Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.16

Corinne Jouanno, Vie d'Ésope. Livre du philosophe Xanthos et son esclave Ésope. Du mode de vie d'Ésope.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2006.  Pp. 265.  ISBN 2-251-33947-7.  €23.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Victoria Jennings, University of Adelaide (
Word count: 1450 words

Jouanno's Vie d'Ésope is a fine addition to the fascinating and eccentric 'La Roue à Livres' series from Les Belles Lettres. It features a useful introduction to the Life of Aesop and Aesop himself, a lively translation of recension G[rottaferrata] of the text, and a valuable section detailing variants and supplements from other versions. The rest of the volume consists of end-notes, a select bibliography and an index of proper names. Although this edition does not provide a Greek text, it will be essential to anyone interested in the Life and its broader milieux.

Introduction (pp. 9-57): starting from that familiar question, 'Ésope a-t-il existé?', J. leads a lightning tour through the testimonia to Aesop-the-man/slave/inventor of fable, followed by an overview of fable and its reception. Then we move to the texts of the Life. J.'s persistent reminders that a multiplicity of Lives exist (and, by implication, a multiplicity of Aesops) are one of this volume's most valuable features. J. also notes that while the Life draws on material 'beaucoup plus ancienne', some episodes might suggest that, 'c'est probablement dans ce contexte intellectuel... que la Vie d'Ésope a vu le jour' (p. 14). After all, this is 'The Book of the Philosopher Xanthus and His Slave Aesop...'

J. offers a neat summary of the Life's 'histoire complexe': 'Constitution' (pp. 14-22)--'une transmission textuelle fluide'; other versions; Roman and Second Sophistical allusiveness; archaisms; relationships with anecdotic traditions surrounding the Seven Sages and Diogenes the Cynic. 'Ésope, avatar d'Akhikar' (pp. 22-7): a very good overview of the complex question of Assyrian influence on the text--does the constructor of this Life squash in bits of the Book of Ahiqar to authenticate the hero's historicity? 'L'unité problématique' (pp. 27-32): the search for internal unity in a text with 'une réputation littéraire exécrable'; Holzberg's tripartite schema; the 'double renversement' device; quasi-statistical analysis of fable positioning in the text.

J. rightly prefers to devote more space to thematic issues, drawing out interpretational strategies that may assist in decoding the Life. 'L'histoire d'un anti-héros' (pp. 32-8) delineates Aesop's monstrosity and the role of ugliness in the Life (as opposed to the testimonia); Aesop as Socrates or Marsyas (cf. Aesop's death 'aux antipodes de la sereine résignation socratique', pp. 45-6); the major theme of appearance versus reality.

'Une vie comique' (pp. 38-44): to what extent can the Life be deemed 'comic'? J. notes Aesop's rejection of the comic slave's servus currens role; the anti-academic, anti-cultural tone of the Life (cf. p. 46: 'sagesse populaire' versus 'haute culture'); parody of philosophy (I look forward to J.'s forthcoming publication on this); scatology; the 'carnavalesque' topsy-turvy world of the Life.

'Sens du dénouement?' (pp. 44-8): is the Life more 'derisive' than 'comic'? J. discusses the Life's refusal to bow before our stylistic or thematic expectations (the text's failed hagiography, for instance). After sensible observations on the less than comic dénouement of the Life (which raises questions about death and closure which are not discussed here 1), J. gives problematic Aesop the elastic label of culture-hero. J. seems well aware of how unsatisfactory this label is.

'Effets du censure' (pp. 48-54): occasions and extent of censorship exacted on various versions of the Life (e.g., version W[estermanniana] possesses episodes not found in G, but W is greatly abridged and lacks the rich literary texturing of G). Lack of an archetype always remains a problem in these determinations.

'Postérité' (pp. 54-7): an overview of the Life's/Aesop's/the Fables' Nachleben (e.g., the various Ass tales). It is worth stressing J.'s point that 'our' Aesop is not the Aesop of the oldest text translated herein (G): 'une branche marginale... elle est demeurée sans postérité visible' (p. 54). W gained the greatest following--which led ultimately to 'our' Aesop (via Planudes and La Fontaine). J. even fits in discussion of Eastern diffusions of the Life, which demonstrate the existence of another redaction independent of G and W.

The next section is a brief 'Avertissement' (pp. 59-61): J. has taken the G text from Papathomopoulos' 1990 edition, supplementing G's lacunae with sections from W where possible (indicated in the translation by the use of italics). For W, J. uses Papathomopoulos' 1999 edition.2 J. lists points of departure from Papathomopoulos (pp. 60-1), but these choices of editions are not without significance.3

Translation (pp. 63-144): adhering closely to the text (J. adds sub-titles at each change of episode and a sly concluding sentence), J.'s translation is great fun and more idiomatic (and faithful) than the most familiar English translation, that of Daly (1961),4 based on Perry's editio princeps.5 J. does not appear to have encountered the translation of Papathomopoulos' edition of G by Wills (1997).6 In innumerable little ways, J.'s translation outdoes both, particularly in the vivid and colloquial rendering of the large amounts of direct speech in the text. To give but a small illustration: in G13, Aesop's current master Zenas offers him to a traveling slave-dealer (the wonderfully vivid σωματέμπορος is rendered similarly by J., Wills and Daly as 'trafiquant d'esclaves' / 'slave[-]dealer') with the brisk invitation, ἀρχέμπορε, καταμάνθανε. Daly renders this, 'Look him over, mister dealer'; Wills, 'Look him over, noble merchant'; J., 'Examine-le bien, trafiquant-chef'. Perhaps some things just sound better in French... Consider Aesop's reference to the slave-dealer as ἄνθρωπε in Daly's translation of a line in G14--'Buy me, sir, and by Isis, I'll be very useful to you'. The line is omitted by Wills. Is it in J.'s translation that the full force of the engagement between slave and free man is articulated, by J.'s choice of the literal 'homme' rather than Daly's respectfully innocuous 'sir'? In G9, Daly does prefer 'man', but in the fulsome 'My good man'--thus granting Aesop not only a voice but a rather plummy one. Aesop is rarely respectful.

Daly's translation of the horrible mess that constitutes the Life's opening description of Aesop is an imaginative tour-de-force: 'of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped--a portentous monstrosity.' This is based on Perry's κακοπινὴς τὸ ἰδέσθαι, εἰς ὑπηρεσίαν σαπρός, προγάστωρ, προκέφαλος, σιμός, σορδός, μέλας, κολοβός, βλαισός, γαλιάγκων, στρεβλός, μυστάκων, προσημαῖνον ἁμάρτημα. The text has had a bit more sense teased out since--for instance, λορδός for σορδός, adopted by Papathomopoulos after Stephanis (1975).7 J.'s attempt at Papathomopoulos' text--'il était excessivement horrible à voir, affreux, bedonnant, la tête proéminente, camus, voûté, noir, courtaud, cagneux, les bras courts, bancal, moustachu--un erreur du jour'--is a good example of the quality of her translation.

The final sections of this book will prove most useful to scholars: 'Variantes' (pp. 145-87)--chapter-by-chapter, J. lists the variations between G and W1 and W2 (J.'s labels for the two branches of the W recension, MORNLo and BPThSA, as edited by Papathomopoulos 1990 and Karla 2001, respectively), the Planudean version, and the five papyrus fragments of the Life (PSI 156, POxy 2083, PBerol 11628, PGolen, POxy 3331+3720). This section is extraordinarily useful, notably for forcing the reader to accept that there is no such thing as an archetype of the 'parfois chaotique' (p. 63) Life. In essence, J. generously provides the tools to destroy the very fine text that her particular amalgam of G and W has created.

In the Appendix (pp. 189-94), J. translates five pieces of Aesopica, mini-Lives, which further muddy the waters: the prologue to the likely Planudean Vita Accursiana8 (with its physiognomic observation that 'Ésope est synonyme d'Éthiopien', and a comparison with Thersites); the 'Aphthonian' Vita (placing Aesop in Athens under the ownership of one Timarchus); two minor Vitae (T1a + b Perry); and POxy 1800. It is useful to have these vitae translated within one volume (where is the Suda though?).

Notes (pp. 195-248): J.'s notes on the introduction provide detailed references. The notes on the translation elucidate difficulties therein, and provide something akin to commentary on the sometimes inexplicable actions described. It is difficult to do justice to the detail contained in these notes. Examples might include sign-posting instances of Roman-ness, explanations of terms whose specific allusiveness is lost in translation (e.g., katharma, polypragmosyne), social contextualization, or allusion to or comparisons with other ancient texts. J.'s command of the material is excellent. The volume concludes with a bibliography and an index of proper names (a general index would have been a valuable 'site map' to such a rich volume). The bibliography (pp. 249-57), while nowhere near as detailed as, say, Holzberg's volume,9 is more than adequate (it contains almost nothing after 2003).

This modest-looking volume contains an astonishing amount of material. It is remarkably free from errors. While there is not an enormous amount here that is, strictly speaking, 'new', J.'s able syncretism offers everything one might wish for in an introductory survey, and is thoroughly to be recommended.


1.   How does one end a Life? 'Death is a prime example of a motif that conveys a closural feel...' Pelling, C. (1997) 'Is death the end? Closure in Plutarch's Lives', in Roberts, D. H., Dunn, F. M. and Fowler, D. (eds.) Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature, Princeton, 228-50 (quotation, p. 230). But what 'end' is implied in the death of a transitioning culture-hero?
2.   Papathomopoulos, M. (1990) Ho vios tou Aisopou : he parallage W, Ioannina. Reviewed by Haslam, M., CR 42 (1992) 188-9; Adrados, F. R., Gnomon 65 (1993) 660-4; van Dijk, G-J., Mnemosyne 47 (1994) 550-5. Papathomopoulos, M. (1999) Ho vios tou Aisopou : he parallage W, Athens. This edition is criticized in some detail by Karla (2001); see note 3.
3.   For an overview of some of the issues, see W. Hansen's review of Karla's edition of the main branch of W at BMCR 2004.09.39: Karla, G. A. (2001) Vita Aesopi: Überlieferung, Sprach und Edition einer frübyzantinischen Fassung des Äsopromans, Weisbaden.
4.   Daly, L. W. (1961) Aesop without Morals, New York and London, 31-90; reprinted in Hansen, W. (1998) (ed.) Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 111-62.
5.   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.
6.   Wills, L. M. (1997) The Quest for the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre, London and New York, 181-215. The 8232;Italian edition by Ferrari et al is not currently available to me, but is well worth seeking out: Ferrari, F. (2002, 2nd edn) 232;Italian edition by Ferrari et al is not currently available to me, but is well worth seeking out: Ferrari, F. (2002, 2nd edn) Romanzo di Esopo. Introduzione e testo critico a cura di Franco Ferrari. Traduzione e note di Guido Bonelli e Giorgio Sadrolini, Milan.
7.   Stephanis, I. 'παρατηρήσεις στὸ προοίμιο τῆς βιογραφίας τοῦ Αἰσώπου', Hellenika 28 (1975) 292-301.
8.   On the evidence linking Planudes with the Accursiana, as favoured by J., see Karla, G. 'Die redactio Accursiana der Vita Aesopi: ein Werk des Maximos Planudes', Byzantinische Zeitschrift 96 (2003) 661-9.
9.   Holzberg, N. (ed.) (1992) Der Äsop-Roman: Motivgeschichte und Erzählstruktur Classica Monacensia 6, Tübingen.

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