(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.