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 in the Vatican library, several Fables before unpublished, which added greatly to the Babrian remains; for though in the form of prose, they were found easily reducible into Choliambic verse, into which they had been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.