Aesop, the best-known creator of fables, is believed to have been born c. 620 – 564 B.C. Very little factual information is known about the ancient author, but many legends surround his life. His fame continues today and his fables, stories that impart lessons and usually feature animals, are still read throughout the world. Some of Aesop’s most famous tales include The Fox and the Grapes and The Tortoise and the Hare.
Some sources claim that Aesop contributed some six hundred fables to the genre. The earliest sources to speak about Aesop were Aristotle and Herodotus. Greek tradition supports the idea that Aesop came from Thrace at a location on the Black Sea. Romans of the imperial era claimed that Aesop came from Phrygia. Other ancient sources wrote that he hailed from Sardis or Lydia. In any case, most of these ancients believed that Aesop was a slave at some point, possibly in Samos, but that he was later freed. Tradition then has it that not only did Aesop become a preeminent teller of tales, but he acted as an emissary between the Samian people and King Croesus.
Aesop’s physical appearance greatly figures into the legends surrounding his life. Ancient sources claimed that his appearance was ugly, possibly even deformed. One of the oldest images ascribed to Aesop is a figure on a Grecian cup owned today by the Vatican Museums. The cup reveals a figure with a thin, emaciated body and an over-large head who is listening to the fox perched before him. There are no conclusive sources about Aesop’s physical person, however.
King Croesus, ruler of Lydia from 560 – 546 B.C., figures into the legend of Aesop’s death. According to Plutarch, King Croesus sent Aesop to Delphi on a mission. There, according to tradition, Aesop made an insult to the Delphians and was sentenced to death whereby he was thrown off a cliff. Plutarch also claims that the city of Delphi suffered famine and pestilence for their treatment of the honored storyteller. These accounts, while most popular, cannot be confirmed. A more contemporary version of Aesop’s life claims that he was from Ethiopia. This is, in part, due to animals like elephants and monkeys that figure into his fables, but most scholars dismiss this idea.
What is known is that Aesop’s oral tradition of storytelling was subsequently transferred to text by many ancient writers like Demetrius of Phalerum, Phaedrus, Babrius, and Titianus. Over the centuries, Aesop’s fables have been told and retold. His name has become synonymous with the fable genre and fables like The Lion and the Mouse are still popular today.