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Greco-Roman animal fable was a genre bound up in systems of inequality. Ancient vitae regularly claim that key authors of fable, whether its famed inventor Aesop or later practitioners like Phaedrus, were born in slavery (VA 1, Phaedrus 3.prol). The central role of slavery as a frame for fable’s development is made clear in the Life of Aesop, which coordinates Aesop’s manumission with his divinely given mastery of the fable form (VA 7). As Kurke and others have since argued, this makes Greco-Roman animal fable a particularly important example of social critique from below, one delivered safely via non-human animal characters (Kurke 2011, Fields 2016).

This paper approaches fable’s enslavement theme from a cross-cultural perspective. The presence of inter-related fables across the ancient Mediterranean has been an increasingly central object of focus in the comparative study of animal literatures (Adrados 1999–2003) and folklore (Plantade and Plantade 2014). To see fable’s slavery motif across cultures, I focus on the Tale of Androcles and the Lion. The well-known story was attributed in antiquity to Apion, a culturally mixed Greco-Egyptian author writing in the early first-century C.E. (BNJ 616 F 5; Damon 2008). To date, the role that this fable played in Apion’s work has been hard to establish. Apion’s intellectual output gravitated toward Homeric commentaries, the history of the Exodus, and paradoxography, all of which are a far cry from fable-writing. There is a sense that fables helped Apion coordinate Greek and Egyptian approaches to the human/animal divide (Keyser 2015), but no argument has yet been made to that effect. To make just that argument, I locate the Androcles tale at the intersection of Demotic and Greek approaches to animal-based narratives.

As an ethnic Egyptian given Alexandrian citizenship, Apion sat between two different cultural domains (Delia 1991 29, 56, 164). Each recognized a tradition of fable, but saw in it different things. I thus position fable as a boundary object between cultural traditions (Star and Griesemer 1989). In Demotic, there is a clear parallel to the Androcles story, in which a captive lion is rescued by a mouse he had previously chosen not to eat. That tale is embedded in a wider narrative (“The Myth of the Sun’s Eye”) that emphasizes the mutability of human, divine, and animal bodies to justify a talking lion and his unlikely friendship with a mouse (Spiegelberg 1917, Brunner-Traut 1968, Quack 2010). Through Apion, this Demotic story of a captive lion is brought into connection with the role of fable as protreptic from below in the Aesopic tradition. This helps explain the constellation of cross-species friendship and the theater of domination in the Androcles and the Lion story, whose denouement hinges on a friendship that endures the enslavement of lion and human alike. As I conclude, this is an important example of a wider process, one in which fables accumulated new meanings as they, like the trafficked Androcles and lion, crisscrossed the early-Imperial Mediterranean.