The personal history of Phaedrus (15 BC-50 AD), a first century Roman writer, has been lost in the mist of history, but his fables in verse based on those of Aesop will live for countless generations to come.
Fables are one of the oldest forms of storytelling that have come down to us and survived through the ages. They appear in cultures throughout the world, including those of ancient India and the Mediterranean region. The oldest form of storytelling is the myth. One style of myth is referred to an "animism," where every object, human or otherwise, assumes a personality. Animals, rocks, weather phenomenon, as well as man are each given human characteristics. This primitive form held no particular relationship to religion or science, but was told only for its entertainment value.
Although less primitive in style than the animistic tale, the Aesop Fable has its foundation in this form of myth. The form recognized as the Western tradition is thought to begin with Aesop in the 6th century BC. He created his fables by applying personalities to his characters regardless of their humanity. These are learned tales, in written form—not handed down by word of mouth. Each fable presents its reader with a double meaning and is intended to teach a moral lesson.
Role as Fabulist
Phaedrus, a first century Roman writer, is recognized as the source of the modern Aesop Fables. Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, he was thought to have been a Thracian slave, born around 15 BC, who went to Italy in his youth. He may have been a freedman and tutor in the house of the emperor Augustus, where he would have received an education in Greek and Latin.
Demetrius of Phaleron, about 250 years after Aesop, amassed a number of fables and attributed them to Aesop. Phaedrus took a version of these tales and turned them into Latin verse. He is recognized as the first writer to Latinize entire books of fables, using the iambic metre Greek prose of the Aesop tales. While poets such as Ennius, Lucilius, and Horace had each used fables in their poems, Phaedrus believed himself to be the one artist whose poetry would be immortal. His work included fables invented by him as well as the traditional favorites. He related each with a graceful and elaborate style favored by the people of the day. Phaedrus is also thought to have written allusive fables that satirized Roman politics of the day. Along with Babrius, a Hellenized Roman of the 2nd century AD, Phaedrus is considered by authorities to be the principal successor to Aesop.
Phaedrus Through History
In the 10th century AD, a prose adaptation of Phaedrus' translations appeared under the title "Romulus." It remained popular until the 17th century, especially in Europe and Britain. During the Middle Ages, the collections of fables popular throughout Western Europe were most likely derived from Phaedrus. In early 18th century Parma, a manuscript was discovered that contained 64 of Phaedrus' fables. Among this discovery were 30 new fables. Another manuscript was discovered in the Vatican and published in 1831. Additional research has unearthed another 30 fables that are written in the iambics of Phaedrus.
The better known fables of Phaedrus include "The Fox and the Sour Grapes," "The Wolf and the Lamb," "The Lion's Share," "The Two Wallets," and "The Pearl in the Dung-Heap."
Further Reading on Phaedrus
Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, January 1, 1993.
Great Works of Literature, Bureau Development, Inc., January 1, 1992.
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, http://www.eb.com:180/bol/topic?tmap_id-161058000&tmap_typ=dx (November 6, 1999), http://www.eb.com:180/bol/topic?eu=119369&sctn=12 (November 6, 1999).
http://members.spree.com/fabulae/fabulae.htm (November 6, 1999). □