The Life and Times of Aesop, the Ancient Storyteller

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From the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher and chronicler Aristotle, we know that somewhere between 620 and 560 BCE, a freedman known as Aesop found his way to the court of Croesus, the last of the kings of Lydia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

From the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher and history chronicler Aristotle, we know that somewhere between 620 and 560 BCE, a freedman known as Aesop found his way to the court of Croesus, the last of the kings of Lydia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

A former slave from the island of Samos (in the eastern Aegean Sea) who was owned first by a man named Xanthus and then a man named Iadmon, Aesop had already gained considerable renown as a master storyteller before he ever left his native land.

Leaving Samos, Aesop traveled to Sardis (Turkey) to join in intellectual discussions with Solon of Athens and Thales of Miletus, as well as other exiled sages and philosophers of the time. There he found favor with King Croesus because of his superior wit, considerable intelligence, and ability to spin captivating yarns--fables that instructed while entertaining.

Picking up Aesop's story from the Greek historian, Plutarch, while in the service of King Croesus, Aesop was sent on a diplomatic tour of the Greek state capitals. There he used his fables to convey valuable citizenry lessons; at Athens he is said to have recited “The Wolf and the Lamb,” warning that known tyranny is preferred to theunknown, and at Corinth, he  recited, “The Frogs Who Desired a King,” illustrating the dangers of mob rule.

Aesop was then sent to the Greek capital of Delphi, commissioned by Croesus to distribute monetary payments due the Delphians, but was ultimately charged with a crime he did not commit, and sent to his death. As the story is told, as Aesop was leaving Delphi to return to Sardis, a gold cup from the temple of Apollo--which had apparently been planted--was discovered in his bags. Charged with impiety and sacrilege, Aesop was tried and sentenced to be thrown from a high cliff outside the city.

Before this fatal episode, however, Aesop is said to have met with Periander, the ruler of Corinth (and one of the Seven Sages of Greece), where the historian Plutarch describes him dining with the other sages of Greece, sitting with Solon whom he had met in Sardis. suggesting that Aesop himself was a popular contender for inclusion in the prestigious list of Seven Sages.

Though Aesop became famous across the ancient world as the preeminent teller of fables, it is certain that he did not create the genre; the earliest known story with talking animals in the ancient Greek language is the fable of the hawk and the nightingale from Hesiod, who lived at least three centuries before Aesop.  Even so, the works of the great storyteller live on in both literary as well as philosophical circles.

Known history reflects that Aesop never wrote down any of his fables (and there’s actually no evidence that he could write at all), and that the first-known collection of fables bearing his name was collected by Demetrius Phalareus (founder of the Alexandria Library) in the 4th century BCE, but did not survive beyond the 9th century CE--though it is referenced in later literature.  Later, a Greek freedman of Augustus Caesar named Phaedrus turned Aesop’s fables into Latin iambics (poems).  Finally in the 1300s, a monk named Maximus Planudes of Constantinople compiled the definitive book, Aesop’s Fables, which helped preserve them to this day.

Ancient documents surviving the times immediately following Aesop’s death, reflects the societal precedent set by Aesop, which for generations after his death, it was considered uncouth for an accomplished gentleman of Athens to not be able to regale friends with Aesop’s stories at public gatherings. His practical wisdom was highly regarded, as was his lesser-known caustic humor.

Two hundred years after his death, the famous statue of Aesop carved by master craftsman Lysippus was erected at Athens, set in place in front of the statues of the Seven Sages.


Aesop’s Fables, the Life and Work of Aesop, Grosset & Dunlap

Images via except thumb: Aesop (with my appreciation)

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James R. Coffey
Posted on Mar 28, 2011
Ileen Zovluck
Posted on Mar 28, 2011
Posted on Mar 28, 2011