Aesop's Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs (2002)
549. THE MOTHER AND HER THREE DAUGHTERS
Perry 512 (Phaedrus
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,
Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura
Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
cover, with new ISBN, published in 2008; contents of book unchanged.