BMCR 2022.10.18

La favola antica. Esopo e la sapienza degli schiavi

, , , La favola antica. Esopo e la sapienza degli schiavi. Pisa: Della Porta Editori, 2021. Pp. 420. ISBN 9788896209424 €25,00.

La favola antica reprints essays by Antonio La Penna on the Aesopian fable published from the 1960s to the 1990s. A considerable scholarly oeuvre accompanies his distinguished teaching career at the University of Florence and the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. La Penna’s articles, editions, reviews, and monographs amount to almost 300 entries in the L’année database. In 1987 the Accademia nazionale dei Lincei awarded him the Premio Feltrinelli for history and literary criticism. La Penna, born in modest circumstances in an agricultural district in Campania, achieved academic prominence at an early age. At university he was attracted to the Italian Communist Party; in time, he would become a public intellectual on the Italian cultural left. La Penna’s Marxism inclined him to see literary production as a reflection of power relations and the material conditions of society. This inclination is reflected in titles such as Orazio e l’ideologia del principato (1963), Sallustio e la rivoluzione romana (1968), and Fra teatro, poesia e politica romana (1979).

In 1952, even before he assumed his first professorship in Italy, La Penna proposed a history of the ancient fable, whose title, The Ancient Wisdom of Slaves (L’antica sapienza degli schiavi), anticipates that of the present book. The proposed volume would have covered many of topics treated in this book, with chapters on Phaedrus, the Life of Aesop, and ideological analysis. The principal elements of La Penna’s interpretation of fables were then already in place: the genre reflects a pessimistic vision in which one must accept a world dominated by power, power that could only be blunted by superior cunning — the world of the lion and the fox. La Penna hypothesizes that this pessimism reflects a way of looking at the world characteristic of the weak, a kind of pragmatic realism that he contrasts with the heroic idealism of those in power. The book La Penna envisioned would have reflected not only the ideological views that he acquired at university but also the world into which he had been born in rural Campania, a world of material scarcity and limited aspirations. La Penna, however, never wrote this book although he would return frequently to its themes in essays, reviews, and published talks. Editors Giovanni Niccoli and Stefano Grazzani have assembled into seven chapters a selection of this work, pieces published for the most part in the 1960s and 1990s. Rather than follow the chronology of the original publications, they have chosen an arrangement that displays the breadth and variety of La Penna’s scholarship on the fable and culminates in an essay that makes the case for his ideological reading.

Chapter 1 (“The origin, development, and purpose of the Aesopian fable in ancient culture”) was published originally as an introduction for general readers to Cecilia Benedetti’s translation of Aesop (1996 and 2007). Here La Penna surveys the reception of the genre in Greece from Mesopotamia and the association of the fables circulating in Greece with Aesop, whose historical existence La Penna is inclined to accept (p. 75). La Penna also surveys the use of the fable in rhetoric and the fabulists Phaedrus and Babrius. He concludes with a discussion of his ideological assessment of the genre. Chapter 2 (“From Mesopotamia to the west: pathways of the Aesopian fable”), originally a 1992 address to Associazione Italiana di Cultura Classica, takes a closer look at the transmission of the fable and considers parallels in Mesopotamia, India, and Egypt. The essays that constitute Chapter 3 (“Aesopian literature and Assyro-Babylonian literature”) appeared originally in RFIC (1964) and Maia (1991). La Penna notes in this comparativist chapter a possible Babylonian antecedent for the characterization of Aesop in the Life of Aesop as a slave who exposes his master’s foolishness. The Life is the subject of Chapter 4 (“The Aesop romance”), originally an article in Athenaeum (1962), to which the editors append a section on the episode in the Life that narrates the Delphians’ murder of Aesop, drawn from La Penna’s review in Helikon (1962) of Anton Weicher’s 1961 monograph Aesop in Delphi. La Penna reviews the manuscript traditions, speculates on the evolution of the Life, and discusses several ways in which the text may be read: as wisdom literature, a biography, a parody of pretentious learning, and entertainment. He also notes the Babylonian influence on sections 101–123 of the Life, which seem to be modeled on a folktale featuring the Babylonian sage Aḥīqār. Like Chapter 1, Chapter 5 on Phaedrus, (“Phaedrus: the bitter voice of Aesopian fable”), was originally composed for a general audience, as an introduction to the poet Agostino Richelmy’s 1968 translation of the Roman fabulist. In addition to remarks on Phaedrus’ style, word choice, and meter, La Penna argues for the significance of the poet’s own experience as a slave in his adoption and emulation of Aesop. He sees innovation in Phaedrus’ use of anecdotes and stories that illustrate and typify contemporary life. Chapter 6 (“Structures, components, and narrative laws of the Aesopian fable”) originally appeared in Athenaeum (1966) as a review of Morten Nøgaard’s La fable antique, a structuralist analysis of fables in the Augustan recension. Nøgaard’s structuralism was very different from La Penna’s sociologically oriented approach. As a result, this chapter more reflects La Penna’s mostly critical assessment of Nøgaard’s reading than it makes the case for his own views regarding the structure and narration in the genre.

Chapter 7 (“The moral vision of the Aesopian fable as the moral vision of the subaltern classes in antiquity”) lays out in full an ideological reading that had been presented in shorter form in several of the earlier chapters. The essay appeared originally in 1961 in Società, a journal founded in 1945 by archeologist Bianchi Bandinelli and other Marxist intellectuals. In a 1962 letter to his publishers La Penna indicates that he hoped to use the essay as the first chapter of the planned book (cf. p. 23–25). In the fable, La Penna sees a moral vision (la morale) in opposition to the ideology of the dominant class. The fable demystifies the dominant class’s construction of reality and shows the world as it is. In this connection, La Penna sees frequent hostility to established religion in the genre. The world of the Aesopian fable is the world of the lion and the fox, a world ruled by force and cunning, not by values such as justice, equality, gratitude, and mercy. La Penna characterizes this perspective as a form of anti-idealism, a utilitarian-empirical approach to life associated, in Greece, with the emergence of Ionian rationalism during the seventh to fifth centuries BCE. It is also a perspective that aims at survival. The weak cannot defeat the strong in a contest of power: wiser to submit to injustice to avoid suffering even worse injustice as the price of resistance. Alternatively, one might avoid, even overcome, greater force through cunning. The fable thus naturalizes the world of the lion and fox and offers no hope of changing it. It was no accident, La Penna argues, that both Aesop and Phaedrus had been slaves. The moral vision of the fable reflects the pessimistic realism and survivor mentality of the oppressed and exploited. La Penna argues that subordinated persons in the ancient world used the fable to express their cynical and pessimistic view of power relations but did not articulate a better alternative. Dominated persons did yearn for a different world free from oppression and exploitation. Yet such yearnings found expression in messianic religion and utopian fantasy, not in the constructive political thought and pragmatic action made possible by education and socialism, the only alternative, in La Penna’s view, to Aesopian resignation.

The editors provide an introduction whose first half relates the complicated story of the book that La Penna never wrote. The second half provides ideological context for La Penna’s scholarship on the genre. In particular, the editors note the influence of Gramsci on La Penna’s attempt “to reconstruct in a group of texts that are assuredly popular in origin and whose author has altogether vanished, a thought, a moral vision (understood as a way of teaching one how to live) that would be an expression of the world that produced it” (p. 40). Indeed, La Penna’s reference to classi subalterne in the title of the main ideological essay alludes to the Gramscian concept of subalternity. The editors attach two appendices: the first reprints some of La Penna’s proposed emendations on fabulistic texts, a reminder that he is a traditional philologist as well as a publicly-engaged Marxist literary critic; the second contains shorter and informal writings on the fable.

The outline of La Penna’s main thesis has been in place for 70 years: that the fable encoded the perspectives of slaves and other marginalized persons in antiquity on their domination. There is, of course, a credible counterview. Page duBois argues that the fable reflects aristocratic essentialism: “Just as the wolf is always a wolf, so the aristocrat is always an aristocrat; …  so the slave … is born, lives, and dies a slave, naturally, essentially servile as the fox is vulpine.”[1] But for the fable, simple in form but flexible in application and interpretation, context is key. In her discussion of the fable in Aeschylus, where a man rears a lion cub in his house that turns on him (Agamemnon 717–736), Sara Forsdyke argues the lion cub is Helen, and the fable reflects the poet’s moral message that injustice begets injustice.[2] But the lion cub could also be a slave taken from his home and raised elsewhere, who fawns over the master for food and shelter but eventually reverts to his natural hostility. Forsdyke concludes, “As told among slaves this fable expresses both the awful necessity to please one’s oppressor and the dream of wreaking bloody revenge.” Ideologically contextualized readings of this sort can be set on firmer ground where it is possible to establish a context. Kenneth Rothwell, for example, reads Philocleon’s use of fables in the broader context of Wasps and associates Aristophanes’ character with opposition to the aristocratic kalos kagathos.[3] Keith Bradley examines several Phaedran fables told in the context of situations documented in Roman slavery and argues that through such stories slaves could have protested unjust treatment and harsh conditions.[4] Bradley  noted that while Roman slaves found ways to resist their oppression almost every day, outright rebellion was for many reasons rare. I see in this observation regarding the general behavior of ancient slaves possible alignment with the lessons that La Penna saw implied in the fable: only fools meet superior force head on; the wise cope through cunning.

The editors acknowledge that this book is not the organic synthesis that La Penna would have produced. The selected essays reflect different styles, having been intended for different audiences, both general and specialized (p. 57–58). There is much repetition of arguments and examples across the chapters, a reflection of La Penna’s working and reworking of his ideas over a long period of time and for different audiences. Nonetheless, the present volume constitutes a worthy tribute, both to significant scholarly work and to the scholar himself.



[1] duBois, Page. Slaves and Other Objects. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 186-187.

[2] Forsdyke, Sara. Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, 66-67.

[3] Rothwell, Kenneth S. “Aristophanes’ Wasps and the Sociopolitics of Aesop’s Fables.” CJ 90.3 (1994): 233–254.

[4] Bradley, Keith R. Slavery and Society at Rome. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 150-153.