There are a number of versions of how Chrysippus died, one of which says he drank some overproof wine while another says that he died of laughter*.

Apparently, he died laughing at his own joke. The story goes something like this*:

...one day on his way home Chrysippus came across an ass eating figs. He instructed the old woman who lived with him to give the ass some unmixed wine to drink afterwards, and with that he laughed so violently he died.

Or according to Wikipedia*:

In the second account, he was watching a donkey eat some figs and cried out: "Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs", whereupon he died in a fit of laughter.

I don't know if it is the zeitgeist or some weird Stoic sense of humor but the joke is completely lost on me. I found multiple sources telling the story, but none provided an explanation.

Can someone explain why somebody in that time period (ca. 200 BC) would find that joke hilarious?

  • 2
    Based on a cursory search, I'd guess the answer is "no" - I think the humor is the incongruity of an animal eating human food - like a horse eating a hamburger and beer. I think the point is that Chrysippus of Soli would laugh at anything.
    – MCW
    Sep 7, 2016 at 11:18
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    A little bit more research leads me to strongly suspect that the truth that Chrysippus had consumed some overproof wine _ and_ he found the joke funny.
    – MCW
    Sep 7, 2016 at 13:30
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    @MarkC.Wallace 1. Thank you for all the time you invested thus far. 2. Your theory is very interesting and I am curious what you found so far. Do you think you have time to formulate your findings into an answer?
    – Jordy
    Sep 7, 2016 at 13:55
  • "I think the humor is the incongruity of an animal eating human food" is compatible with Niki's answer below, assuming that figs were expensive then for some reason [why?] although I would not have thought it normally very incongruous. Try growing your own fruit or vegetables outdoors unprotected and you will probably find birds, animals and insects happily munch them. Normally one would keep farm animals fenced in or they would be quite likely to eat their way through nearby crops and orchards.
    – Timothy
    Mar 30, 2017 at 12:47

5 Answers 5


You asked if anyone could explain the joke that killed Chrysippus. I doubt that anyone can; humor is very difficult to translate across cultures. (My second language was German, and I spent far too long trying to understand German humor until I relaxed and accepted that it was just different).

I believe the joke relies on the incongruity raised by an animal eating figs. Figs are human food, and an animal eating human food should drink human beverages. The incongruity is heightened by giving the animal unwatered wine (Wine was normally drunk watered). I'm pretty sure that youtube includes multiple videos around the theme of drunken animals. If you took video of a cat eating a cheeseburger with a bottle of premium beer, people would laugh.

I think that there are two other factors at play (I have no evidence, but I think these are logical assumptions)

  1. Chrysippus apparently had a strong sense of humor.
  2. I suspect that Chrysippus had already indulged in some overproof wine.
  • 2
    Well, "no" is also an answer. I already assumed it would be tough, maybe even impossible because, as you said, it is translated, plus there is a time difference of roughly 2200 years. I really like your angle of anthropomorphism and intoxication as the foundation of the joke. A well deserved +1.
    – Jordy
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:30
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    "I suspect that Chrysippus had already indulged in some overproof wine." Accompanied with some figs as well, of course.
    – Brasidas
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:35
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    Was it funny because he made an Ass of himself? Sep 7, 2016 at 18:44
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    No...it was even funny that he died! Get it! Sep 7, 2016 at 18:59
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    I wonder why figs should be considered exclusively human food? They don't grow hereabouts, so I've little experience, but certainly my horses enjoy other fruits as treats. Never tried them on wine, but they also like beer :-)
    – jamesqf
    Mar 29, 2017 at 17:36

Figs were extremely expensive and a status symbol at the time in Athens, the equivalent of good caviar now. To give someone the "sign of the fig" is still an obscene or rude gesture, as "fig" is slang for the female genital organs, and figs were the apples in some versions of the story of Adam and Eve, so again, it could be translated in several ways. However, I believe he's probably poking fun at his fellow attendees. He's at a gathering/party, and if you read accounts/look at the sculptures, he is a grumpy old man. The "donkey" is an ass. Drinking unwatered wine would make it a drunken ass. It's a drunken ass, eating the equivalent of caviar, being noisy and stupid at a party... which is evidently deadly hilarious for a grumpy old genius in 200 BC.

  • 1
    The answer of Niki is correct. Actually story has it that it was illegal at to export figs from Athens and the Greek word for slanderer etymologically means the person who wrongly accuses someone of exporting figs.
    – user23469
    Feb 1, 2017 at 8:13
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    That was my thinking exactly: It is the specific animal that probably drunks were compared to. Still not that funny; maybe no one else thought it was so funny then, either -- generations of Greeks saying, "Thats what he thought was so funny? Really?"
    – Jeff
    Aug 29, 2017 at 10:07

don't over-analyze the joke! The man was coming back from a feast, he clearly had a good time, he was probably a bit drunk too. He was in an excellent mood, and when you are in a good mood even plain jokes can make you laugh a bit too hard. Chrysippus probably laughed to the point where he couldn't breathe properly, probably even choking. The joke is not that complex to need an explanation, the meaning is all behind the context.


There is nothing you need to research about a joke. If you research upon the humour in a joke it's very likely you might end up thinking, "really? he died laughing at this joke?" No matter what is the humour in joke. Its a joke. Everybody knows that. He laughed, obviously we laugh after landing a good joke upon someone. Isn't it? Perhaps, it was merely the moment and situation when he cracked that joke made it more funny. So he died of cardiac arrest or asphyxiation while laughing. So nothing's special about that joke but it's very rare form of death and he was a good figure amongst people because he was a philosopher and all. Its been circling around since centuries. So is this question. enter image description here

  • 3
    I don't think this answers the question.
    – MCW
    Oct 17, 2017 at 19:13

"Funny" is all relative and this is especially true given the times you live in. Have you ever been stoned, and then something really odd happens to you? Just something out of the ordinary, like the recent viral video of stoned Russian guys in a car following 2 vans carrying people who apparently worked for Disney on their way to work. They had a verbal altercation with one another and suddenly they are beating the crap out of one another in the street in full uniform; one of them Mickey, I think. And the Russians following behind just blew up with laughter, which itself was hilarious.

Back in his day, a donkey coming over out of the blue and eating one's precious figs as if he was a connoisseur of such things, then the idea of helping him finish it off properly with wine, was probably the equivalent of that...since, you know, they didn't have much by way of entertainment in the bad old days...so it may have been too much for him in his state of intoxication, and anyway, fate cannot be denied, according to him...so it was his time to go; ignominious death or not!

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