Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.29

N. Holzberg, Die antike Fabel: eine Einführung.   Darmstadt:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001.  Pp. vi, 150.  ISBN 3-534-15040-6.  

Reviewed by Dr. Victoria Jennings, Centre for European Studies & General Linguistics University, South Australia (
Word count: 1521 words

This is the second edition ("verbesserte und erweiterte") of Holzberg's (henceforth H.'s) favourably received 1993 overview of fable in Greek and Latin prose and verse literature.1 This edition remains an ideal prologue to the subject: a useful, well-referenced, and blessedly short introduction to the place of fable in the ancient world. As such, this reviewer thoroughly agrees with the blurb's claim for this "Einführung" ("die einen Überblick über die Geschichte der Gattung in der Antike mit einer modernen literaturwissenschaftlichen Interpretation der Texte verbindet.") and recommends this book to anyone interested in where fable studies are "at" in 2001.

The second edition is unchanged in format from the first, nor have there been radical changes to the content. It is beautifully produced (the cover offers an illustration of the famous Vatican "Aesop and fox" vase), and I could find no glaring typographical errors. There are three chapters: fables as "Exempla" in Greek and Latin literature (pp.13-42), books of fables in verse (pp.43-79) and books of prose fables (pp.80-116). Each chapter contains bibliographical essays on relevant scholarship before 1993, supplemented at the end of the volume with a "Bibliographischer Nachtrag zur 2.Auflage". In addition there are two bibliographies at the end of the volume which alone make this book worth obtaining: that from the first edition (scholarship prior to 1993) and additions from 1993 to 2000. The latter is a fascinating indicator of scholarly trends: while there has been an explosion of interest in the Life of Aesop (discussed by H., pp.80-93) from 1993-2001, the Latin fable tradition has received little attention.2

In the introduction H. offers a summary of the extant Text corpora which he will examine: (a) verse fable collections/books (Phaedrus, Babrius, Avianus); (b) anonymous prose fable collections/books (the Life and Fables of Aesop, the Augustana collection--dated by H. to the second or third centuries AD--and the Aesopus Latinus of the fourth century AD). H. notes that the great boom in fable studies from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards nevertheless failed to produce a complete, standard edition of all extant fables; instead, the scholar is faced with numerous variously ordered and inventoried editions: H. summarizes briefly the pros and cons of editions by Chambry (1925), Hausrath (1940-1956) and Perry (1952); and suggests, rightly, rejecting that of Halm; he also notes various translations into English and German. H. discusses that the 'field' of fable studies is, literally, "ein Trümmerfeld". Work has generally re-trod well-worn tracks: the history of fable, the 'genre' of fable, the Urform of fable--reconstructing fable collections and producing unwieldy and often incomplete inventories of fables. One can only agree: books about fable collections come in one size--extra-large--and the fable scholar soon develops very strong arm muscles juggling two volumes by Nójgaard (for whom H. has an unfashionable but well-defended admiration), three by Adrados (four, five and six with the new English translations? See BMCR 2001.05.01), two by Perry, and one by van Dijk (appearing after the first edition of H.'s book but rightly praised in the second edition as "ein Standardwerk").3 It is H.'s intention to offer an antidote to the situation in which, all too often, fables are seen as "nicht Produkte einer künstlerischen Intention, sondern Gebrauchstexte."

In Chapter One ("Fabeln als Exempel in Dichtung und Prosa"), beginning from the definition of the fable in Aristotle's Rhetoric, H. traces fable's earliest appearances in the Greek world, arguing that fable undoubtedly came to Greece from the Near East. H. discusses the historicity of "Aesop"--not inventor of fable, but probably involved in the introduction of fable to Greece. H. makes the important point that the faces of fable are manifold: fable appears in many literary contexts with different functions; fable crosses generic boundaries. H. continues his chronological survey, discussing Demetrius of Phalerum's "collection" as rhetorical Promptuarium (among other things--if only it were extant we might have a better idea, though P.Rylands does provide hints), before moving on to our earliest extant collections, of imperial date. Many authors of the first to fourth centuries AD draw on, invent and allude to fables (H. discusses Dio of Prusa, Lucian and Apuleius in particular), and the period also sees the appearance of editions of Lives of Aesop and much emphasis on the function of fables in rhetorical contexts (progymnasmata) and as paedagogical tools (H. notes school text papyri). Finally, H. discusses fables in Latin literature (with copious references), particularly in satiric contexts.

Chapter Two ("Versfabelbücher") is divided into three sections, concentrating on the verse fable books of Phaedrus, Babrius and Avianus; each section concludes with a useful bibliographical essay. H.'s analysis of (tripartite) structure and language in Phaedrus' verse fables is subtle and persuasive, as is his discussion of the verse-fable "book" itself as a specifically Roman phenomenon. A brief biographical sketch (and discussion of the biographical problems) integrates Phaedrus into an urban, Roman world; H. makes persuasive links to other contemporary authors' themes and concerns and provides useful comparisons to earlier source material. H. is equally good on the subject of Babrius' Mythiamboi, the second part of this chapter. Babrius is another mysterious character (it is surely significant how many characters associated with fable remain as shadowy as Aesop himself), and the fables offer some tantalising mysteries. Drawing on Nójgaard's discussion of Babrius, H. offers sensible discussion of the (alphabetical?) arrangement of Babrius' collection, internal structure and symmetry of the fables, the role of fables as exempla (Phaedrus' "fabula docet"), problems of sources and original composition, and, finally, suggestions about the mysterious addressee of the fable book. The third and final section of this chapter moves to the 42 verse fables of Avianus. H. stresses the need to contextualize Avianus among his close peers, such as Ausonius, as well as his predecessors (particularly Ovid) to analyse how Avianus uses and reuses his literary past: there is a lot more to Avianus than mere "Schulautor". In all, H. provides a fascinating discussion of the neglected Avianus--certainly the most stimulating account I have encountered.

Chapter Three ("Prosafabelbücher") focuses on, first, "Das Buch Leben und Fabeln Äsops". Again, H. breaks down a complex topic into bite-sized, pieces, achieving great clarity in the process. Many manuscripts containing fable collections also contain, in a variety of forms and lengths, a biography of Aesop. H. is, of course, master of this topic--the volume he edited in 1992 of the Life of Aesop transformed Aesopic studies.4 H. summarizes the important manuscripts featuring prose fable collections (the Augustana collection), noting the importance of the Pierpont Morgan Library's G(rottaferrata) manuscript for establishing an archetype of Life and Fables; he also emphasizes the self-referential nature of the Life in chapter 100, where Aesop is said to write down his fables and deposit them with Croesus of Lydia. H. discusses authorship (or lack of) of fable collections and dating criteria, and suggests that a close analysis of the structure of the Life and individual fables provides rich pickings. A discussion of the Life in terms of folk motifs and the structure of folktale is tendered, and H.'s previous analyses of the tripartite structure of episodes in the Life and the overall triptych structure of the Life are offered again. I remain unconvinced that forcing this structure on the Life aids our reading, but H. is persuasive enough to make me re-read his arguments with an open mind. The question of the Augustana collection's origins and structure is highly complex, and the second half of H.'s discussion of "Leben und Fabeln Äsops" is very hard going for an English reader. But it is interesting stuff and has been the catalyst for recent studies on the Augustana collection, such as that by Zafiropoulos.5 In the second part of the chapter ("Der Aesopus Latinus"), Holzberg reasserts his authority, taking the reader on paths seldom travelled (in fact, does such esoteric material have a place in an "introduction" to fable?): prose paraphrases given the "Aesop" stamp of genuine merchandise by the addition of dedications/letters from "Aesop" to "Rufus" (perhaps the "Xanthus" of the Life) and "Romulus" (the first) to his son (?) "Tiberinus". The manuscript recensions are particularly tricky, but Holzberg finds a way through, providing a neat summary of a highly complex area and suggesting, plausibly, that the Urform of this Latin Aesopus is a "Prosa-Phaedrus". As H. warns, this conclusion is tentative and requires considerable further work, beyond the scope of eine Einfürung; but H. has laid the groundwork for future, undoubtedly significant, investigations.

In sum, this book is a clear and orderly overview of a complex and problematic topic. This book will not tell you everything you ever wanted to know about fable--on that score it is indeed only eine Einführung. But in other respects it is so much more, and attractive to both the interested layperson and the scholar. Moving away--thankfully--from previous catalogue-cum-philological monographs, this is a book of ideas and suggestions about ways to think about the composition of fables and fable collections in the ancient world. When the first edition appeared it was certainly the most exciting and approachable book on the ancient fable on the market--and the second edition reinforces this conclusion: this book is essential reading.


1.   Reviewed, for example, by G-J. van Dijk at Mnemosyne 50 (1997) 603-609.
2.   We can now add Henderson, J. (2001) Telling Tales on Caesar: Roman stories from Phaedrus Oxford University Press, 2001.
3.   The texts referred to are: Perry, B.E. (1952) Aesopica. A series of texts relating to Aesop or ascribed to him or closely connected with the literary tradition that bears his name. Collected and critically edited, in part translated from Oriental languages, with a commentary and historical essay. I: Greek and Latin Texts Urbana: University of Illinois Press; supplemented by Perry's Loeb Classical Library edition of Babrius and Phaedrus (1965) Nójgaard, M. La fable antique (2 volumes) Kóbenhavn: NYT Nordisk Forlag (1964-67) and Arnold Busck Adrados, F.R. (1979-1987) Historia de la fabula greco-latina (3 volumes) Madrid: Editorial de la Universidad Complutense Adrados, F.R. (1999) History of the Graeco-Latin Fable. Volume One: Introduction and From the origins to the Hellenistic age Revised and updated with G.-J. van Dijk. Translated by L.A.Ray. Mnemosyne Supplement 201; Leiden: Brill Dijk, G-J. van (1997) αἶνοι, λόγοι, μῦθοι: fables in archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greek literature, with a study of the theory and terminology of the genre Mnemosyne Supplement 166; Leiden: Brill. Reviewed at BMCR 98.5.18.
4.   Holzberg, N. (ed.) (1992) Der Äsop-Roman: Motivgeschichte und Erzählstruktur Classica Monacensia 6; Tübingen: Gunter Narr
5.   Zafiropoulos, C.A. Ethics in Aesop's Fables: the Augustana Collection Mnemosyne Supplement 216; Leiden: Brill, 2001.

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