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Sitting at the Kids' Table: Aesop and the Second Sophistic

Jacqueline M Arthur-Montagne

High Point University

This paper examines the role of the Second Sophistic in the construction of Aesop as an educational author. The fables of Aesop have long been associated with childhood learning, from Philostratus’ ekphrasis of the paradigmatic pedagogue in the Imagines to the early modern fable anthologies of Jean de La Fontaine and Charles Denis. This perception of animal fables as children’s literature has led many classicists to characterize Aesop as a permanent fixture of classical schooling. Henri Marrou, for example, envisioned the Greek child first coming “into contact with ‘literature’ through his nurse’s tales – animal stories” (Marrou 1982). Rafaella Cribiore likewise interprets Socrates’ interest in fables as “reverting to a stage of his cultural education...that he had failed to develop” (Cribiore 2005). Experts of the Aesopic tradition, however, have observed no evidence for the systematic inclusion of fables in ancient schooling prior to the Roman Empire (Adrados 1999, Zafiropoulos 2001). These incongruous accounts about when and how fables entered the ancient school curriculum leave several questions unanswered about the process by which Aesop became pedagogical.

This paper argues that Greek sophists in the Roman Empire were instrumental in classifying Aesop’s fables as children’s literature. While fables were likely included in school exercises from the Hellenistic period onward, the concept of Aesop as an author exclusively for children was a product of the Second Sophistic. In the course of this paper, I demonstrate how central figures of Imperial Greece construed the fables as preliminary reading for further studies in rhetoric and philosophy, but no rival to or substitute for true paideia. On the one hand, the fables as celebrated by the Platonic dialogues could not be ignored by intellectuals of the principate. But the common sense insights of fables challenged the necessity of elite learning that famous sophists purported to provide. The sophistic response to Aesop was therefore to celebrate the fables within the narrow arena of early childhood education. In this way the luminaries of Imperial Greece affirmed their role as gatekeepers of literary learning.

I present this paper in two parts. The first half revisits ancient evidence for the educational use of Aesop’s fables in the Greek literary tradition. I begin with Aesopic testimonia in Aristophanes and challenge past scholarship that characterizes fables as a part of the school curriculum in Classical Athens (Pertsinidis 2009, Hall 2013). I then turn to discussions of fables in early rhetorical treatises from Aristotle to Cicero and claim that, far from forming a staple of rhetorical education in the Classical and Hellenistic periods (Kurke 2011), pre-Imperial orators deployed fables as crowd-pleasers or popular ploys to regain audience attention. Aesopic fables constituted a “common culture” for elites and non-elites alike, but played no formal role in the literary education of early Greek-speakers.

The main part of the paper analyzes sophistic attitudes towards Aesop in three works of the Second Sophistic: Dio Chrysostom’s Oration 72, Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Sages, and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius. My close readings of the Aesop testimonia in these texts highlight the ambiguity of animal fable’s status within Imperial paideia. While all three sources acknowledge that learning becomes pleasurable through Aesop, they also deprecate the literary and philosophical value of the fable genre. Plutarch, for instance seats Aesop on the “little stool” at the Dinner of the Seven Sages (ἐπὶ δίφρου τινὸς χαμαιζήλου, 150a), while the character Apollonius couches his defense of fables with a “silly” (ἀνόητον) fable that his mother taught when he was “very young” (κομιδῇ νήπιον, 5.14). The sophistic solution to Aesop – who could neither be fully accepted nor eliminated from the circle of paideia – was thus to assign his talents to childhood, and no further. Silly Aesop – fables are for kids.

This paper will appeal to scholars of postclassical Greece, high/low paradigms of ancient literature, and the study of prose narrative in antiquity.

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Second Sophistic

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