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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Apuleius (c. 125–c. 180)

LUCIUS APULEIUS, author of the brilliant Latin novel ‘The Metamorphoses,’ also called ‘The [Golden] Ass,’—and more generally known under that title,—will be remembered when many greater writers shall have been forgotten. The downfall of Greek political freedom brought a period of intellectual development fertile in prose story-telling,—short fables and tales, novels philosophic and religious, historical and satiric, novels of love, novels of adventure. Yet, strange to say, while the instinct was prolific in the Hellenic domain of the Roman Empire, it was for the most part sterile in Italy, though Roman life was saturated with the influence of Greek culture. Its only two notable examples are Petronius Arbiter and Apuleius, both of whom belong to the first two centuries of the Christian epoch.

The suggestion of the plan of the novel familiarly known as ‘The Golden Ass’ was from a Greek source, Lucius of Patræ. The original version was still extant in the days of Photius, Patriarch of the Greek Church in the ninth century. Lucian, the Greek satirist, also utilized the same material in a condensed form in his ‘Lucius, or the Ass.’ But Apuleius greatly expanded the legend, introduced into it numerous episodes, and made it the background of a vivid picture of the manners and customs of a corrupt age. Yet underneath its lively portraiture there runs a current of mysticism at variance with the naïve rehearsal of the hero’s adventures, and this has tempted critics to find a hidden meaning in the story. Bishop Warburton, in his ‘Divine Legation of Moses,’ professes to see in it a defense of Paganism at the expense of struggling Christianity. While this seems absurd, it is fairly evident that the mind of the author was busied with something more than the mere narration of rollicking adventure, more even than a satire on Roman life. The transformation of the hero into an ass, at the moment when he was plunging headlong into a licentious career, and the recovery of his manhood again through divine intervention, suggest a serious symbolism. The beautiful episode of ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ which would lend salt to a production far more corrupt, is also suggestive. Apuleius perfected this wild flower of ancient folk-lore into a perennial plant that has blossomed ever since along the paths of literature and art. The story has been accepted as a fitting embodiment of the struggle of the soul toward a higher perfection; yet, strange to say, the episode is narrated with as brutal a realism as if it were a satire of Lucian, and its style is belittled with petty affectations of rhetoric. It is the enduring beauty of the conception that has continued to fascinate. Hence we may say of ‘The Golden Ass’ in its entirety, that whether readers are interested in esoteric meanings to be divined, or in the author’s vivid sketches of his own period, the novel has a charm which long centuries have failed to dim.

Apuleius was of African birth and of good family, his mother having come of Plutarch’s blood. The second century of the Roman Empire, when he lived (he was born at Madaura about A.D. 139), was one of the most brilliant periods in history,—brilliant in its social gayety, in its intellectual activities, and in the splendor of its achievements. The stimulus of the age spurred men far in good and evil. Apuleius studied at Carthage, and afterward at Rome, both philosophy and religion, though this bias seems not to have dulled his taste for worldly pleasure. Poor in purse, he finally enriched himself by marrying a wealthy widow and inheriting her property. Her will was contested on the ground that this handsome and accomplished young literary man had exercised magic in winning his elderly bride! The successful defense of Apuleius before his judges—a most diverting composition, so jaunty and full of witty impertinences that it is evident he knew the hard-headed Roman judges would dismiss the prosecution as a farce—is still extant under the name of ‘The Apology; or, Concerning Magic.’ This in after days became oddly jumbled with the story of ‘The Golden Ass’ and its transformations, so that St. Augustine was inclined to believe Apuleius actually a species of professional wizard.

The plot of ‘The Golden Ass’ is very simple. Lucius of Madaura, a young man of property, sets out on his travels to sow his wild oats. He pursues this pleasant occupation with the greatest zeal according to the prevailing mode: he is no moralist. The partner of his first intrigue is the maid of a woman skilled in witchcraft. The curiosity of Lucius being greatly exercised about the sorceress and her magic, he importunes the girl to procure from her mistress a magic salve which will transform him at will into an owl. By mistake he receives the wrong salve; and instead of the bird metamorphosis which he had looked for, he undergoes an unlooked-for change into an ass. In this guise, and in the service of various masters, he has opportunities of observing the follies of men from a novel standpoint. His adventures are numerous, and he hears many strange stories, the latter being chronicled as episodes in the record of his experiences. At last the goddess Isis appears in a dream, and obligingly shows him the way to effect his second metamorphosis, by aid of the high priest of her temple, where certain mysteries are about to be celebrated. Lucius is freed from his disguise, and is initiated into the holy rites.

‘The Golden Ass’ is full of dramatic power and variety. The succession of incident, albeit grossly licentious at times, engages the interest without a moment’s dullness. The main narrative, indeed, is no less entertaining than the episodes. The work became a model for story-writers of a much later period, even to the times of Fielding and Smollett. Boccaccio borrowed freely from it; at least one of the many humorous exploits of Cervantes’s ‘Don Quixote’ can be attributed to an adventure of Lucius; while ‘Gil Blas’ abounds in reminiscences of the Latin novel. The student of folk-lore will easily detect in the tasks imposed by Venus on her unwelcome daughter-in-law, in the episode of ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ the possible original from which the like fairy tales of Europe drew many a suggestion. Probably Apuleius himself was indebted to still earlier Greek sources.

Scarcely any Latin production was more widely known and studied from the beginning of the Italian Renaissance to the middle of the seventeenth century. In its style, however, it is far from classic. It is full of archaisms and rhetorical conceits. In striving to say things finely, the author frequently failed to say them well. This fault, however, largely disappears in the translation; and whatever may be the literary defects of the novel, it offers rich compensation in the liveliness, humor, and variety of its substance.

In addition to ‘The Golden Ass,’ the extant writings of Apuleius include ‘Florida’ (an anthology from his own works), ‘The God of Socrates,’ ‘The Philosophy of Plato,’ and ‘Concerning the World,’ a treatise once attributed to Aristotle. The best modern edition of his complete works is that of Hildebrand (Leipzig, 1842); of the ‘Metamorphoses,’ that of Eyssenhardt (Berlin, 1869). There have been many translations into the modern languages. The best English versions are those of T. Taylor (London, 1822); of Sir G. Head, somewhat expurgated (London, 1851); of H. E. Butler in the Oxford Library of Translations (1910); and of W. Adlington (1566), revised by S. Gaselee for the Loeb Classical Library. A very pretty edition in French, with many illustrations, is that of Savalète (Paris, 1872).