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Who's Who Ancient Greece: Writer of Fables

Aesop (6th century BC)

Another ancient Greek first

Aesop was born in Asia Minor. There are many legends about him, including the story that he was a slave from Phrygia who knew the Seven Sages. The book entitled 'The Life of Aesop' belongs to the category of legend as well, its information plainly fictitious, to the point of denial that he even existed.

He did, however, exist, and was in fact a slave purchased by the Samian philosopher Xanthos, who sold him to another Samian sage named Iadmon, who, respecting his intelligence, set him free. Aesop continued his life as a free man in Samos, later moving to the court of Croesos, in Sardis, and travelling at some point to Egypt.

He was reputed to be mute in the beginning of his years as a slave, as well as ugly and hunchbacked, with such a strange appearance as to frighten the wife of Xanthos when he brought this new slave home.

Aesop is famous for his fables, of which 359 have been preserved, in which the characters are often animals given human speech, as well as plants, though some are gods and humans, too.

They are, in general, charming and original, with moral lessons delivered in the most palatable form possible, and applicable to both children and adults. These fables were not written down by Aesop, but recited after being composed mentally, sometimes with a time lapse until the right moment presented itself for their utterance, which might be in wealthy mansions, or in the humble abodes of poor people.

Orators, philosophers, and fabulists imitated them or adapted them. The story of his death also has the tone of legend, though various authors report that he died in a violent episode at Delphi.

They seem to agree that he was killed by the inhabitants of this holy sanctuary either because he ridiculed them for not working the land there (which, in any case was barren, though Greek peasants have been known to develop the soil in barren places to the point of at least minimal production), but instead living off of the gifts brought to the sanctuary by pilgrims, or, alternatively, because he refused to give them a large sum of money sent by Croesos, king of Lydia, intended as an offering to Apollo, because he deemed them undeserving of gifts.

One of the sayings attributed to this misshapen inventor of fables, was: 'Beauty of the mind is superior to that of the body'.