Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.41

J. Vaio, The Mythiambi of Babrius. Notes on the Constitution of the Text. Spudasmata, 83.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2001.  Pp. liv, 176.  ISBN 3-487-11438-0.  EUR 35.80.  

Reviewed by Victoria Jennings, Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for European Studies & General Linguistics, University of Adelaide, South Australia (
Word count: 2328 words

A contemporary guide through -- and to -- the text of Babrius has long been desired. Vaio (henceforth, V.) does not claim to fill this gap, but his scrupulous emendations, annotations and general comments on textual problems in Prologue I and 87 of the 143 extant fables ("mythiambi") are an important contribution to Babrian scholarship. Users of Luzzatto & La Penna's "Teubner" and Perry's "Loeb" (and his monumental Aesopica) will benefit from V.'s painstaking autopsy.1

The monograph falls into two parts. In the first, V. offers a helpful overview "for the reader's convenience" (xxii) of the sources from which the 143 fables have been gathered and assigned to 'Babrius': the paraphrastic tradition, indirect sources (e.g., quotation in the Suda: "by far the most important of the indirect witnesses", xxix; cf. xli-xlii), imitators (Avianus, Syntipas, etc.), the Aesopic tradition outside Babrius (e.g., the Augustana recension; fables in Latin), and indirect and direct witnesses. With welcome clarity, V. illuminates the direct -- and indirect -- MS tradition, offering a cogent survey/collation of the Athoan codex (A = BM Add. MS 22087), Morgan MS 397 (G) and Vaticanus graecus 777 (V) -- among other sources -- and highlighting evidence of metrical form (a problematic area for Babrian scholars: V.'s discussion of the metre of the Suda "quotation" from fable 65 demonstrates his skill in this area: p.96f.). V.'s collation of these manuscripts does not necessarily duplicate Luzzatto's very thorough work: V.'s re-examination is based, predominantly, on autopsy; Luzzatto, as V. notes (xxii), collated from photocopies. V. is quick to offer useful guidance to the reader: for example, discussing the tricky paraphrastic tradition (drawn upon by editors desirous of reconstructing lost choliambics: MS Ba is most cited -- Bodl. Auct. F.4.7), V. rapidly summarizes the pros and cons of various editions.

V. progresses to the problems associated with determining "affinities and relations of the MSS" (xxxi). It seems as though everyone -- ancient, medieval and modern -- has had a go at "tinkering" (Rutherford, lxxxvii2) with the text of Babrius: corruption and interpolation are rife. Rutherford suggested that the use of Babrius' fables as a school text further contributed to this textual chaos (cf. V., xxxii); since his 1883 edition, the extent of interference has been graphically demonstrated by the famous "waxen tablets with fables of Babrius",3 the product of "the overtaxed schoolboy" (V., p.154) making a confused attempt at dictation (xxii, xxxi ff.). By late antiquity a number of recensions apparently existed, presenting the fables in different sequences (xxxii). V. offers his own view of the MSS affiliations, bravely favouring complexity against Luzzatto and others who see (only) two ancient recensions from a single archetype (xxxii & n.40). V. presents his case clearly, beginning from the problem of the sequence of the fables in MSS (alphabetical?) as opposed to their probable "radically different" (xxxiii) Ur-form (i.e., non-alphabetical as in the papyri). Obviously, I over-simplify an argument of great complexity, but V.'s assumption that there cannot be a closed recension is easy to favour and is supported by his different reading of the material upon which Luzzatto based her stemmatic reconstruction (xxxv-xli). V. emphasizes -- with examples -- the distinction between epimythia and promythia in the codices to develop his case: "historically and formally epi-mythia (A V) stand apart from pro-mythia ([found in the paraphrase] Ba)" -- and the promythia of Ba differ "significantly" from the epimythia of A and MS V. For V., "the prose epimythia should be considered a form of interpolation and accordingly treated as indices of affiliation between (or among) the MSS" (xl).

V. concludes -- and we cannot argue -- that "[t]he MSS tradition is to some degree open... [h]ypothetical relations among the MSS do not take us very far in evaluating the text... [w]e cannot rely solely on the consensus of any two MSS to justify retention or rejection of any given variant..." (xl-xli). In sum, "[d]etection of interpolation and choice between (or among) variants must be based on analysis of sense, style, syntax, prosody, and meter" (xli). This series of sensible conclusions ought to be applied more often to other works of "popular literature" with bastardised textual histories; so, for example, in his discussion of fable 3, V. provides an illustration of the almost unmarked interpolation of later glosses into the text (p.17; likewise, cf. fable 12.17, p.33; see Rutherford's similar warning, lxxxii).

V. then turns to the 61 versified Babrian epimythia (the concluding morals): how many are genuine (see, for example, V.'s discussion of fable 9: p.25f.)? This question has been the subject of polemical debate -- the Teubner co-editors often disagree -- not to mention fashion: some editors remove all; others retain all or a majority (xlii-xliii); then again, perhaps only three are even potentially genuine (xliv)! Papyri are evidence for epimythia in the third century AD, and, as V. summarizes (xliii), Luzzatto argued plausibly that all metrical epimythia can be dated to the third/fourth centuries AD. As V. warns, this is not proof of the authenticity of all Babrian epimythia, as MSS interpolation and omission is considerable (xliv-xlv; cf. p.138 on fable 98: "The original ending of this fable has been lost beyond recall, thanks to the horde of anonymous interpolators and epimythiasts that so often plague the text of Babrius."): "each moral must be tested on it own merits on the basis of internal criteria" (xlv), viz, metre, prosody and syntax, "applicability" (e.g., some epimythia misunderstand their fable: see, after Crusius, the "mangelhaftes Verstan+ndnis" of fable 9's epimythium -- V., p.25), "sense and style" (e.g., do epimythia offer only "vacuous generalizations"?) and "Luck's rule" (quoted, with caveat, by V., xlvii: "Eine Babrius-Fabel mit direkter Reder hätte entweder keine Moral, oder sie wäre in den Wörten des letzten Sprechers gleichsam eingebaut.").4 Taken by themselves, none of these internal criteria is conclusive; when V. takes the criteria together, the results are most plausible.

In concluding the first part of his work, V. turns to the problem of interpolation and curtailment: are there entire, interpolated fables (i.e., the tetrasticha and the longer fables)? V.'s brief overview of the problem is adequate, and timely, given the re-issue in English of Adrados' history of the fable: Adrados has much to say on this problem.5 Finally, V. examines evidence for a second edition of the fables by Babrius himself; he concludes that there is more evidence against, than for, this argument (li-lii), but we may, in a number of cases, face the possibility of a (superior?!) imitator. Part two (pp.1-169) offers V.'s application of the principles outlined in part one to Prologue I and 87 of the fables: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 34, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 45, 47, 48, 50, 52, 53, 55, 56, 59, 60, 63, 64, 65, 67, 68, 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 87, 88, 91, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 102, 103, 105, 106, 107, 110, 111, 115, 116, 123, 126, 127, 128, 134, and 142. V.'s "notes on the constitution of the text" range from a small but pertinent paragraph on a single word (e.g., fable 1.9: resolved by autopsy and metrical analysis; fable 41.4: explanation of previous MS misreadings improves Perry's -- and Luzzatto's -- text) to 6 interesting pages on fable 64 and (the largest entry) 15 pages on Prologue I. Correction and emendation are generally minor (for example, additions to Luzzatto's apparatus in fables 3.1-3 and 4.8; corrections in 60.5), but V.'s careful analysis of textual adherence to the internal criteria, outlined above, produces defensible, reasoned and sensitive results which must improve the text.

Let me give a few examples. Fable 6, line 2: most editors favour reading the fisherman τὸν γλυκὺν βίον σῴζων, where σῴζων is conjectured for MSS A & [corrected] G's ζώων. V. supports ζώων, favoured also by Luzzatto. σῴζων has been preferred because of a supposed parallel in fable 76.9 -- the wretched horse τὸ πνεῦμα σῴζων. V.'s reasoning for choosing ζώων is eminently logical: unlike the neglected horse -- eking out existence on "wretched straw" (Perry) -- the life of the fisherman is emphatically "sweet"; and, further, V. offers Od. 15.491: ζώεις δ' ἀγαθὸν βίον. As V. notes on fable 31 (p.62), "[t]here are other Homeric touches in Babrius" (cf. fable 128.11f., p.165f.).

A conjectured Homerism may also be seen in fable 43, another good example of V.'s detective work. The principal witnesses are MS A and the intriguing Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae; the latter omit lines 6-10, and other lines are "defective and corrupt" (Perry). Line 6 is found in the Suda, and P.Oxy. 1249 provides the beginning of line 19. On line 1, MS A reads Ἔλαφος κεράστης ὑπὸ τὸ καῦμα διψήσας. The tablet (π2 in V.'s sigla = Leiden BPC 109) presents a conundrum, offering two lines in place of A's one. Autopsy and careful consideration of previous editorial supplement and conjecture allow V. to restore the following from a difficult text (counting the gaps is tricky: "The schoolboy's letters vary in size ...", p.71):

1a: Ἔλαφος [ποδώκ]ης εὔκερως ἀχαιί̈ν[ης

1b: βοτάν]ης κορεσθεὶς ἣν [νάπ]αι[σι γῆ] φύει,

V. turns to the question of authenticity: Perry, for instance, judged 1a "genuine" but 1b interpolated -- "otiose". In his Loeb edition, he prints 1a in place of A's 1, but omits 1b. Other editors regard MS A as superior. V. offers the alternatives (and their adherents): (1) π2 is original and was shortened and altered in A; (2) 1a is genuine; 1b is interpolated; (3) A is superior. On stylistic grounds, V. favours retention of 1a and 1b: the lines add to the "note of youth and attendant folly"; ἀχαιί̈νης is found in 95.87, of a foolish deer; βοτάνης κορεσθεὶς (conjectured [not by V.] with the parallel of Od. 10.411: see V., p.71 n.262) is a "less prosaic motivation of thirst" than A's offering, etc.: "These all have the appearance of authentic touches" (p.72). V. offers another possible case of A's abbreviation of two lines into one (65.1), pointing out that A omits other "probably genuine" lines elsewhere. Moreover, when π2 differs from A, the difference is in contraction and omission, not introduction of "themes important to the narrative and...superior in style to v.1 (A)" (p.73). In addition, V. raises the interesting question of other sources of influence on A: A shares similarities with the Augustana version (Aesopica 74) and Ba's paraphrase -- can we "add unoriginality to our list of stylistic criteria" (p.72)? V. can certainly build a plausible and objective case for preferring π2 against A in this case.

On one notable occasion -- the only case where V.'s input could be deemed superfluous -- V. is checkmated by his own sensitivity to subjectivity. Discussing line 6 in fable 19 (the famous "fox and grapes"), V.'s scrupulous honesty in textual matters, confused by differing and difficult variants, leads him to conclude contra Rutherford (lxxxi) that, "metrical and prosodic criteria are not decisive" in determining which variant (A G against the Suda) of line 6 to choose. Then V. turns to stylistic analysis: redundancy in the Suda's two lines (against one line in A G, supported by the paraphrase) would seem to indicate -- with Perry and Luzzatto among others -- that A G's one line should stand. But V. wavers -- "stylistic criteria are inherently subjective" -- and prints a parallel text retaining both readings. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this; as V. notes in his discussion of fable 68, "In a tradition such as this, an editor is sometimes compelled to present alternate versions" (p.102; cf. V.'s text of fable 88.13ff., p.130). Elsewhere, V. can also adduce a case where the Suda reference should receive precedence over A (fable 103). One should not argue with V.'s caution -- sometimes the text is indeed "beyond help" or "reasonable hope" (p.110 on fable 73.2; p.155 on 126.1-2).

V. offers a plausible argument for retaining A's reading in fable 56. The ape-mother enters her son in a babies' beauty contest organized by Zeus. Line 3 reads, ἦλθεν δὲ καὶ πίθηκος, ὡς καλὴ μήτηρ. In place of the seemingly inapposite (cf. Pindar Pythian2.72-73) καλὴ editors have conjectured καλοῦ, καλὸν and οὐ καλὴ μήτηρ . V. does not cite Rutherford's note on this problem (p.59: "The extraordinary conjectures which the words ὡς καλὴ μήτηρ have called forth suggest the suspicion that their authors were ignorant of the common idiomatic use of ὡς, = νομίζουσα καλὴ μήτηρ εἶναι."), and suggests reading καλὴ not in the sense of "beauty", but rather "excellent", "blameless": "By entering her unprepossessing son in the contest, the maternal ape is in fact acting 'like a good mother'" (p.82). This interpretation gains in piquancy when one considers, in general, the "aping" behaviour of apes, and, in particular, reading this fable against, for instance, Semonides' ape-woman.6 Cf. Avianus' monkey-mother, dum generis crimen sic abolere cupit (14.12). After all, we remember Babrius' claim -- πικρῶν ἰάμβων σκληρὰ κῶλα θηλύνας(Prologue I.19). There is a lot more to this fable than meets the eye.

These examples offer a glimpse of V.'s attentive efforts. The book concludes with an index of passages discussed (from Babrius and related Aesopica). A bibliography of editions and secondary sources is at the beginning, and is quite full: I note that Ferrari's review of Luzzatto & La Penna, and Luzzatto's spirited response, appear in the footnotes but not in the bibliography.7 The work contains a lot of Greek text: I could not find any errors of import; this monograph is well-produced (notwithstanding, "Luzatto": xxiii, n.6; "I the meantime...": p.149). It is a careful book which, while not tackling the big questions -- who was Babrius and when did he write (V. does note some Second Sophistic parallels) -- will find a place in the reference library of scholars interested in the textual history of Greek fables.


1.   Luzzatto, M.J. & La Penna, A. (1986) Babrii Mythiambi Aesopei Leipzig: B.G. Teubner. Their text (prologue 1, fables 1-80, and complete apparatus criticus edited by Luzzatto; fables 81-143 and Addenda by La Penna) is more than serviceable and the apparatus is extraordinarily detailed, but disagreements abound (not least between the co-editors, as V. notes accurately). Perry, B.E. (1965) Babrius and Phaedrus "Loeb Classical Library" Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press. 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. V.'s monograph is dedicated to Perry.
2.   Since publication there have been a number of significant MS and papyrus discoveries, but Rutherford's 1883 edition is still very valuable. Rutherford, W.G. (1883) Babrius. Edited with Introductory Dissertations, Critical Notes, Commentary, and Lexicon London: Macmillan & Co.
3.   Hesseling, D.C. (1892-1893) "On Waxen Tablets with Fables of Babrius (Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae)" JHS 13: 293-314, plates XIII-XIX.
4.   Luck, G. (1967) Review of Perry (1965) in Gnomon 39: 566-572. Quotation: p.569. I have corrected V.'s "order" to "oder".
5.   Adrados, F.R. (1979-1987) Historia de la fabula greco-latina (3 volumes) Madrid: Editorial de la Universidad Complutense. See I. 118ff. and, particularly, II. 175ff. Translated as: 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. See pp.100-119. Adrados, F.R. (2000) History of the Graeco-Latin Fable. Volume Two: The Fable during the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages Revised and updated with G.-J. van Dijk. Translated by L.A.Ray. Mnemosyne Supplement 207; Leiden: Brill. See pp.175-220.
6.   Cf. McDermott, W.C. (1935) "The ape in Greek literature" TAPhA 66: 165-176.
7.   Ferrari, F. (1988) review of Luzzatto & La Penna in RFIC 116: 90-96. Luzzatto, M.J. (1989) "Babriana" Prometheus 15: 269-80. See also La Penna, A. (1988) "Di una mia pretesa proposta ametrica. A proposito della recente edizione di Babrio" RFIC 116: 502-504.

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