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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Babrius (c. Second Century A.D.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
BABRIUS, also referred to as Babrias and Gabrias, was the writer of that metrical version of the folk-fables, commonly referred to Æsop, which delights our childhood. Until the time of Richard Bentley he was commonly thought of merely as a fabulist whose remains had been preserved by a few grammarians. Bentley, in the first draft (1697) of the part of his famous ‘Dissertation’ treating of the fables of Æsop, speaks thus of Babrius, and goes not far out of his way to give a rap at Planudes, a late Greek, who turned works of Ovid, Cato, and Cæsar into Greek:—
          “… came one Babrius, that gave a new turn of the fables into choliambics. Nobody that I know of mentions him but Suidas, Avienus, and Tzetzes. There’s one Gabrias, indeed, yet extant, that has comprised each fable in four sorry iambics. But our Babrius is a writer of another size and quality; and were his book now extant, it might justly be opposed, if not preferred, to the Latin of Phædrus. There’s a whole fable of his yet preserved at the end of Gabrias, of ‘The Swallow and the Nightingale.’ Suidas brings many citations out of him, all which show him an excellent poet…. There are two parcels of the present fables; the one, which are the more ancient, one hundred and thirty-six in number, were first published out of the Heidelberg Library by Neveletus, 1610. The editor himself well observed that they were falsely ascribed to Æsop, because they mention holy monks. To which I will add another remark,—that there is a sentence out of Job…. Thus I have proved one-half of the fables now extant that carry the name of Æsop to be above a thousand years more recent than he. And the other half, that were public before Neveletus, will be found yet more modern, and the latest of all…. This collection, therefore, is more recent than that other; and, coming first abroad with Æsop’s ‘Life,’ written by Planudes, ’tis justly believed to be owing to the same writer. That idiot of a monk has given us a book which he calls ‘The Life of Æsop,’ that perhaps cannot be matched in any language for ignorance and nonsense. He had picked up two or three true stories,—that Æsop was a slave to a Xanthus, carried a burthen of bread, conversed with Crœsus, and was put to death at Delphi; but the circumstances of these and all his other tales are pure invention…. But of all his injuries to Æsop, that which can least be forgiven him is the making such a monster of him for ugliness,—an abuse that has found credit so universally that all the modern painters since the time of Planudes have drawn him in the worst shapes and features that fancy could invent. ’Twas an old tradition among the Greeks that Æsop revived again and lived a second life. Should he revive once more and see the picture before the book that carries his name, could he think it drawn for himself?—or for the monkey, or some strange beast introduced in the ‘Fables’? But what revelation had this monk about Æsop’s deformity? For he must have it by dream or vision, and not by ordinary methods of knowledge. He lived about two thousand years after him, and in all that tract of time there’s not a single author that has given the least hint that Æsop was ugly.”
  1
  Thus Bentley; but to return to Babrius. Tyrwhitt, in 1776, followed this calculation of Bentley by collecting the remains of Babrius. A publication in 1809 of fables from a Florentine manuscript foreran the collection (1832) of all the fables which could be entirely restored. In 1835 a German scholar, Knoch, published whatever had up to that time been written on Babrius, or as far as then known by him. So much had been accomplished by modern scholarship. The calculation was not unlike the mathematical computation that a star should, from an apparent disturbance, be in a certain quarter of the heavens at a certain time. The manuscript of Babrius, it became clear, must have existed. In 1842 M. Mynas, a Greek, who had already discovered the ‘Philosophoumena’ of Hippolytus, came upon the parchment in the convent of St. Lama on Mount Athos. He was employed by the French government, and the duty of giving the new ancient to the world fell to French scholars. The date of the manuscript they referred to the tenth century. There were contained in it one hundred and twenty-three of the supposed one hundred and sixty fables, the arrangement being alphabetical and ending with the letter O. Again, in 1857 M. Mynas announced another discovery. Ninety-four fables and a proœmium were still in a convent at Mount Athos; but the monks, who made difficulty about parting with the first parchment, refused to let the second go abroad. M. Mynas forwarded a transcript which he sold to the British Museum. It was after examination pronounced to be the work of a forger, and not even what it purported to be—the tinkering of a writer who had turned the original of Babrius into barbarous Greek and halting metre. Suggestions were made that the forger was Mynas himself. And there were scholars who accounted the manuscript as genuine.  2
  The discovery of the first part added substantially to the remains which we have of the poetry of ancient Greece. The terseness, simplicity, and humor of the poems belong to the popular classic all the world over, in whatever tongue it appears; and the purity of the Greek shows that Babrius lived at a time when the influence of the classical age was still vital. He is placed at various times. Bergk fixes him so far back as 250 B.C., while others place him at the same number of years in our own era. Both French and German criticism has claimed that he was a Roman. There is no trace of his fables earlier than the Emperor Julian, and no metrical version of the Æsopean fables existed before the writing of Babrius. Socrates tried his hand at a version or two. But when such Greek writers as Xenophon and Aristotle refer to old folk-tales and legends, it is always in their own words. His fables are written in choliambic verse; that is, imperfect iambic which has a spondee in the last foot and is fitted for the satire for which it was originally used.  3
  The fables of Babrius have been edited, with an interesting and valuable introduction, by W. G. Rutherford (1883), and by F. G. Schneidewin (1880). They have been turned into English metre by James Davies, M.A. (1860). The reader is also referred to the article ‘Æsop’ in the present work.  4
 
 
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