Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

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.

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.”) [

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.


[ 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.