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.

Far from being mere child’s play, then, the fable was a variety of wisdom literature, with wide dissemination and deep roots. The earliest surviving written texts, from Sumer, in southern Iraq, contain a number of such stories, some of which overlap with Aesop’s. The Egyptians, too, told beast fables. Later parallels can be found in the Buddhist Jataka and Hindu Panchatantra tales, again overlapping in suggestive ways with Aesop. In Greece, as Kurke demonstrates, this tradition was largely suppressed and supplanted by elite philosophy, of the kind that Apollonius of Tyana would come to embody. Even so, some 600 fables survive from antiquity under Aesop’s name. Clever versifications were produced at the time of the Roman Empire by Babrius and (in Latin) Phaedrus and Avianus. Whether or not there really was a historical Aesop, and whether or not the tradition is right that he was a Phrygian slave living on the island of Samos in the sixth century BC, Greeks and Romans remained fascinated with these ingenious, witty and occasionally barbed stories.

Nor was ‘Aesop’ famous for the fables alone. The Life of Aesop, a fictional biography, is one of the most extraordinary works of ancient Greek literature. In the Life, Aesop is a horrendously ugly, mute field slave, to whom Isis suddenly grants the power of speech. His newfound eloquence gets him into and out of a number of scrapes, until he is sold to the philosopher Xanthus. Predictably, he outwits his new master on a number of occasions. Gaining his freedom, he moves into the world of international diplomacy, using his fables to persuade Croesus of Lydia not to attack Samos, then winning a battle of wits for the King of Assyria in a contest with the Egyptian pharaoh. His life ends in Delphi, where he is falsely arraigned for theft and put to death. Multiple versions of the story circulated in antiquity: two survive, and we have papyrus scraps from others. The older and longer version was written during the early empire (perhaps in the first century AD), in a vernacular Greek closer to the demotic spoken today than to the high classical form then current in elite circles. By turns mischievous, playful, filthy and tragic, the Life offers precious testimony to what ancient Greek popular narrative may have looked like.

Kurke’s learned and humane book aims to excavate the vibrant popular tradition assumed by Aesop’s fables but now largely buried, and restore it to its place in cultural history. The largely elite literature that survives from antiquity, she argues, grew out of and in response to that tradition, embodied by Aesop; the ‘conversations’ and ‘dialogue’ of her title take place between these two literary communities, the high and the low. In more than 400 pages of dense but untiring argumentation, she ranges across a thousand years of Greek and Near Eastern literature, religion and history, and engages fluently with theorists in a variety of fields.

At the most fundamental level she makes two claims. The first is that the Aesopic tradition emerged as a rallying point for resistance to elite dominance. Kurke is interested not in the historical Aesop, but in the process whereby his name came to be associated with popular subversion of existing power structures. In the Life, Aesop is killed by the Delphians, and in a sparkling display of critical detective work, Kurke assembles the traces of this story in earlier authors to argue that the oldest stratum links Aesop with rebellion against the authority of Delphi, the ‘navel of the world’, associated with wealth, power and the right to pronounce truth. Prophecy was closely tied to wisdom, and so the wise were required to endorse Delphi, along with its patron god, Apollo. In particular, Delphic Apollo promoted the Seven Sages, an amorphous group whose fluid membership included the celebrated Athenian lawgiver Solon, the philosopher Thales (famous for predicting an eclipse, and for falling down a well while stargazing), and the tyrant Periander of Corinth. It was this party that, according to Kurke, the legendary Aesop sought to crash with his demotic apophthegms. To snotty Delphic maxims such as ‘know yourself’ and ‘nothing in excess’, Aesop retorted with a playfully subversive, vulgar wit rooted in the body. Hence the Delphians’ hostility to him in the Life.

This anti-wisdom is most conspicuous in the section of the Life where Aesop repeatedly outguns his master, the philosopher Xanthus. On one occasion Xanthus throws a philosophical dinner party over two days and orders Aesop out to buy ‘whatever is good and healthy’. Aesop decides to buy nothing but the tongues of pigs, on the grounds that the capacity for language is the greatest benefit to human beings. A surfeit of cooked tongue leads to rancour and dyspepsia among the diners, and in that mood Xanthus tries to catch Aesop out, ordering him to the market again, to buy for the next day’s meal ‘whatever is rotten and bad’. Aesop returns with more tongues. Slave cunning has trumped philosophy, but the episode also shows how both varieties of wisdom, the high and the low, slide between abstract morality and physical embodiment: ‘good’ means ‘ethical’ and also ‘tasty’, and ‘tongue’ denotes ‘language’ as well as something to eat. Kurke locates an additional resonance, seeing the episode as a deliberate parody of a similar story told by one of the Seven Sages, Bias of Priene.

Kurke’s second suggestion is that the earliest giants of literary prose – the sophists, Xenophon and, most prominently, Herodotus and Plato – saw themselves as continuers of the Aesopic tradition and competitors with it. Critics have long wondered why Herodotus intercut his text with logoi, short and sometimes digressive stories; Kurke sees these as a sign of covert affiliation with Aesop, whom Herodotus describes as a ‘logos-maker’ (logopoios). Herodotus, in her reading, is experimenting with literary genres, weaving Aesopic fictions into his history proper, and inviting his reader to feel the tension. With his mixed-race background – he was from Halicarnassus in southern Turkey – Herodotus apparently identified with Aesop as a fellow cultural outsider. Plato’s investment in Aesop is more explicit, thanks to the Phaedo’s claim that Socrates spent his last, prison-bound days versifying the fables. Like Aesop, Socrates was known for the mismatch between his ugly exterior and inner wisdom; and he too used analogies drawn from the everyday world; and both of them could argue their interlocutors into hopeless self-contradiction. For Kurke, acknowledging Aesop’s presence in early Greek thought gives us a better sense of the literary and social tensions in the prose that survives from that era.

It is a historical truism that we see the past principally through the eyes of the upper classes, who had the education to articulate and the means to perpetuate their views. Popular tradition is always at some level a projection of modern scholarship. Kurke borrows the phrase ‘an elusive quarry’ from Peter Burke’s classic Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe; but the practical difficulties are much more acute for the ancient world, which has not preserved the wealth of play scripts, sermons, ballads and chapbooks on which Burke relied. Even so, to ignore the cultural traditions of the vast majority of antiquity’s inhabitants in favour of the cosy illusion that all Greeks were the equivalent of modern intellectuals is unthinkable.

Kurke is a maximalist when it comes to the evidence. Every scrap, however tiny, is worked over in detail, and made to bear as much weight as possible. For example, Herodotus names Aesop in only one passage, and in his work as a whole incorporates between one and seven fables (depending on definitions). ‘Having surveyed the passages I’ve discussed,’ Kurke concedes, ‘the reader may be inclined to think that in the end, there is not much Aesop in Herodotus. Why make such a fuss, after all?’ The question is promptly answered: Herodotus’ project of teaching his contemporary readers through stories about the past was Aesopic, but he airbrushed its source to avoid having his text irrevocably associated with low literature. Cynics will counter that ‘there is not much Aesop in Herodotus’ because there is not much Aesop in Herodotus. But even if the Phrygian fabulist was not quite the omnipresent inspirational force that Kurke wants him to be, she makes her case with such subtlety and alertness to detail that her readers will never see Herodotus in the same light again.

Kurke knows that she is in many cases dealing with hypotheticals, an awareness signalled by her habit of second-guessing objections and offering her own subjunctive counter-arguments (‘I would argue that … ’). A book about popular literature in a distant culture has to take imaginative leaps, in a way that a book about Plato, Euripides or Herodotus does not. Aesopic Conversations should be read as, in the very best sense, a utopian work: it imagines what our understanding of literary history and the classical world might be if only we could hear both sides of the dialogue between elite and sub-elite that must have taken place.

Yet for all its acuity and progressiveness, this is in one sense a very traditional book. Like so many Hellenists, Kurke is offering a story of origins: note the ‘invention of Greek prose’ in her subtitle, the latest in a long sequence of ‘invention’ titles. Why is it that we still invest so much in seeing the Greeks as originators? Are classicists still romantics at heart? The impression Kurke gives is that the earliest period of Greek culture is the only one that matters. The Life of Aesop was written half a millennium after Herodotus and Plato: why treat a work of the early Roman Empire as a source for presumed earlier traditions, rather than as a participant in its contemporary culture? This preoccupation with ‘backdating’ leads to paradoxical conclusions. At one point, Kurke cites a passage from the Life in which Aesop demands that the citizens of Samos pay heed not to his ugliness but to the qualities within. This, she notes, may put us in mind of Socrates, about whom similar things are said. ‘One obvious … precedent,’ she concludes, ‘for this characterisation of Socrates is Aesop.’ But the objection here is that there is no trace of Aesop being described as ugly and wise in classical Athens; is it not just as likely that the tradition represented by the Life is inspired by the precedent of Socrates himself?

There is more at stake in this matter than a purely academic question of chronology. The crucial point is that as long as classicists continue to be obsessed with only the very earliest era, for which the evidence is most exiguous, they will remain addicted to the hypothetical and un(dis)provable ‘reconstructions’ that have sustained but also marginalised the discipline for 150 years. Kurke is demonstrably right that the Life is built, partly at least, on earlier traditions, some of them very old: a case in point is the section based on the Near Eastern Ahiqar story (which also finds its way into the biblical Tobit), the earliest surviving version of which comes in a fifth-century BC Aramaic papyrus. But there is no way of telling how much of the Life preserves earlier traditions, and how accurately. Conversely, it is a genuine work of popular literature in its own right, emerging from a vibrant narrative culture which also produced, among others, the romantic novel of Xenophon of Ephesus, the Alexander Romance and the earliest lives of the Christian saints. There is thus a story of Greek popular culture that could be told with some confidence, a much less elusive quarry. These cavils aside, Aesopic Conversations is a brilliant and original book, which will transform the way we read early Greek literature. Like Aesop himself, in the judgment of Apollonius of Tyana, Kurke has taken a seemingly unpromising subject and used it to teach a great lesson.