Aesop, or Æsop (from the Greek Aisopos), known only for his fables, was by tradition a slave who lived from about 620 to 560 BC in Ancient Greece. Aesop's Fables are still taught as moral lessons and used as subjects for various entertainments, especially children's plays and cartoons.
Nothing was known about Aesop from credible records. The tradition was that he was at one point freed from slavery and that he eventually died at the hands of Delphians. In fact, the obscurity shrouding his life has led some scholars to deny his existence altogether.
The place of Aesop's birth is uncertain – Thrace, Phrygia, Ethiopia, Samos, Athens and Sardis all claim the honour. Some scholars believe that he could have been African. His given name, Aesop, is the Ancient Greek word for "Ethiop", the archaic word for a dark-skinned person of African origin.
According to the sparse information gathered about him from references to him in several Greek works (he was mentioned by Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle), Aesop was a slave of a Greek named Iadmon, who resided on the island of Samos. Aesop must have been freed, for he conducted the public defence of a certain Samian demagogue (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ii. 20). He subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he was said to have visited Athens, where he told the fable of The Frogs Who Desired a King to dissuade the citizens from attempting to depose Peisistratus for another ruler. A contrary story, however, said that Aesop spoke up for the common people against tyranny through his fables, which incensed Peisistratus, who was against free speech.
According to the historian Herodotus, Aesop met with a violent death in the hands of the inhabitants of Delphi, though the cause was not stated. Various suggestions were made by later writers, such as his insulting sarcasms, the embezzlement of money entrusted to him by Croesus for distribution at Delphi, and his alleged sacrilege of a silver cup. A pestilence that ensued was blamed on his execution, and the Delphians declared their willingness to make compensation, which, in default of a nearer connection, was claimed by Iadmon, grandson of Aesop's former master.
Popular stories surrounding, Aesop were assembled in a vita prefixed to a collection of fables under his name, compiled by Maximus Planudes, a 14th century monk. He was described as extremely ugly and deformed, which is how he was also represented in a marble figure in the Villa Albani in Rome. This biography had in fact been in existence a century before Planudes. It appeared in a 13th century manuscript found in Florence. However, according to another Greek historian Plutarch's account of the symposium of the Seven Sages, at which Aesop was a guest, there were many jests on his former servile status, but nothing derogatory was said about his personal appearance. Aesop's deformity was further disputed by the Athenians, who erected in his honour a noble statue by the sculptor Lysippus.
Aesop's Fables refers to a collection of fables credited to Aesop. Aesop's Fables has also become a blanket term for collections of brief fables, usually involving personified animals.
The fables remain a popular choice for moral education of children today. Many stories included in Aesop's Fables, such as The Fox and the Grapes (from which the idiom "sour grapes" was derived), The Tortoise and the Hare and The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf (also known as The Boy Who Cried Wolf), are well-known throughout the world.
- Caxton, John, 1484. The history and fables of Aesop, Westminster. Modern reprint edited by Robert T. Lenaghan (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1967).
- Bentley, Richard, 1697. Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris... and the Fables of Æsop. London.
- Jacobs, Joseph, 1889. The Fables of Aesop: Selected, Told Anew, and Their History Traced, as first printed by William Caxton, 1484, from his French translation
- i. A short history of the Aesopic fable
- ii. The Fables of Aesop
- Handford, S. A., 1954. Fables of Aesop. New York: Penguin.
- Perry, Ben E. (editor), 1965. Babrius and Phaedrus, (Loeb Classical Library) Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965. English translations of 143 Greek verse fables by Babrius, 126 Latin verse fables by Phaedrus, 328 Greek fables not extant in Babrius, and 128 Latin fables not extant in Phaedrus (including some medieval materials) for a total of 725 fables.
- Temple, Olivia and Robert (translators), 1998. Aesop, The Complete Fables, New York: Penguin Classics. (ISBN 0-14-044649-4)