Fabulae (Phaedrus)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Phaedrus versified in iambic trimeters the fables current of his day under the name of "Aesop," interspersing them with anecdotes drawn from daily life, history and mythology. He tells his fable and draws the moral with businesslike directness and simplicity.

His language is terse and clear, but thoroughly prosaic, though it occasionally attains a dignity bordering on eloquence. His Latin is correct, and except for an excessive and peculiar use of abstract words, shows hardly anything that might not have been written in the Augustan age. From a literary point of view Phaedrus is inferior to Babrius, and to his own modern imitator, La Fontaine; he lacks the quiet picturesqueness and pathos of the former, and the exuberant vivacity and humour of the latter. Though he frequently refers to the envy and detraction which pursued him, Phaedrus seems to have attracted little attention in antiquity. He is mentioned by Martial, who imitated some of his verses, and by Avianus. Prudentius must have read him, for he imitates one of his lines (Prud. Cath. VII 115; ci. Phaedrus, IV 6, 10).

The first edition of the five books of Phaedrus was published by Pithou at Troyes in 1596 from a manuscript now in the possession of the Marquis of Rosanbo. Near the beginning of the 18th century, a manuscript of Perotti (1430-1480), archbishop of Siponto (Manfredonia, in Puglia), was discovered at Parma containing sixty-four fables of Phaedrus, of which some thirty were previously unknown. These new fables were first published in Naples by Cassitto in 1808, and afterwards (much more correctly) by Jannehli in 1809. Both editions were superseded by the discovery of a much better preserved manuscript of Perotti in the Vatican Library, published by Angelo Mai in 1831. For some time the authenticity of these new fables was disputed, but they are now generally accepted as genuine fables of Phaedrus. They do not form a sixth book, for we know from Avianus that Phaedrus wrote only five books, but it is impossible to assign them to their original places in the five books. They are usually printed as an appendix.

In the Middle Ages Phaedrus exercised a considerable influence through the prose versions of his fables, which were current, though his own works and even his name were forgotten. Of these prose versions the oldest existing one seems to be that known as the Anonymus Nilanti, so called because first edited by Nilant at Leiden in 1709 from a manuscript of the 13th century. It follows the text of Phaedrus so closely that it was probably made directly from it. Of the sixty-seven fables which it contains, thirty are derived from lost fables of Phaedrus. But the largest and most influential of the prose versions of Phaedrus is that which bears the name of Romulus. It contains eighty-three fables, is as old as the 10th century, and seems to have been based on a still earlier prose version, which, under the name of "Aesop," and addressed to one Rufus, may have been made in the Carolingian period or even earlier. About this Romulus nothing is known. The collection of fables in the Weissenburg (now Wolfenbüttel) manuscript is based on the same version as Romulus. These three prose versions contain in all one hundred distinct fables, of which fifty-six are derived from the existing fables and the remaining forty-four presumably from lost fables of Phaedrus. Some scholars, as Burmann, Dressier and L Muller, have tried to restore these lost fables by versifying the prose versions.

The collection bearing the name of Romulus became the source from which, during the second half of the Middle Ages, almost all the collections of Latin fables in prose and verse were wholly or partially drawn. A 12th century version of the first three books of Romulus in elegiac verse enjoyed a wide popularity, even into the Renaissance. Its author (generally referred to since the edition of Isaac Nicholas Nevelet in 1610 as the "Anonynius Neveleti") was long unknown, but Leopold Hervieux has shown grounds for identifying him with Walther of England.

Another version of Romulus in Latin elegiacs was made by Alexander Neckam, born at St Albans in 1157. Among the collections partly derived from Romulus the most famous is probably that in French verse by Marie de France. About 1200 a collection of fables in Latin prose, based partly on Romulus, was made by the Cistercian monk Odo of Sherrington; they have a strong medieval and clerical tinge. In 1370 Gerard of Minden wrote a poetical version of Romulus in Middle Low German.

Since Pithou's edition in 1596 Phaedrus has been often edited and translated; among the editions may be mentioned those of Burmann (1718 and 1727), Richard Bentley (1726), Schwabe (1806), Berger de Xivrey (1830), Johann Caspar von Orelli (1832), Franz Eyssenhardt (1867), L. Müller (1877), Rica (1885), and above all that of Louis Havet (Paris, 1895). For the medieval versions of Phaedrus and their derivatives see L. Roth, in Philologus; E. Grosse, in Jahrb. f. class. Philol., cv. (1872); and especially the learned work of Leopold Hervieux, Les Fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d'Auguste jusqu'a la fin du Moyen Âge (Paris, 1884), who gives the Latin texts of all the medieval imitators (direct and indirect) of Phaedrus, some of them being published for the first time.

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