Life of Aesop as continuing critique of elite culture

Aesop in the Life of Aesop

Early in the Life of Aesop, the goddess Isis and her nine Muses came to the ugly slave Aesop as he slept in a pastoral, paradisiacal garden. They favored him with power to tell elaborate tales. The wife of the philosopher Xanthus, after she saw two handsome, young male slaves on sale, ordered him to go and buy one. Xanthus bought Aesop. Aesop spoke and acted a wide-ranging critique of elite Greek literature. In a way that elite literature today doesn’t appreciate, Aesop also spoke and acted a potent critique of men’s subordination to women.[1]

Aesop urged Xanthus to reject subordination to his wife. Upon returning home after purchasing Aesop, Xanthus, for fear of upsetting his wife, told Aesop to wait at the door. Aesop responded:

If you’re under your wife’s thumb, go and get it over with. [2]

Xanthus went inside and explained to his wife that he had purchased a slave as beautiful as “an Apollo or an Endymion or a Ganymede.”[3] Xanthus’s action makes little sense in its narrative context. It didn’t change his wife’s desire or the reality of Aesop’s ugliness. Late in the Life of Aesop, Xanthus prepared to commit suicide because he couldn’t interpret a portent. Aesop dissuaded Xanthus from suicide by ultimately agreeing to interpret the portent for him. A husband being under his wife’s thumb was a different portent. In those circumstances, Aesop implicitly urged suicide. For more than a millennium, literature urging men to avoid the shackles of marriage has exhorted suicide as a preferable alternative.[4] Looking back in history from the the first writing of the Life of Aesop, knowledgeable death (e.g. Socrates’ willingness to drink hemlock) has much greater Greek literary status than being a ignorant, foolish cuckold.

Household drama in the Life of Aesop has a sharp ideological edge. Before meeting Aesop, Xanthus’s wife thanked the great goddess Aphrodite for a dream. She told her husband Xanthus:

As soon as I went to sleep, I had a dream in which you bought a perfectly beautiful slave and gave him to me for a gift. [5]

To ratify that dream, Xanthus told his lie about Aesop’s godly beauty. The wife’s maids, excited with this news, quarreled over who would get to marry the new slave. Upon seeing the reality of Aesop, they treated him with contempt:

May Aphrodite slap your ugly face! So we were fighting over you, were we, you trash? Worse luck to you. Go on in and don’t touch me; don’t come near me.

Such household drama is like Greek New Comedy. But in the Life of Aesop, the drama turns on reverence for Aphrodite supporting pleasing, false belief in a dream.

Aesop himself refused to acquiesce to the invocation of Aphrodite and to his inferior position relative to Xanthus’s wife. Aesop narrated the desire underlying the wife’s dream:

Woman, what you are after is to have your husband go out somewhere and buy a good-looking young slave with a nice face, a good eye, and blond hair. … this handsome slave can go to the bath with you, then the handsome slave will take your clothes, then when you come out of the bath, this handsome slave will put your wrapper around you and get down and put your sandals on, then he’ll play with you and look into your eyes as though you were a fellow servant who had caught his fancy, then you’ll smile at him and try to look young, and you’ll feel all excited and ask him to come into the bedroom to rub your feet, then in a fit of prurience you will draw him to you and kiss him passionately and do what is in keeping with your shameful impudence

Aesop’s story of the wife’s desire almost surely comes from a popular adultery tale, probably one that pantomimes performed. Aesop, however, then immediately invoked the high-cultural authority of the famous tragic poet Euripides:

Dread the anger of the waves of the sea,
Dread the blasts of river and burning fire,
Dread poverty, dread a thousand other things,
But no evil is there anywhere so dread as woman.

Switching back to popular discourse, Aesop castigated his superior, his master Xanthus’s wife:

you, the wife of a philosopher, an intelligent woman, with your urge to have handsome male servants, you bring no slight discredit and disrepute on your husband. It’s my opinion that you are sex-crazy and don’t follow your bent simply because you are afraid that I’ll give you a piece of a new slave’s mind, you slut.

Underscoring the comic context of status reversal, Xanthus’s wife deferred to Aesop. Aesop himself then bragged of his “great accomplishment to have tamed a woman by overawing her.” The high-cultural authority Euripides taught dread of woman. The lowly slave Aesop, in contrast, demonstrated mastery of his lady-master. He deconstructed her invocation of Aphrodite.

Aesop’s adultery vision proved true. One day, Aesop lifted his clothes and displayed his penis. In the Greek novels, boy and girl fall in love at first sight of each other’s noble person. Xanthus’s wife fell in lust with her slave Aesop at first sight of his “long and thick” penis.[6] She offered Aesop a full set of clothes if he would have sex with her ten times. Aesop earlier had declared that Xanthus’s wife wanted adulterous sex. Her proposition fulfilled his oracle.[7]

The Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale has under-appreciated literary complexity. Aesop agreed to his lady-master’s proposition. After having sex with Xanthus’s wife nine times, his desire drooped. She insisted that he fulfill the letter of his contract for sexual service:

So he tried a tenth time and ejaculated on the lady’s thigh. And he said, “Give me the clothes. If you don’t, I’ll appeal to my master.” [8]

Xanthus’s wife didn’t yield her desire to that incongruous threat of appeal. She declared:

I called on you to plow my field but you crossed the property line and worked in another field. Do it once more, and take the clothes.

Aesop then followed through on his threat of appeal. When Xanthus returned home, Aesop presented the case in a fictitious allegory:

My mistress {Xanthus’s wife} and I were walking in the orchard and she saw a branch of a tree that was full of plums. She said to me: “If you can throw a rock and knock off ten plums, I’ll give you the set of clothes.” I picked up a rock, threw it, and knocked off ten plums. But one plum fell in a manure pile, and now she won’t give me the clothes. [9]

Xanthus’s wife endorsed and extended the fictitious allegory. She added:

Obviously there’s no argument about the nine, but, as for the tenth one which fell in the manure pile, I’m not satisfied. Let him throw again and knock off an apple and get the clothes.

Xanthus interpreted the fictitious allegory literally. He ruled for both sides. He declared that his wife should give Aesop the shirt. He also declared unknowingly that his wife should receive further sexual service from Aesop. Xanthus told Aesop:

Let’s go to the forum, and when we come back, knock off the tenth apple and get the clothes.

Xanthus’s wife assented explicitly to that judgment, and Aesop, implicitly. Xanthus supported his own cuckolding with his failure to interpret critically the story he was told. Readers must beware of making the same mistake.

Later in the Life of Aesop, Aesop tells a story about a man having sex with an ass. An “idiot girl” misinterpreted the man’s explanation of what he was doing and why. She requested that he also have sex with her. The man fulfilled her request. Recent, acclaimed elite scholarship has interpreted this tale as a parody of the “pederastic foundation of Theognidean didactic.”[10] That interpretation looks back to the elite Greek tradition of expressing love and transmitting wisdom between males.

The Life of Aesop has considerable similarities with the highly popular medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf. The penultimate chapter of Solomon and Marcolf features a tableau of the lower bodily stratum:

Marcolf was lying bent over with his head downward and had pulled down his breeches, and his buttocks, asshole, penis, and testicles were revealed. Seeing him, King Solomon said: “Who is it that is lying there?” Marcolf: “It is I, Marcolf.” Solomon said: “How is it that you are lying in this manner?” Marcolf: “You instructed me that you would not see me any more between the eyes. But now, if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks.” [11]

Marcolf’s action parodied men’s weakness in social vision. Men are largely incapable of challenging socially the prevalence of cuckolding men and the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men. A man doesn’t have eyes in his behind.

The Life of Aesop highlights an orificial-sexual difference: understood figuratively, a woman has eyes in her behind. After Aesop had prepared a table for dinner, Xanthus told his wife to keep “an eye” on the table so that dogs don’t snatch food. Xanthus’s wife told him not to worry, for “even my behind has eyes.” The lady reclined and fell asleep with her behind facing the table. Aesop then lifted her robe and exposed her behind. Xanthus and his student-guests arrived for dinner. They saw the lady’s exposed buttocks. Xanthus and his wife were embarrassed and disgraced. Aesop explained:

I exposed her so that the eyes in her behind would see the table. [12]

Xanthus the philosopher didn’t appreciate the significance of biological sex-difference. He didn’t recognize the distinction between “an eye” and “eyes.”[13] He merely declared that as punishment he would beat Aesop within an inch of his life.

The low culture of men’s wisdom involves individual experimentation and observation. Consider the tenth instance of Aesop’s sexual intercourse with Xanthus’s wife. Among the few scholars who have dared to address the Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale, the most thorough analysis explains that on the tenth instance Aesop “ejaculated on the lady’s thigh.”[14] Xanthus’s wife declared that Aesop “crossed the property line and worked in another field.” Aesop’s allegory of the dispute associates that work with a manure pile. A decent appreciation for medieval literature, such as Boccaccio’s tale of attaching a tail to a woman mis-imagined to be a mare, suggests that Aesop engaged in sexual acts associated with expressing love and transmitting wisdom between males in Greek tradition. The resulting dispute between Xanthus’s wife and Aesop enacts conflict in valuing different types of sexual acts.[15]

In judging the sex conflict between Aesop and Xanthus’s wife, Xanthus the philosopher completely mis-understood the underlying reality and the actual conflict. Elite culture and mass opinion-shapers today support, with procedures far outside of traditional due process, extraordinarily harsh punishment of men for disputed sex with women. In its factual context, rape-culture culture re-enforces a fundamental distribution of social power: men’s subordination to women in social discourse. Xanthus the philosopher is the dominant character among cultural elites today. The best hope for promoting truth and justice for all is with low-cultural characters like Aesop.

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Update: Thanks to Professor Ioannis Konstantakos for helpful corrections and suggestions. All outrages remain my responsibility alone.


[1] The Life of Aesop (Vita Aesopi) is also commonly known as the Aesop Romance. Stories of Aesop’s life were known from the fifth century  BGC. See Aristophanes, Wasps, ll. 1446-9 (allusion to Delphic story). The Life of Aesop was probably written in its current form about the second century GC. Kurke (2011) describes the importance of Aesop in relation to ancient Greek literature.  Reviewing that book, Whitmarsh states:

this is in one sense a very traditional book. Like so many Hellenists, Kurke is offering a story of origins: note the ‘invention of Greek prose’ in her subtitle, the latest in a long sequence of ‘invention’ titles. … There is more at stake in this matter than a purely academic question of chronology. The crucial point is that as long as classicists continue to be obsessed with only the very earliest era, for which the evidence is most exiguous, they will remain addicted to the hypothetical and un(dis)provable ‘reconstructions’ that have sustained but also marginalised the discipline for 150 years.

Whitmarsh (2011) p. 39. Better appreciation for horrendous, obfuscated injustices today can help to foster critical insights into ancient literature and contemporary relevance.

[2] Life of Aesop (The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop his Slave or the Career of Aesop) 29, from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 123. All quotes from the Life of Aesop are from id. and the manuscript stem Vita G, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Apollo was thought to speak through oracles at the sanctuary dedicated to him in Delphi. Xanthus’s wife imagining Apollo as her adulterous slave-lover underscores Aesop’s challenge to the privileged position of the Delphic oracle. Endymion was a handsome shepherd-boy in Greek myth. He was thought to be in eternal sleep. His appearance at one’s door is thus comically improbable. Ganymede was Zeus’s beloved, beautiful boy and his cupbearer. The invocation of Ganymede adds irony to Xanthus’s wife’s devaluation of sex of non-reproductive type.

[4] On urging suicide rather than getting married, Juvenal, Satire 6, ll.28-31. The Romance of the Rose (c. 1275), ll. 8697-8710, cites approvingly Juvenal’s exhortation. The 15 Joys of Marriage (c. 1400) attributes that advice to Valerius, who sought to dissuade his beloved friend Rufinus from marriage.

[5] Life of Aesop 29, p. 123. The subsequent five quotes are from id. 30, p. 125; 32, p. 125-6.

[6] Id. 75, p. 142. A textual difficulty concerns what Aesop was doing when Xanthus’s wife saw his long and thick penis. Detailed recent study suggests for English translation of the Greek original: “after taking his clothes off, clapping and shaking {or, throwing} his hands he {Aesop} started making gestures that herdsmen do, when they are unruly.” While the translation is conjectural, the original Greek text probably didn’t have Aesop masturbating. Papademetriou (2009) pp. 56-7, esp. fts. 26, 29.

[7] Xanthus’s wife proposal of intercourse ten times may be an allusion to Horace, Ars Poetica 365: haec placuit semel, haec deciens repetita placebit (“the one has pleased once, the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated”). See also William of Blois’s Alda ll. 480-3, trans. Elliott (1984) p. 121, 125 n. 10. On the Aesopic challenge to the Delphic oracle, Kurke (2011) Ch. 1. In perceiving underlying truth, foretelling action, and contravening established prophetic authority, Aesop’s meeting with Xanthus’s wife parallels Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. See John 4:16-24. Aesop’s subsequent sexual activity with Xanthus’s wife diverges sharply from that Christian parallel. The Life of Aesop’s story of Xanthus’s wife washing the rustic’s feet relates similarly to the Gospel of John’s story of Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Aesopic conversations may have encompassed the Gospel of John in the first centuries of Christianity. For a much higher level comparison of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark, see Watson (2010).

[8] Life of Aesop 75, p. 142. Following Konstantakos (2009) p. 453, I’ve changed “shirt” to “clothes” to better reflect the Greek stole himation in this and subsequent quotes. The subsequent four quotes are from id. The surviving manuscript history of Life of Aesop 75-76 is relatively sparse. It survives only in the Greek Westermann version, Baroccianus 194 (O); a Latin translation in cod. Lollinianus 26 (Lo); and in a Greek papyrus of the 3rd century, P.Oxy. 3331. Id. pp. 453-4.

[9] Life of Aesop 75, p. 142.  I’ve changed “apple” to “plum” following Konstantakos (2009) pp. 456-8. Id. recognized a Greek pun on cuckoo / cuckold in Aesop’s allegory of the adultery. The Greek text clearly refers to the thigh, and the context suggests that Aesop ejaculated on the lady’s thigh, rather than his own thigh. Thus I follow for that clause Konstantakos (2006) p. 563. In an email, Professor Konstantakos observed:

In ancient Greek pederastic homosexuality, femoral or intercrural copulation was a favourite sexual practice. The older lover would place his penis among the younger adolescent’s thighs. This sexual posture is praised and glorified in many Greek poetic passages referring to pederastic love. It is also widely illustrated on Greek erotic vases. … Aesop’s experience with the woman mingles and brings into conflict different types of sexual acts.

I’m grateful for Professor Konstantakos’s insightful comment.

[10] Kurke (2011) p. 215. The story of the man and the idiot girl is at Life of Aesop 131. Neither all Greco-Roman pedagogy nor all Greco-Roman male homosexual relations were pederastic. On Greco-Roman homosexuality, Hubbard (2014). Social constructions of sexual acts can vary widely. Consider, for example, Boccaccio’s story of Alibech and Rustico putting the Devil back into Hell.

[11] Solomon and Marcolf, Ch. 19, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 99. The existing Latin text probably was first written about 1200. The first indisputable surviving reference to Solomon and Marcolf as a pair dates to roughly 1000. Id. pp. 8-9. In his introduction, Ziolkowski explains:

the closest relative Marcolf had in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period was Aesop. The parallels between S&M {Solomon and Marcolf} and Vita Aesopi (Life of Aesop, a kind of picaresque biography or ancient romance of Aesop that is interlarded with supposedly Aesopic fables) … are sufficiently powerful to have struck their publishers and audiences from the late Middle Ages through the present. In Germany from 1450 to 1520 printers assimilated images of Aesop and Marcolf to each other, using picture of the one to represent the other.

Id. p. 39. For more on the relation of Solomon and Marcolf to the Life of Aesop, Ziolkowski (2002).

[12] Life of Aesop 77a (Vita W), pp. 143-4.

[13] The Latin word play in Solomon and Marcolf emphasizes the connection between eyes and buttocks. Marcolf says to Solomon:

si non vis me videre in medijs oculis, videas me in medio culo. {if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks.}

Solomon and Marcolf 1914, text and trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 98-99. Id. p. 98 comments:

Benary 53 notes aptly the word play on oculus and culus, which would have been particularly striking in the pronunciation of the phrase in medio oculo because of the gliding from one o to another.

These phrases are also possible in classical Latin. Eye(s) are connected to buttocks in both biological and linguistic structures. The Life of Aesop was written in Greek. Complex interactions among Hebrew, Greek, and Latin existed in the ancient world.

[14] Konstantakos (2006) p. 563, Konstantakos (2013) p. 368. Aesop “fails on a technicality by spending himself on the outside.” Papademetriou (2009) p. 58. Kurke (2011) doesn’t mention the Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale at all.

[15] In particular, anal penetration and intercrural ejaculation. Within a pederastic framework, Aesop positioned himself as superior in wisdom to Xanthus’s wife. Aesop described Xanthus’s wife as “the wife of a philosopher, an intelligent woman.” Life of Aesop 32, p. 125. She, however, didn’t appreciate Aesop’s superior wisdom, nor his sharing it in a way that mocks the elite Greek pederastic tradition.

[image] Frontispiece woodcut from a 1489 Spanish edition of Aesop’s fables (Fabulas de Esopo, published in Madrid). The woodcut depicts Aesop surrounded by images and events from the Life of Aesop. Thanks to Wikicommons.


Elliott, Alison Goddard. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hubbard, Thomas K. 2014. “Peer Homosexuality.” Pp. 128-149 (Ch. 8) in Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. A companion to Greek and Roman sexualities. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2006. “Aesop Adulterer and Trickster. A Study of Vita Aesopi Ch. 75-76.” Athenaeum. 94 (2): 563-600.

Konstantakos, Ioannis. 2009. “Cuckoo’s Fruit: Erotic Imagery in Vita Aesopi ch. 75-76.”  Pp. 453-460 in Eleni Karamalengou and Eugenia Makrygianni (eds.), Antiphilesis. Studies on Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature and Culture in Honour of John-Theophanes A. Papademetriou.  Franz Stein Verlag: Stuttgart.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2013.”Life of Aesop and adventures of criticism: A review-article on Manolis Papathomopoulos’ recent edition of the Vita Aesopi, version G.” Myrtia 28: 355-392.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Kurke’s introduction.

Papademetriou, John-Theophanes A. 2009. “Romance without eros.” Pp. 49-80 (Ch. 4) in Karla, Grammatiki A., ed. Fiction on the fringe novelistic writing in the post-classical age. Leiden: Brill.

Watson, David F. 2010. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark: Two Ancient Approaches to Elite Values.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 129 (4): 699-716.

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2011. “Crashing the Delphic Party: Review of Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue and the Invention of Greek Prose by Leslie Kurke.” London Review of Books 33 (12): 37-38.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M. 2002. “The Deeds and Words of Aesop and Marcolf.” Pp. 105-123 in Dorothea Walz, ed. Scripturus vitam: Lateinische Biogaphie von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart. Festsgabe für Walter Berschin zum 65. Geburtstag. Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

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