Aesop was a Greek author of fables who lived in the sixth century BC.
Aesop is a name that will be familiar to generations of people who read his fables growing up. Aesop’s fables are perhaps some of the most famous short stories know in world literature. Furthermore, Aesop’s life’s story is filled with adventures that take place around the ancient Greek world. It is therefore often assumed that he was Greek, and that the fables originated in Greece. However, the evidence suggests an altogether different set of origins.
The figure of Aesop is shrouded in mystery. Much like the poet Homer, modern scholars are not even convinced that there was anyone named “Aesop”. This is due, in no small part, to the contradictory information contained in the source material. While the existence of a real person is hard to prove or disprove, what is noteworthy is that in the Greek and Latin sources Aesop was not considered to be Greek.
Our earliest surviving source, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, presents Aesop as a slave living in Samos (Histories 2.134):
Rhodopis, who was Thracian by birth, and a slave of Iadmon son of Hephaestopolis the Samian, and a fellow-slave of Aesop the story-writer. For he was owned by Iadmon, too.
Many books will suggest that this passage of Herodotus is evidence for Aesop originating from Thrace, just like Rhodopis, but he does not actually state this. What we do see is the tradition that Aesop had been enslaved. The fragmentary work of Eugeon of Samos, dated to ca. 500 BC, claims his home was Mesembria in Thrace, a view that seemingly influenced Aristotle as well – so the belief that Aesop was Thracian did exist in the classical Greek world. The choice of Thrace as his homeland offers nothing to the story of Aesop – and if it was an invention, it was a strange one.
As the great editor of Aesop’s Fables, Ben Edwin Perry, wrote (1965, xl):
Thracian origin would have no meaning or ideal value relative to Aesop’s character and what he stood for culturally.
A later mythological tradition, recorded in the Byzantine encyclopaedia the Suda, places his birth in the region of Phrygia, in the northwest of modern Turkey. This tradition may have started as early as the fourth century BC, in the first known compilation of Aesop’s Fables made by Demetrius of Phalerum. We do not have a copy of this collection to confirm this.
Aesop was always portrayed as being non-Greek, and embodying an antithesis of Greek ideals. He was enslaved, not free. He was foreign, not Greek. He was ugly and deformed, not beautiful and athletic. A much later tradition pushes this one step further and gives him dark skin. In the anonymous manuscript the Life of Aesop, the original of which may date from the second century AD, but our earliest version comes from around the tenth century, Aesop is described as:
Remarkably ugly, with a sugar-loafed head, a long neck, flat nose, black [skin]…
We see this idea prominently in the work of the thirteenth-century-AD Byzantine writer Maximus Planudes, in his version of the Life of Aesop. He argues that the name Aesop derives from the Greek work Aethiops and so Aesop was in fact Ethiopian. There is no real evidence for this, and the etymological argument is a very weak one.
However, it may be worth noting that Aesop is mentioned by Aristotle as telling fables similar to those commonly associated with Libya (Rhetoric 2.20.2-3):
There are two kinds of examples; namely, one which consists in relating things that have happened before, and another in inventing them oneself. The latter are subdivided into comparisons or fables, such as those of Aesop and the Libyans.
And by the time of Quintilian, in the first century AD, fables were a style of prose associated specifically with Aesop and “Libyan Stories” (Institutio Oratoria 5.11.20). So the evidence suggests a noted stylistic connection between Aesop’s fables and Libyan storytelling, but nothing concrete.
We cannot know if Aesop was a real person. We cannot know if he was of African descent, or Thracian, or Phrygian. What we do know is that the fable-loving ancient Greeks assigned the authorship of a large collection of stories to a single man and they did not consider that man to have been Greek. As a result, we have rated the claim that Aesop was Greek as false.
- Leslie Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose (2011).
- Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, Not Wholly Free: The Concept of Manumission and the Status of Manumitted Slaves in the Ancient Greek World (2005).
- Ben Edwin Perry, Babrius and Phaedrus (1965).
- Ben Edwin Perry, Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to Him (1952).
- Francisco R. Adrados, “The “Life of Aesop” and the Origins of Novel in Antiquity,” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, New Series, Vol. 1 (1979), pp. 93-112.