Phaedrus Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Phaedrus (FEE-druhs) was brought to Rome as a child or a young man, perhaps as a slave or a freedman of the emperor Augustus. He was highly educated and was especially impressed by the comedy of Terence. Phaedrus translated Aesop’s fables from Greek prose into Latin poetry, wrote many of his own, and added some stories and jokes. These were all collected in five books known as Aesop’s Fables. He was generally conservative, but Lucius Aelius Seianus punished him for his topical allusions during the reign of Tiberius.


Renowned as a storyteller, Phaedrus wrote to teach morals and to entertain, not to create great literature. His iambic hexameter or senarius, a typical comic form of Latin poetry, was consistent and charming but not distinguished. Chiefly through the content of his works, not through their style, Phaedrus affected such authors as Seneca the Younger and Martial, as well as later fabulists such as Aulus Gellius and Avianus. His books, edited by Niccolò Perotti in the fifteenth century, were popular until the seventeenth, when his fables were eclipsed by those of Jean de La Fontaine and when vernacular editions of Aesop became common.

Further Reading:

Blackham, H. J. The Fable as Literature. Dover, N.H.: Athlone Press, 1985. Chapter 1 gives a detailed account of the fable as early popular narrative, including its Indian and Aesopic origins. Phaedrus is mentioned tangentially throughout the discussion.

Conte, Gian Biagio. Latin Literature: A History. Translated by Joseph B. Solodow. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. The section “Phaedrus: The Fable Tradition” includes a discussion of Phaedrus’s merit as a man of letters and a social commentator of his time.

Duff, J. Wight. A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age: From Tiberius to Hadrian. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Chapter 5, “Phaedrus and Fable: Poetry of the Time,” is a long discussion on Phaedrus’s life and work within the Roman context.

Perry, Ben Edwin. Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. The lengthy introduction covers the Aesopic fable in antiquity, its origin, and the roles of Aesop, Babrius, and Phaedrus in its development.

Phaedrus. The Fables of Phaedrus. Translated by P. F. Widdows. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. Translation includes a lengthy introduction discussing Phaedrus’s life and work, his fables, his reputation, his use of meter, and Christopher Smart’s 1764 translation of his work.