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date: 04 December 2022



  • J. S. Rusten


  • Greek Literature

Aesop, as legendary a figure as Homer. What we now call fables (Gk. αἶνοι‎, μῦθοι‎, λόγοι‎), i.e. stories clearly fictitious (often about speaking animals), which illustrate a point or support an argument, are first alluded to by Hes.Op. 202–12 and Archil. fr. 174 West, but by the 5th and 4th cents. such fables in prose are regularly attributed to Aesop (Ar.Vesp.566, Av.471; Arist. fr. 573 Rose; a black-figured portrait of Aesop with talking fox, Beazley, ARV2 2 p. 916 no. 183, K. Schefold, Die Bildnisse der antiken Dichter, Redner und Denker (1943) 57.4). Hdt. 2. 134–5 places him in the 6th cent. bce as the slave of Iadmon, a Samian later murdered by Delphians (cf. Ar. Vesp. 1446–8); Plato Com. fr. 70 KA has his soul returning from the grave (cf. Plut. Sol. 6); the legend suggests a ritual scapegoat (φαρμακός‎).

A biography, serving as a context for the fables he told, may have existed already in the 5th century, but the extant biography, written no earlier than the Roman empire, is a romance on these themes. Beginning with a miracle (Isis grants him speech, the Muses give him inspiration in storytelling) and concluding with a martyr's death (Delphic priests kill him because he denounces their greed), it is largely a repository of slave-savant anecdotes about Aesop and his hapless Samian master, the ‘philosopher’ Xanthus, followed by Aesop's career as adviser to Croesus and the king of Babylon (cf. the Assyrian Ahiqar).

The first known collection of Aesopic fables was made by Demetrius (3) of Phaleron (Diog. Laert. 5. 5. 80). The medieval tradition (which includes moral epilogues) is in three parts, of which the oldest (Collectio Augustana) dates to the 3rd cent. ce, or even earlier. For the writings themselves see fables.


Editions (on different principles)
  • E. Chambry, Aesopi fabulae, 2 vols. (1925–26).
  • A. Hausrath and H. Hunger, Corpus fabularum Aesopicarum, 2 vols. (1959); 2nd edn. (1970).

For testimonia, life, and comparative material, B. E. Perry, Aesopica: Studies in Text History of Life and Fables of Aesop, 1 (1952).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat S. Jedrkiewicz (trans.), Sapere e paradosso nell'antichità: Esopo e la favola (1989).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

F. Ferrari, G. Bonelli, and G. Sandrolini, Romanzo di Esopo, 2nd edn. (2002).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Translation of the Life by L. W. Daly in W. Hansen, Anthology of Greek Popular Literature (1998), 111–162.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat