<< Home Page | Oxford (Gibbs) Index

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

Perry 501 (Phaedrus 3.10)

It is dangerous to believe a story, and dangerous not to believe it. I will quickly offer an example of each: Hippolytus died because the people believed his stepmother, but when the people did not believe Cassandra, it spelled the end of Troy. For this reason, the truth must be carefully considered before an incorrect opinion results in a foolish judgment. So that you won't be tempted to make light of antiquity and its mythical tales, I will also tell you a story which happened in my own lifetime.
There was a certain married man who loved his wife very much and whose son was almost old enough to assume the white toga of manhood. However, one of the man's freedmen was hoping to be appointed as the man's immediate heir, so he called the man aside and lied at great length about the man's son and even more about the bad behaviour of his faithful wife. Finally, he added something that he realized would cause the greatest possible pain to a loving husband: the man's wife was being visited, said the freedman, by an adulterer, thus defiling the reputation of the house with acts of moral turpitude. The man was outraged at the thought of his wife's supposed crimes, so he pretended to make a trip to the countryside, while secretly hiding in town. Then all of a sudden he came home in the night and headed straight for his wife's bedroom. His wife, meanwhile, had ordered their son to sleep in her bed so that she could keep a close eye on him now that he had grown older. While the servants ran here and there looking for a light, the man was no longer able to hold back his explosive outburst of anger. He approached the bed and felt a head there in the dark. When he detected a man's haircut, he plunged his sword through the man's chest, thinking of nothing but avenging his grief. When the lantern was brought, he saw both his son and his noble wife sleeping there next to him. Deep in sleep, his wife was not even aware of what had happened. The man then punished himself in full for the crime he had committed by falling upon the sword he had drawn in his own readiness to believe the worst. Informers pressed charges against the woman and she was taken away to Rome to be tried in court. Although guilty of no crime, she was plagued by jealous suspicions about her taking possession of the family's property. Her advocates stood by her, stoutly defending the claims of this innocent woman. The judges then asked the divine Augustus to help them faithfully carry out their sworn duty, since the complexity of the crime had them baffled. Augustus first dispelled the darkness of the unfair charges laid against the woman and then revealed the true explanation of what had happened, as he pronounced the following sentence: 'Let the freedman who was the cause of this wickedness be punished! Meanwhile, I decree that the woman who has both lost her son and been deprived of her husband should receive our pity rather than our condemnation. If the father had fully investigated the alleged crimes and carefully sifted through the lies, he would not have brought utter ruin upon his house with this appalling crime.'
You cannot ignore everything you hear, but you should not believe it immediately, since those whom you least expect can turn out to be scoundrels while entirely innocent people can fall victim to treachery. This example may also serve as a warning to simple-minded people not to draw conclusions from hearsay. Human ambition is multifarious, sometimes taking the form you expect, and sometimes not; the man you know personally is the man you really know. (I have explored this matter at greater length because in other cases some people have been annoyed by my excessive brevity.)

Note: Hippolytus was falsely accused of rape by his stepmother Phaedra, and Theseus pronounced a fatal curse on his son. Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, had received the gift of prophecy but at a terrible cost: although she spoke the truth, no one believed her.

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.