Where Does His Wit Come From?


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…

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