Michael Fontaine



Click here for my CV. I'm a Latinist with broad interests in Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. In recent years I've held a variety of leadership roles in Cornell's central administration. My latest work is on the effective use of humor in diplomacy. Previous books covered wine, swine, mind, and a good laugh. I'm now completing a trilogy of mental health books for Princeton University Press on classical ideas of fortitude, resilience, and adaptability. When that wraps up, I'll be working on the philosopher Celsus. Oh, and I was also recently parodied on Saturday Night Live (really! see it here.) 

Research Focus


Latin literature, classical Roman and Greek society, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Forest, not trees. Lots of comedy, and lately, Lucian.


For a complete list, click here. Book reviews are here. Popular press writings are here.

New Books

1.  2021. Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor.  Princeton University Press. Korean translation in progress.

How to Tell a Joke cover

Can jokes win a hostile room, a hopeless argument, or even an election? You bet they can, according to Cicero, and he knew what he was talking about. One of Rome’s greatest politicians, speakers, and lawyers, Cicero was also reputedly one of antiquity’s funniest people. After he was elected commander-in-chief and head of state, his enemies even started calling him “the stand-up Consul.” How to Tell a Joke provides a lively new translation of Cicero’s essential writing on humor alongside that of the later Roman orator and educator Quintilian. The result is a timeless practical guide to how a well-timed joke can win over any audience.

As powerful as jokes can be, they are also hugely risky. The line between a witty joke and an offensive one isn’t always clear. Cross it and you’ll look like a clown, or worse. Here, Cicero and Quintilian explore every aspect of telling jokes—while avoiding costly mistakes. Presenting the sections on humor in Cicero’s On the Ideal Orator and Quintilian’s On the Orator’s Education, complete with an enlightening introduction and the original Latin on facing pages, How to Tell a Joke examines the risks and rewards of humor and analyzes basic types that readers can use to write their own jokes.

Filled with insight, wit, and examples, including more than a few lawyer jokes, How to Tell a Joke will appeal to anyone interested in humor or the art of public speaking.

2. 2022. Marcus Tullius Cicero (?). How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to Overcoming Loss. Princeton University Press. Secret decoder-ring data set eventually online here.

"I even did something no one's ever done before: I talked myself out of depression." (Cicero, March 45 BCE)

Laocoon, face of grief

3. 2023. Prudentius. How to Cope: An Ancient Guide to Slaying Your Demons. Princeton University Press.

A classical coping mechanism

Pop quiz! What do these four words mean?

  • psychology
  • psychiatry
  • psychotherapy
  • psychomachy

The first three are easy. But the last one stumped you, right? (Click here for the answer.)

4. 2023. Ovid. How to Get Over a Breakup. Princeton University Press.

New Articles

1. 2022. "Ut Pictura Po(e)sis? Wine, Women, and Song in Plautus' Gorgylio (Curculio)."

2. 2021. ‘Joannes Burmeister.’ Frühe Neuzeit in Deutschland 1620–1720: Literaturwissenschaftliches Verfasserlexikon (VL17), vol. 2. Berlin: De Gruyter. Eventually online here.

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