Myth or Reality?

Illustration of Aesop's face

We do not know if, in the 6th century BCE, there actually lived an author named Aesop any more than we can be certain that 3000 years ago a man named Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, significant writers, including Plato and Aristotle, reference the mysterious storyteller.

Believed to have lived from 620–564 BCE, Aesop was a Greek fabulist and storyteller. The Aesop Romance (Vita Esopi), used in the University's 1486 incunabulum as an introduction to the Fables, tells an episodic and probably fictional version of his life.

Aesop is depicted as a strikingly ugly slave, the bottom of the Greco-Roman status hierarchy, who acquires his freedom through his cleverness and becomes an adviser to kings and city-states. The Greek historian Herodotus seems to have adhered to this theory. In Histories, the founding work of history in Western literature, he mentions that "Aesop the fable writer" was a slave who lived in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE.

Although his existence remains unclear and no original texts by him survive, scattered details of Aesop's life can be found in ancient sources.

Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st-century CE philosopher, is recorded as having said about Aesop:

“Aesop on the other hand had in the first place the wisdom never to identify himself with those who put such stories into verse [poets], but took a line of his own; and in the second, like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.”

- Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.11-15, 3rd century AD. Translated by F.C. Conybeare. Loeb Classical Library, 1912.

Despite many sources mentioning the existence of Aesop, the modern view is that he was unlikely the author of all the fables attributed to him. Often fables with no known literary source tended to be ascribed to him. Many of the morals in the fables supposedly authored by Aesop actually contradict each other, as do the ancient accounts of his life.