Born ca. A.D. 120
Apuleius was a writer, philosopher*, and orator* from the Roman province* that is now northeastern Algeria. He is best known for .a novel titled Metamorphoses (Transformations), also known by the title The Golden Ass. This unusual work influenced European writers more than a thousand years later.
Life. Apuleius was born near the North African city of Carthage in a town called Madauros. Like his father, Apuleius became a town senator. He traveled widely as a young man and spent time as a student in both Athens and Rome. Unlike many other Latin writers, he was proud of his provincial origin and preferred to be called a Madauran rather than a Roman.
Apuleius spent most of his life in North Africa. He met his wife in the A.D. 150s at the place that is now Tripoli in Libya. He achieved fame as a poet and philosopher in Carthage, where he became chief priest of the province. Carthage and Madauros erected statues in his honor. Where and when he died is not known.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* orator public speaker of great skill
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* bawdy humorously indecent
* alliteration repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or within words
Style and Philosophy. At the time that Apuleius was writing, both Greek and Roman culture were dominant in the Mediterranean region. For this reason, Apuleius skillfully wove Greek and Latin themes and language into his works. His style was extravagant and bawdy*, incorporating poetic images and a mixture of old-fashioned expressions and popular slang. His work was also full of clever puns, alliteration*, scholarly references, and scenes of great beauty. Yet Apuleius often wrote for audiences who were not well educated. His surviving works include introductions to Greek philosophy and culture for provincial Latin readers.
One of Apuleius’s works—a speech called the Apology (Greek for “speech in defense of”)—was his reply to charges made against him by his wife’s family. Her family had claimed that Apuleius bewitched her into marrying him. In this speech, he used some ideas from the Greek philosopher Plato, whom he greatly admired. Apuleius defended himself by using Plato’s distinction between passion and noble love, which witchcraft could not affect. The speech exemplifies Apuleius’s vivid style and his interest in philosophy.
A Metamorphosis. Of all his surviving work, however, The Golden Ass is the most interesting to modern audiences. At first it appears to be a simple story about a young man named Lucius, who sets out to visit a friend. What gives the work its richness are the many stories embedded within it. As the story unfolds, Lucius reaches his friend’s house in northern Greece. Pamphile, the friend’s wife, is skilled in magic, and Lucius sees her use a magic ointment to transform herself into an owl, the symbol of wisdom. Lucius then asks Pamphile’s maid to help him obtain some of the magical ointment so that he, too, can become an owl. Lucius learns that the magic can be reversed by eating roses. Unfortunately, the maid brings the wrong ointment and instead of an owl, he becomes an ass—the symbol of stupidity and lust. At that moment, three real thieves break into the house and capture him to carry their loot for them.
Now an ass, Lucius remains captive in the thieves’ cave, together with a bride whom the thieves have also kidnapped. The thieves’ housekeeper looks after them until, eventually, the bride’s husband arrives. He pretends to be another thief, tricks the thieves, gets them drunk, and kills them. At this point, Lucius escapes, but finds himself unable to shed his animal form. After still more adventures, he finally meets the Egyptian goddess Isis, who helps him find rose petals to eat so that he can become human again. Shaken by all of his adventures, Lucius’s story ends with his conversion to the worship of Isis.
The tales within the main story concern a wide range of subjects—the exploits of the thieves, love, witches, and even the philosopher Socrates. They are narrated by a host of colorful, mischievous characters who tell their tales with bawdy humor and satire*. The storytellers include: Lucius’s companions on his journey to northern Greece, his friend, his friend’s wife Pamphile, the thieves and their housekeeper, and others who own him while he is an ass.
The centerpiece of the work is the long tale of Cupid and Psyche, told by the thieves’ housekeeper. In this tale, the goddess Venus sends her son, Cupid, to punish Psyche for being her rival in beauty. Instead of punishing Psyche, Cupid falls in love with her. The housekeeper tells this story supposedly to comfort the kidnapped bride and reassure her that a happy ending is on its way. However, in one of the book’s many unexpected twists, the bride and her husband in fact meet a terrible fate. After their reunion, they encounter a man who becomes a rival for the bride’s love. He kills the husband, and the bride kills herself.
At first glance, The Golden Ass seems to be a romantic tale with entertaining stories and a surprising ending. For readers who dig deeper, however, it becomes a work about Plato’s mystical view that much of the world is an illusion, full of constant change and misunderstanding. Apuleius’s style would later influence the medieval writers Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, both of whom also wrote major works comprised of collections of narrated short stories. (See also Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman.)
* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly