Phaedrus Essay - Critical Essays



Phaedrus C. 18 B.C.–C. 55 A.D.

Roman poet and fabulist.

Phaedrus exemplifies the influence of Greek literature upon the Roman tradition and provides a link between the fables collected under the name of Aesop and later European fabulists. Phaedrus's popular success, both in his own time and in medieval and modern Europe, was generally not matched by critical acclaim, but recent scholars have emphasized the originality of his satiric humor and of his concise impressions of human nature. In his attempt to both entertain and to educate, Phaedrus introduced significant innovations in the range and purpose of the fable.

Biographical Information

Information about Phaedrus's life arises almost exclusively from his poetry, since he is scarcely mentioned in surviving accounts of ancient Roman literature. The title of the primary extant manuscript of Phaedrus's works, found in the Codex Pithoeanus, provides a brief description of Phaedrus as a liberated slave of the emperor Augustus. According to autobiographical details directly stated in or deduced from the fables, Phaedrus was born in the Roman colony of Phillipi in approximately 18 B.C. and was educated in Roman and Greek literature. He began to publish his poetry during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula in Rome in the early first century A.D. The veiled political and social commentary contained in his fables led to his persecution at the hands of Sejanus, a minister under Tiberius. A succession of patrons among the wealthy citizens of Rome ensured Phaedrus's popularity, although critics continued to deny him literary stature. One of his poems suggests that Phaedrus lived a relatively long life, although it seems that he never became a Roman citizen and that he continued writing until his death during the reign of Claudius (41-54) or of Nero (54-68).

Major Works

There is reason to believe that Phaedrus wrote a huge quantity of fables, of which approximately one hundred, in verse, have survived. Phaedrus himself acknowledged Aesop as the source of much of the content of the fables—particularly the earlier works—and considered his own contribution to be the transformation of these plots, characters, and morals into poetry. The figure of Aesop, however, appears to be more legendary than historical, and Phaedrus's primary source seems to have been a compilation of fables collected, under the name of Aesop, around 300 B.C. by Demetrius of Phalerum, a scholar at the library of Alexandria. Later fables, in contrast, may have arisen from Phaedrus's imagination as well as his observations of human interaction. Ben Edwin Perry suggests that Phaedrus adapted various forms of folk literature, including anecdotes and witticisms, and drew material from historical events.

Phaedrus's fables have the explicit purpose of amuse ment and moral education and include political and social commentary. Generally the speaking characters are animals, although in a prologue Phaedrus mentions that he has also given voices to trees (presumably in one or more fables that were lost). The poems are concise narrations colored with humor and irony. J. Wight Duff emphasizes that Phaedrus took a very pessimistic view of human nature and often portrayed the "triumph of injustice." Many of the fables contain explicit moral lessons which gain their appeal through the clarity and realism of the characters and plots. The poems were written in iambic senarii, utilized generally for dialogue in classical drama, which matches the style of Phaedrus's narratives.

Textual History

Although much of Phaedrus's work has probably been lost, a single manuscript containing five surviving books of fables was recovered in 1596. The manuscript, originally produced at the abbey of Rheims in the ninth century, is known as the Codex Pithoeanus, named after its discoverer, Petrus Pithoeus. Beyond those in the Codex Pithoeanus, approximately thirty more fables and three "addresses" survive in a fifteenth-century manuscript known as Perotti's Appendix, a transcription by Niccolo Perotti of a separate manuscript that has since been lost. Recent research has established that in the fifth century an attempt was made by classical scholars to compile a complete set of the fables of Phaedrus, but the poems in this collection underwent considerable editing, including transformation into prose pieces. In this corrupted form, Phaedrus's fables were widely disseminated throughout Europe, and many were associated with the name of Romulus.

Critical Reception

In his own time, Phaedrus was unpopular with other authors and critics, perhaps because of his status as an exslave and a foreigner. In his poetry he complains of severe criticism and lack of appreciation for his creativity. Phaedrus goes unmentioned by classical literature until 400 A.D., when Avianus briefly describes him as a writer of fables. Although Phaedrus's work was converted into prose in late antiquity, according to Perry, these authors credited Aesop directly without referring to Phaedrus. It was only after the discovery of the Codex Pithoeanus in 1596 that the fables underwent considerable critical examination as part of the study of the Aesopic tradition. Literature surveys primarily identify Phaedrus as a minor poet in this tradition, but his fables have had an enduring popularity. Critics generally agree that Phaedrus's strengths lie in the brevity and simplicity of his characterizations and plot development as well as in his satiric social commentary—particularly on injustice—which is expressed most frequently through animal characters. The humor and realism contained within his fables are considered the most striking and original aspects of Phaedrus's work. Phaedrus himself, however, admitted that he could be "too brief," and scholars have faulted the flatness of his descriptions and characterizations. Another frequently cited drawback is the didactic and moralistic emphasis in his fables; David Lee Rubin contends that a major point of difference between Phaedrus and the later French fabulist Jean La Fontaine is the strong sense of closure—clear and unproblematic moral conclusions—in Phaedrus's tales. P. F. Widdows argues that Phaedrus's significance in Western literature derives at least partially from his role as a transitional figure, since he was "the first to adapt a whole Greek genre to Latin literature." These vibrant and ironic fables, known as "beast-tales" in medieval literature, mark a strong link between political criticism and popular entertainment and provide unique insights into the nature of ordinary life in classical Rome.

Principal Works

Phaedri, Augusti liberti, fabularum aesopiarum libri [The Books of Aesopic Fables by Phaedrus, the Freedman of Augustus] (poetry) 1596*

*The poems date from the first century and were collected in manuscript form in the ninth century.

Principal English Editions

Poetical Translation of the Fables of Phaedrus with the Appendix of Gudius [translated by Christopher Smart] 1764

Babrius and Phaedrus [translated by B. E. Perry] 1965

The Fables of Phaedrus [translated by P. F. Widdows] 1992


J. Wight Duff (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Phaedrus and Fable: Poetry of the Time," in A Literary History of Rome: In the Silver Age, edited by A. M. Duff, Ernest Benn Limited, 1964, pp. 107-27.

[In the following essay, first published in 1927, Duff discusses what is known of Phaedrus's life, reviews the critical consensus on his work, and locates his work in the tradition that spans from Aesop to the medieval French interest in fables.]

Phaedrus: The Fabulist of Rome

Phaedrus, the fabulist of Roman literature, was an alien slave of Thracian, or, to use his own adjective, 'Pierian' origin. The lines1 in which he laid claim to birth 'almost in the very school of the...

(The entire section is 7460 words.)

Ben Edwin Perry (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: An introduction to Babrius and Phaedrus, Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. lxxiii-xlvii.

[In the essay that follows, Perry surveys the autobiographical information gleaned from Phaedrus's poetry, as well as major stylistic issues of the fables, particularly the innovations Phaedrus contributed to the Aesopic tradition.]

According to the testimony of the principal manuscript P, in which his fables have come down to us, Phaedrus was a freedman of the emperor Augustus.1 Everything else that can be known or surmised about his life and personality must be inferred from what he himself, a very self-conscious author, tells us in his own book, whether...

(The entire section is 7598 words.)

John Henderson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Homing Instinct: A Folklore Theme in Phaedrus," in Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, Vol. 23, 1977, pp. 17-31.

[In the following essay, Henderson examines the possible historical conduits by which Phaedrus's literary work might have been dispersed, and suggests that the parallelism of Phaedrus's narratives and modern "analogues " may be based in archetypal structures.]

This paper examines a diffusionist view shared by several classical scholars and folklorists. The 'popular theme' cast into Latin senarii by the fabulist Phaedrus in the early 1st century A.D. which appears in modern editions has, it is as 'Appendix been Perottina' 16...

(The entire section is 6625 words.)

T. C. W. Stinton (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Phaedrus and Folklore: an Old Problem Restated," in Classical Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1979, pp. 432-35.

[In the essay that follows, Stinton argues that the similarities between Phaedrus's poetry and more modern fables are likely to have resulted from the diffusion of classical culture into Europe.]

I. Mythos

There was once a man in a certain village in the mountains, who made his living by making up stories, which he used to tell to the people of his village to while away their evenings.1 One day he went on a journey to a strange village far away in the plains, and there he saw a group of men sitting round another...

(The entire section is 2293 words.)

F. R. D. Goodyear (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Phaedrus," in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, edited by E. J. Kenney, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 624-26.

[In the essay that follows, Goodyear highlights Phaedrus's choice of style and attempts to explain his stature as an obscure poet.]

Phaedrus holds no exalted rank amongst Latin poets, but he claims serious attention by his choice of subject matter and his individualistic treatment of it. He was, as far as we know, the first poet, Greek or Roman, to put together a collection of fables and present them as literature in their own right, not merely as material on which others might draw. And on this collection he firmly imprinted his...

(The entire section is 1373 words.)

H. MacL. Currie (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Phaedrus the Fabulist," in Aufstig undNiedergang der Romischen Welt, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1985, pp. 497-513.

[In the following essay, Currie examines the literary tone and worldview of Phaedrus and emphasizes the influence of classical Greek literature in his poetry]

I. Introduction

Under the name of Phaedrus there have descended to us five books of little stories in verse which the author seems to have called fabellae Aesopiae ("anecdotes in the manner of Aesop").1 This œuvre is not complete as it stands. The length of the books is disproportionate, the total of ninety-three fables being distributed thus over the...

(The entire section is 8081 words.)

David Lee Rubin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "La Fontaine and Phaedrus: A Relation Reargued," in French Studies: In Honor of Philip A. Wadsworth, edited by Donald W. Tappan and William A. Mould, Summa Publications, Inc., 1985, pp. 19-26.

[In the essay that follows, Rubin compares the degrees of subtlety and ambiguity in the fables of Phaedrus and the seventeenth-century French writer de La Fontaine, who used Phaedrus as a source.]

Off-hand, it would be difficult to think of a subject less immediately promising than this one.1 We already know—or think we know—how La Fontaine adapted his sources. He revealed it himself in the preface to the 1668 edition of the Fables, and generations...

(The entire section is 3864 words.)

P. F. Widdows (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Fables of Phaedrus, translated by P. F. Widdows, University of Texas Press, 1992, pp. 11-23.

[In the following essay, Widdows reviews the fabulist tradition beginning with the "semilegendary" Aesop and discusses the complex issues involved in translating Phaedrus's poetry.]

Life and Works

Almost all our information about Phaedrus, the Roman fabulist of the period of Augustus and Tiberius, is derived from his work itself, some of it directly, some of it by deduction. Outside that there is only one contribution, but it is an important one. It comes from the only surviving manuscript of Phaedrus, the Codex...

(The entire section is 4307 words.)

Anne G. Becher (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Un de 'ces grands hommes'—Phaedrus, a Precursor of La Fontaine," in Papers on French Seventeenth Century, Vol. XXIII, No. 44, 1996, pp. 115-22.

[In the following excerpt, Becher analyzes Phaedrus's influence on de La Fontaine, a seventeenth-century French fabulist who particularly admired Phaedrus's ironic criticisms of social injustice.]

La Fontaine numbers Phaedrus among the great men whose magnificent simplicity he so much admires. In the preface to the 1668 Fables he acknowledges that it is nearly impossible for him, writing in the French language, to imitate the elegance and extreme economy of Phaedrus' style, although he hopes to be able to...

(The entire section is 2816 words.)