The Frog & the Ox
The Frog and the Ox appears among Aesop’s Fables. The story concerns a frog that tries to inflate itself to the size of an ox, but bursts in the attempt. In some Classical sources the fable concludes with the moral: ‘Not all creatures can become as great as they think.’ There are various versions of the story. In some, the frog sees the ox and tries to equal him in size; in others it is only told of an enormous beast by another and keeps swelling, asking at intervals, ‘Was it as big as this?’
The Story’s Use
Both Martial and Horace are among the Latin satiric writers who made use of the fable of the frog and the ox, although they refer to different versions of it. The story related by Phaedrus has a frog motivated by envy of the ox, illustrating the moral that ‘the needy man, while affecting to imitate the powerful, comes to ruin’. It is to this that Martial alludes in a short epigram (X.79) about two citizens trying to outdo each other by building in the suburbs. Horace places a different version of the story towards the end of a long conversation on the demented behaviour of mankind (Satires II.3, lines 314ff) where Damasippus accuses the poet of trying to keep up with his rich patron Maecenas. His telling follows the Babrius version in which an ox has stepped on a brood of young frogs and the father tries equaling the beast in size when told of it.
The folly of trying to keep up with the Jones’ is the conclusion drawn by Jean de la Fontaine from the Phaedrus version of the tale, applying it to the artistocratic times in which he lived (“The frog that wished to be as big as the ox”, Fables I.3):
This world of ours is full of foolish creatures too –
Commoners want to build chateaux;
Each princeling wants his royal retinue;
Each count his squires. And so it goes.
The fable was a favourite in England and was put to popular use on 18th century china by the Fenton pottery and in the 19th century by the Wedgewood pottery. This was on its Aesop series of coloured plates, signed by Emile Lessore in the 1860s. Minton’s pottery also used the fable on a series of Aesop tiles a little later. In France a biscuit porcelain figure group illustrating the fable was issued by the Haffreingue porcelain factory at Boulogne between 1857-1859. The ox is modeled lying on the ground and looking down at the frog directly in front.
Other uses have been the appearance of the fable on stamps during the centenary of La Fontaine’s death in 1995. In France it was on one of a strip of six 2,80 franc stamps, each illustrating a different fable; in Albania the fable appears by itself on the 25 leke stamp and as part of the over-all design of the 60 leke commemorative.