Article abstract: As a prolific writer of fables and reputed translator of Aesop, Phaedrus elevated the fable from a rhetorical device, used incidentally in writing and speaking, to a completely independent genre with a recognizable place in literature.
The little that is known about Roman fabulist Phaedrus (FEE-druhs) is derived either directly or by deduction from his own writings. He was born Gaius Iulius Phaeder in Pieria, Thessaly, which was at the time part of a Roman province. He was presumably the son of a schoolteacher and was instructed by a highly educated poet and teacher of Greek. He spent part of his early youth in Italy, where he received the customary education in Latin and Greek. He studied, among others, Vergil, Euripides, Simonides, and particularly Quintus Ennius, who, together with Lucilius and Horace, had previously employed the fable in Roman literature.
During some portion of his youth, Phaedrus was attached to the retinue of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi, who spent about three years settling disturbances in Thrace. After Piso’s return to Rome, Phaedrus was brought, as a personal servant and tutor, to the house of Augustus, where he taught Greek to the emperor’s grandson and heir, Lucius, while he himself attended the school of the famous scholar and philologist Marcus Verrius Flaccus. Years later, Phaedrus was granted his freedom by the emperor; however, his manumission did not confer upon him complete civil rights. As a freedman under Augustus, Phaedrus continued to live under the repressive tutelage and influence of the Imperial rules.
Phaedrus’s writing was strongly influenced by folklore, especially the fables collected in the writings of Aesop (c. 600 b.c.e.). The fable, which originally came from the “wisdom literature” of numerous civilizations, migrated, in oral or written form, to Europe. There, Aesop, considered to be one of the wisest men of Greece, developed it and came to be known as the father of the fable. Aesop had also been a freed slave and, through his fables, he became, in scholar H. J. Blackham’s words, “idealized as spokesman of the wisdom of the common man.” Aesop himself explained that, in giving the use of speech to animals (actually the poet Hesiod’s invention), he “laid the plan of teaching the most beautiful and useful maxims of philosophy under the veil of fables.”
Aesop’s influence on Phaedrus cannot be underestimated. “Where Aesop made a footpath, I have built a highway,” wrote Phaedrus. He not only adopted the fable as a form of writing that he would later elevate to an independent genre but also, as a slave and later a freedman under Augustus and Tiberius, became increasingly preoccupied with the fortunes (or misfortunes) of the common people and used the fable to give a voice to those who were not allowed to speak openly. In the prologue to book 3 of his fables, he wrote:
The slave, being liable to punishment for any offence, since he dared not say outright what he wished to say, projected his personal sentiments into fables and eluded censure under the guise of jesting with made-up stories.
On more than one occasion, his allusions to the atmosphere of unfairness and injustice in which he lived got him into trouble. His audacity even brought him to the point of persecution at the hands of Sejanus, the most powerful minister of Tiberius’s reign. However, it is not known which poem or poems in books 1 and 2 offended Sejanus or what form of punishment Phaedrus received.
Much of Phaedrus’s work is lost. His only surviving work, Phaedri augusti Liberti Fabularum Aesopiarum (The Fables of Phaedrus, 1646), is a collection based on Aesop’s fables that had been gathered in prose by Demetrius of Phalerum in about 300 b.c.e. Using Demetrius as his only source, Phaedrus translated Aesop’s fables into Latin, cast them into verse form, and compiled them in the first collection of fables ever published as poetry and thus as literature. The five-book collection contains a total of ninety-three fables, but it is thought to be incomplete, because the length of each volume varies considerably. In particular, volumes 2 and 5 are thought to have originally contained much greater numbers of fables. Later editions include some thirty additional fables compiled by Niccolò Perotti (Archbishop of Manfredonia, 1430-1480 c.e.) in the Appendix Perottina (1470; Perotti’s Appendix, 1826). Except for Perotti’s Appendix, each volume begins with a prologue in which Phaedrus stresses his independence from his source and defends his poetry from the attack of what he calls...
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