Phaedrus, 1745 engraving

Gaius Julius Phaedrus (/ˈfdrəs/; Greek: Φαῖδρος; Phaîdros), or Phaeder (c. 15 BC–c. 50 AD) was a 1st-century AD Roman fabulist and the first versifier of a collection of Aesop's fables into Latin. Nothing is recorded of his life except for what can be inferred from his poems, and there was little mention of his work during late antiquity. It was not until the discovery of a few imperfect manuscripts during and following the Renaissance that his importance emerged, both as an author and in the transmission of the fables.


The poet describes himself as born in the Pierian Mountains,[1] perhaps in Pydna, and names the Thracian musicians Linus and Orpheus as his countrymen.[2] The inscriptions and subscriptions in the manuscript tradition identify him as a freedman of Augustus.[3][4] Some have inferred from these data that Phaedrus was brought to Rome in his childhood as a slave following the Thracian campaign of L. Calpurnius Piso.[5]

Whether in Rome or elsewhere, Phaedrus studied Latin literature in his youth, as he quotes a line from Ennius saying that he read it when he was a boy.[6] When he had published his first two books of fables, he was subjected to a trial in which he says Sejanus was accuser, witness, and judge.[7] Although it is not clear what punishment the poet suffered, the poet pleads with a certain Eutychus to intercede on his behalf in the prologue to his third book. In the epilogue of the third book, the poet describes himself as in advanced middle age,[8] and the final poem of Phaedrus' fifth book implies that he had reached old age.[9]

There is no external evidence by which to judge whether the poet spoke truthfully of himself, and scholars have assigned different degrees of significance to the biographical hints contained in the poems.[10] Attilio de Lorenzi's biography Fedro is reviewed by Perry as a "consistent and convincing all-round picture of the man" with "nothing unreasonable or improbable in any of the author's conclusions,"[11] but derided by another reviewer as "a romance" born of "de Lorenzi's ingenious imagination" which is "entertaining to read, but not always easy to believe."[12] Franz de Ruyt [fr] likewise disparages elements of de Lorenzi's reconstruction as tenuously supported and "novelistic," and declares Fedro an original and useful work on the whole, but one which must be used with caution for biographical facts.[13] Edward Champlin, while acknowledging that the traditional account of Phaedrus' life is "handed down through the scholarly literature," derides even the broad outlines of it that are most commonly accepted as "complete fantasy" and argues that what Phaedrus had to say about himself might as plausibly be reinterpreted to prove that he was born in Rome and spent the whole of his life there as a free citizen.[14] On the basis of "an astonishingly sophisticated interest in Roman law" seen in the poems, however, Champlin asserts that "Phaedrus was a lawyer."[15]

Léon Herrmann [fr] purported to find new biographical information in the fables in the form of acrostics, many of which could not be found in the text without novel editorial interventions. Herrmann also attributed the Apocolocyntosis, the Distichs of Cato, and most of the Culex to Phaedrus and sifted these texts for further biographical clues. The second part of Herrmann's book was an edition of the fables (in a novel order and divided into four books) and the other works he ascribed to Phaedrus.[16] C. J. Fordyce described Herrmann's book simply as "full of surprises", of which the greatest was that Herrmann was "an editor of Phaedrus, and a professor of Latin, to whom quantity appears to mean nothing at all and who by his own conjectures turns metrical lines into unmetrical on every other page."[17] Frank Goodyear mocked a later editor for citing Herrmann, referring to him sarcastically as "that noted metrician".[18] Alfred Ernout remarked that while he would leave Herrmann's biographical theories to be discussed by historians of literature, he could only regret the abundance of errors of every kind to be found in Herrmann's edition.[19]


Phaedrus' name appears in his own text[20] and in Martial[21] in the genitive case as Phaedri. It is found in the nominative case, as Phaedrus, in Avianus' letter to Theodosius, and in the titles of three of the fables,[22] possibly added by scribes on the authority of Avianus. Some critics have argued the poet's name would more correctly be written Phaeder in the nominative, by analogy to Latin names like Alexander, Menander, and Anaximander which reflect Greek originals that end in -δρος, supported by evidence from ancient inscriptions of the use of the form Phaeder.[23][24][25]

Roman slaves were known by a single name, in contrast with the tria nomina borne by citizens. Manumitted slaves in the early empire usually took the praenomen and nomen of their former master, keeping their slave name as a cognomen.[26] Some sources therefore give the poet's full name as Gaius Julius Phaedrus (or Phaeder), with the praenomen and nomen of Augustus.[27][28]


Because Sejanus died in AD 31, Phaedrus' statement that his poems had offended Sejanus is usually taken to establish that the first two books were written before that date. That the first two books were published (whether together or separately) in the reign of Tiberius is supported by II.5.7, where Tiberius appears to be referred to as alive.[27][29] Most scholars infer from the hostile manner in which Phaedrus writes of Sejanus, as if he had nothing further to fear from him, that the third book was written after Sejanus' death, but not long after, since Phaedrus was still suffering the effects of persecution by Sejanus.[29][30] Phaedrus' statement in the third book that he was in advanced middle age would therefore support an approximate birth date of 15 BC[28][27] or 18 BC.[30] Based on the poet's insinuation in the fifth book that he was worn out by old age like the dog in the fable, scholars conclude that he died an old man in the reign of Claudius (41–54) or Nero (54–68);[30] Giuseppe Zago believes Phaedrus to have revised his first book after having read Seneca the Younger's Moral Epistles and books De beneficiis, in which case Phaedrus died in the reign of Nero or Vespasian (69–79).[31]

Textual sources

The following sources are of significance for establishing the text of Phaedrus:

Prose paraphrases

Several medieval fable collections made extensive use of Phaedrus "in solution," i.e., with the metrical verses adapted into prose. The following collections contain 54 fables that are preserved in the direct tradition, 28 that have been lost from it, and 16 from non-Phaedrian sources.[46] Each of them is printed in Hervieux 1894, and the fables they contain which have no equivalent in the extant metrical text of Phaedrus are translated or summarized in Perry 1965.

Number and division of the fables

The five books

Avianus writes about AD 400 that Phaedrus wrote five books of fables. The 94 fables contained in the Pithoeanus are divided into four books, but the text in the Remensis ended with the subscription "PHAEDRI AVG(VSTI) LIBERTI LIBER QVINTVS EXPLICIT FELICITER" ("this is the end of the fifth book of Phaedrus, freedman of Augustus"), indicating that in the manuscript from which the Pithoeanus and Remensis were copied, the poems were divided into five books.[51]

The remains of Phaedrus' five books transmitted in the Pithoeanus and Remensis are of unequal length and seem to indicate that material has been lost. This is supported by the apology in the prologue to the first book for including talking trees, of which there are no examples in the text that survives although there was one in the Perotti appendix. In fact, only 59 out of 94 in the Pithou manuscript were even animal fables.

Appendix Perottina

The 30 poems which were discovered in Codex Neapolitanus are known as the Appendix Perottina. Perotti, evidently unaware of the unique value of the manuscript from which he copied, excerpted fables in an arbitrary order. Some scholars have attempted to restore these fables to their places within the five books with divergent conclusions,[52] but usually they are printed separately in the order in which they are found in Perotti's Epitome. Perotti omitted the epimythia and promythia, sometimes transferring their wording into titles of his own stating the moral, which he added to all the fables.[53]

Fabulae novae

Joan Frederik Nilant [nl] edited the Phaedrian fables transmitted in solution in 1709.[54] A number of editors have undertaken to restore their original metrical form, and these reconstructions are conventionally referred to as the fabulae novae, or "new fables." The first attempt was made by Pieter Burman the Elder in an appendix to his edition of 1718, which he omitted from his edition of 1727; J. Wight Duff says the omission was wise, as Burman made excessive and arbitrary changes in the words, and unavoidably violated some of Phaedrus' metrical principles, which were poorly understood in the 18th Century.[55]

Jacobus Johannes Hartman [nl] declares that there neither is nor can be a Latin sentence that cannot be made into a Phaedrian senarius by a slight adjustment, parodically "restoring" sentences from The Gallic War and Justinian's Digest to a metrical form.[56] Postgate defends the procedure of "exhuming" Phaedrus' poems from the prose collections by versification, though conceding that "in these reconstitutions ... we tread on treacherous ground" and "in some cases the metrical form cannot now be restored with completeness or with certainty."[57] Postgate edited only ten fabulae novae in his edition, saying that previous editors, believing it to be their duty to Phaedrus to restore everything that was his, had not taken due account of the limits of what can be accomplished.[58]

In 1921, Carl Magnus Zander [sv] published 30 fabulae novae.[59][60] Duff praised Zander's reconstruction as more valuable than his predecessors' efforts due to his "strict parsimony in alterations" and the clear information provided about the prose basis of the reconstruction and what words were supplied by the editor.[55][61]


A collection of Aesopic fables compiled by Demetrius of Phalerum is likely to have been Phaedrus' main source.[28] Phaedrus himself says in the prologue to Book 1 that "Aesop" is his source, and it is likely Demetrius' book that he regarded as the canonical Aesop, as distinguished from fables drawn from other sources or invented by himself which he calls "Aesopic in kind but not Aesop's."[62][63] Demetrius' collection was a handbook of material that writers and speakers could adapt to make a point in the context of a work of another genre.[64][65] Phaedrus created a new form of polite literature by elevating the fable to an independent genre, to be read as literature in its own right and not as an adjunct to another kind of work.[66][67][28] Aesopic fable had traditionally been written in prose; before Phaedrus, some versified fables had been incorporated into works of other genres, but he is the first author in Latin or Greek to publish entire books of versified fables.[68][69] Phaedrus' verse is in iambic senarii and is very regular.[28]

The author's aim at the start was to follow Aesop in creating a work that "moves one to mirth and warns with wise advice".[70] As the work progressed, however, he widened his focus and now claimed to be "refining" Aesopic material and even adding to it. In later books we find tales of Roman events well after the time of Aesop such as "Tiberius and the slave" (II.5) and "Augustus and the accused wife" (III.9), as well as the poet's personal reply to envious detractors (IV.21); there are also anecdotes in which Aesop figures from the later biographical tradition (II.3; III.3; IV.5; app. 9; app. 20). Finally he makes a distinction between matter and manner in the epilogue to the fifth book, commenting that

I write in Esop’s style, not in his name,
And for the most part I the subject claim.
Tho' some brief portion Esop might indite,
The more I from my own invention write,
The style is ancient but the matter’s new.[71]

He also claims a place in the Latin literary tradition by echoing well-known and respected writers. It is to be noticed, however, that where Phaedrus and the slightly earlier poet Horace adapted the same fable to satirical themes, they often used different versions of it. In Horace a crow (cornicula) is the subject of The Bird in Borrowed Feathers; in Phaedrus it is a jackdaw (graculus). In the case of The Horse that Lost its Liberty, Phaedrus has it disputing with a boar and Horace with a stag. Neither do they agree in their account of The Frog and the Ox. Horace follows the story found in Greek sources; the frog's motivation is different in Phaedrus, and it is his version that Martial follows later.[72] Moreover, in following the model of Aesop, the enfranchised slave, Phaedrus' satire is sharper and restores "the ancient function of the fable as a popular expression against the dominant classes".[73] Another commentator points out that "the Aesopian fable has been a political creature from its earliest origins, and Phaedrus, (who was La Fontaine's model), though more openly subversive, has claims to be the first proletarian satiric poet".[74]

Testimonia and ancient reception

Seneca and Cassius Longinus

Seneca the Younger, writing about AD 43, recommended in a letter to Claudius' freedman Polybius that he turn his hand to Latinizing Aesop, 'a task hitherto not attempted by Roman genius' (Ad Polybium 8.3). This may indicate that Seneca had not heard of Phaedrus' works, that Seneca deliberately ignored Phaedrus' works or did not consider them works of "Roman genius," or that Phaedrus' works did not yet exist and the traditional dating of his first three books in the reign of Tiberius is mistaken. However, it is highly likely that Seneca knew the works of Phaedrus.[75][76]

Ulpian records that Cassius Longinus, who died not long after AD 70, was accustomed to use the term "a leonine partnership" for a partnership where one partner takes all of the profits and the other partners run all of the risk,[77] indicating that Cassius was familiar with a fable invented by Phaedrus about the lion taking all the profits of his partnership with the other animals (I.5).[78]


By the mid-80s, Martial was imitating Phaedrus and mentions his mischievous humour (improbi jocos Phaedri, "the jests of naughty Phaedrus").[21] Whether Martial referred to the author of fables or to another man of the same name has been disputed. Interpreting the adjective improbi as modifying jocos, Johann Friedrich Fischer [de] argued that Phaedrus' fables cannot rightly be called joci because they are not apt to provoke laughter, nor are they improbi (interpreted in the sense that they required hard work to accomplish) because Phaedrus wrote light verse about common, everyday things. Fischer believed the verse referred to Phaedrus the Epicurean.[79] Others have proposed that Martial's Phaedrus is an otherwise unknown author of mimes.[80] Ludwig Friedländer argues that Martial often uses improbus as a synonym of lascivus, or "bawdy," and Phaedrus' fables do not answer to this description, but Martial does associate the word improbus with mimes.[81] Frédéric Plessis accepts Friedländer's reasoning.[82]

Johann Friedrich Gronovius interpreted the word improbus to mean "bold" or "impudent," and considered it sufficiently explained by the fact that Phaedrus had represented animals and trees as speaking in his fables, and by the fact that through his fables, he had lampooned the behavior of the mighty of his age.[83] Léopold Hervieux considered Gronovius to have demonstrated beyond any doubt that Martial referred to the fabulist.[84] Wilhelm Siegmund Teuffel rejects Friedländer's hypothesis as lacking probability.[85] Robinson Ellis identifies several fables as containing indecent content that can explain the designation improbus, and notes that more may have been contained in lost writings of Phaedrus.[86]

Whether this line by Martial originally referred to jocos is also disputed. The best manuscripts read locos or locus. Later manuscripts read jocos, which has been adopted by editors, but may be no more than an emendation by an Italian humanist.[87] Following a suggestion originally made by Georg Thiele [de], several editors since 1925 have emended this word to the Greek word λόγους,[88][89][90] used in Latin as a loanword signifying "fables."[91][92] A. E. Housman grants that both improbi and jocos have such associations that this combination of words could be taken to suggest lascivious poems, and that there are no poems extant in Phaedrus' corpus which would merit this description, but argues that besides the fact that Phaedrus himself calls his fables joci, Housman argues that improbus need mean nothing more than that Phaedrus was "disrespectful," which "may allude to those hits at the high and mighty which are supposed to have provoked the displeasure of Sejanus", and emending to λόγους "leaves improbi freer to mean what it ought."[93]

Subsequent authors

Quintilian does not mention Phaedrus by name, but recommends as a school exercise that students compose prose versions of versified fables of Aesop,[94] a genre originated by Phaedrus. This passage is interpreted by J. P. Postgate to praise a particular poet (taken by Postgate to be Phaedrus) who had told Aesop's fables in a "pure style."[75] This is disputed, however, by F. H. Colson, who takes the sermo purus in this passage to refer to a style to be demanded of students in their own compositions.[95]

The next literary reference is a homage by Phaedrus' fellow fabulist Avianus near the start of the 5th century, who claims the five books of fables as one of his sources in the dedication of his own work.[96] The author of Octavia, Tertullian, Nemesianus, Ausonius, St. Paulinus of Nola, Prudentius, the author of the Alcestis Barcinonensis, and the author of the Querolus also appear to have read and imitated Phaedrus, but no author from antiquity mentions him by name other than Martial and Avianus.[97] Whether Juvenal read Phaedrus is uncertain.[98]

István Szamosközy discovered the verse nisi utile est quod facimus, stulta est gloria inscribed on a tomb in Alba Iulia, and published it in 1593.[99] This was later identified as a line from Phaedrus.[100] According to Johannes Tröster [de], this inscription still existed in 1666.[101][102] Theodor Mommsen does not consider the inscription genuine.[103][104]

Modern reception

François Pithou discovered Codex Pithoeanus in 1596, at which time Phaedrus' work had fallen into complete oblivion, and sent the manuscript to his brother Pierre Pithou, who used it to publish the editio princeps.[105][106][107] Pithou left no record of where this manuscript was found except for a note at the end of his edition that said, "vet. ex. Cat."[108] Johann Caspar von Orelli plausibly took this to be an abbreviation of vetus exemplar Catalaunense ("an ancient copy from Châlons-en-Champagne") or Catuacense ("from Douai").[109][110] Nicolas Rigault brought out an edition in 1599 based on both the Pithoeanus and the scheda Danielis, and a new edition in 1617 (with minor corrections in 1630) taking into account the evidence of the Remensis.[111]

Codex Neapolitanus was discovered at Parma by Jacques Philippe d'Orville [fr] in 1727. D'Orville informed his professor Pieter Burman the Elder of the find, but Burman did not attempt to edit the previously unknown poems because the manuscript was illegible in many places.[112]

The Neapolitanus was rediscovered in Naples in 1808 by Juan Andrés, S.J.[113] Giovanni Antonio Cassitto [it] hastily brought out an edition of it from a copy made in the library by his brother, while Andrés, unaware of Cassitto's work, commissioned Cataldo Jannelli [it] to produce an edition; Jannelli's edition was in the hands of the printers when Cassitto's edition unexpectedly appeared. A bitter scholarly controversy ensued as Jannelli strove to vindicate the superiority of his edition. Cassitto's first edition was printed in only fifty copies, and is of no value except as a bibliographical curiosity.[114][115] Both editions lost much of their interest when Angelo Mai published a much better preserved copy of Perotti's Epitome in 1831.[116]

The fables of Phaedrus soon began to be published as school editions, both in the original Latin and in prose translation.[117][118] Since the 18th century there have also been four complete translations into English verse. The first was by Christopher Smart into octosyllabic couplets (London 1753).[119] Brooke Boothby's "The Esopean Fables of Phedrus" were included in his Fables and Satires (Edinburgh, 1809)[120] and also used octosyllables but in a more condensed manner:

What Esop taught his beasts in Greek,
Phedrus in Latin made them speak:
In English, I from him translate,
And his brief manner imitate.[121]

It was followed by the Reverend Frederick Toller's A poetical version of the fables of Phædrus in 1854.[122] These were translated more diffusely into irregular verses of five metrical feet and each fable was followed by a prose commentary. P. F. Widdows' translation also includes the fables in the Perotti appendix and all are rendered into a free version of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse.[123]

Phaedrus versions were translated individually by a variety of other poets into different languages. A small selection in various poetic forms appeared in the Poems & Translations (London 1769) of Ashley Cowper (1701–88).[124] There were many more poems distinctively styled in La Fontaine's Fables; others followed by Ivan Krylov in Russian; Gregory Skovoroda and Leonid Hlibov in Ukrainian; and a more complete collection by Volodymyr Lytvynov in 1986.[125]


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  2. ^ III prol. 56 sqq.
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  4. ^ Zago 2020, p. viii
  5. ^ Perry 1965, p. lxxxi
  6. ^ III epil. 33 sqq.
  7. ^ III prol. 38 sqq.
  8. ^ III epil. 15
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Further reading