- Niklas Holzberg
The collection of verse fables by Babrius, a Greek poet about whose life nothing is known, survives, albeit not in its entirety, in a manuscript which only came to light at the beginning of the 19th century. The focus of scholarship accordingly lay after its discovery, and for some 200 years, largely on textual history and criticism. Modern analytical approaches have revealed that Babrius is a skilled and fascinating narrator, one who attaches more importance to the plot of his fables than to the moral of each tale. Indeed, the composition and disposition of his two-book work—written in choliambics, the fables are set out in loosely alphabetical order but connected by a web of intratextual allusions, all in combination with obvious intertextual references to classical Greek literature—places the poet firmly in the Hellenistic tradition of self-reflexive poetry.
Babrius’s fables date roughly from the end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 3rd century ce and, around the year 400, were drawn on by the Roman poet Avianus for his own collection of fables. As that was a work widely read during the Middle Ages, narrative motifs taken from Babrius—content, that is, for which there are no parallels in ancient Aesopic texts—made their way into the fable literature of Western Europe long before the manuscript of his texts was found.
- Greek Literature
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
Writing probably in the second, perhaps the 1st century ce, Babrius, of whose life virtually nothing is known, composed Aesopic Fables in Iambics, 144 of which survive today. Scholarship has focused primarily on textual criticism, but only rarely on an interpretation of the fables as literary productions.
Date and Provenance
Virtually nothing is known of Babrius’s life and personal circumstances. His work, the Μυθίαμβοι Αἰσώπειοι in two books, predates the schoolbook compiled by Pseudo-Dositheus in 207 ce, the learning aid which includes fable 140. The poet’s own mentions in Book 1 (prologue, ll. 2 and 10, then 74,15) of a boy addressed as Branchus and, in Book 2 (prologue, l. 1), his reference to a “son of King Alexander” offer no clues as to the date of composition because neither individual can be identified. Branchus could be a descriptive name—a young “Master Hoarse” for whom Babrius tells his tales of talking animals, plants, or inanimate objects—and Alexander could stand for the poet’s chosen form: Babrius, who was influenced by Callimachus, modelled his fables on the poetry of Alexandria. The name Βάβριος is usually taken to be Latin in origin, not least because Babrius is found in Latin inscriptions. There is evidence to suggest that Babrius used Horace and Phaedrus, and his handling of the iambic metre chosen, the choliambus or scazon, places him unequivocally within the Roman tradition, not the Greek: the penultimate syllable in his lines is not only always long, but also, as in Catullus and Martial, always accented. In addition, Babrius’s diction—the Greek he writes is koinē with Ionic colouring—contains Latinisms. None of this, however, necessarily means that he hailed from or lived in Italy. Since he observes in his prologue to Book 2 that the fable originated among the ancient Syrians, it is feasible that his work was composed in the Greek east, and there survive seven wax tablets, purchased by the Dutchman H. van Assendelft, which could support that supposition: the text visible on those, written in the hand of 3rd-century ce schoolboy, consists of fragments of eleven fables by Babrius, and the vendor was an Arab in Palmyra. That, of course, is hardly conclusive proof, and the Arabs and camels that appear in fables 8, 40, 57, and 80 are an even less reliable indication of anything at all.
The most important codex, discovered in 1842 on Mount Athos and preserved in the British Library, London, as Add MS 22087, dates from the 10th century ce. Known now as the Athous, it contains one entire book and roughly one-half of another, in all 122 complete fables, which are arranged alphabetically according to the first letter in each. Book 1 (= nos. 1–107) ends with those fables which begin with the letter Λ; Book 2 breaks off with l. 1 of no. 123 (its opening letter Ο) and probably ended with an Ω-fable in the original. A further twenty-two fables survive, together with several also found in the Athous, scattered over two medieval codices (the 11th-century Novoeboracensis, MS M 397 in New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library; the 14th-century Vaticanus Graecus 777), three 3rd- and 4th-century papyrus fragments (P. Ox. 1249; P. Amherst II 26 in the Pierpont Morgan Library; P. Sorbonne inv. 826), and the above-mentioned wax tablets (Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae, Leiden University Library, Special Collections, BGP 109). No. 140 is cited in Pseudo-Dositheus, no. 141 (ll. 1–9 only) in Book 9, p. 633 of Natale Conti’s Mythologia (1581). The textual discrepancies between the Athous and this parallel transmission are in places considerable. Perry and Vaio favour variants that are older than the corresponding Athous readings;1 both prefer, on the one hand, the manuscripts that date from the 2nd to the 4th centuries, and, on the other, the texts found in the Suda, which cites some hundred verses from Babrius. Luzzatto and La Penna rely more heavily on the Athous and emend sparingly.2 Their assessment of the textual transmission is essentially the more valid one. It seems evident that the two-part arrangement of the Athous reflects structuring characteristically found in ancient poetry books, and it is therefore highly likely that the text in the Athous was based on a redaction which was itself closely related to the original by Babrius. The possibility is equally great, moreover, that his versions of the fables, while comparatively sophisticated in terms of their literary qualities, were repurposed by teachers for use as moral lessons, and that the wording of the texts accordingly underwent alterations. Those would probably have been made quite soon after the publication of the collection, i.e. in the second half of the 2nd century ce, and this consideration tends to undermine the assumption that, in the manuscripts dating from the 2nd to the 4th centuries, the readings which diverge from the 10th-century Athous faithfully preserve the real Babrius.
The presence in the manuscripts transmitted of epimythia (the epimythium being a closing ‘moral of the fable’) poses a significant textual problem: for seventy-seven of its 122 fables, the Athous includes prose epimythia which were undoubtedly not written by Babrius. In all, sixty-one verse epimythia can be found elsewhere, sprinkled across the total of 144 extant Babriana. Only three of the verse instances (11,10–12; 43,16–19; 136,23–24) are found on papyrus as well as on wax and so must date from antiquity, but, like the epimythia in the Athous, those could have been tacked on later. In the Vaticanus Graecus 777 and the Novoeboracensis MS M 397, however, there is no epimythium for some of the fables that appear with one in the Athous. The authenticity of such appended lines has hitherto only been investigated with close attention to their language and metre, but almost never with the focus on content. The question that we need to ask is whether the narrative framework constructed by Babrius, in most cases very elaborately, is even designed to carry an appendage; striking ring composition within the main story, for example, ought a priori to raise suspicions about the moralizing afterthoughts with which the texts in the manuscripts end. Any analysis must take into account that, even in the Athous, the numerous fables in which the action finishes with one of the figures giving a pithy speech only infrequently then go on to conclude with an epimythium. It is quite conceivable that, as a general rule, Babrius dispensed with the attaching, through the mouth of the narrator, of a fabula docet (“thus, we can see that . . . ”), but it is similarly possible that he varied, choosing sometimes to include one, sometimes not. Another important consideration remains, however, and seems worth emphasizing here: at no point in either of his preliminary addresses does Babrius, unlike Phaedrus, declare that he will be combining entertainment with useful advice.
If the arrangement of the fables in the Athous is based on their original disposition by Babrius, then the alphabetical structuring of the two books could be modelled on a Mesopotamian tradition that dates back to the 2nd millennium bce. There survive Sumerian collections of animal proverbs that are grouped according to the first sign in the individual texts, the sign representing in each case the animal featured. Assuming that Babrius really did live in the Greek east, we can at least admit the possibility that he was familiar with fable collections from Mesopotamia that were set out in this way. His own fables do very often open directly with the name of an animal or an occupational noun for a human, neither preceded by a definite article. It is, however, by no means the case that such fables are always shown consecutively; among the Α-fables, for example, the three that begin with Ἁλιεὺς (fisherman) appear as nos. 4, 6, and 9. Contrastingly, in one of the two Byzantine collections that include fables by Babrius, the Novoeboracensis, and in a 15th-century collection of prose paraphrases (Codex Oxon. Bodleianus Auct. F 4. 7), the alphabetical sequence is relatively strictly observed.3 We may, then, draw the following conclusion: the editors of those anthologies “corrected” the structural system put in place by Babrius. They possibly did so, moreover, because they did not realize that his two books of fables display structural elements traditionally found in poetry books, devices familiar from authors such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and which, as a Posidippus papyrus from the 3rd century bce can be taken to indicate, were probably used in Greek epigram books of the Hellenistic and imperial periods. Poems in this type of book were often interlinked by content and wording, and one epigram anthologist, Philip, combined in his Garland (mid-1st century ce) this form of intricate interweaving with an alphabetical arrangement, which suggests that he could well have been an important precursor for Babrius in terms of compositional method. As can already be seen at the very beginning of the Mythiambi, Book 1, the poet applies that same technique. In the prologue there, Babrius announces that his fables are set in a Golden Age of peaceful coexistence between humans and animals, the latter gifted with the power of speech; correspondingly, he says, he has now “softened the “hard <verse> feet of bitter (πικρῶν) iambics” (l. 18). Fable 1 then clearly follows a deliberate and immediate contrast: “the man”—appropriately enough, the first word is Ἄνθρωπος—shoots an arrow at the lion, and the lion, hit, calls the arrow “a bitter (πικρόν) messenger” (l. 15). Interweaving of content between fables can also be achieved by forming a sequence of thematically related texts. It is striking, for instance, that, among the nineteen Λ-fables at the end of Book 1, there are eleven in which a lion is the protagonist (90–92, 95, 97–99, 102–103, 106–107). The king of the beasts is dominant immediately before the first verse of Book 2, the line which directly addresses King Alexander’s son and thus opens the dedication to him of the poems that follow.
Narrative Technique and Intertextuality
Fables, not originally texts that were passed on in collected form but exemplary stories found within a variety of contexts, began to be assembled during the Hellenistic period for inclusion in handbooks of rhetoric. The earliest of such promptuaries was probably put together by Demetrius of Phalerum, and as it was given the title Aisopeia, the fables it contained were evidently ascribed to Aesop.4 A reasonable assumption is that Babrius drew on a collection of this kind for those of his fables which unmistakeably stand in the Aesopic tradition. Unlike Phaedrus, Babrius chose not to have Aesop appear in the Mythiambi as an actual character, naming him instead once, in Prol., 1.15–16, as the author of prose fables—the type, that is, found in the promptuaries—and again, in Prol., 2.15, as one of the founders of the genre. Those who consulted the promptuaries could find in them exempla suited to their particular argumentation, but needed no more than a short, functional version of the “case” that interested them. Fables of this kind abound in the Collectio Augustana, a 2nd/2rd- or possibly 1st-century Pseudo-Aesop (Bavarian State Library, Munich, Cod. Monac. gr. 564), and each exemplum ends with an epimythium. Comparison of such texts with thematically similar fables written by Babrius invariably demonstrates that he offers out-and-out stories rather than quick digests. The Augustana version of the fable about the fox and the grapes (15 Perry) offers the basic facts in very simple language—fox cannot “have” grapes on vine, declares them unripe, leaves—and the epimythium duly formulates the instructive connection to a specific human characteristic.5 Babrius, by contrast, takes an empathic approach in his corresponding fable 19 and describes what happens from the fox’s point of view, creating an animated scene with a spirited protagonist: the fox tries leap after leap to reach the grapes, then bluffs its own despair; the words it uses to do that are spoken in the last line and thus bring the text to a pointed close from which readers, should they care to, can draw a lesson. Nineteen Babriana consisting each of only four lines (8, 14, 29, 39, 40, 41, 54, 60, 73, 80, 81, 83, 90, 96, 109, 110, 113, 121, 133) are constructed in a way that studiously leads them to a pointed finale, thereby creating obvious similarities to the epigrammatic form and its finishing twist. In fable 14, for instance, on hearing the bear describe its forbearing to feed on human cadavers as a sign of its love for the whole race, the fox, as witty as it is sarcastic, rejoins that the bear should tear dead bodies to pieces and not worry the living. These tetrastichs (four-liners) and many other shortish fables manifestly serve to satirize and expose human failings, much as, for example, Lucillius does in Book 11 of the Anthologia Graeca. Babrius, who frequently bears some resemblance to the epigrammatist, intersperses his own “epigrams” with the occasional full-blown narrative, concentrating there too wholly on the psychology of his figures. The longest of those “short stories,” fable 95, runs to 101 lines and is reminiscent of an epyllion. Just as that genre, in the tradition of Callimachus, typically employs intertextual links to other works of poetry, such allusions can also be found in Babrius’s fables. This is a feature which, in his case, has thus far aroused but little scholarly interest; studies to date have only examined one isolated aspect: his frequent use, when depicting “ordinary folk,” animals, and objects, of elements drawn from the language of Homer, a device which points to a certain affinity between the fables and the mock-heroic epic Batrachomyomachia. Babrius in fact offers his own variation on that with the Galeomyomachia in fable 31.
The fables of Babrius were occasionally adapted and imitated in the Greek-speaking world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, but the circulation of such versions remained limited. Among those, only the work of Ignatius the Deacon remains fairly well known today: active in Constantinople and later Metropolitan of Nicaea, this early 9th-century hagiographer and poet composed iambic tetrastichs in the style of Babrius. One Roman fabulist did at least use the author of the Aesopic Fables in Iambics as model for his own poems: Avianus (fl. c. 400 ce). Among this author’s forty-two fables are twenty-four (1–7; 13–21; 23; 31–37) based by him on texts found in the extant body of Babrius’s works; comparison with the paraphrases in the Codex Oxon. Bodleianus Auct. F 4. 7 (see Book Structure) suggests that Avianus also drew on certain others of the Greek fables, and it is very probable that Babriana formed the pre-texts for his entire output. Over one hundred manuscripts of his works, copies made between the 9th and the 16th century, ensured that fable motifs for which there were no parallels among the Aesopica found their way into the fable literature of Western Europe. It was not through Avianus, however, that one of the best-known fabulists of modern times, Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695), was introduced to Babrius: the French poet’s reading and reworking of him was based on a vast collection of Greek and Roman fables that included the tetrastichs by Ignatius the Deacon and other anonymous adaptations of Babrius: the Mythologia Aesopica edited by Isaac Nicholas Nevelet (Frankfurt am Main, 1610). There, La Fontaine also found an abridged version on pages 379–380 of one solitary fable written by Babrius himself: ll. 1–4, 7–8. 11–12, 19–20, and 23–24 of what numbers among the most fascinating texts created by the poet: the story of the swallow and the nightingale (no. 12), which was turned by La Fontaine (who quite evidently blended it with Nevelet’s prose paraphrase on pages 152–153) into his own Philomèle et Progné (3.15).
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- Perry, Ben Edwin. Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to Him or Closely Connected with the Literary Tradition That Bears His Name. Collected and Critically Edited, in Part Translated from Oriental Languages, with a Commentary and Historical Essay. I: Greek and Latin Texts. Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1952.
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1. Perry, Babrius and Phaedrus; and Vaio, Mythiambi of Babrius.
2. Luzzatto and La Penna, Babrii Mythiambi Aesopei.
3. Knöll, Fabularum Babrianarum.
4. Ben Edwin Perry, “Demetrius of Phalerum and the Aesopic Fables,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93 (1962): 287–346.
5. Perry, Aesopica.