The fables by Phaedrus don’t belong to high literature, but these fables and others have been highly popular through the ages. No wonder: they are ideal for didactic purposes, both for content and grammar. Years ago when I did some Latin with PhD students of comparative religion and archaeology, I started with a fable to revive their Latin and then turned to Plautus. For those interested, I used Aesop’s Fables in Latin by Laura Gibbs.
What strikes me is that fables are often a kind of script for a scene in a cartoon and whenever I read a fable, I visualize it as a comic or tragicomic cartoon. This is quite normal, as cartoons with animals as main characters are fables told visually and our imagination is conditioned by visual references. The same is true for the Aeneid, to take but an example: I think most of us have an imagination influenced by pictures, movies or own experience of Italy and the Mediterranean, but how did medieval readers in imagine scenes from this epic? Well, as people in contemporary clothes and living in contemporary buildings, as illustrations from that period prove. Our imagination is conditioned by what we know.
In the first fable a sparrow (passer) is rebuking (obiurgo) a hare (lepus) for being suddenly caught (oppressus) by an eagle – and is caught himself by a hawk (accipiter).
Phaedrus, Fabulae, liber 1
IX. Passer ad Leporem Consiliator
Sibi non cavere et aliis consilium dare
stultum esse paucis ostendamus versibus.
Oppressum ab aquila, fletus edentem graves,
leporem obiurgabat passer 'Ubi pernicitas
nota' inquit 'illa est? Quid ita cessarunt pedes?'
Dum loquitur, ipsum accipiter necopinum rapit
questuque vano clamitantem interficit.
Lepus semianimus 'Mortis en solacium:
qui modo securus nostra inridebas mala,
simili querella fata deploras tua'.
consiliator –oris (m.): counsellor
sibi: emphatically placed first
fletus edentem graves: giving severe wailings = weeping heavily
pernicitas –atis (f.): speed (imagine the triumphant face of the sparrow while asking this question.)
quid: why (litt. an adverbial accusative)
cessarunt = cessaverunt form cesso cessavi: to stop, cease from (note the shift in tempus: est – cessarunt)
necopinus: unexpected, unsuspecting
questus –us (m.): complaint
clamito: a frequentative of clamo (i.e. repeatedly screaming, like cesso is a frequentative of cedo, but the notion of a repeated action is often lost.)
Mortis en solacium: Ah, consolation in death (but some editors opt for the variant mortis in solacio and start the quote with qui.)
modo: a moment ago
inrideo inrisi inrisu: to laugh at, make a joke of
In this fable a wolf (lupus) is accusing a fox (vulpes) of having stolen something. The fox of course denies. We all know that both animals are untrustworthy and not prone to tell the truth. Fortunately there is monkey (simius), who serves as judge. In his opinion both are lying, so the wolf has lost nothing and the fox has stolen it. Irrefutable logic!
X. Lupus et Vulpes Iudice Simio
Quicumque turpi fraude semel innotuit,
etiam si verum dicit, amittit fidem.
Hoc adtestatur brevis Aesopi fabula.
Lupus arguebat vulpem furti crimine;
negabat illa se esse culpae proximam.
Tunc iudex inter illos sedit simius.
Uterque causam cum perorassent suam,
dixisse fertur simius sententiam:
'Tu non videris perdidisse quos petis;
te credo subripuisse quod pulchre negas'.
iudice simio: with a monkey being judge (an abl. abs. like Hannibale duce)
innotesco innotui: to become known for (+ abl.)
etiam si: even when
arguo argui argutum ( + gen.): to accuse, declare (NOT to argue)
crimine: can be left untranslated
illa: vulpes is feminine!
esse culpae proximam: to be very near to guilt = to be guilty
peroro: to plead extensively
fertur: is said
peto petivi (petii): to demand
subripio subripui subreptum: to take secretly away, steal
pulchre: neatly, eloquently
Translation by C. Smart (1887)
THE SPARROW AND THE HARE.
Let us show, in a few lines, that it is unwise to be heedlessI.10 of ourselves, while we are giving advice to others.
A Sparrow upbraided a Hare that had been pounced upon by an Eagle, and was sending forth piercing cries. “Where now,” said he, “is that fleetness for which you are so remarkable? Why were your feet thus tardy?” While he was speaking, a Hawk seizes him unawares, and kills him, shrieking aloud with vain complaints. The Hare, almost dead, as a consolation in his agony, exclaimed: “You, who so lately, free from care, were ridiculing my misfortunes, have now to deplore your own fate with as woful cause.”
THE WOLF, THE FOX, AND THE APE.
Whoever has once become notorious by base fraud, even if he speaks the truth, gains no belief. To this, a short Fable of Æsop bears witness.
A Wolf indicted a Fox upon a charge of theft; the latter denied that she was amenable to the charge. Upon this, the Ape sat as judge between them; and when each of them had pleaded his cause, the Ape is said to have pronounced this sentence: “You, Wolf, appear not to have lost what you demand; I believe that you, Fox, have stolen what you so speciously deny.”