Aesop Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111205828-Aesop.jpg Aesop (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek sage and fabulist{$I[g]Greece;Aesop} Aesop invented fables{$IFables;Aesop’s} for the purpose of illustrating a moral (or immoral) lesson. He probably wrote nothing himself but was rather a famous teller of tales that were later set down.

Early Life

Although some scholars claim that he is purely a legendary figure, the following assertions are most often accepted as historically true in the ancient sources pertaining to Aesop (EE-sawp): He originally came from Thrace; he was for a time a slave on the Greek island of Samos, off the coast of Asia Minor, in the service of a man named Iadmon, who later freed him; he was a contemporary of the poet Sappho in the early sixth century b.c.e.; and he was famed as a maker and teller of prose stories.

Later documents add details, of varying degrees of credibility, to Aesop’s biography. For example, The Life of Aesop, apparently written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian in the first century c.e., states that he was very ugly, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, and liver-lipped. The sources for this late biography may go back as far as the fifth century b.c.e., although that does not guarantee its authenticity. Indeed, its cumulative details relating to Aesop’s life are typically as fanciful and entertaining as the fables attributed to him.

In that entertaining first century biography, Aesop was portrayed as mute until the Egyptian goddess Isis gave him speech in thanks for guiding one of her lost priestesses. Isis and the nine Muses, the patron goddesses of the arts in Greek myth, also gave him the power to conceive stories and the ability to elaborate tales in Greek that would make him famous. Aesop’s sharp wit and inventive imagination contrasted greatly with his grotesque appearance and with the dullness of those about him, both his master and his fellow slaves. Rejected because of his superior intellect and unattractiveness, Aesop soon became the property of a slave dealer, who sold him promptly and cheaply to the pompous philosopher Xanthus on the island of Samos.

Aesop outwitted his master and mistress at every opportunity, usually through his verbal dexterity. There is even an episode in which Aesop had sex ten times with his master’s wife, as a form of revenge. (A general mistrust of women’s fidelity runs throughout the narrative.) Eventually, Xanthus was forced to grant freedom to his troublesome slave, who was the only one able to interpret an omen in which an eagle flies away with the city’s official seal. Aesop interpreted the omen as an indication that powerful King Croesus of Lydia would subjugate the island. The treacherous people of Samos surrendered Aesop to Croesus, but Aesop’s skillful telling of fables so pleased the king that, at Aesop’s request, he did not attack Samos. Aesop then wrote down all the stories and fables that would be attached to his name and deposited them in the king’s library. When he returned to the island, he was richly rewarded for having saved it from invasion. His first act in his newly exalted position on Samos was to erect a shrine to his patron goddesses—the Muses and their mother, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory—thereby insulting the Olympian god Apollo by not honoring him as leader of the Muses.

After many prosperous years in Samos, Aesop set off to see the world. Arriving in Babylon, he won the position of chamberlain to King Lycurgus of Babylon. He enabled Lycurgus to win many contests of wit with other monarchs and thereby to expand his kingdom; the most notable of these contests was with King Nectanabo of Egypt. Lycurgus was so grateful that he ordered the erection of a golden statue of Aesop and held a great celebration in honor of Aesop’s wisdom.

Life’s Work

Late in his life, Aesop wished to go to Delphi, the Greek city that contains the sacred oracle of Apollo. After having sworn to return to Babylon, he journeyed to other cities and gave demonstrations of his wisdom and learning. When he came to Delphi, its people enjoyed hearing him at first, but they gave him nothing. After he insulted the people of Delphi by pointing out that they were the descendants of slaves, they plotted to kill him for damaging their reputation. Their stratagem was to hide a golden cup from Apollo’s temple in Aesop’s baggage and then to convict him of theft from a sacred place, a capital offense. Despite Aesop’s pleas of innocence and his recitation of fables indicating that the Delphians would be harmed by executing him, they stood him on the edge of the cliff at Delphi. Aesop cursed them, called on the Muses to witness that his death was unjust, and threw himself over the cliff. Later, according to the first century biography, when the Delphians were afflicted with a famine, they received an oracle from Zeus, king of the gods, that they should expiate the death of Aesop. The Life of Aesop goes on to say that the peoples of Greece, Babylon, and Samos avenged Aesop’s death, although the mode of vengeance is not specified.

There are several...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Aesop. Aesop’s Fables. Translated by Laura Gibbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. This compilation of six hundred fables represents all the main collections in ancient Latin and Greek. Fables are arranged according to themes and story elements.

Aesop. The Fables of Aesop: Selected, Told Anew, and Their History Traced by Joseph Jacobus. London: Macmillan, 1894. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1950. Skillful retellings of the fables with excellent illustrations and source notes.

Babrius. Fabulae Aesopeae: English and Greek, Babrius and Phaedrus. Edited and translated by Ben Edwin Perry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. A scholarly edition of the Greek and Latin texts, together with facing prose translations.

Daly, Lloyd W. Aesop Without Morals: The Famous Fables, and a Life of Aesop. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961. This English translation of the Fables includes a translation of the first century c.e. Life of Aesop.

Wheatley, Edward. Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.

Zafiropoulos, Christos A. Ethics in Aesop’s Fables: The Augustana Collection. Boston: Brill, 2001. Recounts the history of the fable and analyzes the theme of conflict in Aesop’s fables from the perspective of ethical philosophy in ancient Greece. Argues that the fable is a form of ethical reasoning.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although many Greek cities claim to be the birthplace of Aesop (EE-sahp), most scholars believe he never existed. In a marble figure on the Villa Albani, Paris, he is depicted as a dwarf, deformed and ugly, perhaps to symbolize his near approach to the so-called lower animals and his peculiar sympathy for their habits. Yet history contains a reference to a “noble statue” of him by Lysippus in Athens. Diego Velasquez’s painting presents him as a sturdy figure in a brown cloak.

Many fables, supposedly by Aesop, have been traced to earlier Indian or fourteenth century b.c.e. Egyptian versions. Somebody, however, wrote them down, and this may have been the legendary sixth century b.c.e. slave of Iadmon of Samos. Tradition tells of his travels to Lydia, to meet Solon at the court of Croesus, and to Periander in Corinth. While visiting Athens, to keep its citizens from deposing Pisistratus, legend has him recounting to them the fable of the frogs who asked for a king.

Phaedrus, a Macedonian freedman of Augustus, translated the fables in five volumes of Latin verse. Babrius versified them two centuries later, and Planudes Maximus, a learned thirteenth century Byzantine monk, compiled a collection in prose, prefaced by his account of Aesop’s life. Children and people of all ages and all ranges of sophistication have enjoyed the fables ever since. Jean de La Fontaine gave them their most polished and sophisticated form in his Fables (1668-1694).