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THE LIFE and History of Aesop is obscure, but there are a few incidents generally accepted as facts, relating to the birth, life, and death of Aesop. He is believed to have been born about the year 620 B.C., and to have been by birth a slave. He was owned by two masters in succession, both inhabitants of Samos- Xanthus and Jadmon, the latter of whom gave him his liberty as a reward for his learning and wit.
One of the privileges of a freed man in the ancient republics of Greece was the permission to take an active interest in public affairs; and Aesop raised himself to a position of renown. In his desire to instruct and to be instructed, he travelled through many countries, and among others came to Sardis, the capital of the famous king of Lydia.
He met at the court of Croesus with Solon, Thales, and other sages. On the invitation of Croesus he fixed his residence at Sardis, and was employed by that monarch in various difficult and delicate affairs of State. In his duties he visited the different petty republics of Greece. One of these ambassadorial missions, undertaken at the command of Croesus, was the occasion of his death.
Having been sent to Delphi with a large sum of gold for distribution among the citizens, he was so provoked at their covetousness that he refused to divide the money, and sent it back to his master. The Delphians, enraged at this treatment, accused him of impiety, and, in spite of his sacred character as ambassador, executed him as a public criminal.
This cruel death of Aesop was not unavenged. The citizens of Delphi were visited with a series of calamities, until they made a public reparation of their crime; and, "The blood of Aesop" became a well- known adage, bearing witness to the truth that deeds of wrong would not pass unpunished. Neither did the great fabulist lack posthumous honors; for a statue was erected to his memory at Athens, the work of Lysippus, one of the most famous of Greek sculptors.
The fables were only narrated by Aesop, and for a long time were handed down by oral tradition. Socrates is mentioned by Plato as having employed his time while in prison, awaiting the return of the sacred ship from Delphos which was to be the signal of his death, in turning some of these fables into verse, but he thus versified only such as he remembered.
Demetrius Phalereus, a philosopher at Athens about 300 B.C., is said to have made the first collection of these fables. Phaedrus, a slave by birth or by subsequent misfortunes, and admitted by Augustus to the honors of a freedman, imitated many of these fables in Latin iambics about the commencement of the Christian era. Aphthonius, a rhetorician of Antioch, A.D. 315, wrote a treatise on, and converted into Latin prose, some of these fables.
Seven centuries elapsed before the next notice is found of the Fables of Aesop. During this long period these fables seem to have suffered an eclipse, to have disappeared and to have been forgotten; and it is at the commencement of the fourteenth century that we next find honors paid to the name and memory of Aesop. Maximus Planudes, a learned monk of Constantinople, made a collection of about a hundred and fifty of these fables. Little is known of his history.
The calamities gradually thickening round the Eastern Empire, and the fall of Constantinople, 1453 A.D. combined with other events to promote the rapid restoration of learning in Italy; and with that recovery of learning the revival of an interest in the Fables of Aesop is closely identified. These fables, indeed, were among the first writings of an earlier antiquity that attracted attention. They took their place beside the Holy Scriptures and the ancient classic authors, in the minds of the great students of that day. Lorenzo Valla, one of the most famous promoters of Italian learning, not only translated into Latin the Iliad of Homer and the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, but also the Fables of Aesop.
These fables, again, were among the books brought into an extended circulation by the agency of the printing press. Bonus Accursius, as early as 1475-1480, printed the collection of these fables, made by Planudes, which, within five years afterwards, Caxton translated into English, and printed at his press in West- minster Abbey, 1485.
The knowledge of these fables rapidly spread from Italy into Germany, and their popularity was increased by the favor and sanction given to them by the great fathers of the Reformation, who frequently used them as vehicles for satire and protest. The zealous and renowned Camerarius, who took an active part in the preparation of the Confession of Augsburgh, found time, amidst his numerous avocations, to prepare a version for the students in the university of Tubingen, in which he was a professor.
Martin Luther translated twenty of these fables, and was urged by Melancthon to complete the whole; while Gottfried Arnold, the celebrated Lutheran theologian, and librarian to Frederick I, king of Prussia, mentions that the great Reformer valued the Fables of Aesop next after the Holy Scriptures. In 1546 A.D. the second printed edition of the collection of the Fables made by Planudes, was issued from the printing-press of Robert Stephens, in which were inserted some additional fables from a MS. in the Bibliotheque du Roy at Paris.
The greatest advance, however, towards a re-introduction of the Fables of Aesop to a place in the literature of the world, was made in the early part of the seventeenth century. In the year 1610, a learned Swiss, Isaac Nicholas Nevelet, sent forth the third printed edition of these fables, in a work entitled "Mythologia Aesopica." This was a noble effort to do honor to the great fabulist, and was the most perfect collection of Aesopian fables ever yet published. It consisted, in addition to the collection of fables given by Planudes and reprinted in the various earlier editions, of one hundred and thirty-six new fables (never before published) from MSS. in the Library of the Vatican, of forty fables attributed to Aphthonius, and of forty-three from Babrias. It also contained the Latin versions of the same fables by Phaedrus, Avienus, and other authors. This volume of Nevelet forms a complete "Corpus Fabularum Aesopicarum;" and to his labors Aesop owes his restoration to universal favor as one of the wise moralists and great teachers of mankind.
The Fables have been translated into most of the languages of the worls, and are not only a part of the literature of the civilized world, but are familiar as household words in the common conversation of the inhabitants of all countries.