Some of the early antecedents of European jesters can be found in Greek and later Roman comic actors and mimes, some of whom would step out of the script and shoot their wit from the hip. This endearing group of terracotta comic actors from an Attic burial has been dated to the late fifth or early fourth centuries BC. They would originally have been painted in bright colours, and give us a delightful flavour of the richness and variety of personae:
They document the beginning of standardized characters and masks, indicating the popularity not of a specific figure but of types—the old man, the slave, the courtesan, etc.—that appeared repeatedly in different plays.
Since it seems that ‘Attic examples or local copies were known throughout the Greek world, from Southern Russia to Spain’, one can readily imagine that their quirky expressions and costumes may have inspired early comic actors or jesterish performers in other parts of Europe.
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1913, public domain.