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THE ANCIENT FABLE
AESOP'S FABLES - PHAEDRUS' FABLES

Which elements form the ancient Fable? Which Authors have reached us? Two examples of ancient Fable in Aesop and Phaedrus.

Aesop: Aesop fable

Aesop is considered the fable's inventor. He was a Greek writer who lived in the VI century B.C. and the Latin writer Phaedrus, who lived in the I century A. D., was inspired by him.
The ancients knew very little about his life. He was born in Phrygia and lived as slave in Samo in the VI cent. B.C. He soon became a legendary person; it was said that he travelled very much in the East, in Greece and above all in Delphi.
We have versions of fables by Aesop which date back to the late Hellenistic Age, and as far as the Byzantine Age, which come in part from more ancient collection. His fables are characterized by a concise and essential style, the characters are usually animals, with fixed features, men and gods, sometimes plants, too; in the end they all have a short moral.
Aesop has his own special peculiarity: through his funny tales he shows men's merits and faults, with educational and, in a friendly manner, satirical intention.

The Romans used the Aesopic fable, translated into the vernacular and increased (augmented) by Phaedrus, for education, too.
Aesop's creation has been and still is very successful and has been copied by writers of fables in all ages and in any countries; but even if we can find fables written by Greek and Latin writers, the one who settled the genre was precisely Phaedrus. In the medieval and humanistic world Aesop's popularity was wide, and the genre was taken from him, with different abridgements and moralistic rewritings (adaptations).

"Di esopo, una favola come esempio per riflettere"
Raccolta favole Esopo

Phaedrus: Phaedrus' fables

Phaedrus, who lived between 15 B.C. and 50 A.D., is almost a stranger to us: it's only from his works that we can get the few pieces of information we have about him. He was taken to Rome from Thracia when he was still a kid and there he received some literary education (schooling-learning). Then he was assigned to Augustus' familia, that is the group of the emperor's slaves; as he was a good connoisseur of the Greek language, he had to perform tasks as pedagogue, (in Greek pedagogue means “the one who accompanies the boys” and he had to be present at the lessons, help the boy to repeat them, and could also punish him, if necessary) that is, as teacher. Thanks to his merits he was set free from his slavery condition and lived as freedman in the Imperial home (house) also under Tiberius, Caligola and Claudius, having taken upon himself his master's praenomen and name: Caius Iulis Phaedrus.
He lived in the Imperial Age which goes from Tiberius to Claudius (19-45 A.D.) when, after Augustus's death, the political system was getting closer and closer to the absolute monarchy. The civil ideals of the Roman spirit, the depth of thought and the literature itself were going through a situation of crisis, with loss of freedom and repressive measures against the intellectuals. In this period Phaedrus chose the protest, rather than the Prince adulation and the Fable became the instrument of his opposition, because those tales allow a dissenting but allusive expression, through allegory. The moral condemnation (statement-declaration) in his fables does not derive from personal reasons, but from his interest in the man's nature; his work's aim is to help us to reflect upon human morals and behaviours in general, not those of each single man.
Phaedrus' fables' characters are animals speaking the language of the men of their time: they represent men's dispositions and faults: “the lion embodies the strength and the arrogance, the fox is the sly and the low hypocrisy, the hawk is the rapacity, the wolf the treacherous greed, the lamb is the pursued meekness, the donkey the resigned submission, the dog (more like the various human nature) embodies now the loyalty now the greed now the servility satisfied with itself.” (P. Frassinetti)

The moral, in Phaedrus' fables, concerns both the private sphere, and the public life, sometimes well separated, sometimes intermingled in the same fable. We can find elements belonging to the private moral in :

  • "The Stag at the Pool” (Beauty and good heartedness does not always coincide),
  • “The dog and the meat” (greed),
  • “The Fox and the Stork” (we reap as we sow),
  • “The Fox and the Grapes” (there's no way so we show that there's no will), etc.

We can find topics, which are more political or which are about the private sphere leading to the public one, in fables like:

  • “The Eagle, Carrion Crow, and Tortoise” (there's no way out for the powerful people),
  • “The Wolf and the Dog” (The value of freedom),
  • “The Wolf and the Lamb” (the oppressors and the oppressed),
  • “The Proud Frog” (the social ranks), etc.

He is the author of five books of fables; the first two were published under Tiberius (emperor from 14 A.D. to 37 A.D.). In them Phaedrus, openly referring to the Greek author Aesop, explains the main features of the fable. The fable matters for its contents, its wisdom and also because it takes the liberty of saying indirectly what in some circumstances it would not be easy to say openly.

"Scrive Fedro"
Raccolta favole Fedro

The Middle Age - kind of fables

The rich medieval production of fables goes back to this Latin author, through the collection of adaptations of his fables (known with the title of Romulus).
During the Middle Age new elements were added to Phaedrus work, these features came from the ancient times and from the East or from the new living and learning conditions; the North of France was the centre of spread of the medieval fables, in the VII-XIV centuries.

The Middle Age proposes another kind of fables: The animal epos, which is about the fox and the wolf and whose most remarkable example is the Roman de Renard, which is the work of different authors of the North of France and of different ages, this one was copied, continued and revised for many centuries.

The characters of the ancient fables

The characters of the ancient fables are animals, which represent some men's behaviours, their faults and their virtues; in the fables, the animals think and act as human beings and like those they have positive and negative peculiarities.
The turning to the animal world is suggested also by the necessity of transmitting messages which could not be explicitly spread in historical periods characterized by totalitarian regimes, as in imperial Rome.

Il leone, sinonimo di forza e prepotenza nelle favole di Fedro

links and bookmark:
Collection of drawings for children to colour. - Site on fairy tales for children - Filastrocche

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