The Aesop Tradition
Lawrence M. Wills
It is not clear that there ever was a historical Aesop, but he was a revered figure in the Greek and Roman tradition from early times. Considered one of the “seven sages” of the Greek world, unlike the others he was an outsider. He was a misshapen slave who advanced through cleverness and a sharp tongue. His memory is preserved in three ways. References to him as a purveyor of fables can be found in several classical authors (Herodotus 2.134; Plato, Phaedo 60d). Later, fables attributed to him were collected into example books for use in rhetoric (according to Diogenes Laertius 5.80, Demetrius of Phalerum made such a collection in the fourth century BCE). Third, there was a prose version of the Life of Aesop that may have arisen before the Common Era, but it certainly existed by the first or second century CE. In addition, there was likely in ancient times a cult of Aesop, as there were for other poets, heroes, and philosophers. Thus Aesop was a well-known personage in the Greco-Roman world who bore some resemblance to the figure of Jesus: he had a distinctive means of imparting his teachings—animal fables— just as Jesus used a distinctive kind of parable that utilized social scenes from everyday life (cooking, farming, fishing, being a slave or commanding slaves, and so on), and as in the case of Jesus, so also for Aesop there was a “gospel” of his life, death, and subsequent cult.
Aesop is thus an important figure in Greek and Roman culture, a sharp-tongued social critic who, because of his ugly appearance, is sometimes compared with Socrates. In terms of his philosophy, however, Aesop is less like Plato's version of Socrates than he is the Cynic version. Aesop the slave peels back the layers of social convention and pretension. Whether the tales attributed to him were intended as subversive criticism of the power structure or were more an opportunity for comic release of class tension is not clear. At any rate, the type of the “grotesque outsider” is known in ancient mimes, in art, and in the figure of Socrates himself; it might be compared to the role of the fool in some of Shakespeare's plays.
Aesop's fables, and ancient fables in general, are stories, often with animal characters, that are extended metaphors for human relations. They are usually cynical and biting, even cruel, and in the Aesop collections, they combine humor