Crashing the Delphic Party

Tim Whitmarsh

  • Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue and the Invention of Greek Prose by Leslie Kurke
    Princeton, 495 pp, £20.95, December 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 14458 0

Apollonius of Tyana was a miracle-working holy man, philosopher and, we’re told, confidant of emperors, whose ministry covered the later part of the first century AD. Later generations would see him as the ‘pagan Jesus’, an icon of traditional polytheism whose cult rivalled that of the upstart Christ. According to his biographer, Philostratus, among the many topics this learned and charismatic figure expounded was the value of fables. Which kind of fable, Apollonius is said to have asked his companions, is the more philosophical: the kind found in the poets, or Aesop’s? His respondent, one Menippus, replied: the poetic kind, of course. There is no value in Aesop, just ‘frogs and donkeys and rubbish for old women and children to chew on’. But with a rhetorical flourish, Apollonius proceeded to argue that Aesop was in fact the greater philosopher: ‘He takes small subjects and teaches great lessons.’

Apollonius was being contrary. The literary league table was not open to serious questioning in the highly educated circles of the Greek elite under the Roman Empire. At the very top were Homer and the epic poets; and a little lower down, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, along with the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and (less congenial to modern taste) those bombastic orators Lysias and Demosthenes. What’s more, as Menippus’ answer to Apollonius shows, judgments of literary quality were always related to judgments about the social standing of the audience or readership. If you had been lucky enough to receive an education (a costly business) you would be expected to enjoy the classics. For the poor there was mime and popular theatre. Aesop, in Leslie Kurke’s words, was ‘identified with the lowest rung of a generic hierarchy that is simultaneously … a sociopolitical one’. Fodder for Menippus’ ‘old women and children’.

Today, too, Aesop’s fables are associated with childhood, but for that we can thank the obsessively didactic Victorians. There were at least seven separate English translations or retellings in the 19th century, all directly targeting children; the culmination was Walter Crane’s The Baby’s Own Aesop (1887). ‘Aesop’s fame in the nursery is so great as to appear almost as fabulous … as the themes of which he treats,’ Edward Salmon wrote a year later. Retooled into sanctimonious parables, fables were seen as an effective means of communicating Protestant morality.

Yet Aesop wasn’t read by children in antiquity. Despite the fables’ anthropomorphised animals and childlike air, the mise en scène was usually imagined to be political. A man possessed of immense power is about to take an important decision; meanwhile, an underling, feeling unable to offer direct instruction (ancient potentates tended not to appreciate bossy subordinates), reaches for an allegorical story as a means of persuasion. The earliest surviving Greek fable is that of a hawk catching a nightingale, from Hesiod’s Works and Days (seventh century BC, or maybe a little later). It is a parable of power: Hesiod was, or cast himself as, a shepherd from outback Boeotia, and he addressed his fable to ‘kings’. The taloned hawk, who gets his own way, clearly represents the king and the melodious nightingale the poet.

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