Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.43

S. J. Harrison, Framing the Ass: Literary Texture in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 293.  ISBN 9780199602681.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Juan Martos, Universidad de Sevilla (


This book is a collection of previously published papers dealing with a single-theme subject, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Although Harrison has published some outstanding studies on some other writers, notably Virgil and Horace, he is especially known as one of the most renowned Apuleian scholars. Among other studies, he has been the sole author of Apuleius: A Latin Sophist, probably the most influential volume about Apuleius’ Metamorphoses after Winckler’s Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius' Golden Ass.

In the Google preview of the book there is full access to the table of contents (pp. ix-x), the acknowledgements, which include the details of the original publications (p. vii), a short summary of every single chapter and a quick but engaging survey of their impact and influence by the author himself (pp. 4-10). The papers are divided into two sections: “Apuleian contexts,” which deals with some heterogeneous literary subjects in the novel, and “Novel and Epic,” which explores epic influences.

The first chapter reviews how Apuleius has been considered and valued as a writer right from the start (Scriptores Historiae Augustae) until the present time. Its main subject being the scholarly reception of the novel, it ends with “some future directions for research” that are still useful.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the use of poetic allusions in the novel focusing especially on the language of prayer in books 6 and 11. Intertextual references are accurately studied and rounded off by some lucid findings on the cultural context of the author and the genre.

In chapter 3 Harrison scrutinizes the evidence of the Milesian tales and proposes that the linking of Metamorphoses to this genre lies in the structure of the work, mainly in the stories being inserted in an overall travel framework. Highly hypothetical as it is, Harrison’s view of Aristides’ tales could explain many features of the novel’s texture.

The proposal put forward in the next chapter has been discussed in every debate on the prologue of the novel and on the identity of the character who delivers it. Harrison suggested that it is the book in person that is speaking. Scholars have not reached unanimity over this point and probably never will, but Harrison’s idea is at least one of the most prominent.

Perhaps less successfully, chapter 5 aims to explain the detected parallels between Aelius Aristides’ Sacred Tales and Metamorphoses 11, suggesting that this could be a parody of the former. The proposal is based on the plausible assumption that the novel was written in the 170s or later and it is therefore relevant to the controversy about the date of the work.

Chapter 6 deals with an ever-present topic in ancient narrative: the relationship between Greek and Roman novels. After surveying the similarities and differences between Apuleius and Onos, Harrison gathers some religious issues in the Golden Ass that resemble some others in the Greek novels. The conclusion is drawn that Apuleius knows and appropriates previous religious elements in an ironic manner, though, to be honest, in some passages this is far from evident.1

Chapter 7 reinforces the satirical interpretation of book 11 that the author had previously defended in A Latin Sophist concentrating on some fresh points. Instead of Winckler’s two voices, Harrison distinguishes three in his analysis of the narrative framework: Lucius-actor, Lucius-auctor, and Apuleius-author. The subtle analysis of the beach scene (11.1-7), of both the priest’s welcome speech in 11.15.1-3 and the people’s reaction in 11.16.4, as well as Lucius’ own account of his initiation (11.23.5-7) convincingly displays the deep ironical details in the last part of the novel and shows how Apuleius plays with a comic understanding of the story throughout the whole book. Finally, the emergence of Madaurensem in 11.27.9 is interpreted as a “part of an overall destabilizing tendency connected with the narrative voice.”

The second part of the book focuses on epic influence on the novel. Four Homeric allusions are tracked in chapter 8. Thus Meroe (1.7.5-15.6) first plays the role of Circe, while later ironically comparing herself with Calypso. The link of Lucius’ recognition (2.2.5-9) with that of Telemachus in Odyssey 4.141-50 is probably weaker, as is certainly the inverted identification of Photis in 2.7.4-6 with Nausicaa.2 Finally, Tlepolemus’ device to rescue his fiancée in disguise could resemble the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. As a natural extension of this chapter, number 16 pursues the reflections of the Iliad in Apuleius.

The Apuleian exploitation of the text of Aeneid is much wider and deeper, which is why Harrison does not survey all the cases, but focuses on several kinds of imitation: “scenes of entertainment and hospitality,” Dido, “the descent into the Underworld,” and a miscellaneous group. The brilliant analysis of all these examples unequivocally demonstrates how Apuleius deploys Virgilian texts ironically and reuses them in a completely different way.

The next chapter is intended to show that epic echoes are more relevant in this part of the novel than in the rest. It is argued that the two-book inserted tale in Metamorphoses can be paralleled with the Aeneas narration of his own misfortunes (Aen. 2-3), just as the feminine figures that listen to both stories, i.e. Dido and Charite, undergo a similar fate. Therefore, the parallel between both narratees is extended far before the end of the Apuleian heroine, as has been usual. Plato’s influence is then viewed as a result of the literary learning of the author, not as a philosophical key to the story. The splits between books are then compared with epic book divisions. After two remarks on the possible epic nature of Psyche’s labours with a brief mention of folk-tales disregarded as a source, the chapter concludes with the opening of Cupid and Psyche, whose epic flavour is unconvincingly asserted, and new considerations about the parallel careers of Psyche and Aeneas. Though sometimes too subtle, Harrison generally manages to make the epic structures of Cupid and Psyche emerge through sharp analysis.

Chapter 11 resumes some ideas from the previous one, since it is a study of all the book endings and openings of the novel. Essentially (but not exclusively) epic reminiscences are scrutinized throughout, including traditional approaches (e.g. dawn-formulas) and fresh findings. As a conclusion, some general features are stressed, such as the “predominance of time-indications” or the concentration of more elaborate material in the first half of the work, but the most outstanding point is the presence of epic patterns as sources of inspiration for openings and endings of books, though they are usually modified and parodied.

Chapter 12 deals with the literary resonance (not specifically epic) of geographical names. Harrison has picked up prior suggestions and added his own proposals, naturally from his own perspective.3 The results are worth reading, although indisputable facts (those concerning Miletus, for instance) are placed together with highly speculative findings, such as the location of Psyche’s second labour. Anyway, it can be stated with Harrison that topography, mostly in the inserted tales, can serve to suggest some sophisticated literary allusions to the attentive reader.

“Waves of Emotion” covers the whole history of this metaphor from Iliad through Latin epic. Its employment in Metamorphoses seems to be derived from its epic nature, but in a new anti-heroic context, thus aiming, according to Harrison, to set up the novel as a consciously lower genre for literary educated readers able to recognize such allusions.

Chapter 14 explores the intertextuality of the adultery-tales concentrating on genres like mime, comedy or the elusive Milesian tales. Particular works are specifically recalled by certain characters in book 9, such as the theatrical fuller, the old woman resembling the elegiac lena or the tragic nurse, and the guardian slave Myrmex.

As for the divine council that ends Cupid and Psyche, Harrison defends its Roman tradition and highlights its unequivocally parodic nature, shared by the Greek counterparts. Its intertextual richness is then detailed and valued, as is that of the subsequent wedding and the birth of Voluptas.

The papers have not been substantially changed, but Harrison has made some “minor adjustments”, such as the addition of English translations, mostly by Walsh. Modifications can be checked consulting previous versions of several papers on the author’s own website. The Latin text is supposed to have been updated to that of Zimmerman (OCT 2012), which is also quoted here and there, but I have noticed some inconsistencies (pp. 118, 128 or 144, for instance). The bibliography has generally not been upgraded, and this was surely a wise decision, since it would have led to an undesirable thorough revision of the originals: nevertheless some sporadic references have been added to momentous studies (e.g. May’s Apuleius and Drama or Gaisser’s The Fortunes of Apuleius).

There are some other features of the book that deserve comment, such as the extremely interesting points about the history of Apuleian scholarship both in the introduction and in chapter 1. On the other hand, the index is extremely poor and defective: three pages covering literary places, names and very few topics clearly leave room for improvement. Even more astonishing is the omission of many names, like Telemachus, Carthage, Italy, Apology or Byrrhaena, not to mention, for example, “Latin epic” or “Greek tragedy”. In summary, this is not the index this book deserves. Except for this and very few and negligible typos,5 the book has been carefully edited and printed.

As a whole, the book is a useful collection of stimulating papers: I agree that they actually “have made a significant contribution to the study of Apuleius’ novel” and, to varying degrees, they are being read and widely discussed by Apuleian scholarship, as Harrison himself has reported (pp. 4-10). Something else might be added to this point, since it is almost impossible to find a serious study of Metamorphoses without a quotation from A Latin Sophist and one or several of the essays presented here. Among references omitted by the author, the newest Companion to the novel (Oxford 2014, p. 559, chapter 10) is naturally too recent, but see for instance Elsner, Roman Eyes or Schroeder’s paper in Reading Ancient Texts, whose starting point is precisely chapter 4.

Even if it is the result of editing together independent papers, the consistency of the whole book is guaranteed by the general emphasis on Harrison’s well known interpretation of the novel as a sophisticated work of entertainment as well as some other personal, usually firmly grounded views. Nevertheless, I honestly do not know if, gathered in a single volume, the coherence of the chapters is always stressed,6 but I am persuaded that this collection will be helpful, and, even if single parts have been previously read, the entire book will prove to be handy and useful.7


1.   For example, I find it very hard to see the irony of Apuleius’ oracle (4.33.1-2): it would only be perceivable for a second reader acquainted with Xenophon’s novel who is simultaneously thinking in the story of Psyche and the fate of Lucius in book 11.
2.   Not to mention that ter is not the manuscripts reading but a scholarly correction, however firmly grounded. See also Van Mal-Maeder ad loc. pp. 65 and 155. Harrison will soon revisit Lucius’ encounter with Byrrhaena from the point of view of Roman epic in the next chapter.
3.   For example, I disagree once more with Harrison’s view of the once-upon-a-time opening of Cupid and Psyche or Psyche’s labours. Completely avoiding folk-tale influence might impoverish our view of this ever-surprising and rich work.
4.   Some new (e.g. some odd quotations in chapter 16) and some others “inherited” from previous versions (e.g. p. 25, line 29).
6.   It is undeniable if chapters 5, 6, 7, for instance, are considered together and related to A Latin Sophist, but not so clear in other cases.
7.   Thanks are due to MEC (FFI2008-01843) and the Junta de Andalucía (P09-HUM-4534) for their financial support and to Rosa Moreno and Tim Tooher for their help in translating this review.

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