The Fables of Babrius Part I
Category: Verse
Genres: Fable
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Aesop was actually Babrius. Aesop's fables were written in ancient Greece by Babrius. The Fables of Babrius Part I is a collection of these fables translated and published in 1860. The book collects the tales and analyzes "Aesop" and the origin of them. Some of these stories are well known, while others will be a relatively new experience. Read this first half of the collection of original fables that we remember from our childhood.

The Fables of Babrius
Part I

Rev. John Davies, M.A.

Translated into English verse from the text of Sir G. C. Lewis.

The Fables of Babrius Part I


No question is more often put to one who professes an acquaintance with the Fables of Babrius than, “Who was Babrius? when did he live?” and the querist is sceptical, when, in answer, he is bidden to discard, as erroneous, the notion that it is to Æsop, and not to Babrius, that he owes the collection of Fables which charmed his youth. Yet so it is, and it is hoped that the version of Babrius into English, now put forth, may, with the aid of a prefatory statement, based on the researches of the learned, tend to place the matter in a true light. Those who have no knowledge of Classics will marvel to see how much is owed to a fabulist, whose work has been rescued from oblivion within the last twenty years.

Not that no traces, indeed, of Babrius existed before that date. Bentley indicated remains of his Fables in a dissertation which gave rise to the famous dispute respecting the Epistles of Phalaris. These traces, Tyrwhitt, in 1776, followed up, collecting all the fragments of Babrius found in the Grammarians, with some new verses from a MS. of Æsopian Fables in the Bodleian, and four entire fables (12, 58, 84, 129,) which had come down from one source or another. Later still, an Italian, Francesco de Furia, edited from MSS. in the Vatican library, several Fables before unpublished, which added greatly to the Babrian remains; for though in the form of prose, they were found easily reducible into Choliambic verse, into which they had been turned by our author from the oral or traditional collections of Æsopian Fables, and out of which (says Blomfield, Mus. Crit. i. 410) they had been “transprosed” by some monk.

In 1844, M. Minoides Menas, a learned Greek, commissioned by M. Villemain, Ministers of Public Instruction under Louis Philippe, found, amongst other literary treasures, in the Convent of St. Laura, on Mount Athos, a MS. of Babrius, lost in the middle ages. It was much damaged, and the monks asked so high a price for it, that Menas declined to buy it, and could only convey a transcript of it to Paris, which M. Villemain placed in the hands of M. Boissonade (see Class. Mus. II. 413), by whom it was published in October, 1844. In this transcript and in the MS. the Fables are arranged alphabetically over eighty pages, according to the initial letter of each Fable, but the collection only reaches the letter O. The date of the MS. is supposed to be of the tenth century, from the peculiarities of the writing observable in it. After several other continental editions following closely on the Parisian, Sir G. C. Lewis, no new hand at Babrius even at that time (see a paper in Philo. Mus. I. p. 282), put forth the first edition of Babrius in England in 1846. This possesses among other advantages, that of entering the field late enough to have availed itself of whatever was valuable in the earlier editions. Its editor’s Latin notes, concise and to the point, strike the scholar as the model of what Latin notes should be; and afford an argument in favour of a practice falling into disuse and largely superseded by pages of English annotation, long drawn out, the quality of which is generally less remarkable than the quantity. Sir Cornewall’s preface is exhaustive; and to it, as well as to his supplementary MSS. notes, which, with other information, the translator is anxious to acknowledge with gratitude, the present preface is chiefly indebted for its materials.

The first important question suggested by Sir Cornewall’s preface is as to the name and age of Babrius. He discards the notion of Boissonade that Babrius was a Roman, one Valerius Babrius, observing that if he was, he was marvellously at home in Greek language and literature; and at any rate was not desirous to pass for anything but a Greek. His knowledge of natural history, political institutions, mythology and geography, is all essentially Greek. He nowhere mentions Italy or Rome or the lands to the west of the Mediterranean.

Assuming then that he was a Greek, we have but scanty data for a decision as to the time when he flourished. The notion in Tyrwhitt’s day was that he lived at no long time prior to the Augustan age; a view which Sir G. C. Lewis seems to have held when he wrote a paper in the Philological Museum (I. p. 282), but which later studies have induced him to alter. The Swiss editors, from supposed traces of the Alexandrine grammarians and poets in his verse and diction, are inclined to fix his date about the time of Bion and Moschus; while Bergk, in a paper in the Class. Museum (III. 130), places it as far back as B.C. 250, a time at which Alexander, son of Craterus, was ruler over Eubœa and Corinth. Lachmann and Fixius each contend for other petty princes of a later date, in the Christian era. These are but a few guesses out of a number sufficient to justify the adaptation of an old proverb, “Quot critici, tot sententiæ;” but Sir G. C. Lewis has relived the question of a difficulty imported into it, by discreditng the hasty inference that the person addrest in Proem I. as ὦ Βράγχε τέκνον, is the same who in Proem II. is called ὦ παῖ βασιλέως Ἀλεξάνδρου. Attempts to fix what Alexander is meant, by connecting him with a son named Branchus, may well be deemed labour lost. The natural inference is that in the First Proem, and elsewhere, Branchus, a son of the poet, is addressed, and that for his instruction the Fables were written; but that the Second Proem of Part I. which was prefixed probably to a second edition, so to speak, of the whole Fables, was dedicated to a son of some prince or Emperor Alexander, to whom Babrius looked up as his patron.

Sir G. C. Lewis favours the opinion of Boissonade that this Alexander was Alexander Severus (the date of whose death was A.D. 235), and as this is only conjecture, he brings in support of it several corroborative circumstances, which tend greatly to establish a probability.

In the first place, Babrius is cited by no earlier writer than Dositheus Magister, a grammarian, who lived about 207 A.D., and in whose Ἑρμηνεύματα are two Fables of Babrius in Choliambic verse (F. 84, 129); which, if Dositheus himself introduced into his own work, will bring Babrius to a date not later than Septimius Severus, A.D. 207, or his son, Caracalla, to whom Alexander Severus claimed sonship.

Again we may refer the words of Babrius in Proem II. Part I. (where the Poet traces the origin of the “Fable” to Syria Antiqua, a view held by no other Greek writer), to a wish to flatter his assumed patron, Alexander Severus, who was born in Phœnicia. It is clear, too, that the Poet had some Asiatic connexion, which might still farther account for his desire to please this prince, who was, moreover, an especial patron and student of reek literature; nor need it be any stumbling-block that this Alexander is termed βασιλεύς, seeing that Roman princes were so called by the Greeks.

Those who are dissatisfied with this attempt to fix the date of Babrius, will find no traces of his Fables earlier than the Emperor Julian, a century or more later; who, in his epistle LIX, quotes a verse of the thirty-second Fable, v. 1. without the author’s name. Tzetzes and Suidas, alone, the latest of the grammarians, quote much from Babrius, previous to the finding of the present MSS.; and all that we can arrive at, with any approximation to certainty, is, that Babrius lived between the close of the first century after Christ and the age of Julian.

There was no Greek metrical version of the Æsopian Fables before that of Babrius. Socrates seems to have versified a Fable or two in elegaics whilst in prison. Demetrius Phalereus published a collection, but that was in prose. When fables occur in Xenophon, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Lucian, they are narrated in the writer’s own words, not cited from any poet. Suidas gives fragments of fables in Elegiac or Heroic verse, but whence gathered is unknown. Callimachus would seem to have turned some Æsopian Fables into Choliambics; but Babrius claims the honour to himself, and says (Proem II. 9-12) that many imitators forthwith sprung up. His Fables were known in Greece before the age of Suidas and Tzetzes: and the prose collections of Maximus Planudes, and others in later days, have been mainly based on his version. Nor was it till after the revival of letters that the opinion obtained any credence, that the prose Æsopian Fables were really those of Æsop. Nothing could be more manifestly unsound. Even before Bentley, learned men pronounced them the offspring of later monks: not probably designed to be literary impostures, but rather entertaining paraphrases. In any wise the Fables of Babrius may claim to be the basis, or stock material, of all that comes down to our day under the name and credit of Æsop.

The nature of the present work, intended as it is for the general reader, precludes any extended remarks upon the Choliambic Metre, in which the Fables of Barius are written. Scholars will find the subject amply treated in the preface of Sir G. C. Lewis (pp. xv-xx). Suffice it here to say that a Choliambic (a lame, halt Iambic) differs from the Iambic Senarius in always having a spondee or trochee for its last foot: the fifth foot, to avoid slowness of metre, being generally an Iambic.

Neither need more be said respecting the dialect of Babrius than that it is Ionic, but with great approaches to the Attic dialect in later and more common use. The Ionic was the dialect used by all Choliambic poets from the days of Hipponax and Ananius, and it was therefore natural that Babrius should follow it, even if not, as seems possible, himself connected with Ionia.

A very interesting portion of Sir G. C. Lewis’s preface is his analysis of the Æsopian Fable, with a view to establishing the indigenous Greek origin of this class of compositions from a consideration of its natural history.

It seems to have been the peculiarity of the Æsopian Fable to admit sometimes mere apologues (e.g. F. ii. xv.), sometimes conversations between gods and men (e.g. x. xx. xxx.); but chiefly to introduce brutes, or inanimate nature, as endowed with speech, for the inculcation of virtue, prudence, or political truth.

In Babrius, the chief interlocutors are the Lion and the Fox, especially the former, who figures as the king of beasts with royal title and prerogatives. And there is abundant proof that the lion was in the earliest ages a native of the Pelopnese as well as of Northern Greece. The tiger never appears as a character in Æsopian Fable, though incidentally mentioned once or twice by Babrius (P. I. Fab. xcv. 17-19; cii. 7-9.) It was unknown in Greece until after the expedition of Alexander. The most ancient fable in which it is found bearing a part is that of Avianus (Fab. 17) in the fifth century. The spotted pard, which occurs once in Part II. lxxii. and incidentally in Part I. (Fab. cii. 8), is mentioned in Homer, and is a native of Arabia and Palestine. There seems to have been, even in later times, a constant confusion between the tiger and the leopard.

Besides the domestic animals (the horse, ass, ox, goat sheep, dog, and cat ), we find the wolf and the stag, and occasionally the bear, introduced into these fables. The camel and the ape appear more rarely, and the sow, as an unclean beast, more rarely still. There are two instances of its introduction in the recently discovered portion of Babrius. (Cf. Part II. Fab. lxxiv. lxxv.) The elephant also only finds a place in Fable xli. of second part. The cock, however, plays a very conspicuous part in the Æsopian Fable. (Cf. v. xvii. cxxi. cxxiii.; Part II. xvi.) This bird was a very early importation from Asia into Greece, though after the time of Homer. (CF. Knight’s Proleg. to Hom. § 6.)

On the whole, it may be affirmed that though Babrius occasionally mentions animals of foreign extraction, and known only to the later Greeks, yet he only or chiefly introduces those, as characters in his Fables, which are recognised by the earliest traditions of the Æsopian Fables: a strong argument for the European origin of this class of fiction.

The style of Babrius is justly described as easy, pure, and elegant. Neither, while it is far from being ornate, is it in any degree bald or meagre. He seems to have aimed at that simplicity and clearness which are most essential to the force and point of fable-literature. His plots are, generally, versified forms of the oral or traditional collections, purporting to be those of Æsop. But he here and there apparently introduces some of his own invention, or some which are adapted from others. His epimyth, or moral, constantly differs from that of the parallel prose fable which has come down to us; a remark which suggests the question of the genuineness of these epimyths: into which, as regards Part I., Sir G. C. Lewis has carefully examined, in some MSS. notes, which he has kindly communicated to the translator — the results of which are subjoined.

It now remains that some notice should be taken of the second part of Babrius, edited in 1859 by Sir G. C. Lewis from a transcript by M. Menas of a MS. on Mount Athos; which, with the original of the copy from which the Parisian edition of 1844 was printed, was purchased by the trustees of the British Museum, in 1857. It ahs come to us in a very imperfect state, and far removed from its pristine form, both as to metre and diction. Yet ample marks and traces of Babrius remain in both respects, traces which could not be the result of literary fraud. It appears that at first there was considerable suspicion of forgery with reference to this MS. But in the words of Sir G. C. Lewis, “the undesigned coincidences with the prose Fables are beyond the skill of any forger.” “I have no doubt,” (he adds) “that the MS. of Menas was what it professed to be, namely, a copy from a genuine archetype.” Such also is the opinion of other scholars who at first doubted; and it is one which a comparison of the recovered Fables with the corresponding prose versions will certainly strengthen and confirm.

The second part of Babrius is edited by our English Editor, more briefly than the first. And there are very many sentences in its text, which critical skill can hardly remedy. To translate such is, perhaps, a matter of ingenuity, of which the translator trusts that he has not entirely fallen short; though once or twice he has been obliged to omit a passage, of which he could make literally nothing.

In both parts his great aim has been to produce a version which, while literal, should preserve, as far as lay in his power, the elegance and terseness of the original: a difficult task, in which he can at most hope to have achieved but partial success. It would be ungrateful, before committing the volume to the public, to omit testifying to the ready assistance and kindly encouragement to persevere in a work, in some slight degree akin to his own, which he has received throughout from the distinguished scholar and statesman, who, among other titles, may claim that of being the English editor of Babrius.

Proem I

The race of just men flourish’d first, of old;
Its name, son Branchus, was the “age of gold.”

Third after these was born a brazen race,
And next the god-sprung heroes found their place;
Fifth came a stock depraved, an iron root.
But ’twas the golden age, when every brute
Had voice articulate, in speech was skill’d,
And the mid-forests with its synods fill’d.
The tongues of rock and pine-leaf then were free;
To ship and sailor then would speak the sea;
Sparrows with farmers would shrewd talk maintain;
Earth gave all fruits, nor ask’d for toil again.
Mortals and gods were wont to mix as friends.
To which conclusion all the teaching tends
Of sage old Æsop; him, to whom belong
Fables set forth in free, outspoken song,
These should a place in thy remembrance get;
Therefore for thee this honeycomb I set,
Desirous, as I hive it, to assuage
The harsh Iambic’s bitterness and rage.

Proem II

The Fable. Royal Alexander’s son!
Is a device by Syrians old begun.
Belus and Ninus ruled, when it was young.
And clever Æsop to th’ Hellenic tongue
Gave fables first. The like Cybisas spake
To Libyans. I, in mine, old forms forsake,
And, with gold cheek-piece bitting fiery horse,
Commend my mythiambic to the course.
Yet I no sooner had unbarr’d the door,
Than others enter’d. Theirs the Muse to soar
In griffin-like productions, over-wise;
Tho’ past mine own their knowledge doth not rise.
Now I in simple speech my fables set,
Nor care the famed Iambic’s teeth to whet.
Rather to dull their edge, to soothe their stings,
Aims he, who now this second volume sings.

Fable I.
The Archer and the Lion

A skilful archer the hill country sought,
Intent on sport. His coming quickly brought
To every wild beast fear and headlong flight.
The lion only tarried to invite
The archer’s onslaught. “Haste not! Prythee stay,”
The stranger said; “nor hope to win the day.
“Learn from mine envoy, whom you soon shall meet,
“Your wisest plan.” Forth sped his arrow fleet
From no great distance; and was buried deep
In the beast’s flank. Afraid his post to keep
The wounded lion straight essay’d to fly
To where the lonesome woodland thickets lie.
But, lo! A fox was standing at his side,
Who urg’d him still the archer’s shafts to bide.
“Not so!” the lion said; “beguile not me!
“Yon envoy came but now so bitterly,
“That doubly fierce his master needs must be.”

The Husbandman Who Had Lost His

Trenching his vineyard once a husbandman
His mattock lost; and to inquire began,
If it had gone by any workman’s theft.
But each denied. When no resource was left,
To put them on their oaths, he took them all
Up to the city. ’Tis our wont to call
The country gods poor folks: but those who dwell
In walls, we deem, are true, and order well.
Now in a fountain in the foregate street
The party stay’d to rest, and wash’d their feet.
Just then the crier rich rewards was telling
To him who’d show who robb’d the sacred dwelling.
The farmer heard, and said, “My journey’s vain!
“If the god knows not, who has robbed his fane,
“And but from men, for bribes, the news receives,
“How can he know, or find out, other thieves?”

The Goatherd and the She Goat

A Goatherd wish’d to gather home his flock;
Some came; some tarried; on a cleft of rock
The fragrant shoots of mastich and goatsrue
One she-goat into disobedience drew.
Quickly the hireling lifted up a stone,
Which brake her horn, tho’ from a distance thrown.
And now he sued her: “Goat and fellow-slave,
“By Pan, the patron of these glens, I crave,
“Do not thou to my lord this act proclaim,
“I meant not that the stone should take good aim.”
“Nay, how,” said she, “a plain fact can I hide?
“My horn is telltale, tho’ my tongue be tied.”

The Fisherman and the Fish

His late-cast net ashore a fisher drew,
Enclosing fish, not all alike nor few;
The smallest, taking flight, contrived to get
Safe through the bottom of the meshy net,
Whilst in the ship the greater emptied lay.

’Tis surely safe, and farthest from harm’s way,
To be but small: for you shall seldom see
The high in rank escape calamity.

The Young Cocks

Two Tanagræan cocks a fight began;
Their spirit is, ’tis said, as that of man;
Of these the beaten bird, a mass of blows,
For shame into a corner creeping goes;
The other to the housetop quickly flew,
And there in triumph flapped his wings, and crew.
But him an eagle lifted from the roof,
And bore away. His fellow gain’d a proof
That oft the wages of defeat are best,
None else remain’d the hens to interest.

Wherefore, O man, beware of boastfulness,
Should fortune lift thee, others to depress,
Many are saved by lack of her caress.

The Fisherman and the Little Fish

A fisherman, who all the seashore drain’d,
While he with slender rod sweet life maintain’d,
Once caught with horsehair line a tiny fish,
Ill-suited for the frying-pan or dish.
The gasping fish its captor thus besought:
“What am I worth? For what shall I be bought?
“I’m not half-grown! whom on yon rocky shore
“My mother in the sea-weed lately bore.
“Now let me go; oh, kill me not in vain,
“And you shall catch me when you come again,
“On sea-weed food ere then grown large and fine,
“And meet to grace a board, where rich men dine.”
As thus she prayed, she raised a piteous moan
And panted much; but the old man was stone.
Vain was her hope with winning words to plead;
He said, while piercing her with ruthless reed:

“Who holds not fast a small but certain prize,
Is but a fool, to seek uncertainties.”

The Horse and the Ass

A man, who kept a horse, along the way
Unladen used to lead him, and to lay
His burden on an aged ass, who groaned,
And coming to the horse his fate bemoaned.
“Wouldst thou but share my load, I might survive,”
Said he, “but else I sha’n’t be long alive.”
“Move on,” the other cried; “don’t worry me!”
The ass crept on reproved; and presently
Sank under toil, and died as he had said;
His master therefore set the horse instead
Beside him, shifted all the weight, and laid
This and the ass’s skin, when it was flay’d,
With all its trappings, on the horse’s back:
He cried, “Ah, ill advised! alack, alack!
“I would not bear a part, however small;
“And now constraint hath laid upon me all.”

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