Aesop's Fables

Week 4: Ancient Greece - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Slaves and Masters

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

Many people seem to remain blithely unaware of the fact that ancient Greece and ancient Rome were slave societies, which should make us shudder with the same kind of horror and revulsion that we do at the atrocities of slavery in American history. The way some people talk about ancient Greece and Rome, it is almost as if they saw the people of that time as oddly animated statues: but still somehow made of marble, and not able to feel the unbearable agonies that always accompany human slavery. Many slaves in Greece and Rome were treated as little better than animals, and so Aesop's fables were often used as a metaphor for slavery. The slaves could use the stories to protest their condition, while the masters also made use of the stories as a means of threatening or intimidating their slaves into obedience.


A comfortably plump dog happened to run into a wolf. The wolf asked the dog where he had been finding enough food to get so big and fat. 'It is a man,' said the dog, 'who gives me all this food to eat.' The wolf then asked him, 'And what about that bare spot there on your neck?' The dog replied, 'My skin has been rubbed bare by the iron collar which my master forged and placed upon my neck.' The wolf then jeered at the dog and said, 'Keep your luxury to yourself then! I don't want anything to do with it, if my neck will have to chafe against a chain of iron!'


An onager saw a donkey standing in the sunshine. The onager approached the donkey and congratulated him on his good physical condition and excellent diet. Later on, the onager saw that same donkey bearing a load on his back and being harried by a driver who was beating the donkey from behind with a club. The onager then declared, 'Well, I am certainly not going to admire your good fortune any longer, seeing as you pay such a high price for your prosperity!'  


An onager saw a donkey labouring under a heavy load and he made fun of the donkey's enslavement. 'Lucky me!' said the onager. 'I am free from bondage and do not have to work for anyone else, since I have grass near at hand on the hillsides, while you rely on someone else to feed you, forever oppressed by slavery and its blows!' At that very moment a lion happened to appear on the scene. He did not come near the donkey since the donkey's driver was standing beside him. The onager, however, was all alone, so the lion attacked and devoured him.
The story shows that people who are obstinate and insubordinate come to a bad end because they get carried away by their own sense of stubbornness and refuse to ask others for assistance.


It is not enough that a man who is born under an unlucky star leads an unhappy life: the bitter affliction of his fate pursues him even after he is dead.
The Galli, those priests of the goddess Cybebe, used a donkey to carry their luggage when they went around begging for alms. When their donkey finally died, overcome by work and the whip, they stripped his hide and made themselves some tambourines. When someone asked them what they had done with their darling donkey, the priests replied, 'He thought that once he died he would get some rest, but he keeps on getting beaten just the same!'

Note: The Galli were priests of the Anatolian goddess Cybebe (or Cybele) and they were famous for their raucous music, including the use of tambourines.


There was a donkey who worked for a gardener. Because the gardener made the donkey work very hard but gave him very little food, the donkey prayed to Zeus to take him away from the gardener and give him to another master, so Zeus sent Hermes to sell the donkey to a potter. The donkey also found this situation unbearable, since he was forced to carry even heavier loads than before. He called upon Zeus again, and this time Zeus arranged for the donkey to be purchased by a tanner. When the donkey saw the kind of work the tanner did, he said, 'Oh, it would have been better for me to have kept on working for my previous masters in a state of starvation! Now I have ended up in a place where I won't even get a proper burial after I die.'
The story shows that slaves miss their former masters the most when they have had some experience with their new ones.


When there is a change in government, nothing changes for the poor folk except their master's name.
A cowardly old man had led his donkey out to pasture. At the unexpected sound of the enemy approaching, the old man was stricken with terror and tried to persuade the donkey to run away so that he wouldn't be captured. The donkey obstinately asked the old man, 'Tell me, do you suppose the victor will make me carry two pack saddles instead of one?' The old man said he did not think so. 'I rest my case,' concluded the donkey. 'What difference does it make who my master is, if I always carry one saddle at a time?'


A man caught a jackdaw and tied the bird's foot with a piece of string so that he could give the bird to his child as a present. The jackdaw, however, could not stand to live in human society, so when they let him loose for just a moment, he ran away. But when he got back to his nest, the string became entangled in the branches, so that the jackdaw was unable to fly. As he was dying, the bird said to himself, 'How stupid of me! Since I could not stand being a slave in human society, I have brought about my own death.'
This story is appropriate for people who want to rescue themselves from some moderate difficulties and, without realizing it, find themselves in even more serious trouble.


A dove who lived in a certain dovecote was boasting about the number of children she had given birth to. The crow heard her and said, 'Stop your bragging! The more children you have, the greater the slavery you bring into the world!'
The fable shows that the most unfortunate house slaves are the ones who give birth to children in captivity.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why did the wolf decide it was not jealous of the fat dog?
  • why did the onager (wild donkey) decide that it was not jealous of the fat donkey?
  • what happened to the onager and the donkey when the lion attacked?
  • what happened to the priests' donkey after it died?
  • what happened to the donkey who changed masters?
  • why did the donkey tell the old man that all masters are the same?
  • what happened to the jackdaw who ran away?
  • why did the crow make fun of the dove?

Source: Laura Gibbs, translator. Aesop's Fables (2003). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM