Saturday, December 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Silvio Schirru, La favola in Aristofane. Studia Comica Bd. 3. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2009. Pp. 184. ISBN 9783938032336. €45.90.

Reviewed by Victoria Jennings, University of Adelaide

Table of Contents

La favola in Aristofane is the first monograph to examine the fables in Aristophanes' plays. Part of the value of this book lies in Schirru's assimilation of the small scattered pieces of scholarship on the topic of fable and Aristophanes which might otherwise receive not much attention. Most of the value of the book lies in Schirru's clearly structured elaboration of what applying a bit of pressure to the Aristophanic texts might tell us about the how, why and whence of fables/fable motifs in the plays.

Schirru needs to get a couple of major issues out of the way before he can deal with Aristophanes' use of fable. Two of these issues are of the hair-tearing insoluble variety. Both are fundamental. The first concerns the deductions we might draw from the vocabulary of fable used by Aristophanes at a time before fable's subjection to the obsessive categorisation of later generations. The second involves a flounder in the quicksand of Quellenforschung. What was/were Aristophanes' source/s?

The development of the vocabulary of fable (λόγος, μῦθος) has received much attention.1 Schirru asks the right questions: do enough plays survive to determine Aristophanes' preferences? Are these preferences in line with his contemporaries? Is the progymnasmatist's punchy μῦθος ἐστι λόγος ψευδὴς εἰκωνίζων ἀλήθειαν (fable is "a fictitious story picturing a truth": Theon Progymnasmata 3; tr. Perry2) relevant to the fifth century? This question has ramifications for Schirru's discussion of the Aesopic λόγος as a dodgy (ἄπιστος) μῦθος at Peace 129-31 and for the use of μῦθος in Lysistrata.

The preferred classical term for fable is indeed λόγος, and in favouring this Aristophanes does not offer, on the face of it, any surprises. Rather, λόγος, with its wide semantic range, is just the shifty sort of word that would appeal to the master parodist. One pins λόγος down at one's peril.

Schirru analyses another typically ambiguous Aristophanic designation, γέλοιον ("jest"). Two examples are Αἰσώπου τι γέλοιον and Αἰσωπικὸν γέλοιον (Wasps 566 and 1259). Undoubtedly these phrases can mean different things, but Schirru is most interested in how γέλοιον provides a clue to Aristophanes' source for his Aesop. Schirru's Aristophanes has styled Aesop in two distinct ways: the "Esope narratore" (basically, the fable-telling Aesop of Peace and Birds) and the more ambiguous "Esopo 'personaggio'" of Wasps. The latter styling reflects Schirru's conclusion that, while by the fourth century Aesop's prevalent characteristic was almost solely that of fable-maker (λογοποιός: cf. Herodotus 2.134-5), earlier on he was "una figura di sapiente tout court" (82).3 This is the Aesop of Plutarch's Septem sapientium convivium and, of course, of the Life of Aesop. γέλοιον, then, hints at this other Aesop: the Aesop who tells stories and the Aesop about whom they are told.

Schirru is not the first to consider whether Aristophanes was lugging around a copy of Aesop's Fables from which he derived the material for his "Esope narratore". Consider Birds 471-2: ἀμαθὴς γὰρ ἔφυς κοὐ πολυπράγμων, οὐδ' Αἴσωπον πεπάτηκας... ("You are so ignorant and incurious, and have never explored Aesop..."; tr. West). Is this programmatic or an Aristophanic leg-pull? Then there is Peace 129, where a fable has been "found" in Aesop's fables (ἐν τοῖσιν Αἰσώπου λόγοις ἐξηυρέθη). Do we envisage a book of λόγοι?4 Or are they like those μῦθοι of Aesop which Socrates had "at hand" (προχείρους) and "knew" (ἠπιστάμην) at Plato Phaedo 61b: the stuff you carry around in your head ready for the kairotic moment for wisdom performance?

That is one of the stings in the tail of that most Aesopic text Wasps. As part of his hunt for "Esopo 'personaggio'", Schirru offers a particularly astute discussion of the parallels between Wasps and the Life of Aesop. Wasps, "caratterizzata... dalla presenza costante di riferimenti alle diverse declinazioni della σοφία tradizionalmente associata alla figura di Esopo" (56), provides testimony for Aesop's death at Delphi (1446-9), and this is one prop for Schirru's hypothesis that Aristophanes' biographical awareness comes from some sort of version of the Life. The tired theory of a fifth century Volksbuch is briefly resurrected (will Kurke kill this off definitively?5), but Schirru suspects that Aristophanes' eastern references point toward his source. He devotes some space to the theories of Cataudella and Luzzatto about the relationship between the Life of Aesop and its putative Near Eastern progenitor, the Book of Ahiqar.6 Did some sort of life-stories provide some sort of "ispirazione al commediografo nell'elaborazione di alcuni dei suoi drammi" (55)? We are in the realm of speculation, but the analysis of eastern parallels for Aristophanic motifs is not without profit. It is interesting to consider, given Aristophanes' propensity for celebrity character assassination, what sort of life of Aesop we would reconstruct without the Life. There is also the flip-side of how Old Comedy influences the Life.7

Schirru turns to the fables found in Aristophanes, offering a fable-by-fable discussion. Some plays have more fables or references to fable motifs than others. Are some plays more suited to animalistic motifs (Wasps and Birds)? Does the decline in fable motifs reflect the closure of a phase of Aristophanes' career (and so Frogs misses out)? What are we to make of fables which enlist the authority of Aesop as opposed to those which do not? Schirru attempts to pin down Aristophanes' uses of fable: why is a certain fable used in a certain place? His conclusion -- for structural/rhetorical reasons -- is not surprising: fable can be exemplar, illustration, analogy, parody and metaphor/"uso 'parafavolistico'". And fables can be funny; as funny as dung-beetles.

Schirru concludes with a couple of fable-related pieces: two instances of "favole non esopiche" which might be regarded as "favole aristofanee" (14; 138-49) in Lysistrata (781-76; 805-20: both μῦθοι); and a piece on the two λόγοι συβαριτικοί of Wasps 1427-32, 1435-40 (cf. 1259's Αἰσωπικὸν γέλοιον ἢ Συβαριτικόν) with some thoughts about differentiating a Sybaritic story from an Aesopic fable (brevity? Humans not animals? Dim foreign types?). The book concludes with a bibliography and index of passages cited. The overall level of proof-reading is high (a few odd accents slip through).

Schirru has attempted to break some new ground in Aesopic studies by returning to a relatively fallow area within the field. His investigation of Aristophanes' use of Aesop and Aesopic fables is well-organised and backed up with a good grasp of primary and secondary material. La favola in Aristofane is an attractive addition to both Aesopic and Aristophanic studies.


1.   van Dijk, G-J. (1997) ΑΙΝΟΙ, ΛΟΓΟΙ, ΜΥΘΟΙ. Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature, with a study of the theory and terminology of the genre. Leiden.
2.   Perry, B.E. (1959) "Fable", Studium Generale 12: 17-37.
3.   See West, M.L. (1984) "The ascription of fables to Aesop in archaic and classical Greece", La Fable. Entretiens Hardt sur l'antiquité 30. Geneva, 105-136.
4.   See West (1984) 119-21.
5.   Volksbuch: quite a popular idea until the 1950s when B.E. Perry started to nail the coffin shut (note
2.   above, pp.30-1). See Kurke, L. (forthcoming 2011) Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose. Princeton (preview).
6.   Cataudella, Q. (1942) "Aristofane e il cosiddetto 'romanzo di Esopo'", Dioniso 9: 5-14; Luzzatto, M.J. (1992) "Grecia e vicino Oriente: tracce della 'Storia di Ahiqar' nella cultura greca tra VI e V secolo a.C.", Quaderni di storia 36: 5-84. On Ahiqar/Aesop one should now see Konstantakos, I.M. (2008) ΑΚΙΧΑΡΟΣ. Ἡ Διήγηση τοῦ Ἀχικάρ στὴν ἀρχαία Ἑλλάδα (2 vols.). Athens.
7.   Goins, S.E. (1989/90) "The influence of Old Comedy on the Vita Aesopi", Classical World 83: 28-30.

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