Ninety-seven fables in Latin iambic verse (ed. Orelli), distributed in five books, are attributed to Phaedrus.
The first writer who mentions Phaedrus is Avienus, unless one of Martial's epigrams (3.20) alludes to him, and there is no sufficient reason for doubting that the author of the fables is meant.
The little that is known of Phaedrus is collected or inferred from the fables. he was originally a slave, and was brought from Thrace or Macedonia to Rome, where he learned the Latin language.
As the title of his work is Phaedri Aug. Liberti Fabulae Aesopiae
, we must conclude that he had belonged to Augustus, who manumitted him. Under Tiberius he appears to have undergone some persecution from Sejanus, but the allusion to Sejanus in the prologue to Eutychus (Lib. iii.) is very obscure, and has been variously understood.
It may be inferred from this prologue that the third book of the fables was not published until after the death of Sejanus.
A passage in the tenth fable of the third book shows that this fable was written after the death of Augustus.
The prologue to the first book states that the fables are Aesop's matter turned into iambic verse : --
Aesopus auctor quam materiam repperit,
Hanc ego polivi versibus senariis.
This prologue also adds that the object was to amuse and to instruct.
The prologue to the second book intimates a somewhat freer handling of the old fabulist's material.
In the prologue to the third book he still refers to Aesop as his model :--
Librum exarabo tertium Aesopi stilo.
There is no prologue to the fourth book; and in the prologue to the fifth book he intimates that he had often used the name of Aesop only to recommend his verses. Accordingly, many of the fables of Phaedrus are not Aesopian, as the matter clearly shows, for they refer to historical events of a much later period (5.1, 8, 3.10). Many of the fables, however, are transfusions of the Aesopian fables, or those which pass as such, into Latin verse.
The expression is generally clear and concise, and the language, with some few exceptions, as pure and correct as we should expect from a Roman writer of the Augustan age. But Phaedrus has not escaped censure, when he has deviated from his Greek model, and much of the censure is just.
The best fables are those in which he has kept the closest to his original.
The MSS. of Phaedrus are rare, which circumstance, combined with a passage of Seneca (Consol.
(ad Plb. 27
), "that fable-writing had not been attempted by the Romans," and an expression of N. Perotti, has led some critics to doubt their genuineness, and even to ascribe them to Perotti; an opinion, however, which Perrotti's own attempts at verse-making completely disprove.
Another collection of thirty-two fables, attributed to Aesop, has been published from a MS. of the same N. Perotti, who was archbishop of Manfredonia in the middle part of the fifteenth century.
This collection is entitled Epitome Fabularum
, and was first published at Naples, in 1809, by Cassitti. Opinions are much divided as to the genuinenes of this collection.
The probability is, that the Epitome
is founded on genuine Roman fables, which, in the process of transcription during many centuries, have undergone considerable changes.
The first edition of the five books of fables of Phaedrus was by P. Pithou, 1596, 12mo., which was from a MS. that is supposed to belong to the tenth century.
The last and only critical edition of the fables is by J. C. Orelli, Zürich, 1831, 8vo., which contains the Aratea of Caesar Germanicus
. Orelli has not always displayed judgment in his choice of the readings.
The last edition of the thirty-two new fables is entitled Phaedri Fabulae Nocae XXXII. codice Vaticano redintegratque ab Angelo Milaio. Supplementum Editionis Orellianae. Accedunt Publii Syri Codd. Basil. et Turic. antiquissimi cum Sententiis circiter XXX. nunc primum editis, Zürich, 1832