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Aesop's Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs (2002)

Perry 512 (Phaedrus 4.5)

Often there is more good to be found in one man than in a crowd of people, as I will reveal to posterity in this little story.
A certain man left three daughters at his death. One daughter was very beautiful and always chasing after men with her eyes. Another daughter was the frugal type with country virtues, always spinning wool. The third daughter was quite ugly and entirely given over to the bottle. The old man had named the mother of the girls as his heir under the condition that she distribute his entire fortune to the three girls equally, but in the following manner: first, 'Let them not possess nor enjoy what they have been given,' and second, 'As soon as they will have given up the property which they receive, let them bestow a hundred thousand sesterces on their mother.' Gossip filled the city of Athens, and the mother diligently consulted expert lawyers but none could explain to her how the daughters could not possess what was given to them or how they might not enjoy its benefits; likewise they could not say how girls who had nothing would be able to pay such a sum of money to their mother. A great deal of time had been lost in delaying, and still the meaning of the will could not be grasped, so the mother put the law aside and appealed to common sense. To the lascivious daughter, she gave the women's clothes and baubles, along with the silver ewers and beardless eunuchs; the spinster received the fields and the flocks, the country estate and farm hands, along with the cattle and draft animals and farming tools; and for the hard-drinking daughter there was a cellar filled with casks of vintage wine, an elegant house, and pleasant little gardens. The mother was about to give the designated goods to each daughter with the public's general approval (since they were all well acquainted with the daughters' proclivities), when Aesop suddenly appeared in the midst of the crowd and said, 'If only the father were aware of what is happening, he would be turning in his grave at the inability of the Athenians to understand his will!' When asked to explain himself, Aesop corrected the mistake that they had all made and told them, 'Assign the house with its furnishings and lovely gardens and the aged wine to the spinster who lives in the countryside; give the dress and the pearls and the attendants and so on to the ugly creature who boozes her days away; and then give the fields and the country estate with the sheep and the shepherds to the slut. None of them will be able to stand having things which are alien to their way of life. The ugly daughter will sell all the finery to supply herself with wine; the slut will get rid of the fields so that she can supply herself with fripperies; and the one who loves the flocks and is devoted to spinning will not hesitate to sell the opulent estate. In this way no daughter will possess what has been given to her, and each of them will bestow on their mother the specified sum from the proceeds of the sale.'
The cunning of a single man thus solved a problem that had eluded many others in their ignorance.

Note: For another example of Aesop's expertise in posing and solving riddles, see Fable 537. The Roman sestertius was the coinage in which the largest sums were reckoned and the amount of money involved here is not unusual for an aristocratic Roman family. At roughly the time that Phaedrus was writing, a decree was passed that someone who wanted to put on a gladiatorial show had to have a net worth of four hundred thousand sesterces (Tacitus, Annals 4.63).

Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
NOTE: New cover, with new ISBN, published in 2008; contents of book unchanged.