The influence of Lucius Apuleius (c. 124-170) on the development of Western prose fiction can not be overestimated. His Metamorphoses, the only surviving novel in Latin, has provided a model stylistically, thematically, and structurally, for many of the great writers of Europe and America.
Apuleius was born sometime around the year 124 in the city of Madaura (near modern Mdaourouch in Algeria) in the Roman province of Numidia, during the reign of Hadrian. He also lived during the reigns of emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. His father was a duumvir (a colonial official) of Madaura, and upon his death left Apuleius and his brother small fortunes. Apuleius admitted spending nearly all of his inheritance on his twin passions: travel and study. He was fluent in Greek and Latin and well versed in literature written in both languages. His early education was most likely acquired in Madaura. Apuleius continued his studies of literature, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy in Carthage, Athens, and Rome. (The Carthage in which Apuleius lived and studied was not the traditional adversary of Rome, which had been obliterated as a result of the Third Punic War, but a completely Romanized city rebuilt during the time of Augustus.) Besides the usual subjects for a scholar of his era, Apuleius had an almost anthropological interest in the Mediterranean religions of his time, especially the eastern Mediterranean region where he traveled. This brought him into contact with the beliefs and ceremonies surrounding the Egyptian goddess Isis, which he later made use of in the Metamorphoses. So eloquent are the passages dealing with Isis and her priesthood rites that scholars have been led to believe that Apuleius himself was a priest of Isis.
After living and teaching for a time in Rome, Apuleius's desire for travel led him to Alexandria. On the way he stopped in the town of Oea (near modern Tripoli). There he met an old student friend from Athens, Sicinius Pontianus, who convinced Apuleius to marry his widowed mother, Aemilia Pudentilla. The untimely death of Pontianus set all of Pudentilla's relatives against Apuleius. They brought suit against him, charging that he used magic to persuade Pudentilla to marry him in order to inherit her fortune. To this charge, Apuleius responded with what has become known as the Apologia, or De Magia.
The Apologia was delivered at Sabrata c. 156-158 when proconsul Claudius Maximus held court there. Apuleius had gone to Sabrata to defend his wife in a lawsuit, but was instead accused of murdering Pontianus and using magic to win Pudentilla. Sicinius Aemilianus, Pudentilla's brother-in-law, brought the charge of murder, was dropped within a few days. At this point, Pudentilla's younger son, Pudens, charged Apuleius with use of magic and assorted minor offenses. Because of its many digressions, some have argued that the Apologia was handed down is a reworked text. Others, notably Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, in Apuleius and His Influence, have claimed that "under the development of the sophist's art, juridical oratory may well have been considerably modified." The digressions provide insight into everyday provincial life in the period: education, manners, inheritance, the position of women, and the notion of magic.
Apuleius began the Apologia by describing the character of his accusers and explaining why he felt it necessary to answer the charges. Then he rebuts the lesser charges— writing love poems and poverty—before going on to answer the charge of magic. The final section of the Apologia is an eloquent argument that leaves no one in doubt of Apuleius's innocence while at the same time explaining his interest in magic. Since Claudius Maximus's decision has been lost, scholars are divided as to whether or not Apuleius was acquitted. However, it is known that Apuleius returned to Carthage and resumed his career.
Apuleius's considerable fame during his lifetime rested on his oratory, for which statues in his honor were erected in Carthage, Oea, and elsewhere. Outstanding selections of Apuleius's oratory are collected in Florida ("Flowers"). These are fragments of his public speeches, made in various African cities, and collected during ancient times, possibly by Apuleius himself. Their subjects cover testimonials to great cities and men (such as Alexander the Great and Socrates), historical and mythological anecdotes, fables, geography (the topography of Samos), natural history (habits of the parrot), ethnography (characteristics of the Indians), and the art of sophistry. At least three of the speeches were delivered between the years 161 and 169. The exact date of Apuleius's death is unknown, though most believe it was around 170.
Apuleius was also a Platonic philosopher. His writings in this field include De Deo Socrates ("On the God of Socrates"), De Platone et Eius Dogmate ("On Plato and His Doctrine") and De Mundo ("On the World"). Apuleius himself termed De Deo Socrates an oratio as opposed to a philosophus, thus linking it closer to the spirit of Socrates, who never wrote but lectured in public, as well as to his own public speeches. It deals with the concept of spirits or demons that mediate between the gods and the human race. This was not a new concept. Prior to Apuleius, this doctrine had been touched on by Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Plutarch.
De Platone et Eius Dogmate is an attempt to convey Plato's teachings and a brief sketch of his life to Apuleius's contemporaries who were unable to read the Greek. It is a collection of translations and abridgments, the first section dealing with the Timaeus, and the second section the Gorgias, the Republic, and Laws. A third section, on dialectic, has been appended to the text but it is generally believed to be a later addition by someone other than Apuleius.
De Mundo is a translation of a treatise that was incorrectly thought to have been written by Aristotle. The text, which Apuleius was using as his source, has been identified as having been written during the first century. Outside of adding a few personal fragments, Apuleius remained true to the original, making De Mundo interesting only to a select number of scholars.
Apuleius's posthumous fame rests with his satirical masterpiece, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, as it is known in English. Though there has been some debate as to whether it was written before or after Apuleius delivered the Apologia, there is considerable textual evidence indicating that it was written in Rome before Apuleius was married. Written entirely in prose (thus making it one of the earliest novels in existence) and set in Greece and Rome, it tells the story of Lucius, the narrator, who is magically turned into an ass. He then embarks upon various adventures until the goddess Isis restores him to his proper form. The adventures are a collection of short stories revolving around the plot of Lucius seeking to regain his humanity. Scholars have divided them into five groups: magic, crime, love (which is further subdivided into comedy, tragedy and fairy tale), adventure, and religion. Lucius's adventures as an ass move back and forth from one to another of these themes, making the structure of the work quite complex. Apuleius not only gave the hero his own name (which has served to complicate the tale's origin in the eyes of scholars), but he wrote autobiographical parts into his romantic fable.
The most well-known section of the Metamorphoses, one that has been often anthologized, is the fairy-tale love story of Cupid and Psyche. It makes up nearly one quarter of the Metamorphoses and contains, as Elizabeth Hazelton Haight noted in Apuleius and His Influence, "all the marks of a folk-lore tale …: beautiful, neglected princess, marriage to a husband whom she must not see, jealous elder sisters, disappearance of husband when this prohibition is neglected, jealousy of husband's mother who sets the bride dangerous and cruel tasks, accomplishment of tasks by supernatural aid, final re-union of bride and husband."
There is much debate over the source material for the Metamorphoses, but many scholars recognize that Apuleius was indebted to Aristides for his Milesiaca, or Milesian Tales, a collection of ancient ribald stories. A second possible source has attributed the original version of Apuleius's Metamorphoses to the ancient Greek writer Lucian, others to a lost text by one Lucius of Patrae. The argument is further complicated by the fact that Lucius of Patrae, as it has come down in the writings of others, is actually the hero of the lost Metamorphosis and that nowhere is the author named. Other scholars, critics, and translators, reject Lucian's version as the source material for Apuleius's Metamorphoses.
That the work has exerted great influence over the centuries is undeniable. The tale of Cupid and Psyche has inspired numerous imitators. Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote owe much to the Metamorphoses, stylistically and in their treatment of earthy themes. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, modern readers had tended to overlook Apuleius's great work. However, since the late 1960s scholars and translators have rediscovered the Metamorphoses, and have mined it for the literary treasure trove that it is. Composers, too, have rediscovered it. 1999 saw the premiere performance of an operatic version of The Golden Ass, composed by Randolph Peters with a libretto by Robertson Davies.
Further Reading on Lucius Apuleius
The Classical Roman Reader, edited by Kenneth J. Atchitry, Henry Holt and Co., 1997.
Haight, Elizabeth Hazelton. Apuleius and His Influence, Longmans, Green and Co., 1927.
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1997.
Perry, Ben Edwin. The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origins, University of California Press, 1967. Maclean's, April 26, 1999.