Research Project: Age in Ancient Parables and Fables

As postdoctoral researcher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, I examine the role of age in the fables of Babrius (1st/2nd cent. CE) and in early Christian and rabbinic parables. How are male and female characters of different ages and generations represented in these sources? How are the power dynamics constructed between them? Which ethical norms and values are communicated by parables and fables in the way they construct age, in intersection with gender, as a factor of power and marginalization?

An example of a fable of Babrius


A man already in middle age was still spending his time on love affairs and carousals. He wasn’t young any more, nor was he as yet an old man, but the white hairs on his head were mixed up in confusion with the black. He was making love to two women, one young, the other old. The young woman wanted him to look like a young lover, the old one like one of her own age. Accordingly, on every occasion the mistress who was in the prime of her life plucked out such of his hairs as she found to be turning white, and the old woman plucked out the black ones. This went on until each of them presented the other with a baldpated lover by tbe pulling out of his hair.

[Aesop told this fable in order to show how pitiable a man is who falls into the hands of women. Women are like the sea; which smiles and lures men on to its sparkling surface, then snuffs them out.]

(translation Perry, LCL)

This fable relates about a middle-aged man who is in love with a young and an old mistress. These mistresses want to make him look like their own age by plucking out his white resp. black hairs, thus making him bald. While the application (presumably secondary) conveys a misogynist message about women, the narrative actually portrays the negative consequences of indulgence and erotic love. His love for the two women emasculates the man, turning him into a passive beloved who is not in active control of the situation. Since his young and aged mistresses pluck out his hairs, he looses the physical appearance of his middle age. His baldness either turns him into a baby or an old man.

Interestingly, this fable occurs also in other ancient sources, among others the Babylonian Talmud. In tractate Baba Qama 60b, the fable is used by a rabbi who is asked by one student to teach him aggadah and by another halakhah. Like the man in the fable, he explains, he will please both students by conveying a lesson with an aggadic and a halakhic element. It shows how the rabbis were familiar with the ancient fable tradition (it is unclear whether they used the Babrius version) and applied them to convey their own messages.

The underlying rationale for my research project is the scholarly debate on the background of Babrius. Babrius was an ancient fable author who presumably lived in the 1st/2nd cent. CE. Of his (Greek) fable collection Mythiambi Aesopei 175 fables have been preserved. In scholarly research on Babrius, it is discussed whether the author, his fables, his addressee, and his readership should be situated in the eastern Mediterranean.

Among others, there are notable affinities between the fables of Babrius and early Christian and rabbinic sources. We see shared wording, the use of similar parable themes and motifs. There are also a few examples of Babrius’ fables that have a parallel in rabbinic parables, such as the example on the left. Regarding any of these parallels, it is difficult to argue in favor of a direct or indirect dependence on or of Babrius, or a derivation from a common source. Yet, these parallels do show how fable themes, motifs, and stories are circulating throughout the ancient Mediterranean, ending up not only in Babrius’ Mythiambi but also in other sources produced in the Roman and Sassanian East, such as early Christian and rabbinic parables.

My comparative study on age in the fables of Babrius and early Christian and rabbinic parables aims to understand the relationship between the fables of Babrius and the Roman East. Approaching these sources as exponents of a shared parable/fable discourse, I will examine the way they construct, and give expression, to age-related power dynamics. My focus is on emotion, the body, and space as mediating factors in these power dynamics. I make use of insights from gender studies, emotion studies, disability studies, and space semantics to understand how age, in intersection with gender, functions as a factor of power and marginalization in these contexts.