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The Fortunes of Apuleius and the Golden Ass:
A Study in Transmission and Reception
Julia Haig Gaisser

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Apuleius: A Celebrity and His Image

Don’t you know that there is nothing a man would rather look at than his own form?
—Apuleius , Apology

Apuleius is best known today for his racy novel, the Golden Ass ( Asinus Aureus ), or Metamorphoses (both titles were current in antiquity); but he also gained celebrity and fortune in his own time as a Platonic philosopher and skillful rhetorician. He claimed to cultivate both philosophy and the nine Muses (Fl. 20.6), and the diversity of his writings is so great that one can almost believe him.1

Most of what we know about his life comes from Apuleius himself, particularly from comments in the Florida (excerpts from his epideictic orations) and the Apology, or De Magia (On Magic), in which he defends himself against a charge of practicing magic.2 He was born in North Africa, probably in Madauros (modern Mdaourouch in Algeria), in the mid-120s AD. After his early education in Carthage, he spent several years studying in Athens, drinking deeply, as he says, of the cups of the Muses: “the cup of poetry, made with artifice, the clear cup of geometry, the sweet cup of music, the dry one of dialectic, and the one of which a person can never have enough—the nectarlike cup of all philosophy.” 3 In this period he probably traveled elsewhere in the Greek east, almost surely to Samos and perhaps to Phrygia as well.4 He then moved on to Rome.5 We find him back in North Africa in the mid-150s, and well into the best-known and most notorious event in his life: the marriage and subsequent charge of magic documented in the Apology.

According to the Apology, around 155 or 156 Apuleius came to the town of Oea (modern Tripoli) and married a wealthy widow named Pudentilla, the mother of Sicinius Pontianus, an old friend from his student days in Athens. He did so at his friend’s request, to save her estate from the relatives of her late husband. The marriage did not sit well with Pudentilla’s former in-laws, and in late 158 or early 159 Apuleius was brought to trial on a charge of magic. Specifically, it seems, he was accused of using magic to induce Pudentilla to fall in love with him. The charge was serious, since sorcery was potentially a capital offense.6 Apuleius spoke in his own defense and with evident success, for a few years later he was giving orations in Carthage, where—by his own account, at least—he was a prominent and popular figure. We hear nothing of him after the late 160s.7

Apuleius was a quintessential product of his time, for both were bicultural, prosperous, nostalgic for the classical past, and enamored of display. The predominant cultural phenomenon of the age was the movement called the Second Sophistic, whose distinguishing feature was what we might describe as oratory for entertainment.8 Its practitioners, the sophists, were—or aspired to be—celebrities. The more successful ones were highly paid, achieved fame well beyond their native cities, and attracted large numbers of followers. Sometimes they attained public office or positions of high status and infl uence. 9 Their activities included displaying and purveying classical (but primarily Greek) culture, self-promotion, and playing to the local pride of the cities and regions they spoke in. Above all, however, they professed an attachment to philosophy—or rather to their own brand of philosophy, which Apuleius defines as “a royal science devised to promote the art of speaking as much as the art of living.”10

The sophistic movement grew out of the ancient educational system, which was largely based on rhetorical training. Many of the sophists were teachers of the rhetorical art, and many in their audiences had been brought up in it. Listeners who had spent their school days practicing rhetorical exercises enjoyed and savored virtuoso oratorical performances. They could recognize a speaker’s techniques and tricks and many of his themes, and they could criticize the fine points of his strategy and delivery. But the sophists’ orations were also entertaining and accessible enough to appeal to those with little education, who would have been in the vast majority in every audience.11 The extent and success of the movement were fostered by the relative ease of travel throughout the Greco-Roman world and by the bilingualism—or at least biculturism— of its educated inhabitants. Sophists practiced their ostentatious art all over the empire; and although the cultural basis of the movement was Greek, it also had room for Hellenized Romans like Apuleius.12

The chief subject of every sophist was himself—or rather his ostensible self, the self that he wished his public to see. (I say “he” advisedly, for the sophists were all male.) The sophist’s self-presentation extended to every aspect of his appearance: both on- and offstage he suited his clothes, coiffure, gestures, mannerisms, voice, and possessions to his role.13 He created the role, however, with words, in the fi rst-person utterance of his orations.

This verbal image of the sophist is best seen as a special case of what happens when any writer uses the first person. By using the word I the author creates a persona, a mask or character whose identity, emotions, and experiences are presented as autobiographical, whether they are real or imaginary. Whatever its degree of reality, the first person invites us to elide the persona with the writer, to identify the mask with the man or woman behind it, or—to put it another way—to conflate the puppet with the person pulling the strings. The effect is necessarily increased when authors read or perform their own works before an audience, as they did so often in antiquity. When orators spoke in law courts or declaimed in theaters or poets gave readings to audiences large or small, they brought to life the characters of their own creation, making the “I,” or “ego,” of their scripts into credible likenesses of themselves.

Ancient writers fully exploited the persona—sometimes hiding behind it completely, sometimes lifting it for a moment to create a play between their real and fictional selves. Orators and politicians tended to stay in character, holding up to the world the self they had so carefully fashioned.14 Poets were more willing both to acknowledge the existence of the mask and to advertise its distance from reality, as Catullus does in the notorious lines from poem 16.15

Nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est,
.  .  .
vos, quod milia multa basiorum
legistis, male me marem putastis?
     (Cat. 16.5–6, 12–13)
It’s fitting for the upright poet himself to be free of filth,
but there’s no need for his verses to be so.
.  .  .
Because you read about many thousands of kisses,
Did you think I wasn’t much of a man?

The sophists, like the poets, liked to play with the mask. They did so ostentatiously, in full view of their audience, for their personae were— quite literally—their stock in trade, the material of their celebrity. Apuleius, sophist par excellence, teases his public with two principal personae: the “I” of his orations and philosophical works and the “I” of his novel the Golden Ass. Like Catullus and other poets, he sometimes takes off his mask (or pretends to), hinting that the persona he has displayed might not be his “real” self; but he can also replace one mask with another, confusing and blurring the identities he has placed before us.

This chapter is concerned with Apuleius and his fortunes in antiquity, especially with the creation and development of his “image”—a term that I will be using in all of its possible senses, including the one we have in mind when we talk about the carefully constructed image of a public figure or a commercial product. We will consider how Apuleius professes to see himself, the image or persona he presents to his public, and the images (both literary and artistic) made of him by others.

Creating an Image

Like his fellow sophists, Apuleius presented his image chiefl y through his orations. We see his constructed self most extensively in the Apology and Florida, but it also peeks out tantalizingly from time to time in the Golden Ass.

The Apology presents itself as the speech that Apuleius actually delivered before the court, but it seems likely that he revised and perhaps even rewrote it after the fact. This point is controversial, but the speech in its present form would be a risky defense: it shows too much detailed knowledge of magic and magical terminology, is too arrogant, and treats the charges too lightly. 16 It has been argued that the presiding judge, Claudius Maximus, was highly educated and philosophically minded, and thus could be relied on to be sympathetic to a fellow intellectual facing a trumped-up charge.17 Nonetheless, there was still a chance that Apuleius’ cleverness could backfire, and that even a sympathetic judge could find the levity he displays in the Apology offensive and impertinent enough to convict him. Matters would have been quite different, however, after the trial and its successful conclusion. Then the triumphant Apuleius would have been free to indulge himself, rewriting his speech as a brilliant and wickedly funny pseudodefense.18 If this assessment is correct, the persona that Apuleius presents in the Apology is one step removed from the one he revealed at his trial—a fiction of a fi ction. At the same time, however, it is consistent with the persona he presents in the various excerpts from epideictic orations preserved in the Florida: self-absorbed, confident, intellectual, and constantly on display.

In both the Florida and the Apology we see Apuleius as a man who likes to talk about himself but does not do so carelessly or merely to impart autobiographical detail. Almost every word is designed to present him to his hearers (or perhaps readers, in the case of the Apology) in a particular, and highly flattering, light. Like a spotlight in a modern theater, the beam he directs on himself changes its color and intensity and direction, but it always shows the persona of Apuleius center stage— and from his best side. That does not mean, however, that it always shows him clearly, for Apuleius manipulates light and shadow so adroitly that sometimes we cannot be sure of what we have seen, or even of what we were supposed to see. These doubtful or ambiguous aspects of Apuleius’ identity are important, for they are precisely the ones that posterity would find most intriguing. We shall consider them presently, but fi rst let us look at the parts of his image that are clearly revealed.

The figure onstage is above all a philosopher, specifi cally “Apuleius the Platonic philosopher of Madauros,” as he was known both in antiquity and to posterity. 19 But it is important to note that Apuleius uses the word philosopher with a special meaning, one he has given it himself. Like an artist making a self-portrait by looking into a mirror, he has redrawn the image of the philosopher to match his own features and activities. In this new usage it is not so much that Apuleius is described by the word philosopher as that the word philosopher is defi ned as “Apuleius.”

This new philosopher is a celebrity. Crowds flock to his performances— in greater numbers than have ever assembled to hear a philosopher, as we learn in Florida 9. “Indeed, even my talent, however small,” he says in Florida 17, “has long been so well known to the public for what it is that it requires no new commendation.”20 In Florida 9 he asserts that his extraordinary fame has created almost impossibly high expectations in his audience: “Who among you would forgive me a single solecism? Who would grant me one syllable barbarously pronounced? . . . And yet you pardon these things in others easily and very justly.” 21 Naturally his works are equally famous. In the Apology he reminds the court of his celebrated speech praising the god Aesculapius and calls on his hearers to recite its opening lines. “Do you hear all the people supplying them?” he asks the judge. Someone in the audience even has a copy of the book, which Apuleius asks to have read out in evidence.22

But fame is not all he has to offer. Our philosopher claims other merits, which appear to their best advantage in comparison with the qualities of others—whether beasts, men, other philosophers, or even gods. Birdsong, for example, as he tells his audience in Florida 13, is limited in both time and repertoire, for each species sings a particular strain and only at a single time of day. “Philosophy did not bestow utterance like that on me. . . . Rather, the thought and utterance of the philosopher are continual—august to hear, useful to understand, and tuneful in every key.” 23 In Florida 9 Apuleius compares himself in versatility to the old Athenian sophist Hippias. Hippias, he says, was famous for having made every item of his apparel—including not only his clothes and sandals but even his ring, oil bottle, and strigil. Apuleius, by contrast, boasts of versatility not as a craftsman but as a writer, claiming to have composed not only poetry of every kind but also riddles, histories, orations, and dialogues—and all in both Greek and Latin (Fl. 9.15–29). In Florida 20 he claims to have surpassed even the great philosophers of the past in the variety if not in the quality of his compositions.24

In appearance, too, he compares himself with others, aligning physical beauty and philosophic sophistication on one side against ugliness and boorish ignorance on the other. In such matching of outer and inner qualities Apuleius is very much a man of his age, for although even Homer practiced the art of physiognomy (which we might defi ne as believing that one can tell a book by its cover), the association of physical features with qualities of character reached its height as a full-blown pseudoscience under the Second Sophistic.25

In the Apology Apuleius uses the argument from physiognomy to overturn the prevailing picture of the philosopher and reshape it in his own image. He claims that his adversaries opened their case by describing him pejoratively as “ ‘a handsome philosopher’ (and horror of horrors!) ‘eloquent in both Greek and Latin.’ ” 26 A strange criticism, we might think. Their argument, however, was that his speaking ability and appearance identified him as a sophist and belied his claim to be a philosopher. Philosophy and oratory were traditionally deemed incompatible; and although the distinction between them in practice had largely broken down by this time, the “rhetoric of rivalry”27 between the two callings remained. Sophists could and did profess philosophy, and philosophers orated; but they cultivated separate images—the philosopher as a bearded sage, the sophist as a smartly dressed dandy. 28 Apuleius’ accusers had the traditional distinctions firmly in mind, evidently claiming that as a sophist (for that is the point of the word eloquent) Apuleius was ipso facto not a philosopher. Their argument about appearance is more interesting. The epithet “handsome philosopher” is intended as a contradiction in terms exposing Apuleius as a hypocrite. For in this period, as Zanker observes, “if a man wanted to be acknowledged publicly as a philosopher, . . . the one thing he could not appear was handsome.” 29 Contemporary busts and statues of philosophers show them as men well past their first youth, wrinkled in thought, with careless or disordered hair and the distinguishing feature of the so-called philosopher’s beard.30 Literary accounts present the same picture.31

Apuleius responds to his opponents by trying, with transparent insincerity, to convince the court that he is not good-looking—long hours of study have worn him down, and his hair is a mess.32 But his real argument lies elsewhere. He implicitly rejects the contemporary picture of the philosopher and refutes the charge of hypocrisy, using the physiognomical connection between appearance and character to make the phrase “handsome philosopher” not a contradiction in terms but rather a self-evident proposition. Both Pythagoras and Zeno were good-looking, he tells the court, and so were many other philosophers, “who enhanced the grace of their bodies with the integrity of their character.” 33 By contrast, Apuleius’ accuser Sicinius Aemilianus embodies the opposite qualities. According to Apuleius, he is an ignorant rustic—uncouth, wicked, and correspondingly hideous to look at, for he is as ugly as the tragic mask of Thyestes or the hideous boatman Charon.34 He no doubt also had a beard, if not a philosophical one, if the comparisons with Thyestes and Charon are anything to go by. The mask of Thyestes was probably bearded, and Apuleius could have counted on his audience to remember Vergil’s famous description of Charon in Aeneid 6:

. . . appallingly filthy he is, with a bush of unkempt White beard upon his chin, with eyes like jets of fi re; And a dirty cloak draggles down, knotted about his shoulders.35

In Florida 3 Apuleius transposes the alliance of beauty and wisdom against ugliness and ignorance into the world of myth, using as his protagonists Apollo and Marsyas. He tells how the rustic Marsyas entered into a musical competition with Apollo: “a monster [contending] with a beautiful youth, a rustic personage with a learned one, an animal with a god.”36 Minerva and the Muses stood by, ostensibly as judges, but they had really come to mock Marsyas’ lack of culture and punish his stupidity. Marsyas, unaware that he was an object of derision, began not by playing his flute (his sole talent) but by babbling foolishly like the barbarian he was. He first praised himself, as Apuleius says, “because his hair was pulled back and he had a ragged beard and shaggy chest, because his art was flute playing and he was lacking in wealth.” 37 Then he went on to attack Apollo for the opposite qualities—for his beautiful long hair, fair beardless cheeks and smooth body, and for his manifold talents and opulent wealth. The Muses laughed at his accusations and left the defeated Marsyas flayed alive and with his naked fl esh torn to pieces. The selection ends: “But Apollo was ashamed of such a paltry victory.” 38

The contest of Apollo and Marsyas is an unmistakable allusion to the dispute between Apuleius and his accusers in the Apology. 39 Neither the date nor the audience of Florida 3 is known, but the excerpts in the Florida whose dates and audiences can be determined all belong to the period 160–69 and were delivered to the Carthaginians.40 That is, they were delivered both several years after Apuleius’ trial for magic and in the cultural capital of North Africa. Florida 3 no doubt has the same date and place. It refers, not very subtly, to the success of the Apology, for the story of Apollo and Marsyas as Apuleius presents it is a virtual allegory of his triumph over his boorish small-town opponents. Marsyas’ ugliness and ignorance are like those of Apuleius’ accusers, and his complaints of Apollo’s beauty and talent certainly recall their accusation that Apuleius was “a handsome philosopher and eloquent in both Greek and Latin.” Minerva and the Muses have their counterpart in the learned and distinguished judge Claudius Maximus, whom Apuleius compliments so often in the Apology. The parallels are clear enough, and Apuleius need not labor them. He does not spell out the likeness between himself and Apollo but leaves the audience to infer that he, like the god, was a little embarrassed by his easy victory.

In Florida 3, then, Apuleius is keeping his victory alive in the minds of his audience and making sure that they remember it in a particular way—as the virtually foreordained triumph of divine beauty and talent over subhuman barbarity. To put it another way, Apuleius is promoting and controlling his image. But an image is not always an intangible abstraction. Physical likenesses and portraits are equally important— both to keep a sophist’s features in the public eye and to refl ect them back to his own.


Apuleius treats this second purpose—that of seeing his own image—in a famous passage in the Apology. His enemies have charged that he possesses a mirror, no doubt both to accuse him of vanity and to hint that he has used it in nefarious magical practices, but primarily to suggest that the possession of a mirror, like being good-looking, is incompatible with philosophy. 41 This charge, like that of being a handsome philosopher, is phrased as an obvious oxymoron: “The philosopher has a mirror. The philosopher possesses a mirror.” 42

Apuleius handily refutes the contradiction; indeed, to hear him tell it, every philosopher needs a mirror for both ethical and scientifi c purposes. But he directs most of his argument in a different direction, praising the power of the mirror to reflect the features of its owner, and comparing mirror images with likenesses presented by statues or paintings. “Don’t you know that there is nothing a man would rather look at than his own form?”43 he asks the court. Statues can certainly fulfi ll this function, and that is one reason that a city rewards a deserving man with a statue of himself to look at (Apol. 14.2). But for his own contemplation Apuleius prefers a mirror. The image in a mirror is portable and can be gazed at whenever one likes. The reflection has the color and motion and vitality lacking in artificial likenesses and shows a man exactly as he is at a given moment, reflecting every movement and change in expression. The image in a painting or statue, by contrast, is fi xed in time and space and conveys but a single expression, so that from the moment of its completion it is unlike its subject.

Apuleius has no objection to statues—on the contrary. 44 But he does like to look into the mirror, not only for the immediacy and accuracy and availability of its image but because he creates and controls it. He can create or dissolve the image at will simply by bringing the mirror to his face or moving it away. He can change it with a smile or a frown or twist of the head. But his connection with it is even more intimate than we might expect. From his survey of scientifi c and philosophical explanations of the mirror we learn that a reflection may be a thin mask of atoms emanating from the subject’s body and bounced back to his eyes from the mirror’s surface, or perhaps a creation of the fi ery effluence from his eyes as it mingles with air or light.45 That is, in whatever explanation one chooses, a person’s reflection is, quite literally, a part of himself.

Thus, the image in the mirror is doubly appealing, both for its symbiotic relation with its subject and because it is under his control to an extent inconceivable with other likenesses. (Only Alexander the Great, Apuleius observes, was able to ensure that his image came down to posterity as he wished. He did so by allowing only the three greatest artists of his age to portray him and deterring the others with the fear of death.)46 But if artificial likenesses have the disadvantage of being outside their subject’s control, the mirror image has two fatal limitations of its own: it is impermanent, and only its subject can see it. The philosopher who wants to keep his face and fame before the public needs something more substantial and permanent. He wants statues, and preferably as many as possible.

Many statues and busts of philosophers survive from antiquity. 47 Cities erected statues to honor and lay claim to famous men; philosophers and sophists in turn sought and desired them. The practice was so common that philosophers had a standard form of giving thanks to the cities that erected statues in their honor, as Apuleius tells us ( Fl. 16.29). The presence or absence or (heaven forbid!) the removal of a statue measured a sophist’s current reputation as well as his chances of future fame or oblivion. In Hadrian’s reign the famous sophist Favorinus made a passionate speech to the Corinthians when they took down his statue.48 A generation later Apuleius delivered and published an oration lobbying for a statue in Oea over the objections of his detractors, who were no doubt still angry over his marriage and victory in the Apology. We have the story from Augustine; unfortunately the speech itself is no longer extant.49

Did Apuleius persuade the citizens of Oea? We will probably never know. But there is evidence that other statues were erected to him. A statue base found in Madauros (without the statue) is dedicated by his fellow citizens “To the Platonic Philosopher.” 50 Although the name is lacking, Apuleius is the obvious candidate. In Florida 16 Apuleius thanks the citizens of Carthage for voting him one statue, hints that they should put up a second, and states that he had statues in other cities as well.51 One statue even found its way to Constantinople, for Christodorus, writing in the fifth century AD, tells us that there was a statue of Apuleius in the Baths of Zeuxippos.52 Here is how he describes it: “And Apuleius was reverent as he considered the ineffable rites of the intellectual Latin Muse. He was a man whom the Italian Siren brought up to be an initiate of arcane wisdom.”53

In keeping with good physiognomical principles, statues and other portraits were judged for their ability to convey their subject’s inner nature and not merely his physical appearance. The images of Alexander the Great, Apuleius tells us, all revealed “the same fierce warrior’s vigor, the same noble nature, the same youthful beauty, and the same attractive high forehead.”54 We can guess some of the qualities that Apuleius would have wanted posterity to see in his own statues: for example, beauty, eloquence, and, above all, philosophical wisdom. Christodorus adds another that he surely would have welcomed, for he characterizes the Apuleius in Constantinople as “an initiate of arcane wisdom.” His language recalls Apuleius’ claim in the Apology to have been initiated in several mystery cults; but it is also metaphorical, since literary education was frequently described as a “mystery,” into which only the elect were “initiated.”55


So far we have been looking at Apuleius’ persona as a handsome celebrity philosopher, a character that he has clearly revealed—or perhaps one should say unambiguously advertised. But there are also places where the picture is less clear, and where Apuleius has deliberately created doubt about who and what he is, raising and leaving open two separate but intersecting questions about his identity. First, is he a magician? Second, what is his relation to Lucius, the hero of the Golden Ass?

Let us begin with magic, the point where our two questions come together. In the Apology Apuleius opens his defense on the charge of magic with the question “How do you defi ne ‘magician’?” 56 He suggests a definition himself with a digression on the “magicians,” or magi, of the Persians—priests who are so venerated that they are entrusted with the education of future kings. Their magic, if that is what he is accused of, is both pleasing to the gods and so highly prized that few are allowed to learn its secrets (Apol. 25.9–26.3). But perhaps, he suggests, his adversaries have in mind the common definition, that a magician is someone who through communication with the gods can accomplish whatever he wills by the mysterious power of his incantations. In that case, he professes amazement at his opponents’ audacity, for surely anyone who believed that he had such superhuman powers would be afraid to accuse him (Apol. 26.6–9).

If both modern readers and Apuleius’ real (or supposed) audience in the courtroom are confused by now, that is what he intends. He continues to blow smoke, and the fog grows thicker and thicker as he explains how he will defend himself:

I won’t deny any of the things they claim I have done, whether the charges are true or false, but I will proceed as if they were true, so that this great assembly, which has come to hear the case from near and far, can understand that neither a true charge nor a false allegation can be made against philosophers that they would not be prepared to defend even if they could deny it—such is their confi dence in their innocence. First then, I will refute their arguments and prove that they have nothing to do with magic. Then, I will show—even assuming that I was the greatest magician in the world—that there has been neither cause nor opportunity for them to catch me in some act of black magic.57

Apuleius’ language is deliberately murky and convoluted, but his line of defense is simple enough: he admits the various actions he has been charged with (such things as buying fish, having a slave with a tendency to fainting spells, keeping secret objects under a linen cloth, and owning a black ebony statue of Mercury), argues that they are all related either to his activities as a scientific philosopher or to his practice of religious mysteries, and maintains that even if the objects in question did have magical uses, he is not necessarily a magician on that account.

In each case he teases his audience with his expert knowledge of magic—slyly dropping technical terminology, daring his adversaries to give away their own illicit knowledge by challenging him, and even uttering strings of words that sound like magical curses.58 Then he backs away in a show of innocence. A single example will suffice: the case of the ebony statue that the prosecution described as a hideous skeleton made for the practice of magic.59 Apuleius shows the court his beautiful little statuette, denies that it is anything but an object of religious devotion, and expatiates on its charms. But in fact the statue is of Mercury (Greek Hermes), the god of magic and escort of the dead to Hades. Although Apuleius does not openly acknowledge Mercury’s connection with magic, he clearly confi rms it in his attack on Aemilianus—a magical curse if ever there was one:

In payment for this lie, Aemilianus, may this god [Mercury] who goes between the lords of heaven and hell bestow on you the hatred of both, and may he always send phantoms of the dead to meet you, and heap up before your eyes every ghost, spectre, spirit, fiend, all apparitions that walk by night, all dread dwellers in the tomb, all terrors of the sepulchre—although by age and character you are close enough to them already. 60

Yet almost before these bloodcurdling words have sunk in, Apuleius takes off the mask of the magician and becomes the very picture of an innocent philosopher, piously claiming: “But we of the family of Plato know nothing except what is festive and joyful and majestic and pertains to the upper world and to the heavens.”61

Magician? Philosopher? Or a bit of both? Apuleius satisfied the court of his innocence, but in the Apology he leaves a whiff of magic in the air, suggesting more than a passing acquaintance with the dark arts and adding a frisson of danger to his image. Perhaps that is all he intended, but the scent of sulphur was strong enough to convince later generations of his magical powers, especially when they considered the role of magic in the Golden Ass, whose hero and first-person narrator readers from late antiquity to the twentieth century almost universally identifi ed in varying degrees with Apuleius himself.

The identification of Apuleius with his hero Lucius was largely a natural consequence of using a first-person narrator: the “I” of a novel, like the “I” of an oration or poem, invites an autobiographical reading. But Apuleius exploits this effect and plays with it, creating in Lucius a character whose features both differ from and resemble those of his own persona. The differences are great enough to prevent us from eliding Lucius with Apuleius; the resemblances are great enough to encourage the identification (and as we shall see presently, one detail positively requires it).

From the beginning of the novel Apuleius depicts a hero fundamentally different from himself. Lucius is a Greek from Corinth and a relation of the famous Plutarch,62 whereas Apuleius is a Roman from North Africa. Lucius is credulous and foolish, both as a man and as an ass; Apuleius presents himself as a sophisticated man of the world. Lucius bungles his efforts at magic—or has them bungled for him, when Fotis gives him the wrong ointment (Met. 3.24). The Apuleius we see in the Apology may or may not be an actual magician; he could never be an incompetent one. But Lucius also resembles Apuleius.63 Both men are peripatetic provincial intellectuals of good family. Both have an interest in magic. Both are eloquent orators in both Greek and Latin. Both have ties to Platonic philosophy: Apuleius is an avowed Platonist, and Lucius is related to Plutarch and Sextus, both Middle Platonic philosophers. Perhaps most important, both are initiated more than once into mystery cults, and Lucius’ conversion to Isis is told so powerfully that it has often been taken to reflect Apuleius’ own religious experience. 64

These resemblances in themselves, however, are not enough to identify Lucius with Apuleius. Lucius’ experiences need not even be derived or adapted from those of Apuleius.65 In the social and intellectual world of the second century, there must have been many young men not unlike Lucius—aspiring sophists at the beginning of their careers, traveling the world, dabbling in religion and philosophy (and perhaps magic), and eager for sexual and other adventures. If Apuleius had been such a youth, so were many others. It is important to remember, too, that ultimately the figure of Lucius has its origin in the lost Greek Metamorphoses by “Lucius of Patrae,” from which the plots of both Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and the Onos of Pseudo-Lucian were derived.66

To some extent, however, it is naive to seek Lucius’ identity and relation to Apuleius. He is Apuleius’ creature if not entirely his creation, a persona like that of the magician in the Apology, which the author may assume or set down at will. In the Metamorphoses, too, just as in the Apology and Florida, Apuleius’ real aim is self-display. 67 The object is not to identify the “real Apuleius” (or the “real Lucius,” for that matter) but to dazzle the reader by assuming multiple and contradictory personae.68 Not only Lucius’ transformation to an ass and eventual recovery of his human form, but also the changes and confusions in the identities of author, narrator, and other speakers, justify the title Metamorphoses. 69

Apuleius draws attention to his impersonations in the Metamorphoses in two famous passages, strategically placed at the beginning and end of the novel. In each he presents the question of his own identity vis-à-vis that of his speaker as a conspicuous and unsolvable problem. In the first passage he gives us too few clues to arrive at an answer; in the second the clue leads to an impossible contradiction.

The proem (Met. 1.1) explicitly raises the question of the speaker’s identity. 70 “Quis ille?” (Who is this?), the speaker asks, and then proceeds to describe himself—unhelpfully—as a Greek of Attic, Corinthian, and Spartan stock who has learned Latin in Rome with great diffi culty and begs pardon for any faults in the language with which he will tell his “Greekish tale” (fabulam Graecanicam). The description fits neither the North African Apuleius nor the Greek Lucius (whose Latin seems perfectly adequate for his career in the Roman law courts at the end of the novel).71 Other answers have been proposed (the speaker is an actor outside the story, like the prologus in Plautine comedy, or perhaps even the book itself, etc.);72 but in fact Apuleius has given us no way to decide. The unidentifiable speaker is another of Apuleius’ personae, made deliberately mysterious and intriguing in order to announce and advertise the writer’s protean powers at the opening of his novel. The important detail is the question itself (“quis ille?”): Apuleius is the speaker; what part is he playing now?

Near the end of the novel (Met. 11.27) Apuleius ostentatiously forces the reader to confront the problem of his relation to his hero.73 The puzzle is laid out in a vision, which Lucius says was related to him by a priest of Osiris named Asinius Marcellus. (The name is signifi cant, as he points out unnecessarily.) 74 Asinius says that Osiris himself had urged Lucius’ initiation into his rites:

For the previous night, while he was arranging garlands for the great god, he thought he heard from his mouth (with which he pronounces each one’s destiny) that a man from Madauros was being sent to him, a very poor one. He should at once prepare his initiation rites for him; for by his providence the glory of learning was in store for the man and a great reward for himself.75

The subject of the prophecy must be our hero, the Greek Lucius, but as the “man from Madauros” he can be only Apuleius, the North African author. The paradox is a red herring wrapped up in indirect statement, and it smells appropriately fi shy. 76 Apuleius holds on to it just long enough to put on the mask of Lucius, or perhaps to let Lucius put on the mask of Apuleius, giving the reader a final reminder of his powers as an impersonator. 77

Lasting Impressions

Apuleius’ role-playing in the Apology and the Golden Ass superimposed the overlapping images of magician and alter ego of Lucius on his basic persona of philosopher and celebrity. It would be interesting to know how his public reacted to this complex and carefully constructed personality. Unfortunately, the sources are silent: Apuleius is not mentioned by name by any of his contemporaries or by anyone else until the beginning of the fourth century, nearly 150 years after his death. 78

Nevertheless, there are some hints that his works were being read in North Africa in the late second and third centuries. A second-century papyrus seems to illustrate the story of Cupid and Psyche, and it has been argued that Tertullian and Arnobius may have been influenced by the philosophical works.79 Moreover, according to the author of the Historia Augusta, Apuleius was also known to the African emperors Clodius Albinus (d. 197) and Septimius Severus (d. 211). In the Life of Albinus Severus attacks Albinus in a letter to the Roman senate; among his complaints is that Albinus is an enthusiastic reader of Apuleius. Severus says: “It was even more irritating that many of you thought that he deserved to be praised as a man of letters, when he was busying himself with old wives’ nonsense and growing senile among literary trifles and the Carthaginian Milesian tales of his friend Apuleius.”80 But unfortunately this gratifyingly circumstantial reference is inconclusive. Perhaps Albi-nus really was wasting his time with Apuleius’ stories and was criticized for it by Severus, but there is no way to be sure that the story antedates the late fourth century, usually taken to be the time of composition of the Historia Augusta.

Even without fi rm testimonia, however, we can still infer that Apuleius did make an impression on his immediate posterity and that his efforts to create and manage his image had largely succeeded, for the persona that emerges in the fourth century bears a strong resemblance to the one we saw in the second—although with his features more sharply delineated, as if his second- and third-century audience had silently accepted, consolidated, and embellished the picture that he had presented to them. The late antique Apuleius is still a philosopher, still a celebrity in his native North Africa, and now unquestionably both a famous magician and the alter ego of Lucius. He has also acquired some new features while we weren’t looking, for he is now a figure in both Christian and pagan polemic and Constantinian art. In these new theaters of operation he shares the stage with more important actors, appearing with Apollonius of Tyana in the former and Vergil in the latter.

The late-antique persona of Apuleius, however, is by no means consistent or stable, for it varies with the eye (and the purposes) of the beholder, and it changes over time. The dominant facets of his personality are always the magician and the philosopher, but in different proportions and with different emphases from one age to another. In the rest of this chapter we will consider the reception of Apuleius’ image in three periods: the fourth century and first decade of the fi fth (Lactantius to Jerome), the second and third decades of the fifth century (Augustine), and the early Middle Ages.

Divided Self?

In the period from Lactantius to Jerome, Apuleius is still both magician and philosopher, but with one interesting exception he is no longer both at once. We might almost say that for most of the century he has a split personality: he is a magician in Christian and pagan polemic and a philosopher in Constantinian art. Although he was being read (as subscriptions in our oldest manuscript of the Apology, Metamorphoses, and Florida attest), it is important to note that no one who writes about him in this period either quotes him or shows a close familiarity with his works.81 The situation is different, however, in the case of our two extant artistic representations. Neither can be taken as a portrait of the “real” Apuleius, but, as we shall see, each seems to be inspired by his writings.

Apuleius appears first as a magician. Our source is a fellow North African, the Christian apologist Lactantius, who mentions him briefl y in his Divine Institutes somewhere between 305 and 313.82 Lactantius, a sufferer in Diocletian’s Great Persecution of the Christians, is arguing against the pagan Hierocles, who is usually identified as one of the prime movers of the persecution.83 In his now lost polemical work To the Christians, Hierocles had claimed that Apollonius of Tyana performed wonders even greater than the miracles attributed to Christ.84 Now Lactantius professes to be amazed that he had not named Apuleius as well: “It’s a wonder that Hierocles overlooked Apuleius,” he exclaims, “for people like to talk about his many marvels, too.”85

Apollonius of Tyana, whom Hierocles had deemed so superior to Christ, was a first-century neo-Pythagorean and holy man famous as a wonderworker. 86 His asceticism, wisdom, miraculous cures, and resurrection from the dead made him a natural rival to Christ in anti-Christian polemics. Perhaps best of all from the pagan point of view was the story that he had escaped the wrath of the emperor Domitian by disappearing into thin air, thus showing himself a better magician than Christ, whose encounter with Roman authority had ended so differently. 87 It is impossible to be sure when Apollonius made his first appearance in religious polemic. The difficulty arises because our only evidence for the pagan side comes from the refutations of Christian apologists, who were always partisan and sometimes had only indirect or hearsay access to the work of their pagan opponents. Perhaps Hierocles was the first to invoke Apollonius, as Eusebius claimed in his polemic Against Hierocles around 311–12.88 Or perhaps the famous pagan apologist Porphyry had invoked him a few years earlier in his work Against the Christians. 89 The important point for us is that at the end of the third century Apollonius had the prestige and qualifications to be presented as a match for Christ and the apostles and that at least one pagan apologist (Hierocles) took advantage of the fact.

But Hierocles did not mention Apuleius, and it is likely that no one else did either until Lactantius invoked his name in the Divine Institutes. Apuleius’ fame was no match for that of Apollonius, and he had no biographer like Philostratus to preserve his memory. But he was known in North Africa, and Lactantius brings him into the debate, invoking him not as a writer but as a personality and figure of the popular imagination. Perhaps Lactantius had read some of Apuleius’ works (although we cannot be sure of it); but in the Divine Institutes he is clearly recalling North African tales and oral tradition. Apuleius himself cannot have been Lactantius’ source, since he claims no marvelous or supernatural accomplishments in any of his works.

After Lactantius the linking of Apuleius and Apollonius became a fixture in Christian polemic. Jerome, writing a hundred years later, at the beginning of the fifth century, again mentions the pair as magicians.90 He is refuting Porphyry, who had evidently argued that Christian claims were based primarily on miracles and that the apostles worked their wonders for the sake of gain.

Someone might say, “They did all this for money.” For this is what Porphyry says: “The poor and uneducated men, since they had nothing, worked some wonders with magic arts. But it is no great thing to perform wonders. The magicians in Egypt also performed wonders against Moses. Apollonius performed wonders, and so did Apuleius: in fact, they performed boundless wonders.” I grant you, Porphyry, that they performed wonders with their magic arts in order to get money from silly rich women whom they had seduced. For this is what you say. 91

The passage is interesting on several counts: as a contribution to the fragments of Porphyry’s lost Against the Christians, as an example of Jerome’s polemical method, and as evidence for the late-antique knowledge of Apuleius.

Jerome’s quotation of Porphyry (listed as fragment 4 of Against the Christians) begins with the words “The poor and uneducated men” and concludes three sentences later with the clause “in fact, they performed boundless wonders.”92 This is the only unquestionably authentic fragment of Porphyry that mentions Apollonius and Apuleius. The authenticity of the fragment as a whole, however, does not guarantee the authenticity of everything in it. Barnes claims that Jerome knew Porphyry only indirectly. 93 But it is just as likely that he was using or remembering an interpolated text, for it would be surprising if some changes had not crept into it during the intervening century of religious polemic. Jerome was also capable of adding touches of his own if it suited his satirical purposes, as the name of Apuleius does here. With the reference to Apuleius’ use of magic to achieve his mercenary marriage, Jerome manages not only to make a last-minute riposte to Porphyry’s slur on the supposed venality of the apostles (and to trump it) but also to allude to the allegation made by Porphyry’s detractors that he, too, had married a rich elderly widow for her money. 94

It is important to note, however, that Jerome’s citation of Apuleius as a magician is different in kind from that of Lactantius. Even if he is invoking only Apuleius’ image, the image is at least one clearly related to his works and not merely a piece of apocryphal fl otsam. Jerome knows about the Apology even if he has not read it—or at least he knows enough to be familiar with its charge that Apuleius won his rich wife by sorcery. If he also knows the fact that Apuleius claimed to be innocent, his satirical nature and polemical purposes are such that he happily overlooks it.

Apuleius appears as a philosopher very soon after he is fi rst mentioned as a magician, in the early decades of the fourth century. The evidence this time is both artistic and literary, and the context is Constantinian. Apuleius has been identifi ed on a painted ceiling in Trier, and he had a bronze statue in the Baths of Zeuxippos at Constantinople, as we have seen. In both cases Vergil is part of the program.

Trier was one of Constantine’s capital cities. In the early fourth century it housed some of the imperial family, including the emperor’s son Crispus, and perhaps Crispus’ tutor Lactantius as well. The last point is unverifiable, since we do not know the date or locale of Lactantius’ service.95 It is tantalizing because of the suggestion that Lactantius might have had a part in determining the program of the ceiling, which probably belonged to a reception room in an imperial residence.96

The room was constructed after 315 and demolished in 326, when work began on the foundations of Trier Cathedral. 97 At that time the ceiling collapsed, and the pieces fell down more or less in place, a happy circumstance that has permitted a nearly complete reconstruction (see plate 1).98 The rectangular painting is divided into fi fteen panels—three on the short sides and five on the long. Seven panels showing busts of male and female figures alternate checkerboard fashion with eight panels showing pairs of putti or Erotes with different attributes. The putti appear on each of the four corners, in the centers of the long sides and on either side of the central bust in the middle row. Three of the busts represent elderly men (apparently poets or philosophers); the other four seem to be either portraits or personified virtues. There are no inscriptions to identify the figures in any of the panels.

Several interpretations of the ceiling’s program have been proposed, but the most convincing is that of Erika Simon, who has identifi ed the three “philosophers” as Vergil, Apuleius, and Heraclitus, one of the “portraits” as Apollo, and the others as personified virtues associated with Constantine’s wife, Fausta. 99 Simon dates the painting not long after 315 and reads its message as predominantly solar and imperial rather than overtly Christian (although she notes that the panels of putti around the central bust are arranged in a cruciform pattern).

The essential part of her argument for the present discussion is her identification of the elderly men on the two short sides as Vergil and Apuleius. Each is identified by the attributes of the putti juxtaposed with his portrait. The putti around the image of Vergil have attributes appropriate to the Fourth Eclogue, which prophesies a new golden age of Apollo: the horn of plenty; a standing vessel, perhaps for wine; and a whip and charioteer’s cloak evoking Apollo, the charioteer of the sun.100 The corresponding bust at the other end is marked as a philosopher by his cloak and beard. The paired figures above him are not the same putti as in the other panels, but rather Cupid and Psyche from the Golden Ass (see plate 2). The philosopher, therefore, can only be Apuleius (see plate 3). The panel of Cupid and Psyche illustrates a particular moment in the story, as Simon has deduced from the flat box or tray in Psyche’s hand. 101 It is the object of her last labor: the box of beauty that she was to fetch from Proserpina in Hades and present—unopened— to Venus. But she violated the taboo. When she opened the box, she was immediately engulfed in a Stygian sleep, in which she would have remained if Cupid had not awakened her with a painless touch of his arrow (Met. 6.21.3). The panel shows Psyche and Cupid just after her awakening and their joyous reunion. She is about to complete her task, after which she will be taken to Olympus and receive the gift of immortality.

Simon has seen that the image of Cupid and Psyche identifi es the philosopher in the adjacent panel as Apuleius, but we can also turn the argument around to say that Apuleius’ character as a philosopher is linked to Cupid and Psyche. We can infer both that the author of the ceiling’s program has derived his conception of Apuleius as a philosopher from the novel and, conversely, that he sees the story of Cupid and Psyche as important and serious. The panel represents not merely the happy ending of a romance but an event of philosophical and religious significance. Its meaning is clear enough: Psyche (“Soul”)—though undeserving, as her box reminds us—has been saved by Love and will soon achieve eternal happiness. This message, like Vergil’s prophecy of a new golden age, is not necessarily Christian but still consistent with Christian ideas—a nice compromise for a Constantinian work so soon after the emperor’s famous conversion in 312.

Psyche’s presence on the ceiling in Trier, like her appearance on the second-century papyrus, is precious evidence of early interest in Apuleius’ story. The image in Trier, however, is more informative, for its context and placement also allow us to infer the artist’s interpretation and to see it as an important anticipation of later allegorical treatments, like those of Martianus Capella and Fulgentius to be examined in the next chapter.

About a decade or so after the painting in Trier, Apuleius appeared in another Constantinian installation. His statue was placed in a large collection of sculpture arrayed in the Baths of Zeuxippos in Constantinople for the dedication of the city in 330 AD.102 Our source is the late fi fthcentury Byzantine poet Christodorus, who describes eighty-one statues in the baths.103 Although Christodorus lists many Greek poets, historians, and philosophers in his ecphrasis, he names only two Roman writers: Apuleius and Vergil. 104 The program of the statues has not been satisfactorily explained, and perhaps Christodorus, writing 150 years after the fact, did not understand it himself. The points that matter for our purposes, however, are Apuleius’ depiction as a philosopher and the fact that he and Vergil are the only Roman writers whose statues we know appeared in the collection. The singling out of Apuleius and Vergil, so soon after the installation of the ceiling in Trier, suggests that the designer of the program was associating them in a similar way, or at the very least that he was recalling their appearance in Trier. Christodorus himself, however, does not treat the two statues as a pair, and there is no evidence that they appeared next to each other. 105

Apuleius makes his last appearance in the visual arts of antiquity at the end of the fourth century. This imaginary portrait, on a Roman contorniate, or circus medal, is the only surviving ancient image accompanied by an identifying inscription (see plate 4).106 The contorniate shows Apuleius in profile as a beautiful beardless youth, wide-eyed, and with shoulder-length curls held neatly in place by a fillet. The depiction was surely inspired by passages in the Florida and Apology. The fillet alludes to the priesthood he mentions in Florida 16, while the artfully casual coiffure recalls both the beautiful long hair criticized by his opponents in the Apology and the flowing locks of his alter ego Apollo in Florida 3.107 The portrait surely would have been more to Apuleius’ taste than those in Trier and Constantinople, for it is one he might have commissioned himself: “Apuleius the Platonic philosopher as Apollo.”

But of course Apuleius did not commission the portrait. The contorniate is a product of the complex social, intellectual, and religious world of late fourth-century Rome, and its iconography was selected by a fourth-century designer or patron to reflect contemporary interests. The image is by no means a generic portrait. It is not only unlike the previous representations of Apuleius that we know about (the bearded philosopher shown on the Trier ceiling and probably in his various statues as well), but also without parallel among the hundreds of real and imaginary portraits on the contorniates. No doubt one of the designer’s motives for choosing Apuleius’ verbal self-portait as his model in preference to the existing material representations and conventional philosopher portraits was that he knew Apuleius’ text and wanted to advertise it. In the 390s Apuleius was of some interest in Rome, as we shall see in the next chapter. But he may have had something else in mind as well, for the likeness on the contorniate has a close parallel in an unexpected quarter—in fourth-century representations of Christ.

The iconography of Christ in this period is rich and complex, but the most important points for us are that the young, beardless Christ, like Apuleius, has Apollonian antecedents and that he is an otherworldly “intellectual wunderkind” (the phrase is Zanker’s), who has aspects of both the philosopher and the wonder-worker. 108 Among the closest parallels to our Apuleius are a small statue of Christ in the Terme Museum in Rome dated around 380 and two figures of Christ (one in profi le) on a column sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum dated around 370. 109 Both monuments show Christ holding a book roll. In both he appears with fine, youthful features, a tunic and pallium, and shoulder-length hair neatly covering his ears—just like Apuleius on the contorniate, except that Apuleius wears the fillet of a pagan priest.

The meaning and purpose of the contorniate will be explored more fully in the next chapter when we consider Apuleius’ place in the world of late fourth-century Rome. For now it is sufficient to note that the portrait alludes both to the second-century text of Apuleius and to fourth-century Christian iconography, overlaying the image of “the Platonic philosopher as Apollo” with that of “the charismatic holy man and wonder-worker.” The resulting multivalent picture of Apuleius fi nally reunites the personalities of philosopher and magician that had been separated throughout the fourth century.

“This Platonic Philosopher”

A much more complex and detailed picture of Apuleius appears in Augustine than in the literary or artistic works of his predecessors. Augustine’s greater knowledge and greater interest are not surprising, for he had much in common with Apuleius, including background, education, and youthful ambition. He was a fellow North African; he went to school in Apuleius’ hometown, Madauros, and later studied and taught rhetoric at Carthage. In the period from about 412 to 427, we fi nd him citing Apuleius as both a magician and a philosopher, taking for granted his identity with Lucius, revealing details of his career, and quoting and discussing his De mundo and De deo Socratis. 110

Augustine differs from his literary predecessors in acknowledging both of Apuleius’ personalities. He does not explicitly unite or integrate the magician and the philosopher (the two figures generally appear in separate contexts), but he implies a necessary relation between them, viewing Apuleius’ magic as a corollary of his philosophy. 111 The link is Apuleius’ work De deo Socratis, which sets out the Platonic conception of daimones as intermediaries between gods and mortals. For Augustine these daimones have no status as intermediaries. They are simply demons, evil spirits and purveyors of the magic arts, with which they delude and destroy their devotees. By professing to revere them, Apuleius is inevitably implicated in their supernatural activities. The connection between demons and magic, implied in Augustine’s correspondence, becomes more important in the City of God, in which two books are devoted to refuting De deo Socratis.

Augustine pairs Apuleius with his fellow magician Apollonius three times in his correspondence, but he also refers to him as a magician without mentioning Apollonius in both the letters and the City of God. 112 In the letters the context is always the now familiar debate about Christian miracles and pagan magic. Unlike Lactantius and Jerome, however, Augustine is openly skeptical about Apuleius’ powers and doubts that he could match the miracles related in scripture. In Epistola 102, probably written around 412,113 Augustine responds to a pagan attack on the credibility of the story of Jonah and the whale. He implies that such a miracle would be too great for Apuleius and Apollonius and casts a slur in passing on the specious magic of demons:

And yet if what has been written about Jonah were said to have been accomplished by Apuleius of Madauros or Apollonius of Tyana, whose many wonders they boast of without any trustworthy authority (although demons do some things like the holy angels—not in truth but in appearance, not by wisdom but clearly by trickery)—if any such thing were told about these men, as I have said, whom they praise as magicians or philosophers, not derision but a cry of triumph would sound in their mouths.114

Augustine’s skepticism continues in his famous correspondence of 412 with Marcellinus and Volusianus that led up to the City of God. In Epistola 137 to Volusianus, Augustine challenges the supporters of Apuleius and other magicians to consider whether their heroes, like the biblical prophets, had ever resurrected anyone from the dead.115 In Epistola 136 Marcellinus asks Augustine to counter the arguments of pagans claiming that Apollonius, Apuleius, and other magicians had performed wonders greater than Christ’s. The question is an old chestnut, Marcellinus admits, but he still hopes that Augustine will respond to it.116 Although he considers the argument scarcely “worthy of derision,” in Epistola 138 Augustine replies at length, again linking demons and magic in an aside.117 In this letter he is particularly concerned with Apuleius, who, as he says, “as an African is better known to us Africans.”118 Quickly sketching Apuleius’ biography, including his priesthood, marriage, lawsuit, and statue in Oea, Augustine notes that he in fact achieved little with all his magic powers, in spite of his excellent birth, education, and rhetorical skill: “In the matter of earthly success, that well-known magician was what he was able to be. From this it is clear that he was nothing more, not because he was unwilling but because he was unable.”119 He then delivers his knock-out punch: those who tell stories of Apuleius’ magical powers are in fact contradicting their hero, for he emphatically denied being a magician.120 The point is important to his argument, and he also makes it in another letter from the same correspondence.121

In the City of God Apuleius appears twice as a magician. Here Augustine is interested not in the debate about miracles and magic but in magic itself and Apuleius as its devotee.

In book 8 (composed around 415–17), one of his major purposes is to refute the demonology of De deo Socratis. Apuleius’ denial of magic is again part of the argument, but now Augustine uses it differently: to point out what he judges to be both the hypocrisy and the inconsistency of Apuleius’ position.122 Since Augustine considers reverence for daimones tantamount to subscribing to magic, he regards Apuleius’ denial as hypocritical (or at least fainthearted): by denying magic Apuleius renounced his faith. In City of God 8.19 Augustine contrasts his denial with the steadfastness of the Christian martyrs: “If he knew that these [magic arts], at least the ones that he was charged with, were divine and pious and consistent with the works of the divine powers, he ought not only to have confessed but to have professed them.”123 If he were punished for his belief by death, Augustine continues sarcastically, “the demons would pay his soul worthy recompense, since he did not fear to have his human life taken away for proclaiming their divine works.”124 Apuleius, however, was no martyr for his faith in demons; instead, we have the copious and eloquent defense of “this Platonic philosopher,” 125 as Augustine calls him, against the charge of magic. But Apuleius’ denials are not only self-serving. By his defense (which Augustine claims was based “on denying things that cannot be committed by an innocent man”),126 Apuleius also revealed the flaw in the argument of De deo Socratis: since by condemning magic he also condemns the daimones who teach and promote it, how can he explain why they should be honored and esteemed?127

In City of God 18.18 (composed around 425) Augustine brings the connection between magic and demons into the discussion of metamorphosis. If such transformations ever took place, he argues, they would be mere illusions produced by the trickery of demons, who “change only in appearance things created by the true God so that they seem to be what they are not.”128 Apuleius is brought into the discussion, if not as a magician, at least as someone in touch with the magic arts, when Augustine relates his own acquaintance with present-day tales of metamorphosis. He says that he himself has heard (but does not believe) stories of men being transformed into animals and keeping their human reason, “just as Apuleius either declared or pretended happened to him in the books which he entitled the Golden Ass—that after taking a magical substance he became an ass, but with his mind remaining human.”129

The passage is often quoted, since it is our earliest evidence for the title Golden Ass, which Augustine says was awarded by Apuleius himself.130 But it is also the earliest evidence for the way in which the novel was understood by a specifi c, identifiable reader. Augustine clearly takes it as autobiography, whether real or fictitious; for although he denies the possibility of metamorphosis and doubts the sincerity of Apuleius’ account, he assumes without question that Apuleius is claiming to relate his own experience—that he is, in fact, the Lucius of his novel. The assumption continued to be unquestioned for at least a thousand years, and the identity of Apuleius and Lucius was to play a major role in the interpretation of the Golden Ass. As we shall see, the identifi cation was so deeply ingrained that Renaissance scribes regularly awarded Apuleius the praenomen Lucius, and annotators generally called the novel’s hero either Apuleius or Lucius Apuleius.131 (There is no literary evidence for Apuleius’ actual praenomen, and no praenomen appears in our oldest manuscripts, which call him Apuleius Madaurensis or Apuleius philosophus Platonicus or some combination of the two.)132

In Augustine’s view Apuleius the magician is ineffective and incompetent because magic itself is no more than the deceptive trickery of demons; true marvels are brought about by piety and simple faith, not by magic.133 But he has more respect for Apuleius the Platonic philosopher. Augustine praises the Platonists as supreme among pagan philosophers for their conception of god as the source of creation, truth, and felicity. 134 Apuleius, as a follower of the school—and one from Augustine’s homeland, writing in Latin—enjoys a prominent place among them: “Among these [later Platonists], the Greeks Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Porphyry were renowned; but the African Apuleius was prominent as a famous Platonist in both languages—that is, in both Greek and Latin.”135

But if Apuleius wins Augustine’s praise for his Platonism, he also incurs his polemical criticism for the same reason. In Augustine’s eyes the Platonists are guilty of a fundamental error: even though they entertain nearly Christian ideas about the supreme deity, they are nevertheless adherents of polytheism.136 Apuleius’ convenient exposition of the taxonomy of gods, daimones, and mortals in De deo Socratis gave Augustine the material on which to base his detailed point-by-point criticism of the Platonic view in books 8 and 9 of the City of God. He quotes Apuleius extensively and subjects his views to ruthless and biting polemic, reserving his greatest scorn for the Platonic conception of daimones as intermediaries between gods and mortals.137 The Platonists maintain that the gods are too sublime to mingle with mortals.138 Augustine replies that the demons are too evil and base to deserve either intercourse with gods or reverence from men. Moreover, he argues, the Platonic premise is wrong to begin with:139 God in the person of Christ does mingle with mortals, and he is our only intermediary—divine in that he is equal to the father, and partaking in humanity in that he is like ourselves.140

Augustine pours scorn on Apuleius’ demonology, but his long and detailed refutation indicates the importance he attributed to him. Apuleius figures prominently in the correspondence of 412 between Augustine in Hippo and Marcellinus and Volusianus in Carthage, and it seems quite possible that his works were being read and debated in Carthage by both Christians and pagans.141 We can never be sure on this point, however, since the surviving correspondence treats Apuleius only in general terms and as a miracle-worker. But whether or not Marcellinus and Volusianus and their friends in Carthage had a manuscript of Apuleius, it is clear that Augustine in Hippo did, and that he studied it closely in preparation for writing the City of God.

His manuscript surely included De deo Socratis, which he quotes frequently and at length, and probably also De mundo (quoted once at some length in City of God 4.2). It is more difficult to be certain of the rest of its contents. Augustine knows the general outlines of the Apology (enough to make the obvious point, ignored by Jerome, that Apuleius denied being a magician), and he knows that Lucius was transformed into an ass in the Metamorphoses. But these are details that he could have easily picked up either as matters of general knowledge or from reading the two works in his youth; he did not need to possess a manuscript. He never mentions or cites De Platone, but it has been plausibly suggested that he used it “silently” in his treatment of Platonism in City of God 8.142 He relates some biographical details not preserved in other sources (Epistola 138), but it is not clear whether he found them in works now lost to us or whether they were known generally in North Africa. He also quotes in detail from the pseudo-Apuleian Asclepius (City of God 8.23–26).143 This fourth-century work was transmitted with Apuleius’ philosophical texts from an early period, which may or may not have been as early as the time of Augustine.144 Augustine discusses it immediately after his refutation of Apuleius in City of God 8, but he clearly does not attribute it to Apuleius himself. Perhaps the Asclepius was included in his manuscript, but it seems just as likely that later readers, seeing it so closely linked with Apuleius in the City of God, incorporated it into their texts and brought it into the tradition. It appears immediately after De deo Socratis in the earliest witness to both the Asclepius and Apuleius’ philosophical works, the ninth-century manuscript Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier 10054–10056.145

Apuleius was interesting to Augustine as a fellow North African and important to him as a Latin Platonist providing material for discussion and refutation in the City of God. But Augustine was even more important to Apuleius—at least to Apuleius the philosopher, for it was largely Augustine’s interest that brought the philosophical works to the attention of later readers and secured their rich fortuna in northern Europe during the Middle Ages.146 At this point, however, we must part company for a time with Apuleius the philosopher. After around 500 Apuleius’ reception becomes two stories: the fortuna of the philosophical works (De deo Socratis, De mundo, De dogmate Platonis, and the rest) and the tale of the “literary” works (Metamorphoses, Apology, and Florida), which travel in quite different circles. It is the path of the latter that we will follow in the next chapter. First, however, we must see what happened to Apuleius the magician.

The Magician Vanishes

From Lactantius, Jerome, and Augustine it is clear that Apuleius’ character as a magician was well established in late antiquity, and that stories of his feats were current in North Africa and perhaps elsewhere. But the details are elusive. Although Jerome refers to the charge from the Apology that Apuleius won his wife by sorcery, and Augustine recalls the magic transformation in the Golden Ass, none of the three Christian writers relates a single example of the popular stories he alludes to. The “many marvels” and “boundless wonders” that they say people (especially pagans) liked to talk about have entirely disappeared. Although we can scarcely blame the Christian apologists for not preserving them—after all, it was not their business to pass on tales of pagan magic—it would still be interesting to know exactly how Apuleius’ carefully constructed persona was treated and transformed in oral tradition.

Apuleius’ reputation as a magician survives into the Middle Ages, but the stories attached to his name are both late and anachronistic. The image that emerges from them is almost embarrassingly unimpressive. In the Latin west his powers are memorialized in a single example, a charm against nosebleeds preserved in the medical writings of Pseudo-Theodorus: “[You write] the following [in the sufferer’s blood] on a sheet of paper and hold it up to his ear: ‘Blood, Apuleius of Madaura commands you to stop your fl ow.’ ”147

More stories are told about him in Byzantium, where he always appears with either Apollonius of Tyana or Julian the Chaldaean or both at once. In the company of these more competent and famous magicians he is usually ineffective.

Apuleius’ powers are essentially worthless in a story told in the Quaestiones et Responsiones, ascribed to the Byzantine theologian and saint, Anastasios of Sinai (d. after 700).148 (The date and authorship of the work are uncertain, and some parts of it may be much later than the time of Anastasios.)149Quaestio 20 concerns magic: “As a consequence of what power do heretics and wicked men often prophesy and work marvels?”150 The response provides several explanations, ending with the power of demons and the following story: “So too in the time of the emperor Domitian the magicians Julianus, Apollonius, and Apuleius performed wonders of different kinds, and one such performance appears in the tales of our elders.”151 It seems that Domitian and the great men of his court had called upon the three magicians to save Rome from a terrible plague that was ravaging the city. Apuleius said that he would save a third of the city within fifteen days, and Apollonius promised to save a third within ten. Julian, however, “the best among them and much closer to the devil through this vanity,” 152 saved his third on the spot, as well as the thirds assigned to Apuleius and Apollonius. The story concludes with a list of various marvels performed by Apollonius with the help of demons. Apuleius is clearly the least important of the three magicians, for he is soon forgotten and all our attention is directed to Julian and Apollonius. The story may be an old one, as the author suggests, but if so, Apuleius is only a latecomer in it. The author does not know that the three magicians were not contemporaries (a fact that would have been obvious, at least in the West, as late as the fifth century). Apparently he does not know any stories about Apuleius’ magic (if he did, we could expect to hear them, since he is so forthcoming with details about Julian and Apollonius). He does know of Apuleius’ reputation as a magician, but that is perhaps all he knows. Apuleius is only a name, no doubt included to bring the number of contesting wonder-workers up to the canonical three. 153

The eleventh-century polymath Michael Psellos pairs Apuleius with Julian in two stories. In one he characterizes Apuleius as grounded in mere matter and Julian as “more intelligent and godlike.”154 Accordingly, Apuleius’ amulets and spells are unable to restrain the wild animals harassing Trajan’s army, while Julian, unaided by either spells or amulets, gets rid of them altogether. In the other, Apuleius is more successful than usual.155 He is a talented theurgist, able to bind and loose the chthonic gods with charms and spells, and he even forces one not to consort with his fellow theurgist Julian. But even here Apuleius seems less impressive than his colleague. Apuleius’ power is a negative one that interferes with a single rival, while Julian creates a magic image that routs the entire Dacian army with thunderbolts.

•  •  •

Like his fellow sophists, Apuleius was a performer as well as a writer. He worked hard to make himself interesting to his audience, creating what he hoped would be a distinctive and memorable image—not only with his words but also with his delivery and performance, and probably with his appearance and mannerisms as well. To a large extent his efforts were successful. The impressions he made on his contemporaries and immediate posterity have not survived, but they were evidently strong enough to preserve his memory—or rather the memory of the image he had so carefully created—to the time of Lactantius in the early fourth century and at least to the beginning of the fifth century, nearly 250 years after his death.

Apuleius’ writings undoubtedly played a significant part in the preservation of his image as a philosopher. The designer of the Trier ceiling knew at least the story of Cupid and Psyche. The designer of the contorniate knew at least the Apology and some of the Florida. Augustine carefully studied De deo Socratis and had probably read the Metamorphoses and Apology in his youth. But stories about Apuleius the magician evidently circulated independently of his writings. A local legend seems to have grown up around him, created by his ambiguous manipulation of smoke and mirrors in the Apology and encouraged by his stories of magic in the Metamorphoses and perhaps even by his own behavior.

It is impossible to tell how long such stories circulated and whether any were ever written down. They no doubt gained some renewed interest during the religious controversies of the fourth century. (We know that Augustine’s friends in Carthage were still being regaled with them by their pagan rivals as late as 412.) But with the end of pagan polemic, they were no longer useful; the oral tradition, perhaps not strong to begin with, was lost, and pagan writings were destroyed. Apuleius’ image as a magician, however, lived on, preserved like a fly in amber by references in the Christian apologists and disembodied both from his writings and from the ancient tales of his marvels. Now only a name, “Apuleius the magician” became a useful “extra” for Byzantine writers to include in their anachronistic stories of Julian and Apollonius.

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File created: 11/28/2007

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