes, Cicero also used his well-trained tongue in the courts of law. When Cicero was defending a client, he did not hesitate to use anything that came to mind. “The woman’s husband, sorry, I mean brother—I always make that slip—is my personal enemy,” he said, making use of a rumor of incest that clung to the accuser.
Unfortunately, Cicero’s tongue talked his head off. Having insulted Mark Antony, Cicero also managed to antagonize the future Augustus. Cicero said of the young Octavius: “He should be praised, honored, and disposed of.” With no one to protect him, Cicero was killed. His hands and head, with which he had written and spoken so many insults, were nailed up in public.
Ancient Greek theater is usually imagined as high drama of grand eloquence. But after watching all those dramas with deaths, tragedies, and suicides, the Athenians wanted a good laugh. No one made them laugh more than Aristophanes.
Even in the classical world, he was known for the bawdy nature of his jokes and his attacks on public figures. Plato would even blame Aristophanes’s lampoon of Socrates for turning the people against Socrates and eventually executing him.
Aristophanes was not afraid to target the leaders of his city. He attacked a popular politician called Cleon by saying, “You demagogues are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good; in the same way it’s only in troubled times that you line your pockets.”
This Cleon received some of Aristophanes’s strongest insults. He was a dogheaded ape, a beggar, a butchered pig, a common market rogue, and an ignoramus. When Aristophanes could find no one brave enough to say his lines, the author took to the stage and addressed his insults directly to Cleon, who was sitting in the audience.
However, not all of Aristophanes’s targets were political. He would insult anyone, even the audience, if it would get a laugh.
Two characters weigh up the worth of various groups. What are lawyers? “Buggers.” What about politicians? “Buggers.” Comic playwrights? “Buggers.” Well, what do you think of them, he asks while gesturing toward the audience. “Just a load of buggers.”