Phaedrus (first century) poet. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

Most of what is known about Phaedrus has been
deduced or inferred from his work Fabulae Aesopiae,
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.
As the books progress, 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 MARIE 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
Despite the dark view of the animal world in
the Fables, scholar Anne Becher notes that Phaedrus
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,
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.