Phaedrus (Writer)

(first century) poet

Most of what is known about Phaedrus has been deduced or inferred from his work Fabulae Ae-sopiae, a collection of writings commonly referred to as the Fables. He was originally a slave of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, but was later freed. He claimed to have been born in Thrace, in the region of the Pierian Mount on the southeast coast of Macedonia. This reference has been questioned, since the legendary aesop was thought by some to be from Thrace. (Elsewhere Phaedrus says that Aesop came from Phyrgia.) Likewise, the Mount of Pieria was the mythical birthplace of the Muses, so attributing his birth to the Muses’ domain may have been Phaedrus’s attempt to legitimize his claims to literary fame and inspiration. One remark in the Fables that scholars often take seriously is his hint that he was at some point persecuted by Sejanus, the ambitious general under Emperor Tiberius whom Tiberius executed for treason in 31. Other references in the Fables suggest that Phaedrus lived through the stormy rule of Caligula and into the time of Claudius.

Critical Analysis

The first portions of Phaedrus’s five books of Fables borrow from Aesop, the slave who lived in the sixth century b.c. The Greek tales attributed to Aesop were originally written in prose. Phaedrus, in the beginning of the first century a.d., and Babrius, who lived in the second half of the century, were the first to put these fables into verse. As prose they functioned as collections of myth, providing stories that could be used to reinforce a rhetorical point or lesson. As verse, however, the fables could be considered literature, and Phaedrus seems to be consciously maneuvering for a place in the literary tradition, despite his background as a slave. (horace was himself the son of a freedman, and it was not unknown for slaves to be educated.)

For his source on Aesop, Phaedrus used the manuscript of Demetrius of Phaelerum, compiled around 300 b.c. The first two books he published feature a series of brief tales, their animal characters familiar to readers of Aesop. The author’s point of view is frequently dark and cynical as he looks upon a world where injustice exists and the whims of the mighty prevail, sometimes not for the good of all. The fables ridicule vanity, conceit, and arrogance and consider ignorance the cardinal sin. Though a pessimistic mood seems to pervade the stories as the author repeatedly showcases objectionable behavior, the fables clearly intend to educate readers on the simple morals required to live in the world. “Be unkind to no man,” Phaedrus declares in the fable of “The Fox and the Stork,” for, he goes on to explain, “mean behavior is liable to rebound.” In a society where those in power cannot always be counted on to behave with respect and mercy, the best option, Phaedrus seems to say, is to remain humble, keep quiet, and simply try to blend in.

The author moves away from predominantly beast fables to material of his own making. Though he cannily continues to attribute his work to Aesop and often uses Athens as a setting for his fables, Phaedrus clearly depicts the daily life and political situations of first-century Rome. Some disguise and circumspection were no doubt necessary to avoid angering certain civic authorities. In the preface to Book 3, Phaedrus claims: “My purpose is not to pillory any person, / But to illustrate life and the ways of the world.” His frequently biting and often unflattering portraits of those in power, however, obviously led some authority figures to identify themselves with the wolves, lions, and other predators of Phaedrus’s fables and to take issue with him, as Sejanus apparently did. For the common person, the best defense is sometimes silence, as Phaedrus suggests in the epilogue to Book 3 in which he refers to the maxim he learned as a youth: “For a man of humble birth / It is not proper to protest in public.” Phaedrus speculates that the first fables were invented because the first slaves, “exposed to incessant hazards, / Unable openly to express what [they] wanted,” found they could safely express their personal opinions by masking them in the form of fictional fables. In writing his books, Phaedrus wrote that he had merely taken that route and “enlarged it to a highway,” so to speak, by adding to the themes bequeathed him by Aesop.

Certain stories in Book 3 show how Phaedrus expands on his material and brings in morals from his own experience. In “On Believing and Not Believing,” the author recommends that readers “find out the truth, before faulty thinking / Leads to a stupid and tragic outcome.” He offers what he says is a story from his own experience, in which a man, on the treacherous advice of his secretary, ends up killing his son and then himself, leaving his innocent wife to be accused of double murder. The terrible story turns into an episode praising the justice and wisdom of Augustus, who sorts out the messy details of the case, and Phaedrus returns to his moral with the announcement “[T]rust no one you don’t know.” Then, in a tag at the end, he ironically adds that he told this story at length because “a few friends have informed me / That they find my fables somewhat too short.” Using the premise of a fable to explain a tragedy of which he knows, Phaedrus manages to praise his patron and also insert his own somewhat discouraging but perhaps hard-learned advice. He also uses Book 3 to talk back to his critics—for instance, in the fable of “The Cock and the Pearl,” which tells the story of a rooster finding a pearl as he digs for food. Although he recognizes the value of the pearl, he declares that it is no use to him in his hunger. This fable is directed, Phaedrus concludes, at “people who fail to appreciate my work.”

The five books of Fables were apparently composed over the course of Phaedrus’s life. In the last fable of Book 5, “The Old Dog and the Hunter,” he depicts himself as the old dog scolded by his master because he can no longer perform the same services he could in his youth. “It’s strength, not spirit, that’s deserted me,” the dog says in his defense and implores his master to “give me credit for what I was.” Some later collections contain appendices of additional fables attributed to Phaedrus, such as the 15th-century translation of Nicholas Perotti, but these are often thought to be later, anonymous additions.

The later Roman fabulists Avianus and Pilpay borrowed from Phaedrus, and he was read frequently in the middle ages. The genre of the beast fable influenced medieval poems like the roman de renart and authors such as dante. The French writers  de France and Jean de La Fontaine are known for their collections of fables. Christopher Smart composed a rhyming translation of Phaedrus in 1765 as a text meant for instruction of young readers. Phaedrus’s work was often a teaching text in English schools during the 18th century, when he was classified as one of the great classical authors along with Horace, virgil, and ovid. He is much less familiar to modern readers, who tend to confuse Phaedrus the fabulist with Phaedrus the Greek philosopher of the fifth century b.c.

Despite the dark view of the animal world in the Fables, scholar Anne Becher notes that Phae-drus is important because he “speaks for the oppressed and is concerned about the abuse of power and the exploitation of the poor and weak.” He can be legitimately remembered as the first proletarian poet and satirist. In choosing the fable as his genre, Phaedrus chose to transmit and contribute to source material that was already ancient by the time of Aesop but continued to be relevant across cultures. Certain subjects and themes of the original Greek fables have analogues in the Arabic “Fables of Bidpai,” translated by Symeon Seth in 1080, and in the fables of the Indian panchatantra and the Buddhist jataka.

English Versions of Works by Phaedrus

The Fables of Phaedrus. Translated by P. F. Widdows. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart: A Poetical Translation of the Fables of Phaedrus, Vol 6. Edited by Karina Williamson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Works about Phaedrus

Henderson, John. Telling Tales on Caesar: Roman Stories from Phaedrus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Perry, Ben Edwin. Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

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