One of the ancient biographies of Aesop begins:

The fabulist Aesop, the great benefactor of mankind, was by chance a slave but by origin a Phrygian of Phrygia, of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, pot-bellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity. In addition to this he had a defect more serious than his unsightliness in being speechless, for he was dumb and could not talk.1


Prado, Madrid/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

Diego Velázquez: Aesop, 1640

Our evidence does not make it clear if this portentous monstrosity ever actually existed, or, if he did, what contribution he made, if any, to the surviving body of animal fables associated with his name. The first mention of that name occurs in Herodotus (about 425 BCE), who seems to date its bearer to the first half of the sixth century BCE. A few years later Herodotus’ younger contemporary, the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes, assumes his audience knows of fables identified as Aesop’s, and mentions that he was prosecuted by the people of Delphi on a charge of theft. The form of these citations does nothing to tell us if Aesop lore was circulating as written texts or only orally. The first clear evidence we have for a written collection of “Aesopian” fables dates to the end of the fourth century BCE, and from that point on collecting and rewriting them becomes a busy side industry of classical culture, continuing through the Renaissance to the present day. Over seven hundred Greek and Latin versions of Aesop’s fables have come down to us by one route or another.2

It is not the fables, however, with which Leslie Kurke’s Aesopic Conversations is primarily concerned. Her focus is on the biographical tradition (or Lives—Latin vitae), which comes to us in two rather loosely maintained textual “recensions”—families of manuscripts copied from earlier versions of the work. One of these, called W (for Westermann, its nineteenth-century editor) and long known to us, is preserved in both Greek manuscripts and a Latin translation. The other, seemingly older, is uniquely represented by a tenth- or eleventh-century manuscript that disappeared from the Basilian monastery at Grottaferrata, not far from Rome (after which it is called Vita G), sometime during the Napoleonic occupation, and resurfaced later in Paris, where it was acquired by J.P. Morgan in 1908. The text of Vita G is, editorially speaking, an utter mess: the scribes either were incompetent or had only bad material to copy from. What shines through the wreckage, however, are a stage of the Greek language and a few material details that indicate an era of Roman dominance. G probably dates to sometime from the first century BCE through the second century CE.

Vita G is a picaresque novella whose bottom-of-the-heap antihero Aesop meets with a series of people and situations and proves master of most, if not all. The episodes are grouped around the major chronological stages of Aesop’s life: first as a despised and abused field slave whose kindness to a priestess of Isis earns him the gift of speech and wit; then, as house slave to the “philosopher” (i.e., pretentious ass) Xanthus of Samos, eventually granted freedom and dispatched on a diplomatic mission to the historical Lydian King Croesus (sixth century BCE); next, as grand vizier at the court of the fictitious Babylonian King Lycurgus; and finally, as visitor to Delphi, where he offends the locals and hurls himself off a cliff.

Most of the episodes within these clusters share the same structure: a seemingly insoluble problem is posed and Aesop triumphantly solves it, often through preposterous devices. Very subtle modern readings have detected a latent architecture underlying the whole, but I suspect that most readers will feel the lack of a clear story and experience the work as shambolic and a bit tedious—one damned thing after another. Vita G seems at least in part to have been designed as an accordion box for miscellaneous Aesopiana.

Kurke believes that the Lives of Aesop as a group, but Vita G especially, reflect and preserve authentic sixth-century-BCE popular thought: the Aesopian “wisdom tradition,” in her view, ran on a parallel track to the elite ideology that otherwise informs our understanding of Archaic and Classical Greek culture (the first quarter of the fifth century is the conventional transition between the two). The value of this evidence has been overlooked, or even suppressed, according to Kurke, because the dominant elite ideology of antiquity had an interest in erasing the memory of popular thought, since it was critical of the elites, while the bias against it survives to this day among the academic stewards of elite ancient cultures. Kurke describes scholars’ reception of Vita G as a matter of protecting the canon from alien contagion. “Since everything about it is a mystery—author, date, place of composition, intention, audience,” she writes, it was “kept in quarantine,” and “even today Aesop almost never figures in…classics curricula in the United States.”3


It is true that the Lives have not figured prominently in student curriculums, but the motives for their exclusion may be more various than Kurke allows. Chapter 75 of the Latin version of the Life begins:

One day Aesop lifted up his clothes and took his member in his hand so as to stimulate it. Xanthus’ wife saw him and said, “Aesop! What’s this?” Aesop replied, “Lady, I was cold during the night, and it helps me if I hold it in my hand.” When the woman saw how long and thick it was, her lust was roused, and she said to him, “Now, Aesop, if you’ll do what I want, you’ll get more pleasure than your master does.” He replied, “Lady, you know that if the master finds out, what I’ll get will be too bad for me. He’ll be right to make me pay the price.” She smiled and said, “If you do me ten times, I’ll give you a new shirt!”4

Aesop gets the shirt.

Chapter 75 is, admittedly, not altogether representative, since sex is not a big theme elsewehere in the work; violence and cruelty, on the other hand, are. In chapter 42, the master, Xanthus, wishing to entrap and beat Aesop, orders him to cook four pig’s feet, one of which Xanthus then steals from the pot and hides. Aesop, realizing what Xanthus has done—and eager to avoid a beating—promptly cuts a foot off another (live) pig, and throws it into the soup. Meanwhile, Xanthus comes to regret his actions and replaces the foot he had taken, making, unbeknownst to both of them, five feet.

Some Three Stooges buffoonery ensues. Kurke is right that stories such as these would not have been welcomed onto the classical reading lists of Victorian-era Eton; that does not mean, however, that they reflect nonelite Greco-Roman taste. Vases depicting the maniacally erect priapism of satyrs, for example, were unfailingly popular with the Greek upper classes. As for cruelty, slave-beating was a beloved staple of the comic stage. Even nonslaves could be turned to this purpose: for example, the unnamed protagonist of Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria, identified only as “Euripides’ kinsman,” is literally crucified during the play’s last two hundred lines, and the shrieks he emits as he is stapled to the cross seem to have brought the audience no end of delight.


An ass put on a lion’s skin and went around frightening the other animals. He saw a fox and tried to terrify her, too. But she happened to have heard his voice and said to him, “I can assure you I would have been afraid of you, too, if I hadn’t heard your braying.”

—Aesop, Fable 188

In spite of its casual-seeming structure, Vita G does not otherwise announce itself as an article of popular culture. For one thing, it has been written down. For another, it betrays certain literary pretensions. Once Aesop has gained the power of speech, for example, he is able, in spite of the rustic isolation of his previous life, to name Euripides and quote his poetry verbatim. This feat will appear all the more impressive if we consider that Euripides would not begin his career for another century. Clearly, the author of Vita G did not place a high premium on historical consistency; exuberant if heavy-handed plundering of the literary tradition is more his stock-in-trade.

Kurke believes that, as late elite transcriptions from the nonelite “Aesop tradition,” the Lives of Aesop reliably preserve, as if against their transcribers’ will, elements originating in the popular culture of the Archaic period. As a precedent for her attempt to recover this lost material she cites Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, first published in 1978.5

In his book Burke attempted to recover the daily life of the nonelite strata of early modern European society. But although these people left no direct account of themselves, Burke, unlike Kurke, had many sources to draw on: from the “great tradition” there were the contemporary elite histories, art and literature, and archives, while the “little tradition” of the common culture was represented by a variety of artifacts:

There are folksongs and folktales; devotional images and decorated marriage-chests;…and, above all, festivals, like the feasts of the saints and the great seasonal festivals such as Christmas.6

For sixth-century Greece, and even for much of Classical Greece, little evidence of this kind is available; virtually nothing directly survives from this period that can be confidently identified as nonelite. We do not have any contemporary history of the period—only the sketchy anecdotes of Herodotus a hundred or more years later, plus some fragmentary scraps of upper-class poetry preserved either on Hellenistic or Roman papyri or as quotations in later authors. The surviving archaeological and inscriptional record can tell us something about public and elite private monuments, and of certain broad demographic trends, but it has little or nothing to contribute toward knowledge of the common culture shared by elite and nonelite Archaic Greeks or of the daily life of the poor.


This means that in searching for survivals from this period we don’t know what to look for. It’s like trying to build a suspension bridge from one side of a river. How, then, does Kurke’s recovery effort fare?

During his interview with Croesus, Aesop tells the king a fable, “elements in the diction” of which, Kurke says, “seem quite old”: “Aesop’s concluding line, ‘In a cheap little body, I speak sensible things, benefiting the life of mortals,’ resonates with rare and archaic vocabulary.” One of the words Kurke relies on for this conclusion, phrenêrês (“sensible”), is “a word rarely used after the fifth century (and a particular favorite of Herodotus).” But in fact most of the word’s occurrences are from the Hellenistic period or later; in particular, it is found ten times (most often applied to the hero himself) in one recension of the Alexander Romance. This title is used to cover the extravagantly fictionalized life of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) transmitted to us in multiple versions—a tradition of fabulous pseudo-biography strikingly similar to that of Aesop.7 Kurke’s linguistic dating misrepresents the fable’s vocabulary as significantly “Archaic” and fails to report its actual and much more relevant associations. The clear link is to actual compositions in the Hellenistic age rather than to speculative strata of oral tradition.

Kurke is willing to bend things in the other direction, too. Twice in Vita G Aesop refers to Apollo as the “prostatês of the Muses.” The Greek word means literally “he who stands before” some other person or thing (in the sense that the prostate gland “stands before” the bladder). In the bureaucratic language of the Hellenistic era this meaning was given a specialized sense of “administrator” or “superintendent”; thus, earlier in Vita G the narrator applies it to Zenas, the evil “overseer” from Aesop’s days as a field slave. Kurke argues that when Aesop later calls Apollo “prostatês of the Muses” the word carries over these slave-driving associations. For Kurke the Muses do the real work while they are “abused and exploited” by the corrupt overseer Apollo.

This association, which she calls “subversive,” is supposed to reflect an Archaic critique of Apollo that Kurke believes popular tradition had articulated through the figure of Aesop: though the use of prostatês in the required meaning is Hellenistic, nonetheless, she suggests, “there is a coherent system of content in Vita G that may well be older than the particular diction of our written text.” But Kurke fails to inform her readers that in the Classical period the word prostatês was used as an honorific for Apollo, the very god to whom she says Aesop now applies it in rebuke,8 and that in Hellenistic Athens the adjective formed from it was a well-known cult title of the same god.9

The first half of Kurke’s book is characterized by this constant effort to push the slender body of available evidence as far back toward the sixth century as possible. For instance, Kurke begins a long discussion of an early- to mid-fifth-century vase depicting a grossly macrocephalic man seated in conversation with a fox; she says the identification of the man as Aesop “has generally been accepted by archaeologists and art historians,” but the vase gives no name and the identification is only a guess.10 Four pages later, Kurke is referring to the figure as Aesop, without qualification.


Why this stubborn determination to frog-march the evidence backward? Peter Burke’s goal of recovering the lost lives and voices of the nonelite has already been mentioned. But Kurke has other targets in her sights as well: once Part I of her book has set Aesop up as the spokesman of an Archaic critique of the elites, she can spend Part II claiming him as a decisive and hitherto unrecognized influence on the “invention” of Greek prose—hence her book’s subtitle: Herodotus and Plato wrote as they did, we are told, in response to Aesop.

This is an ambitious claim. Obviously, it is entirely dependent on the chronology. Herodotus and Plato span the period during which the study of Greek history comes into its own, roughly that of the Peloponnesian War (431–404) through the rise of Macedon and the advent of Alexander the Great. One problem we have to confront over and over again in studying the documents that this period so suddenly and abundantly provides is this: Did the era inherit fully formed an older tradition (which, by the accident of our evidence, only happens to come into our view after 425), or did it invent that tradition out of older bits and pieces and project it backward? We are very often unable to settle questions that take this form, not least because the second phenomenon tends to misrepresent itself as the first.

In later writers, like Plutarch, Aesop is linked with the Seven Sages—a group of semilegendary wise men mostly belonging to the late seventh and early sixth centuries. Sources list different members, but the number seven—a special number in many cultures—remains constant, which suggests it came first. The sages most frequently listed are those who remain most familiar today: Thales of Miletus, who fell down a well while gazing at the stars and thus became the patron saint of absent-minded professors, and Solon, the lawgiver of Athens. Like nearly all sages, these are historical figures but ones already heavily clothed in legend in our earliest sources. A question that has divided classicists is: When were these individual figures first recognized as a group, the Seven Sages? Many believe this happened during the sages’ lifetimes: that the seven consciously functioned within this group identity.

In 1985 the late Detlev Fehling made the striking claim that Plato invented the Seven Sages in his Socratic dialogue Protagoras (early fourth century BCE). He pointed to the indisputable fact that the Seven Sages as such are not mentioned before this work, in the relevant passage of which a very mischievous Socrates is openly making up (mostly ridiculous) things. Fehling said the whole Seven Sages idea was born right there.11

Socrates tells how the seven once assembled at Delphi and made a dedication to Apollo of “a share of their wisdom,” namely, the sayings “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess,” which they inscribed on the temple. From Socrates’ improvisation arises a literary tradition of gatherings of the seven—usually for a feast; Aesop is eventually tied to the group in such a setting.

Fehling’s hard-line position throws into relief an important fact: the fourth century is a moment when production of this kind of story—edifying and amusing fictions about quasi-historical, quasi-legendary figures like the sages and Aesop—goes into high gear. This is, after all, close to what Plato himself does, if at an exceptionally high intellectual level: he constructs dramatic situations in which now-dead historical figures get together and converse with the now-dead Socrates about whatever topic Plato has in mind. Plato was not the only one doing this. One of his models was provided by the comic theater, which had at its disposal the device of trips to or from the underworld, where all celebrities are gathered together and can be consulted or conversed with, without any pesky chronological asynchronicities to raise doubts about plausibility: Socrates talks ethics with Homer, and that kind of thing. Aristophanes’ Frogs (405 BCE) is a familiar example. Dionysus goes to Hades and holds a contest for best tragedian between Aeschylus (died 454 BCE) and Euripides (died 406 BCE).

The very work in which the seven find their first mention, Plato’s Protagoras, is implicitly marked by its narrator, Socrates, as precisely this kind of underworld comedy. The gathering of all the major sophists it depicts most certainly never happened, and by the time of writing all the characters are of course long dead anyhow. Plato emphasizes the fictionality by having Socrates quote lines that Odysseus used to introduce the famous dead men he encountered on his trip to Hades in Odyssey Book 11. Protagoras first appears flanked on either side by three disciples (3+1+3: that number again); the great man and his entourage are promenading in the cloister, followed at a discreet distance by what Socrates calls a “chorus” of lesser fans—the chorus of Athenian comic drama. The brilliant discussion that follows is certainly the most amusingly comic of all Plato’s works.

The impact of the astonishingly fertile imagination of Plato should not be underestimated, especially by somebody undertaking an investigation like Kurke’s. He again refers to the Seven Sages (his own invention, according to Detlev Fehling) in the Timaeus/Critias, generally thought to be a late work. The context here inspires a certain awe at Plato’s ability to tell a brilliantly imagined whopper with a straight face. At the work’s beginning we find Socrates on the second day of a two-day conference. Yesterday, he reminds his companions, he had described the constitution of an ideal city: a summary of what is recognizably Plato’s Republic follows. One of the agenda items for today’s session, we learn, is for Critias, another of the participants, to bring this theoretical city to life with historical examples. By an amazing coincidence it turns out that Critias is exceptionally well positioned to do this. As a small child he used to hear from his grandfather a story his great-grandfather had heard from his friend Solon, “the wisest of the Seven,” who had heard it from priests in Egypt: apparently, as recorded in the Egyptian archives, the city of Athens nine thousand years ago had a constitution exactly like the one Socrates described yesterday! The excellence of this constitution was demonstrated in a war Athens waged with the people of a no-longer-extant island located beyond the gates of Gibraltar, and hereupon Plato unleashes on an unsuspecting world the myth of Atlantis.

The impact of this myth was instant. Within a few years it had become so widespread that Aristotle felt called on to provide clarification: “Atlantis was wiped from the map by the man who put it there in the first place.” The Atlantis myth gives us a good idea of the intellectual setting from which works like the Lives of Aesop arose. Many examples show that attaching unconstrained fictions to famous historical places and names is simply one of the ways the Greeks had come to use their past.

Plato’s Atlantis myth was almost immediately matched, in the wake of Alexander’s march to India, by Euhemerus of Messene’s ambitious account of a trip he took to a vast island called Panchaea, located, to balance Atlantis, not to the west of Greece but to its east, in the Indian Ocean. Here Euhemerus was shown a temple holding inscriptions written by Zeus himself, no less. It appears that Zeus was actually a powerful human king from long ago, so powerful that when he died people developed the idea of divinity around his memory.

Euhemerus was a serious man, with a serious theological idea to get across about the origins of divinity (it is still known as “Euhemerism,” a coinage of George Grote’s in the mid-nineteenth century). We are harder pressed to find the serious purpose of the travelogue written by his contemporary Antiphanes of Berga, which

included a journey to the far north, where it got so cold in winter that people’s words froze as soon as they spoke them; they had to wait until the spring thaw to hear what had been said.12

The Greeks had learned that extremes of space (Atlantis, Panchaea) and time (Athens in 10,000 BCE) and social position (Aesop) were good and often amusing “to think with.” The works produced in these modes, including the Alexander Romance mentioned earlier, are the true congeners of the Lives of Aesop, and they are almost entirely unmentioned by Kurke.13 Her complaint, quoted earlier, that classicists have kept Vita G “in quarantine” describes her own practice in this book, in which she has not allowed Vita G to interact with other noncanonical works, of which I have cited only a few. This restriction may appear to clear the path between Vita G and the Archaic age—and thus its supposed influence on the birth of Greek prose—but the appearance is a mirage.