), a writer of Fables, a species of composition which has been defined " analogical narratives, intended to convey some moral lesson, in which irrational animals or objects are introduced as speaking." (Philolog. Museum,
i. p. 280.) Of his works none are extant, and of his life scarcely anything is known.
He appears to have lived about B. C. 570, for Herodotus (2.134
) mentions a woman named Rhodopis as a fellowslave of Aesop's, and says that she lived in the time of Arnasis king of Egypt, who began to reign B. C. 569. Plutarch makes him contemporary with Solon (Sept. Sap. Conv.
p. 152c.), and Laertius (1.72) says, that he flourished about the 52th Olympiad.
The only apparent authority against this date is that of Suidas (s. v. Αἴσωπος
); but the passage is plainly corrupt, and if we adopt the correction of Clinton, it gives about B. C. 620 for the date of his birth; his death is placed B. C. 564, but may have occurred a little later. (See Clinton, Fast. Hell.
vol. i. pp. 213, 237, 239.)
Suidas tells us that Samos, Sardis, Mesembria in Thrace, and Cotiœum in Phrygia dispute the honour of having given him birth. We are told that he was originally a slave, and the reason of his first writing fables is given by Phaedrus. (iii. Prolog. 33, &c.) Among his masters were two Samians, Xanthus and Iadmon, from the latter of whom he received his freedom. Upon this he visited Croesus (where we are told that he reproved Solon for discourtesy to the king), and afterwards Peisistratus at Athens. Plutarch (de sera Num. Vind.
p. 556) tells us, that he was sent to Delphi by Croesus, to distribute among the citizens four minae a piece.
But in consequence of some dispute arising on the subject, he refused to give any money at all, upon which the enraged Delphians threw him from a precipice. Plagues were sent upon them from the gods for the offence, and they proclaimed their willingness to give a compensation for his death to any one who could claim it.
At length Iadmon, the grandson of his old master, received the compensation, since no nearer connexion could be found. (Hdt. 2.134
There seems no reason to doubt this story about the compensation, and we have now stated all the circumstances of Aesop's life which rest on any authority.
But there are a vast variety of anecdotes and adventures in which he bears the principal part, in a life of him prefixed to a book of Fables purporting to be his, and collected by Maximus Planudes, a monk of the 14th century.
This life represents Aesop as a perfect monster of ugliness and deformity; a notion for which there is no authority whatever. For he is mentioned in passages of classical authors, where an allusion to such personal peculiarities would have been most natural, without the slightest trace of any such allusion.
He appears for instance in Plutarch's Convivium, where though there are many jokes on his former condition as a slave, there are none on his appearance, and we need not imagine that the ancients would be restrained from such jokes by any feelings of delicacy, since the nose of Socrates furnishes ample matter for raillery in the Symposium of Plato. Besides, the Athenians caused Lysippus to erect a statue in his honour, which had it been sculptured in accordance with the above description, would have been the reverse of ornamental.
The notices however which we possess of Aesop are so scattered and of such doubtful authority, that there have not been wanting persons to deny his existence altogether. " In poetical philosophy," says Vico in his Scienza Nuova
, " Aesop will be found not to be any particular and actually existing man, but the abstraction of a class of men, or a poetical character representative of the companions and attendants of the heroes, such as certainly existed in the time of the seven Sages of Greece."
This however is an excess of scepticism into which it would be most unreasonable to plunge : whether Aesop left any written works at all, is a question which affords considerable room for doubt, and to which Bentley inclines to give a negative. Thus Aristophanes (Aristoph. Wasps 1259
) represents Philocleon as learning his Fables in conversation
and not out of a book, and Socrates who turned them into poetry versified those that "he knew, and could most readily remember." (Plat. Phaed.
p. 61b; Bentley, Dissertation on the Fables of Aesop,
However this may be, it is certain that fables, bearing Aesop's name, were popular at Athens in its most intellectual age. We find them frequently noticed by Aristophanes. One of the pleasures of a dicast (Vesp.
566) was, that among the candidates for his protection and vote some endeavoured to win his favour by repeating to him fables, and some Αἰσώπου τί γέλοιον
. Two specimens of these γέλοια
may be read in the Vespae,
1401, &c., and in the Aves,
The latter however is said by the Scholiast to be the composition of Archilochus, and it is probable that many anecdotes and jests were attributed to Aesop, as the most popular of all authors of the kind, which really were not his.
This is favourable to Bentley's theory, that his fables were not collected in a written form, which also derives additional probability from the fact that there is a variation in the manner in which ancient authors quote Aesop, even though they are manifestly referring to the same fable. Thus Aristotle (De Part. Anim.
3.2) cites from him a complaint of Momus, " that the bull's horns were not placed about his shoulders, where he might make the strongest push, but in the tenderest part, his head," whilst Lucian (Nigr.
32) makes the fault to be " that his horns were not placed straight before his eyes."
A written collection would have prevented such a diversity.
Besides the drolleries above mentioned, there were probably fables of a graver description, since, as we have seen, Socrates condescended to turn them into verse, of which a specimen has been preserved by Diogenes Laertius. Again, Plato, though he excluded Homer's poems from his imaginary Republic, praises the writings of Aesop.
By him they are called μῦθοι
pp. 60, 61 ), though an able writer in the Philological Museum (i. p. 281) thinks that the more ancient name for such fictions was αἶνος
, a word explained by Buttmann (Lexilogus,
p. 60, Eng. transl.), " a speech full of meaning, or cunningly imagined" (Hom. Od. 14.508
), whence Ulysses is called πολύαινος
in reference to the particular sort of speeches which mark his character. In Hesiod (Op. et Dies,
200), it has passed into the sense of a moral fable. The αἶνοι
of Aesop were certainly in prose :--they are called by Aristophanes λόγοι
, and their author (Hdt. 2.134
) is Αἴσωπος ὁ λογόποιος
being the peculiar word for Prose, as ἔπη
was for verse, and including both fable and history, though afterwards restricted to oratory, when that became a separate branch of composition.
Following the example of Socrates, Demetrius Phalereus (B. C. 320) turned Aesop's fables into poetry, and collected them into a book : and after him an author, whose name is unknown, published them in Elegiacs, of which some fragments are preserved by Suidas.
But the only Greek versifier of Aesop, of whose writings any whole fables are preserved is Babrius, an author of no mean powers, and who may well take his place amongst Fabulists with Phaedrus and La Fontaine. His version is in Choliambics, i. e. lame, halting
), verses which foilow in all respects the laws of the Iambic Trimeter till the sixth foot, which is either a spondee or trochee, the fifth being properly an iamlbus.
This version was made a little before the age of Augustus, and consisted of ten Books, of which a few scattered fables only are preserved. Of the Latin writers of Aesopean fables, Phaedrus is the most celebrated.
The Fables Currently Extand
The fables now extant in prose, bearing the name of Aesop, are unquestionably spurious. Of these there are three principal collections, the one containing 136 files, published first A. D. 1610, from MSS. at Heidelberg.
This is so clumsy a forgery, that it mentions the orator Demades, who lived 200 years after Aesop, and contains a whole sentence from the book of Job (γυμνοὶ γὰρ ἤλθομεν οἱ πάντες
, γυμνοὶ οὖν ἀπελευσόμεθα
). Some of the passages Bentley has shewn to be fragments of Choliambic verses, and has made it tolerably certain that they were stolen from Babrius.
The other collection was made by the above mentioned monk of Constantinople, Maximus Planudes
These contain at least one Hebraism (βοῶν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ
: compare e. g.
Eccles. 11.1, εἶπον ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου
), and among them are words entirely modern, as βούταλις
a bird, βούνευρον
a beast, and also traces of the Choliambics of Babrius. The third collection was found in a MS. at Florence, and published in 1809
. Its date is about a century before the time of Planudes, and it contains the life which was prefixed to his collection, and commonly supposed to be his own.
Bentley's dissertation on Aesop is appended to those on Phalaris.
The genuineness of the existing forgeries was stoutly maintained by his Oxford antagonists (Preface to Aesopicaram Fabularum Delectus,
Oxford 1628); but there is no one in our day who disputes his decision.
Theory of the Oriental Origin of Aesop's Fables
It remains to notice briefly the theory which assigns to Aesop's fables an oriental origin. Among the writers of Arabia, one of the most famous is Lukman, whom some traditions make contemporary with David, others the son of a sister or aunt of Job, while again he has been represented as an ancient king or chief of the tribe of Ad. " Lukman's wisdom" is proverbial among the Arabs, and joined with Joseph's beauty and David's melody. [See the Thousand and One Nights (Lane's translation), Story of Prince Kamer-ez-Zeman and Princess Budoor, and Note 59 to chapter x.] The Persian accounts of this Lukman represent him as an ugly black slave, and it seems probable that the author of the Life engrafted this and other circumstances in the Oriental traditions of Lukman upon the classical tales respecting Aesop.
The fables ascribed to Aesop have in many respects an eastern character, alluding to Asiatic customs, and introducing panthers, peacocks, and monkeys among their dramatis personae. All this makes it likely that the fables attributed both to Lukman and Aesop are derived from the same Indo-Persian source.
The principal editions of Aesop's Fables are:--
1. Buono Accorso, end of the 15th century
The collection formed by Planudes with a Latin translation, published at Milan by Buono Accorso at the end of the 15th century.
2. Stephanus (1546)
Another edition of the same collection, with some additional fables from a MS. in the Bibliothèque du Roi at Paris, by Robert Stephanus, 1546.
3. Nevelet (1610)
The edition of Nevelet, 1610, which added to these the Heidelberg collection, published at Frankfort on the Main.
These have been followed by editions of all or some of the Fables, by Hudson at Oxford (1718)
, Hauptmann at Leipzig (1741)
, Heusinger at Leipzig (1756)
, Ernesti at the same place (1781)
, and G. H. Schaefer again at Leipzig (1810, 1818, 1820)
. Francesco de Furia added to the above the new fables from the Florentine MS., and his edition was reprinted bY Coray at Paris (1810)
. All the fiables have been put together and published, 231 in number, by J. G. Schneider, at Breslau, in 1810