A Fabulist Slave

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Did you know that in Ancient Greece, some of the most important jobs were done by slaves? Even Aesop, the famous fabulist or storyteller, was a slave.

What are slaves? Slaves were people who worked hard but received no pay for their labor. It is different to doing voluntary work because a volunteer chooses to work free of charge but a slave has no choice. A slave is forced to work without pay. He could not even use his own name; his master had to name him. Aesop’s name means Ethiopia, which is why many historians believe he may have been born in Ethiopia.

Slaves did all kinds of work. They were house slaves, factory workers, ship’s crew members, farm workers or miners. Slaves were clerks at the treasury office and even the police force was made up mainly of slaves. Aesop, however, was a house slave.

There were many ways for people to become slaves: They could have been taken prisoner when their city was attacked in one of the many battles that were fought. They could have been born into slavery if their parents were slaves. They might have been abandoned as a baby at the gates of the city. Or they could have been sold into slavery by their family if their family needed money. Aesop was born into slavery in the 6th century BC, although it is possible he may have been abandoned as a baby because he was a mute and badly deformed. He was described by Maximus Planudes, a Byzantine monk, as “an ugly deformed dwarf.”

However, despite these burdens, Aesop managed to become a freed citizen. How did a slave become a freed citizen? A slave could become free if his master or the government set him free, if they felt he had earned his freedom. In some cases, a slave could buy his way out of slavery.

How could a slave buy freedom when he had no money? In those days, there were clubs called Eranoi, which lent money to slaves to buy their way out of slavery. If a slave could not repay the loan, he would be sold back into slavery. Many slaves were forced to return to slavery because no one wanted to pay a person for work done. If a slave could do the same work, free of charge, most people would use the slaves. Aesop managed to remain free through his ability to craft fables. Fables are stories which teach a lesson.

Historians believe that Aesop’s master set him free because of Aesop’s ability to write and outsmart him through those clever stories. How could Aesop be a storyteller if he was a mute? According to legend, Aesop was granted the power to speak by the goddess Isis for his kindness to one of her attendants. After this gift, he could not stop talking! He crafted fables to show the faults and flaws of that society. He soon became adviser to aristocrats, philosophers and kings. He dined with the Seven Sages of Greece, who were the wise men appointed to advise the king.

Aesop moved from being a slave who served at his master’s table, to a guest being served by slaves, at the king’s table.

Today Aesop’s fables are read as children’s stories because of the lessons that the stories teach. Many of you have heard the story, “The Hare and the Tortoise.” This fable teaches the lesson that no matter how slow you are, if you keep at your task, you will eventually reach your goal. Another familiar story is, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Aesop called it “The Shepherd’s Boy Fable.” This story teaches the lesson that nobody will believe you if you keep telling lies.

Aesop’s own life is a fable too! We can call it, “The Fable of the Fabulist.” This fable teaches us that no matter how lowly we are born, if we are determined, we can fulfill our dreams, just like Aesop, the fabulist slave.


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