Saturday, 15 March 2014

Apuleius - The Apologia


May the Gods forgive me for such a hiatus. The current author in the sights of Legendum couldnt be any more of a radical departure from the austere fare we have been enjoying of late.
Apuleius (125-180 CE), a distinguished writer, orator and would-be Platonist philosopher was a native of North Africa, most probably a native Berber and son of a leading figure in the town of Madaurus in the Roman province of Numidia. His chief fame derives from the Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses), perhaps the only extant Roman novel although since we dont really have any other novels or novel type texts from the same era, its a term which for me has some diificulties. Nevertheless I think that we are in for a treat with this tale of magic, adventure and mystery. You thought Magical Realism was South American in originwell you may have to think again.

He is the author of a number of other works, in particular the Apologia and the Florida. The former of the two works is the record of a declamation or defence speech delivered by Apuleius himself as a vindication against the accusation of magic or more accurately the use of magic charms rituals and philtres in order to obtain the hand of a rich matron in marriage. The Apologia can be found online relatively easily and I thought it useful to dip into these works to gain some more background on the author as well as a feel for the 2nd Century milieu in which he flourished. I have just finished the Apologia and about to embark upon an investigation of the Florida before tackling the Golden Ass, but I am going to focus on the Apologia for this introductory blog post.

The Apologia (or A Treatise on Magic as it is often known) gives an insight into Apuleius and his character as well as his dextrous use of quotations from Homer, Plato and many other classical authorities to illustrate and add colour and conviction to his expostulations. From my cursory reading of the text he comes across as an educated and most eloquent and witty defender of his reputation as well as that of his wife Pudentilla. However, it is also fair to say that he is at times verbose, slightly priggish and a bit of a show off.
Despite these character traits it is clear that his case is a strong one and on the face of it he appears to have been the relatively innocent victim of a vindictive case brought against him out of jealousy and rivalry. What we have before us in the final shape of the text is surely not a verbatim transcript of the speech as given in court with its dramatic flourishes and stage directions rather a skilful melange of the actual defence speech prepared by Apuleius before delivery plus his notes and embellishments and the official transcript of the recorder. One can imagine Apuleius in his well-appointed and rather smart little tablinum, stylus in hand, relishing the success and pondering over a phrase, or quotation with which to enhance his work.
The twin arts of the skilled rhetor and the auctor have been expertly blended to create a tour de force not only of self justification but also as some scholars assert but also of damnatio or counterblast against his would be accusers. As in the middle ages, both the crime and accusation of witchcraft was a very serious matter and it must have been a great risk to bring such a case against an individual. In the ancient world there is at least one attested case of crucifixion of a malicious accuser of sorcery. Apuleius clearly won his case as his later activity proves. The fate of his accuser is not known, though at one point Apuleius mentions that 10 years exile from the city might have been appropriate.

Late 3rd Century Theatre at Sabratha in Libya
The Apologia is a good place to start to get an idea of Apuleius the man and his style, which is often quite humorous despite the deadly serious nature of the trial. He employs ridicule and exaggerated expression to dismantle his opponents arguments and almost overreaches himself hence the humour of literary excess and hyperbole overegging it for a future audience or readership perhaps. He has a habit on occasion of getting carried away, three or four examples where one would suffice to drive home the point. You get the sense upon reading this text that Apuleius quite likes the sound of his own voice and the display of his learned erudition as a Platonist and a natural scientist...a sort of long haired Numidian amateur Leonardo occasionally whipping out his pocket mirror to admire his rather handsome and dashing appearance, or as he would have us believe, to follow the advice of Socrates and look at his own image to hold it up to 'philosophical examination'. I bet he mussed his hair up with just a touch of panache (and possibly pomade for the ladies) before entering the court that day!
With the Apologia we get a taste of the eloquence and the slightly purple efflorescence of the skilled advocate...who could make us believe almost anything with his erudite 24 carat narration. Something we will doubtless be able to trace in the fantastic arabesques of the Golden Ass.



  1. Thanks S, interesting post. I've just finished reading The Golden Ass and will try to dip into the other things before Sunday. I'm not sure I've read anything quite like GA before, it was alot more explicitly scatological than I was expecting. The introduction to the translation i have (by PG Walsh) spends quite a bit of time considering whether it is a fable or just an entertainment. Walsh comes down on the side of fable, but it seems to me that, despite much of it being able to be interpreted in this way - Lucius-as-Ass' misadventures emphasising the corruptness of the world that Lucius-as-human turns his back on through his Isiac initiation - Apuleius revels in the lurid, comic, gruesome detail of the stories to more of a degree than one might think is strictly necessary for the purposes of a fable. One for discussion in the group. I enjoyed the last book very much, perhaps Legendum could undergo initiation into Mysteries of Isis as one of our trips out!

  2. Eleusinian or Isiac initiation...perhaps on Delphi as a very special Legendum excursion! The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses as its also rather confusingly known is indeed by turns both bawdy and scatological. It also depicts a very violent and brutal world in quite horrific detail. The constant dangers for any householder deemed have more than a few denarii to their name,the violent treatment of animals, the miserable conditions of slaves, bruised bodies, skinhead lice infested scalps and branded cheeks and foreheads...the terrifying ordeal of travel between towns on unpoliced country roads infested with bloodthirsty thugs. I think that it might not be entirely fanciful and that there is as much reality in these depictions as magic.

  3. By the way, I am thinking of rustling up one last short blogpost before the 11th when we are due to convene; perhaps along the lines of some favourite moments or quotations. I am just about to embark upon a second reading so should be able to create a top ten hits from that!