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Summary Article: Aesop from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Aesop is an ancient folkloric figure associated with the genre of "Aesop's fables." Approximately six hundred fables have survived in ancient Greek and Roman sources. Herodotus refers to Aesop as a logopoios, a story-maker (Hist. 2.134–5). Although the historical evidence for Aesop is scanty (see Kurke 2010 for a complete analysis of the evidence), Aesop's fables were widely known throughout the Greek and Roman worlds, with Aesopic-type fables appearing in archaic Greek poetry by Hesiod and Archilochos), the classical comedies of Aristophanes, and various other literary genres prior to the collections of fables, which were first assembled in the Hellenistic era (see van Dijk 1965 for a complete inventory).Some of these fables are still well-known today, such as "The tortoise and the hare" (Perry #226) or "The town mouse and the country mouse" (Perry #352). In general, Aesop's fables are tiny stories that tell the story of a foolish mistake and the lesson to be learned from that mistake. The hare, for example, confident that he could outrace the tortoise, foolishly napped during the race, allowing the tortoise to win. Many of the fables feature talking animals, but there are also fables with human characters, as well as fables involving the Greek and Roman gods. Although the fables are now regarded as children's fare, this was not the case in the ancient world. Like proverbs, the fables served as a kind of cultural shorthand, conveying warnings and criticism in a humorous, indirect form. Because of their functional resemblance to the parables of the New Testament, Aesop's fables continued to be widely read and imitated in medieval monastic culture, both in western Europe and in the Greek east (Jacobs 1889).

The earliest collection of Aesopic fables, assembled by the Hellenistic scholar Demetrios of Phaleron(345–283 BCE), has not survived. The oldest extant collection of Aesop's fables, dating to the early years of the first century CE, consists of Latin poems, written in iambictrimenter, by an otherwise unknown "Phaedrus." The fables of Phaedrus, approximately one hundred in number, have survived only in part (Henderson 1999), although a more complete edition circulated in prose paraphrase during the Middle Ages under the name "Romulus" (Hervieux 1894). In addition, Niccolò Perotti (1429–80) transcribed thirty more fables from a Phaedrus manuscript that is now lost. Two other verse collections of fables have survived from antiquity: approximately 120 Greek fables in choliambic verse attributed to "Babrius" probably dating to the third century CE, and approximately forty Latin fables in elegiac couplets attributed to "Avianus" dating to probably the late fourth century CE, although the identity of both poets remains uncertain (see Holzberg 2003: 51–62 for Babrius; 2003: 62–71 for Avianus). The bulk of the ancient fable corpus, approximately 350 fables, is attested in various Greek prose collections (for the Greek texts, see Perry 1952). There are also a number of fables embedded in the Greek prose novel known as The life of Aesop, which narrates the fictional life of Aesop as a slave endowed by the gods with the gift of storytelling (see Hansen 1998 for an English translation).


Proverbs, Greek.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Gibbs, L. (2002) Aesop's Fables: a new translation. Oxford.
  • Hansen, W. F. (1998) Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington.
  • Henderson, J. (1999) "Phaedrus' fables: the original corpus." Mnemosyne 52: 308-29.
  • Hervieux, L. (1894) Les Fabulistes Latins depuis le siècle d'Auguste jusqu'à la fin du Moyen Âge, vol. II: Phèdre et ses anciens imitateurs. Paris.
  • Holzberg, N. (2003) The ancient fable: an introduction. Bloomington.
  • Jacobs, J. (1889) The fables of Aesop, vol. 1:Introduction. London.
  • Kurke, L. (2010) Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton.
  • Perry, B. E. (1952) Aesopica. Urbana.
  • Perry, B. E. (1965) Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge. van Dijk, G.-J. (1997) Ainoi, Logoi, Mythoi: fables in archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek literature. Leiden.
  • Laura Gibbs

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