(Public Domain sketch of Apuleius)
The Roman author, and minor regional statesman, Apuleius (125-180 CE), is best known today for his hilarious book, The Golden Ass (also called Metamorphoses). His imaginative tale details the journey of a man named Lucius, who is transformed into a donkey through magic, and must suffer a long string of odd and humorous events throughout the Roman Empire. The Golden Ass was likely written within the last twenty years of Apuleius’ life, when he had settled down in Carthage.
Apuleius shared many traits with Lucius, the main character of his fictional book. Like Lucius, Apuleius was a man from a wealthy family who traveled around the Roman Empire, visiting many of its numerous major cities and regions. As a young man, he traveled from his hometown in modern Mdaourouch, Algeria, to the city of Carthage to receive an education. From there, Apuleius continued to travel around the Roman world. After he left Carthage, he made his way to Athens to build upon his education, and from Athens he journeyed to Rome. In Rome, he transitioned from student to teacher, likely becoming a professor of rhetoric. When he eventually decided to leave the city of Rome, he made his way back to the northern provinces of Roman Africa.
Apuleius landed in Tripoli, intending to journey to Carthage. Before he left Tripoli, however, his life became much more interesting. He met and married his wife, Pudentilla. Their union, however, did not have a smooth start, for Pudentilla’s family charged Apuleius with using magic to force his new bride into marriage. Apuleius was able to clear himself of the charge of enchanting his wife with anything other than charm by writing his De Magia, also known as Apology. With his in-laws defeated, Apuleius, and his bride, settled in Carthage around 160 CE, and soon he began writing The Golden Ass.
During his life, The Golden Ass was in no way Apuleius’ sole work. He also wrote about the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Other genres of his writing included poetry and natural history. Apuleius became one of the chief priests of his province in North Africa, and he even received multiple public honors for his deeds.
Even though he was a highly regarded figure in North Africa during his lifetime, it was not until much later that Apuleius’ The Golden Assbegan to receive acclaim. The Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio drew inspiration from Apuleius in his 14th century Decameron. In the early 17th century, Miguel de Cervantes also modeled bits of his Don Quixote on The Golden Ass. Even the 20th century writer, C. S. Lewis, used ideas from Apuleius. With a lifespan of nearly two millennia, The Golden Ass has inspired and entertained untold generations of readers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses by Apuleius, translated by E. J. Kenney. London: Penguin Books, 1998 and revised 2004.