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Life Of Aesop

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THE LIFE and History of Aesop is involved, like that of Homer,
the most famous of Greek poets, in much obscurity. Sardis, the
capital of Lydia; Samos, a Greek island; Mesembria, an ancient
colony in Thrace; and Cotiaeum, the chief city of a province of
Phrygia, contend for the distinction of being the birthplace of
Aesop. Although the honor thus claimed cannot be definitely
assigned to any one of these places, yet there are a few
incidents now generally accepted by scholars as established
facts, relating to the birth, life, and death of Aesop. He is,
by an almost universal consent, allowed to have been born about
the year 620 B.C., and to have been by birth a slave. He was
owned by two masters in succession, both inhabitants of Samos,
Xanthus and Jadmon, the latter of whom gave him his liberty as a
reward for his learning and wit. One of the privileges of a
freedman in the ancient republics of Greece, was the permission
to take an active interest in public affairs; and Aesop, like the
philosophers Phaedo, Menippus, and Epictetus, in later times,
raised himself from the indignity of a servile condition to a
position of high renown. In his desire alike to instruct and to
be instructed, he travelled through many countries, and among
others came to Sardis, the capital of the famous king of Lydia,
the great patron, in that day, of learning and of learned men.
He met at the court of Croesus with Solon, Thales, and other
sages, and is related so to have pleased his royal master, by the
part he took in the conversations held with these philosophers,
that he applied to him an expression which has since passed into
a proverb, “The Phrygian has spoken better than all.”

On the invitation of Croesus he fixed his residence at Sardis,
and was employed by that monarch in various difficult and
delicate affairs of State. In his discharge of these commissions
he visited the different petty republics of Greece. At one time
he is found in Corinth, and at another in Athens, endeavouring,
by the narration of some of his wise fables, to reconcile the
inhabitants of those cities to the administration of their
respective rulers Periander and Pisistratus. One of these
ambassadorial missions, undertaken at the command of Croesus, was
the occasion of his death. Having been sent to Delphi with a
large sum of gold for distribution among the citizens, he was so
provoked at their covetousness that he refused to divide the
money, and sent it back to his master. The Delphians, enraged at
this treatment, accused him of impiety, and, in spite of his
sacred character as ambassador, executed him as a public
criminal. This cruel death of Aesop was not unavenged. The
citizens of Delphi were visited with a series of calamities,
until they made a public reparation of their crime; and, “The
blood of Aesop” became a well-
known adage, bearing witness to the truth that deeds of wrong
would not pass unpunished. Neither did the great fabulist lack
posthumous honors; for a statue was erected to his memory at
Athens, the work of Lysippus, one of the most famous of Greek
sculptors. Phaedrus thus immortalizes the event:

Aesopo ingentem statuam posuere Attici,

Servumque collocarunt aeterna in basi:

Patere honoris scirent ut cuncti viam;

Nec generi tribui sed virtuti gloriam.

These few facts are all that can be relied on with any degree of
certainty, in reference to the birth, life, and death of Aesop.
They were first brought to light, after a patient search and
diligent perusal of ancient authors, by a Frenchman, M. Claude
Gaspard Bachet de Mezeriac, who declined the honor of being
tutor to Louis XIII of France, from his desire to devote himself
exclusively to literature. He published his Life of Aesop, Anno
Domini 1632. The later investigations of a host of English and
German scholars have added very little to the facts given by M.
Mezeriac. The substantial truth of his statements has been
confirmed by later criticism and inquiry. It remains to state,
that prior to this publication of M. Mezeriac, the life of Aesop
was from the pen of Maximus Planudes, a monk of Constantinople,
who was sent on an embassy to Venice by the Byzantine Emperor
Andronicus the elder, and who wrote in the early part of the
fourteenth century. His life was prefixed to all the early
editions of these fables, and was republished as late as 1727 by
Archdeacon Croxall as the introduction to his edition of Aesop.
This life by Planudes contains, however, so small an amount of
truth, and is so full of absurd pictures of the grotesque
deformity of Aesop, of wondrous apocryphal stories, of lying
legends, and gross anachronisms, that it is now universally
condemned as false, puerile, and unauthentic. l It is given up
in the present day, by general consent, as unworthy of the
slightest credit.
G.F.T.

1 M. Bayle thus characterises this Life of Aesop by Planudes,
“Tous les habiles gens conviennent que c’est un roman, et que les
absurdites grossieres qui l’on y trouve le rendent indigne de
toute.”

Dictionnaire Historique. Art. Esope.

 

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