Mike Fontaine



I'm a Latinist with broad interests in Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. In recent years I held a variety of leadership roles in Cornell's central administration. My latest work is a book on breakups and another on addiction and bullying, both for Princeton University Press. Previous books covered wine, swine, grief, mind, and a good laugh. Next up, free speech through the ages, with projects on Plato, Plutarch, Lucian, and the Enlightenment. Oh, and I was also recently parodied on Saturday Night Live (really! see it here.) 

At Cornell, I teach courses on Ancient Rome, Greek Mythology, Wine Culture, and Latin literature of all time periods. For business executives worldwide, I teach eCornell courses on leadership from Ancient Rome and the effective use of humor in the workplace.

  • Cornell students: click here for current course syllabi.
  • Executive education students: click here for course information.

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. 2022. Inspired by Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Lost Art of Consolation. Princeton University Press. Secret decoder-ring data set online here.

A survival guide to life. “Remarkable for an ardent hope and confident belief of a future State.” — John Adams

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

In 45 BCE, the Roman statesman Cicero fell to pieces when his beloved daughter died from complications of childbirth. But from the depths of despair, Cicero fought his way back. In an effort to cope with his loss, he wrote a consolation speech—not for others, as had always been done, but for himself. And it worked. Cicero’s Consolation to Himself was something new in literature, equal parts philosophy and motivational speech. Drawing on the full range of Greek philosophy and Roman history, Cicero convinced himself that death and loss are part of life, and that if others have survived them, we can, too; resilience, endurance, and fortitude are the way forward.

Lost in antiquity, Cicero’s Consolation was recreated in the Renaissance from hints in Cicero’s other writings and the Greek and Latin consolatory tradition. The resulting masterpiece—translated here for the first time in 250 years—is infused throughout with Cicero’s thought and spirit.

Complete with the original Latin on facing pages and an inviting introduction, Michael Fontaine’s engaging translation makes this searching exploration of grief available to readers once again.

2.  Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor.  Princeton University Press. Translations: Korean, Indonesian.

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.

3. 2023. Ovid. How to Get Over a Breakup. Princeton University Press. (In press.)

"Step right up, all you naive victims: come to my dictums, if you're a fool for love." (Ovid)​

4. 2024. Prudentius. How to Cope: An Ancient Guide to Slaying Your Demons. Princeton University Press.

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.)

New Articles

1. In progress. Verba Genuina: Genuine and “Cheeky” Words in Plautus.” (A trial balloon I'll float at Genoa University this spring.)
2. In press. "Ut Pictura Po(e)sis? Wine, Women, and Song in Plautus' Gorgylio (Curculio)."
3. In press. "The Stanford Prison Experiment of 200 BCE: The Lucifer Effect in Plautus' Prisoners."

In the news

Courses - Spring 2023

Courses - Spring 2023