THE LIFE and History of Aesop is involved, like that of Homer,the most famous of Greek poets, in much obscurity. Sardis, thecapital 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 fewincidents 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 aboutthe 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 areward for his learning and wit. One of the privileges of afreedman in the ancient republics of Greece, was the permissionto take an active interest in public affairs; and Aesop, like thephilosophers 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 tobe instructed, he travelled through many countries, and amongothers 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 othersages, and is related so to have pleased his royal master, by thepart he took in the conversations held with these philosophers,that he applied to him an expression which has since passed intoa 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 theinhabitants of those cities to the administration of theirrespective rulers Periander and Pisistratus. One of theseambassadorial missions, undertaken at the command of Croesus, wasthe occasion of his death. Having been sent to Delphi with alarge sum of gold for distribution among the citizens, he was so provoked at their covetousness that he refused to divide themoney, and sent it back to his master. The Delphians, enraged at this treatment, accused him of impiety, and, in spite of hissacred character as ambassador, executed him as a public criminal.
This cruel death of Aesop was not unavenged. Thecitizens of Delphi were visited with a series of calamities, until they made a public reparation of their crime; and, “Theblood of Aesop” became a well- known adage, bearing witness to the truth that deeds of wrongwould not pass unpunished. Neither did the great fabulist lack posthumous honors; for a statue was erected to his memory atAthens, the work of Lysippus, one of the most famous of Greeksculptors. 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 ofcertainty, in reference to the birth, life, and death of Aesop. They were first brought to light, after a patient search anddiligent perusal of ancient authors, by a Frenchman, M. ClaudeGaspard Bachet de Mezeriac, who declined the honor of beingtutor to Louis XIII of France, from his desire to devote himselfexclusively to literature. He published his Life of Aesop, Anno Domini 1632. The later investigations of a host of English andGerman 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 Aesopwas from the pen of Maximus Planudes, a monk of Constantinople,who was sent on an embassy to Venice by the Byzantine EmperorAndronicus the elder, and who wrote in the early part of thefourteenth century. His life was prefixed to all the earlyeditions 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 oftruth, 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 universall ycondemned as false, puerile, and unauthentic. It is given upin the present day, by general consent, as unworthy of the slightest credit.