Aesop (also spelled Æsop, from the Greek Αἴσωπος—Aisōpos) (620-560 BC), known only for the genre of fables ascribed to him, was by tradition a slave (δούλος) who was a contemporary of Croesus and Peisistratus in the mid-sixth century BC in ancient Greece.
Most of what are known as Aesopic fables is a compilation of tales from various sources, many of which originated with authors who lived long before Aesop.
Aesop himself is said to have composed many fables, which were passed down by oral tradition. Socrates was thought to have spent his time turning Aesop’s fables into verse while he was in prison. Demetrius Phalereus, another Greek philosopher, made the first collection of these fables around 300 BC. This was later translated into Latin by Phaedrus, a slave himself, around 25 BC. The fables from these two collections were soon brought together and were eventually retranslated into Greek by Babrius around A.D. 230. Many additional fables were included, and the collection was in turn translated to Arabic and Hebrew, further enriched by additional fables from these cultures.
The life of Aesop himself is shrouded in obscurity. He is said to have lived as a slave in Samos around 550 B.C. An ancient account of his life is found in The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and His Slave Aesop. According to the sparse information gathered about him from references to him in several Greek works (he was mentioned by Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle), Aesop was a slave for someone called Xanthus (Ξανθος), who resided on the island of Samos. Aesop must have been freed, for he conducted the public defense of a certain Samian demagogue (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ii. 20). He subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he was said to have visited Athens, where he told the fable of The Frogs Who Desired a King to dissuade the citizens from attempting to depose Peisistratus for another ruler. A contrary story, however, said that Aesop spoke up for the common people against tyranny through his fables, which incensed Peisistratus, who was against free speech.
Aesop must have received his freedom from Iadmon, or he could not have conducted the public defence of a certain Samian demagogue (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ii. 20). According to the story, he subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he is said to have visited Athens, on which occasion he related the fable of The Frogs asking for a King, to dissuade the citizens from attempting to exchange Peisistratus for another ruler. The popular stories current regarding him are derived from a life, or rather romance, prefixed to a book of fables, purporting to be his, collected by Maximus Planudes, a monk of the 14th century. In this he is described as a monster of ugliness and deformity, as he is also represented in a well-known marble figure in the Villa Albani at Rome. That this life, however, was in existence a century before Planudes, appears from a 13th-century MS. of it found at Florence. In Plutarch's Symposium of the Seven Sages, at which Aesop is a guest, there are many jests on his original servile condition, but nothing derogatory is said about his personal appearance. We are further told that the Athenians erected in his honour a noble statue by the famous sculptor Lysippus, which furnishes a strong argument against the fiction of his deformity. Lastly, the obscurity in which the history of Aesop is involved has induced some scholars to deny his existence altogether.
It is probable that Aesop did not commit his fables to writing; Aristophanes (Wasps, 1259) represents Philocleon as having learnt the "absurdities" of Aesop from conversation at banquets) and Socrates whiles away his time in prison by turning some of Aesop's fables "which he knew" into verse (Plato, Phaedo, 61 b). Demetrius of Phalerum (345-283 B.C.) made a collection in ten books, probably in prose (Lopson Aisopeion sunagogai) for the use of orators, which has been lost. Next appeared an edition in elegiac verse, often cited by Suidas, but the author's name is unknown. Babrius, according to Crusius, a Roman and tutor to the son of Alexander Severus, turned the fables into choliambics in the earlier part of the 3rd century A.D. The most celebrated of the Latin adapters is Phaedrus, a freedman of Augustus. Avianus (of uncertain date, perhaps the 4th century) translated 42 of the fables into Latin elegiacs. The collections which we possess under the name of Aesop's Fables are late renderings of Babrius's Version or Progumnasmata, rhetorical exercises of varying age and merit. Syntipas translated Babrius into Syriac, and Andreopulos put the Syriac back again into Greek. Ignatius Diaconus, in the 9th century, made a version of 55 fables in choliambic tetrameters. Stories from Oriental sources were added, and from these collections Maximus Planudes made and edited the collection which has come down to us under the name of Aesop, and from which the popular fables of modern Europe have been derived.
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