Chapter 24. Phaedrus: Another Fabulist

In Phaedrus, we meet once again, in miniature format, the direct Aesopic line of tradition: Aesop, Archilochus, Socrates; fables, offense of the powerful, punishment. Phaedrus, an Augustan freedman of Thracian birth, versified (like Socrates) and Latinized Aesop’s fables; but he added some fables of his own, which reflected somewhat the current sociopolitical scene, and included an occasional combative response to a critic. [1] The sinister Sejanus, Tiberius’ prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the man responsible for the execution of numerous nobles, took offense at these Greek beast tales, perceiving veiled criticism in them. Phaedrus’ prologue to his third book tells us all we know about the situation:
Nunc, fabularum cur sit inventum genus,
brevi docebo. servitus obnoxia,
quia quae volebat non audebat dicere,
affectus proprios in fabellas translulit,
calumniamque fictis elusit iocis .
ego illius pro semita feci viam,
et cogitavi plura quam reliquerat,
in calamitatem deligens quaedam meam.
quodsi accusator alius Seiano foret,
si testis alius, iudex alius denique,
dignum faterer esse me tantis malis,
nec his dolorem delenirem remediis.
suspicione si quis errabit sua,
et, rapiens ad se quod erit commune omnium,
stulte nudabit animi conscientiam,
huic excusatum me velim nihilo minus.
neque enim notare singulos mens est mihi,
verum ipsam vitam et mores hominum ostendere.
Now I will explain briefly why the type of thing called fable was invented. The slave, being liable to punishment for any offence, since he dared not say outright what he wished to say, projected his personal sentiments into fables [fabellas] and escaped censure under the guise of jesting with madeup stories [fictis … iocis]. [2] Where Aesop made a footpath, I have built a highway, and have thought up more subjects that he left behind; although some of the subjects I chose led to disaster [calamitatem] for me. But if anyone other than Sejanus were the prosecutor, or anyone else the chief witness, or indeed if anyone other than Sejanus were the judge, then I should confess that I deserve my troubles, great as they are, and should not now be soothing my grief with such remedies as this. If anyone hereafter shall be deceived by his own suspicions, and, by rashly appropriating to himself the moral that belongs to all alike, shall expose his own bad conscience, nonetheless I hope that he will pardon me. For in fact it is not my intention to brand individuals, but to display life itself and the ways of men and women.
Prologue to III, lines 33–50 [3]
Thus Sejanus felt that some of the fables in the first two books of Phaedrus referred to him in a derogatory way; he judged the fabulist summarily, acting as prosecutor, witness, and judge; and he leveled a punishment. All we know about the punishment is that it was great, a disaster, calamitas, and painful; that Phaedrus was still enduring it when he wrote his third book; and that he wrote to lessen the pain. These would all fit exile perfectly, and Alice Brenot suggests that the punishment probably was exile; exile is also the first punishment that Duff lists as a possibility. Phaedrus may very possibly have been an exiled fabulist; whether or not he was exiled, he was certainly punished severely. (Duff also mentions as possibilities imprisonment or “even a return to slavery.”) [4]
Phaedrus represents himself as being treated unfairly by Sejanus, as if he had nowhere had Sejanus in mind when he wrote his first two books, and Sejanus’ guilty conscience caused him to apply some passages to himself. However, there are passages in the first two books that are critical of informers and miscarriages of justice in law courts, [5] and one may even see Sejanus in the fable of the jackdaw in peacock feathers. [6] “At any rate, for the emperor’s minister Sejanus there was decidedly unpalatable reading in the first two books.” [7] Perhaps Phaedrus was more of a conscious and focused satirist than he admits.
In the same passage in which Phaedrus says he is not attacking specific people, but human generalities, he says, at the beginning of the quoted passage, that the fable came about so slaves could criticize their social betters elliptically without being punished, an intriguing account of the birth of the fable in class struggle. Working from such a rationale, criticisms of Sejanus in his first two books would not be so unlikely. One comes to look at this minor poet, this versifier of Aesop, with new respect—this former slave who published satire critiquing the most powerful and murderous man in a repressive society. He was not an unworthy inheritor, in his humble way, of the Aesopic-Socratic tradition. “For one of his humble status Phaedrus is singularly outspoken,” writes F. R. D. Goodyear. [8]
A number of other aspects of Phaedrus deserve at least brief examination. His satire was didactic, not just amusing; it upheld honesty and justice. [9] If his detractors criticize him for his principles, we have a situation where the righteous blame poet strikes out at a corrupt society. [10]
The theme of expulsion of a scapegoat appears in his fables. One of Phaedrus’ non-Aesopic, Roman “fables,” “Pompey and his Soldier,” is almost a tour de force of the scapegoat theme in a Roman military setting. This story serves as the central text for a stimulating article by Cristiano Grottanelli. [11] In this fable, there is in the camp of Pompey the Great a notoriously effeminate homosexual soldier who is nevertheless of very sturdy build. When he steals the general’s mules along with precious metals and jewels, and is caught and accused, he brazenly denies with an oath that he has had any involvement in the theft. “Then Pompey, being a man of simple honesty, orders this disgrace to the camp [dedecus castrorum] to be driven away [propelli].” [12] Later a huge champion of an opposing army proposes single combat with any soldier in the Roman army, but the foremost Roman warriors mutter in cowardice. However, the effeminate thief—“a catamite in bearing but a Mars in prowess” (cinaedus habitu sed Mars uiribus)—approaches Pompey and asks, “in a delicate voice” (uoce molli), if he can fight the opposing champion. Pompey is enraged that the catamite would trifle with him in such a desperate situation, and once again he orders the soldier to be expelled (eici … imperat). However, a senior advisor recommends that the catamite would not be such a bad choice for champion, because he “would be no great loss” (in quo iactura levis est), while a valiant man might be defeated and lost to the army. Pompey accedes to this counsel, and the effeminate soldier becomes champion of the Romans. He promptly decapitates the enemy champion and “returns as conqueror” (victorque rediit). Pompey gives him a crown (corona), but swears by the same oath that the soldier had sworn that the soldier was certainly the thief of the mules and valuables.
Thus, in this story, we have the warrior as scapegoat—continually banished, and finally sent virtually as a sacrificial offering to the enemy champion, because he is not worth anything at all. The scapegoat is entirely ambiguous; super-manly (in stature) and sub-manly (effeminate in gait and speech); a thief and a liar, yet most courageous of all the soldiers, and skillful in hand-to-hand combat; judged the worst of the Romans, he yet receives the crown of victory from the general. As Grotanelli notes, he is blamed even as he is crowned. [13] The scapegoat as champion recalls Starkaðr and Suibhne as well as the Irish fool Tamun. The deformed worst excluded because he is worthless—who yet becomes the best soldier—replicates the story of Tyrtaeus.


[ back ] 1. For responses to detractors, see 4.7; 3.prol.23; 4.prol.15; 4.22; Perry 1965:lxxv.
[ back ] 2. See above, ch. 3 (Archilochus, the fable of the fox and eagle, with notes); ch. 2 (Aesop as slave and animal fabulist); West 1984:107–108; cf. Meuli 1954:65.
[ back ] 3. Trans. Perry. Cf. above, ch. 3 (Archilochus, the fable of the fox and eagle). The Negro tales of Joel Chandler Harris are comparable: animal stories that show the plight of the black man in a white society, see Rubin, Jr. 1981.
[ back ] 4. Brenot 1924:x; Duff 1960:115. Perry 1965:lxxv, suggests that Phaedrus’s books could have been banned and destroyed, but this would not seem to measure up to the painful calamity the poet is still enduring as he writes the Book three prologue.
[ back ] 5. 1.1; 1.15; cf. Goodyear 1982:625; Duff 1960:114.
[ back ] 6. Fable 1.3, a little drama of expulsion. The vainly dressed up jackdaw, trying to associate with a crowd of peacocks, is stripped of his peacock feathers, pecked, and expelled. Returning to his own jackdaws, he is expelled from their company also.
[ back ] 7. Duff 1960:114. Cf. de Lorenzi 1955:5.
[ back ] 8. Goodyear 1982:625.
[ back ] 9. IV.2.1–4; III. epil. 29–35; cf. Duff 1960:115.
[ back ] 10. Duff 1960:112–113.
[ back ] 11. Grottanelli 1983. See also a lively interpretation in Henderson 2001:131–150.
[ back ] 12. Perotti’s appendix, 10.12–13 (trans. Perry, modified): tum uir animi simplicis / id dedecus castrorum propelli iubet. Perry’s translation of propelli ‘to be sent on his way’, seems too weak for the word, which has a sense of driving, pushing, hurling (see OLD s.v.). Grotanelli notes that typical punishment for such offenses (thievery, perjury, sexual offenses, all of which are covered by our hero) in the Roman army included stoning and beating with rods (1983:130). Expelled from the camp, one was protectionless, like a dead man.
[ back ] 13. Grotanelli 1983:129.