BMCR 2004.09.39

Vita Aesopi: Ueberlieferung, Sprach und Edition einer fruehbyzantinischen Fassung des Aesopromans. Serta Graeca: Beitraege zur Erforschung griechischer Texte, 13

, Vita Aesopi : Überlieferung, Sprache und Edition einer frühbyzantinischen Fassung des Äsopromans. Serta Graeca ; Bd. 13. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2001. xiv, 269 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3895002224. €62.00.

There has been a remarkable explosion of scholarly interest, both textual and interpretive, in the Life of Aesop, or Aesop Romance, an anonymous work of Greek popular literature composed around the second century of our era.1 The original textual form of the work is lost. In its place we possess reworkings of the original, and reworkings of reworkings, made over the course of the centuries by (for the most part) unknown hands. Like the Alexander Romance, the Aesop Romance became a folkbook, a work that belonged to no one, and the occasional writer felt free to modify as it might suit him.

The textual tradition developed at least two principal recensions, known now as Vita G (or the Perriana) and Vita W (or the Westermanniana). Other forms of the text exist. These include five papyrus fragments dating from the 2nd/3rd century to the 6th/7th century, a recomposition of the work made by the Byzantine scholar Planudes around 1300, and several translations into early Modern Greek.2 Whereas Vita G claims interest today as being the closer of the major versions to the archetype of the original novel, Vita W (and in particular version BPThSA of Vita W) boasts the greater role in subsequent literary history. It was used by Planudes for his reworking of the Life of Aesop and by the Italian scholar Rinuccio da Castiglione for his fifteenth-century Latin rendering, which in turn was translated into many different European vernacular languages. Some scholars believe that the Spanish rendering of the Life of Aesop influenced early Spanish picaresque fiction.

Vita G barely survived to our day in a single manuscript that was rediscovered in the twentieth century. It was critically edited in mid-century by Ben Edwin Perry in his Aesopica and was re-edited by Manoles Papathomopoulos in 1990 and again by Franco Ferrari in 1997.3 In contrast to the G recension, Vita W is known from many manuscripts. A. Westermann (hence “W”) published the editio princeps in 1845.4 It was re-edited by Perry a century later in his Aesopica and by Papathomopoulos in 1999.5 Now comes another Hellenic scholar, Grammatiki Karla, who provides us with a fourth critical edition of recension W, or more precisely of one version of it. For recension W consists in its turn of two main branches, MORN and BPThSA in Karla’s terminology. Perry took both versions into consideration for his single critical text of Vita W, but Papathomopoulos edited the two separately, printing one after the other, wherefore he labeled his edition an editio princeps. As it happened, Papathomopoulos’s edition of Vita W appeared in Greece while Karla was finishing up her doctoral dissertation on the BPThSA version of Vita W at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin. More on this later.

The present book is a revision of Karla’s dissertation. It features a generous Introduction and a new critical text of version BPThSA of recension W of the Life of Aesop.

The author begins with a succinct and well-documented overview of the major issues related to the Aesop Romance (or Aesoproman, as it is usually called in German), including what is known or has been speculated about its date and place of composition, sources, structure, genre, text, and reception. For example, should the work be deemed a biography or a novel? Karla decides to classify it as a fictional biography with elements of the comic-realistic novel, placing it in a special genre category along with the Alexander Romance, the Life of Apollonios of Tyana, and similar works.

Karla then moves on to consider the manuscript tradition. She has personally examined four of the five manuscripts of version BPThSA. Among the peculiarities of this version she lists the following. (1) The location of the tale of the foolish maiden is different. It is found after Chapter 130 in the MORN version and in Vita G, where it fits well, and in Chapter 140 in SA, but it is entirely missing in BP. The location of the tale must have been modified in the archetype of BPThSA. (2) Three episodes may be peculiar to this version, namely, Chapters 50a (Aesop tries to reconcile Xanthos and his wife), 77a (Aesop uncovers the wife’s buttocks), and 77b (Aesop poses a question to Xanthos). They do appear in some other manuscripts but are missing in Vita G. (3) The episode of Aesop’s wager with his mistress (Chapters 75-76) is absent. Its presence in a papyrus fragment indicates that it belonged to the original novel. (4) Whereas most manuscripts of the Life of Aesop have Aesop deliver two prologues to the Samians (Chapters 88, 88a), version BPThSA contains one. Either the redactor removed one prologue, or the second prologue had not yet been inserted. (5) Manuscripts BP lack Chapter 126 (Aesop’s evaluation of the Delphians). In addition, the relationship of the different manuscripts is greatly complicated by the presence of features that must be explained as resulting from contamination.

In the resultant stemma Karla groups the manuscripts of version BPThSA into two families, SA and BPTh, which derived independently from a common archetype, and within the family BPTh she groups together manuscripts BTh as springing from their own hyparchetype.

The author proceeds to compare version BPThSA in careful detail with the other ancient and Byzantine texts of the Life: MORN, Vita G, Planudes, and the papyrus fragments.

Of most interest perhaps are the differences between this version and the Perriana recension. Although the language in both is a form of koine, the present version has fewer borrowings from Latin, fewer words from comedy, and fewer instances of folk speech than the Perriana does. Direct speech in Vita G has often been converted to indirect discourse here, and some proper names are also different. Differences in the role of the divine are particularly significant. Isis and the Muses give Aesop his gifts in Vita G, whereas in version BPThSA this role is assigned to Tyche. Vita G represents a competition between the Muses and Apollon, which contributes to Aesop’s eventual death in Delphi, but all this is missing in BPThSA, in which neither the Muses nor Apollon plays any role. Aesop’s behavior toward Xanthos and his wife is less brazen in the present version, and Aesop is less cynical. In BPThSA episodes are abbreviated and some words and whole scenes are omitted, although it does feature a few scenes that are absent in the Perriana. Overall, then, BPThSA is a later version of the Life of Aesop, a deliberate condensation that is at once less literary and less folksy in flavor, a quicker and easier read. In addition, the decisive role of the gods and the religious atmosphere of the original are gone.

Karla turns now to the language of the texts. For her the speech reflects a transitional phase of koine in which the language system is no longer stable, often making it very difficult for the editor to select among different manuscript readings. Forms and usage familiar from Modern Greek frequently show up. Here as elsewhere Karla does an excellent job of illustrating her point with ample, well-chosen examples.

The author concludes her Introduction with a discussion of the principles of the critical edition that follows. She wants to produce a text that reflects a genuine version of the Life of Aesop, but this goal is complicated by the fact that the wide distribution enjoyed by version BPThSA may have entailed considerable distortion of the wording of its archetype and by the fact that the manuscripts show much contamination. She argues that the BPTh family of manuscripts stands closer to the archetype of BPThSA than does the SA family, and so should form the foundation of her edition. She concludes this section with a discussion of the establishment of the text in a number of difficult passages. For example, on several occasions she retains obvious errors in the Greek because, she argues, they must have been there in the archetype, which it is her goal to reconstitute.

Overall Karla writes clearly and interestingly, argues forcefully, and illustrates her contentions very well throughout. She makes a strong case for her editorial methodology and for the stemmatic and textual conclusions she reaches, although the extensive contamination in the manuscripts make certainty impossible.

Following the Greek text the author adds, in the form of an appendix, a thoroughly critical review of Papathomopoulos’s text, 6 which appeared in print as Karla was finishing her own investigation. She outlines how she and Papathomopoulos have reached different results regarding the stemma of the present version. She criticizes him for inaccuracies of different sorts, for mixing readings from different versions of the tradition, and for making unnecessary emendations (for example, by changing postclassical usage to classical). Papathomopoulos, she asserts, has created a text that never existed, for it corresponds to no archetype. In any case, then, the critical editions by Karla and by Papathomopoulos differ in their accuracy (if one scholar has it right, the other must have it wrong), methodology, and results.


1. For a brief overview of recent work see Niklas Holzberg, “The Fabulist, the Scholars, and the Discourse: Aesop Studies Today,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 6 (1999) 236-42.

2. The Modern Greek versions have now been edited by Manoles Papathomopoulos, Pente Demodeis Metaphraseis tou Biou tou Aisopou, Editio Princeps (Athens: Ekdoseis Papadema, 1999).

3. Ben Edwin Perry, 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, Vol. 1 (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1952), pp. 35-77. Manoles Papathomopoulos, Ho Bios tou Aisopou. He Parallage G. Kritike ekdose me Eisagoge, Keimeno, kai Metaphrase, 2nd edition (Ioannina: G. Tsoles, 1991). Franco Ferrari, Romanzo di Esopo. Introduzione e Testo Critico a Cura di Franco Ferrari. Traduzione e Note di Guido Bonelli e Giorgio Sandrolini, 2nd edition (Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2002).

4. Antonius Westermann, Vita Aesopi ex Vratislaviense ac Partim Monacensi et Vindobonensi Codicibus Nunc Primum ed. Antonius Westermann (Brunsvigae 1845; Londini apud Williams et Norgate).

5. Perry 1952:81-107. Manoles Papathomopoulos, Ho Bios tou Aisopou. He Parallage W. Editio Princeps. Eisagoge, Keimeno, Metaphrase, Scholia (Athens: Ekdoseis Papadema, 1999).

6. I mention in passing that among the teachers acknowledged by Karla is J.-Th. Papademetriou (University of Athens), who is the author of several scholarly publications on the Life of Aesop as well as a severe critic of the work of Papathomopoulos (University of Ioannina).