Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.25

J.Th. Papademetriou, Aesop as an Archetypal Hero. Studies and Research 39.   Athens:  Hellenic Society for Humanistic Studies, 1997.  Pp. 111.  ISBN 960-7184-36-X (pb).  

Reviewed by Laura Gibbs, UC Berkeley (
Word count: 1563 words

After having been out of print for many years, Lloyd Daly's English translation of the Life of Aesop has recently been reprinted in Hansen's Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (1998). The Life of Aesop is a tantalizing document, and has received little scholarly attention, despite its importance both for ancient Greek culture and also for later European literature (for example, the Life was translated into English and published by Caxton in 1484). Papademetriou's book (or what might be better described as a booklet), Aesop as an Archetypal Hero, is about the Aesop described in the Life of Aesop, who is first and foremost an "ugly" Aesop. Papademetriou attempts to provide a Greek pedigree for an ugly hero of this type, while adding some comments about the fate of the "ugly" Aesop in later European comic traditions. Given the brevity of P.'s treatment of the subject, it is perhaps not surprising that P. raises here more questions than he answers.

In Chapter One, P. proposes to analyze "Aesop's Depiction: Its Origins, Style, and Influence in Antiquity and Byzantium." After citing the description of the "ugly" Aesop found in the Life, P. juxtaposes this ugly hero to the stereotypically "beautiful" heroes of the Greek romances. P. maintains that "a comparison with the so-called sophistic romances is in order since they are [close] to the Aesop Romance both chronologically and as a genre" (17). P.'s association of the Life of Aesop with the romances is problematic at best. While the dating of the Life of Aesop remains an open question, it is clear that much of the Life is based on motifs and materials that are centuries older than the romances of the Second Sophistic; moreover, as a fundamentally folkloric document, the Life follows a compositional logic that is quite different from those Greek novels, which are clearly literary productions. Even more puzzling is P.'s argument that the Life has something in common with the romances as a genre, when in fact the Life of Aesop has none of the sentimentality or pathos, much less the romance, which must be called the key components of the Greek novels. P. concludes that "Aesop's appearance is a world apart from the idealized beauty in the heroes in the novels and seems to be unique in its ugliness" (18). While it is certainly true that Aesop is a world away from the romance heroes, it is hardly a unique position: for example, Aesop would seem to be happily at home in the world of comedy (especially Aristophanes and Plautus), but this is not a line of comparison which P. explores.

Following his discussion of the novels, P. then proceeds to cite some comparisons drawn from the physiognomic tradition, looking for what he calls "physiognomonic influences" (23) in the description of Aesop in the Life. Again, P.'s procedure here begs some important methodological questions: P. discusses the possible influence of physiognomic writers on the writer(s) of the Life of Aesop, without attempting to identify a cultural model of "ugliness" as evidenced in the social attitudes and practices of ancient Greece and Rome. For example, Robert Garland's recent book on this topic, The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (1995), assembles abundant evidence for "ugliness" of all sorts in the ancient world; in particular, Garland discusses the special status accorded to deformed slaves (including a few, extremely interesting remarks about the "ugly" Aesop depicted in the Life). P., however, has almost nothing to say about Greek or Roman society, and is instead intent on detecting authorial influences, even when he is dealing with texts that are notoriously difficult to date and filled with cultural stereotypes of the most common sort.

Following his discussion of the physiognomic writers, P. then seems to begin an analysis of Homer's Thersites, although it is not clear what P. seeks to prove here: since he has decided to associate the Life of Aesop both chronologically and generically with the romances of the Second Sophistic, he cannot make the kind of argument that Gregory Nagy has proposed (in The Best of the Achaeans) which would hold that Aesop and Thersites are central figures for an understanding of the archaic Greek pharmakos. After some general remarks about Thersites's ugliness, P. then quickly moves through a series of other "ugly" literary portraits: a bow-legged general in Archilochus (fr. 60 Diehl, 114 West); Socrates as described in both Plato and Xenophon; a pair of horses, one good and one bad, described in Plato's Phaedrus; a similar discussion of dog breeds in Xenophon's Kunegetikos; a turtle in Sophocles's Ikhneutai; and finally Strepsiades's defiant self-description in Aristophanes' The Clouds. On this basis, P. concludes that the "ugly" Aesop of the Life is "anchored in Greek literary tradition and falls within the scope of its practices and conventions, [constituting] a synthesis and culmination of tendencies and features diffused in earlier Greek (and Roman) tradition" (39-40). Given the limited materials cited by P. and the highly abbreviated discussion, it is not clear what "practices and conventions" are actually involved here, much less in what sense the Life of Aesop constitutes "a synthesis and culmination" of that (literary? folkloric? comic? socio-cultural?) tradition.

In Chapter Two, P. moves on to "Recasting an Archetype: Croce's Bertoldo." Croce's Bertoldo, published in Italian 1606, is one of the most extraordinary examples of a folklore genre that is perhaps best known through the adventures of Till Eulenspiegel. P. seems to believe that the similarities between the ugly Bertoldo and the ugly Aesop mean that the Life of Aesop was the "model" for Croce's Bertoldo (48), despite what appear to be simply generic similarities between the two texts. P. nevertheless maintains that "it is remarkable that two such detailed, seemingly exhaustive descriptions of such farcically ugly persons have so few individual features in common, as if Croce had deliberately set out to avoid repetition as he was imitating Aesop's portrayal and borrowed its style." This awkward and improbable argument for influence belies the reference to "archetypes" in the title of P.'s study. What Aesop and Bertoldo have in common are in fact jokes, cliches, and comical motifs which are hardly confined to these texts and which are instead part of a Greco-Roman comic heritage (or even a world heritage of comedy, if we want to speak in terms of "archetypes"). For example, P. cites a scene in which the king asks Bertoldo where he was born, and Bertoldo evasively answers, "I was born where my mother gave birth to me." In the Life of Aesop, Aesop's future master asks Aesop where he was born, and Aesop answers "My mother didn't tell me whether it was in the bedroom or the dining room." P. does not, however, cite the same scene as rehearsed in Plautus's Persa (630 ff.), where the parasite's daughter, asked by the pimp where she was born, evasively replies that her mother told her she was born in the kitchen. (This scene from the Persa shows quite clearly the need to analyze at least some elements of the Life of Aesop in conjunction with the stock characters and plots of Greek and Roman comedy.)

In Chapter Three, P. provides a cursory discussion of the European picaresque novel, taking Lazarillo de Tormes of 1554 as his main example. Like P.'s analysis of the relationship between Aesop and Bertoldo, the discussion of Lazarillo points out some vague similarities between the two texts but these parallels again seem to depend on the recycling of common folkloric motifs rather than on what could be called literary influence. Chapter Four provides a similarly inconclusive discussion of the relationship between Aesop and Karaghiozes, the hunch-backed hero of modern Greek shadow theater. P.'s analysis does little to further our understanding of either hero: "They are both uneducated and deprived of material goods, two disadvantages for which they somehow make up through their wits. They also share a tendency to become involved in confrontations with other people, including persons who hold power over them" (81). Such questions of power, oppression, and protest are obviously relevant to the Aesopic tradition in ancient Greece and Rome, but P. does not provide any detailed discussion of this difficult topic, much less a thorough analysis of the link between this narrative aspect of Aesop's identity and his characteristic "ugliness."

Although it would certainly be profitable at some point to undertake a comparative study of the similarities and differences exemplified by such comic folkheroes as Aesop, Bertoldo, Till Eulenspiegel and the rest, there is still an immense amount of work yet to be done on the specific roles and functions associated with Aesop in the ancient Greek and Roman tradition, including the social and literary significance of Aesop's exceptional "ugliness" and his equally exceptional wit. As the bibliography in the back of P.'s book attests, there are not many studies of the Life of Aesop in modern scholarship, and almost none available in English. Hopefully the publication of P.'s work here in English will prompt further work in the field.

Works Cited

Garland, Robert. The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Hansen, William (ed.). Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

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