Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Phaedrus (ca. 15 B.C.-A.D. 50) Thracian- Greek fabulist

In the formative decades of the Roman Empire, the freedman poet Phaedrus, a former Thracian slave, made a name for himself in one genre, his retellings of AESOP'S beast FABLES. A mountain boy, he was born at Pydna in Macedonia (northeastern Greece), but grew up in Rome as a domestic servant in the imperial palace of Augustus, who freed him. During his years under three successive emperors, he had access to education and literature. In five volumes, Phaedrus published 150 allegorical best sellers refined from the Aesopia (ca. 225 B.c.), tales collected by the Athenian orator Demetrius Phalereus of Alexandria. Although a pet of the literati, Phaedrus retained an underclass perspective in his droll STORYTELLING, which subtly undercuts a vice-ridden society. The needling of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius's palace prefect, with stories in Fabulae Aesopiae (Aesopic fables, ca. A.D. 31) put the writer in danger. Sejanus suppressed his last 55 stories, which included the moral “Vulgare amici nomen sed rara est fides” (The name of friend is common, but loyalty is rare) (Phaedrus 1876, 24). The final collection remained unpublished throughout the reigns of Claudius and Nero.

A tutor to Lucius, the grandson of Augustus, Phaedrus used court favor as a means of prodding lapsed morality. A simple model of his updated parables and anecdotes, “The Weasel and the Mice,” illustrates that all citizens, even common folk, have their place in society. One of Phaedrus's targets, the Athenian tyrant Demetrius Poliorcetes, earned scorn for encouraging favor seekers, the scourge of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. A retelling of Aesop's fable of frogs in search of a king reminds the reader that those who hated the Greek tyrant Peisistratus risked a revolution that might put someone worse in charge. For the author's audacity, the satirist Martial quipped in his Epigrammata (ca. A.D. 85) about “inprobi Phaedri” (wicked Phaedrus). The former slave's works influenced later moralists, medieval preachers, the fabulist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE, and the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who was fond of the SATIRE of foolish intellectuals in the story “The Cock and the Pearl.”

Phaedrus stands out as a Roman bondsman who made a cultural impact. He credited the fable as a form of satire through which the lowest slave could express outrage and mockery. Posing as a naif, during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, Phaedrus turned the sober Greek moral tales into stylized satires, promythia (introductory morals), dialogues of law-court bribery, and commentary on palace scandal during the empire's early years. With a sick joke in “The Ass and the Priests of Cybele,” Phaedrus rages against the cruelty of slavemasters and, subtextually, exonerates slaves for looking out for their own welfare. The story “Tib. Caesar ad Atriensem” (Tiberius Caesar to a flunky) warns curriers of favor that their ingratiating ways are annoying; “Milvus et Columbae” (“The Kite and the Doves”) summarizes the menace that authoritarianism holds for the lowly. At the conclusion of “The Ass and the Old Man,” an epimythium (moral) observes that, following a shift in government, poor people change nothing but the names of their masters.


Anderson, Graham. Greek and Roman Folklore. Westport,

Conn.: Greenwood, 2006.

Fitzgerald, William. Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Henderson, John. Telling Tales on Caesar. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2001.

Phaedrus. Fabulae Aesopiae. Translated by J. T. White. London: Spottiswoode & Co., 1876.