The Life Of Aesop
A Concise Biography
AESOP, the most famous fabulist of all time, is a figure shrouded in mystery. Because it is unlikely that early remarks in authors like Herodotus, Aristophanes and Plato have no foundation in reality, it can cautiously be said that Aesop was a slave in the sixth century B.C., that he came from Phrygia and lived in Samos, and that he was known for his ability to craft "fables" (logoi). The story that Aesop met his end at Delphi, where he was sentenced to death and pushed off a cliff because he insulted the Delphians, is already current in the fifth century B.C.
Today, everyone assumes that Aesop is a teller of fables who
teaches morals to our children. This Aesop is a modern
invention that reflects thousands of years of development.
The Aesop who has resulted is a figure of mythical
proportions, to whom all fables are ascribed, much as we
ascribe all nursery rhymes to Mother Goose, even when these
rhymes have a variety of disparate origins.
In ancient times, fables are not designed as moral tales for
children. Some are versions of famous fables we all know
("The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Ant and the Grasshopper,"
"The Boy Who Called Wolf," "The Lion's Share," etc.), but
early fables are more frequently designed to explain the
causes of natural phenomena, and ancient fables are
characterized by a hard nosed realism which is at odds with
the view of the world that contemporary authors put in the
mouth of Aesop. The wisdom associated with the ancient fable
is the kind of wisdom evident in Aesop's explanation of the
frustrating fact that weeds seem to grow more vigorously than
the seeds we plant, a fact he explains by saying that they are
the natural offspring of Mother Earth who nurtures them more
favorably, just as mothers favor their own children above
When Socrates turns Aesop into verse as he is awaiting
execution, he seems attracted by their earthy wisdom. The
most significant ancient thinkers who are attracted to the
fable are, however, interested in exploiting them as
rhetorical devices which can be used in persuading a public
audience of some point of view. In keeping with this, the most
important collector of ancient Aesopia is the philosopher
Demetrius of Phalerum, who studied with Aristotle and became
both the ruler of Athens, the librarian at the Great
Alexandrian library, and an important proponent of
Though the real Aesop is obscure and inaccessible, we still
have an ancient account of him in a Life of Aesop
which bears, in its earliest version, the title The Book
of Xanthus the Philosopher and His Slave Aesop. According
to this Life, Aesop was born an ugly mute slave, but
was granted the power to speak and craft fables in return for
his generosity to one of the attendants of the goddess Isis.
Having gained a knack for logoi, he engineered his way to
Samos, where he became the slave of a philosopher called
Xanthus. In the course of recounting Aesop's life with
Xanthus, the Life implicates Aesop in a series of
wild adventures, witty fables and obscene episodes which
demonstrate, above all else, that he can outwit and
out-philosophize the philosopher who owns him.
Taken as a whole, the Life has a flavor reminiscent
of Roman satire. This has tried the patience of many authors,
whose exasperation is reflected in George Fyler Townsend's
nineteenth century remark that "This life... contains... so
small an amount of truth, and is so full of absurd pictures of
the grotesque deformity of Aesop, of wondrous apocryphal
stories, of lying legends, and gross anachronisms, that it is
now universally condemned as false, puerile, and unauthentic.
It is given up in the present day and unworthy of the
slightest credit." It is telling that such sentiments do not
stop Townsend from including a version of the Life
within his own popular collection of Aesop's fables.
Wilfrid Laurier University
Lloyd Daly, Aesop Without Morals. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961.
George Fyler Townsend, Three Hundred Aesop's Fables. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1867.