Monday, December 21, 2015

TFBT: Which Came First Aeschylus or the Toretoise?

 I had the pleasure of perusing “The Great Fables of All Nations”.[i]  There in the sand and sun I skipped through delightful anecdotes often of interest to the classicist in me. Here I present one from Aesop.  (b. 620 BC) This version translated by George Fyler Townsend

“The Tortoise and the Eagle A tortoise, lazily basking in the sun, complained to the sea-birds of her hard fate, that no one would teach her to fly. An Eagle, hovering near, heard her lamentation and demanded what reward she would give him if he would take her aloft and float her in the air. "I will give you," she said, "all the riches of the Red Sea." "I will teach you to fly then," said the Eagle; and taking her up in his talons he carried her almost to the clouds suddenly he let her go, and she fell on a lofty mountain, dashing her shell to pieces. The Tortoise exclaimed in the moment of death: "I have deserved my present fate; for what had I to do with wings and clouds, who can with difficulty move about on the earth?'"

An enlightening little tale, but somehow familiar.  I thought of the death of Aesop himself, but that was at the hands of the people at Delphi as Komroff pointed out.  So my curious had to wait until I crossed the border and was home again.  The death I was thinking of was the death of Aeschylus in 456 or 455 BC            

According to Ursula Hoff [ii]According to Pliny and Valerius Maximus, Aeschylus, of whom it had been predicted that he was to meet his death on a certain days as the result of an object falling on his head, went out into the open, trusting in the clear sky, and was killed by a tortoise, dropped on to his head by an eagle.”  Both Pliny and Valerius Maximus wrote in the first century AD

So, was Aesop’s tale inspired by Aeschylus’ death or were the later writers’ anecdotes on Aeschylus’ death inspired by Aesop?

[i] Ed. Manual Komroff, Tudor Publ. NYC
[ii] Meditation in Solitude, Ursula Hoff, Journal of the Warburg Institute , Vol. 1, No. 4 (Apr., 1938), pp. 292-294Published by: Warburg Institute , DOI: 10.2307/749994, Stable URL:


  1. Aeschylus was allegedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle, Euripides was allegedly eaten by dogs. Both died in exile, so there was no restraints to the imagination of Athenian "news sources". Even Sophocles, who died in Athens, was not protected. Wikipedia: "As with many famous men in classical antiquity, his death inspired a number of apocryphal stories. The most famous is the suggestion that he died from the strain of trying to recite a long sentence from his Antigone without pausing to take a breath. Another account suggests he choked while eating grapes at the Anthesteria festival in Athens. A third holds that he died of happiness after winning his final victory at the City Dionysia." "Eating grapes" here must be a code for "drinking wine", for this is what the Anthesteria was for.

    I guess that those who could write tragedies, did it, and those who could not, spoke and wrote gossip about how members of the former group died :-). So Aesop must have been first.

  2. Maya,

    I like your final paragraph. Normally I say those who couldn't write tragedy are named Aristophanes!


  3. Poor Aristophanes! I mentioned that some participants in your Cafe were ready to surrender his comedies to get back lost works presumed to be more interesting.
    (Nobody thought of Nonnus' Dionysiaca, which I'd put first on any trade-off list. Or maybe some readers like it after all.)

  4. Maya,

    In academic circles no one even acknowledges Nonnus! They don't even seem to know the name.

    Incase I dont talk to you Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And Happy New year!

  5. Thank you! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!