Phaedrus was said to be a Thracian slave who flourished in the first half of the first century CE. His exact dates of birth and death are unknown, but by 31 CE, when the third book of his Fabellae Aesopiae were written, he claims to be near old age. By his own admission, in the prologue to the third book, he was born in Pieria, Macedonia, but left for Rome at an early age, having also mentioned reading Ennius as a child (which presumes a Roman education).
It is doubtful whether Phaedrus ever became a citizen, though the manuscripts call him libertus Augusti (freedman of Augustus); his dedications were to the freedman Particulo and Eutychus. Some have tried to identify Eutychus with Caligula’s favorite charioteer, though this is mere speculation.
Phaedrus tells us, in the prologue to the third book, that he did something to displease Sejanus, who thus punished him, though whatever it was, it was not serious enough to keep him from writing.
His only surviving work, and perhaps his only work, were the Fabellae Aesopiae (“Aesopic Fables”). In the prologue to the first book, Phaedrus writes that he takes what Aesop authored and turns it into iambic senarii. In the prologue to the fourth and fifth books, he writes that he has returned from retirement to write more, that the poems from these books are not actually from Aesop, but merely in the tradition of Aesop:
Quas Aesopias, non Aesopi, nomino,
Quia paucas ille ostendit, ego plures fero,
Usus vetusto genere, sed rebus novis.
I name these Aesopic, not of Aesop,
Since he offered little, but I many,
Using an old style, but with new topics.
Phaedrus appears to have a high opinion of himself, shown from the prologue to the third book, in which he says that posterity will delight in his verses, and from the prologue to the fourth and fifth books, in which he says that he took up writing again lest anyone else try their hand at it. This in itself is not an unusual remark for poets.
There is some contention concerning how Phaedrus was perceived by other authors at that time. Seneca mentions (Ad Polybium de Consolatione 8.3) that “Aesopic fables were untried by Roman talent” (Aesopeos logos intemptatum Romanis ingeniis opus, Ad Polybium de Consolatione 8.3); Quintilian never names him, but does remark (Inst. Orat. 1.9.2ff.) that composing material from Aesop’s fables was an exercise for students.