BMCR 2001.03.13

Apuleius. A Latin Sophist

, Apuleius : a Latin sophist. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (vi, 281 pages). ISBN 9780191588242 $74.00.

That the opening of a work often repays close attention is a truth commonly, if not universally, acknowledged. Priscian in the sixth century devoted a treatise of more than fifty pages to the opening line of each book of the Aeneid. The opening paragraph of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses has spawned any number of articles, as well as a 1996 conference, and now a 300 page “companion.”1 So it might be just as well to look closely at the opening sentence of Stephen Harrison’s new book and the capsule evaluation it offers of its subject: “Apuleius — display orator and professional intellectual in second-century North Africa, Platonist philosopher, extraordinary stylist, relentless self-promoter, and versatile author of a remarkably diverse body of work, much of which is lost to us.” (v) Uncontroversial, perhaps, at first glance. Or is it? What happened to the “author of the only complete surviving Latin novel,” “creator of the haunting story of Cupid and Psyche” or “source and inspiration to fabulists from Boccaccio to Pater”? H. does, in fact, turn to the Metamorphoses in the last of his six chapters, but the main purpose of his book is to look at Apuleius’s oeuvre as a coherent whole, of which the Metamorphoses forms only one part. Among recent studies, its closest affinity (as H. himself notes) is with Gerald Sandy’s 1997 study The Greek World of Apuleius. Both books are concerned to situate Apuleius’s works in the cultural context of the Second Sophistic; both give unprecedented space to the Apology, Florida and philosophical works; and both characterize Apuleius as a “Latin sophist.”2 But where Sandy privileges the “sophist” half of the tag, stressing Apuleius’s connections with the Greek world of the title, H. gives the adjective equal time and keeps the spotlight firmly on Apuleius himself. Less repetitive and better organized than Sandy, he is also, to my mind, more successful at explaining how a sophistic reading of Apuleius affects the interpretation of the Metamorphoses, which is, after all, the work most readers will approach first and return to most frequently.

The opening chapter addresses “Apuleius in Context: Life, Background, Writings.” H. here outlines succinctly and accurately3 the known facts of Apuleius’s life and briefly reviews the extant works ascribed to him. H. accepts the current consensus on the Apuleian canon. The De Platone and De Mundo are accepted as probably genuine and hence are treated in subsequent chapters. The Peri Hermeneias is omitted as probably non-Apuleian (and in any case too technical to benefit from H’s more literary approach); so too the Asclepius, which H., like most other scholars, views as certainly non-authentic.4 The sparse evidence for dating is set out; H. would prefer a late date (170s or 180s) for the Metamorphoses but acknowledges that the question is still open. There are no major novelties here, but the discussion is clearly laid-out and well-documented: this is a good introductory reading for an Apuleius seminar. Specialists by contrast will probably benefit most from the extremely full discussion of the Apuleian fragments and testimonia (pp.14-36). While providing something close to a commentary on these items, H. is also concerned to stress some overall themes, which he underlines in a concluding section. These include the deliberately encyclopedic nature of Apuleius’s corpus; the large role that compilation, rather than original composition, played in it; and finally the characteristics Apuleius shares with the sophistic movement of his day: “his status as a star performer …, his obvious self-promotion and cult of his own personality, and his prodigiously displayed literary and scientific polymathy” (38).

Chapter 2 (“A Sophist in Court”) is devoted to the Apology. H. begins by outlining the history of the Pudentilla affair, so far as that can be reconstructed, and discusses whether the speech underwent revision post-delivery (probably) and whether the title Apologia is Apuleian (probably not). He then offers a detailed analysis of the structure of the speech, with some comments on the strategy behind it, before turning to a close reading of the individual sections. He is concerned throughout to emphasize two strands in the speech. The first is its debt to forensic oratory — Cicero in particular — which is evident in phraseology (e.g., 25.5 aggredior … ad ipsum crimen, echoing Pro Cluentio 8), rhetorical figures such as the rapid-fire questions at 27.5ff. and 103.2f. or the prosopopoeia of the letter at 83.2, the expert exploitation of dilemma, and the masterful use of that Ciceronian specialty, the tendentious narratio. But these forensic features are intertwined with a second, more sophistic strand. Apuleius offers not only a refutation of the charges against him but a dazzling display of literary citations, mythological and Platonic allusions, anecdotes about Crates and Sophocles, meditations on poverty and dental hygiene, observations on pseudonyms in the elegiac poets, and bravura displays of zoological knowledge. In generic terms the speech thus “mixes the forensic with the epideictic” (44). As H. emphasizes, however, the epideictic elements are as important a part of Apuleius’s trial strategy as the forensic ones; like the comic elements in the Pro Caelio, their purpose is to create a bond between speaker and audience while obstructing the opposition’s attempts to do the same. Specifically, Apuleius’s sophistic persona is here intended to ingratiate him with the philosophically-minded proconsul Claudius Maximus while constructing his opponents as boorish and malevolent rustics incapable of distinguishing an ichthyologist from a necromancer. Here the existence of a receptive audience is shown to be essential to the sophist’s self-presentation: “for a proconsul unsympathetic to literary and philosophical concerns, Apuleius might well have produced a defence rather different from the extant Apologia” (87). In the closing section of the chapter, H. notes Greek parallels for the association of sophistry with magic and for oratorical self-justification while at the same time re-emphasizing how much the Apology owes to Roman tradition.

In the third chapter, H. turns to the understudied Florida. The opening and closing sections of the chapter deal with the complicated textual situation. The extant Florida are a set of excerpts made by a later editor (perhaps the Crispus Sallustius who shows up in the subscriptiones to the other works?) from a longer collection in four books, perhaps compiled by Apuleius himself. The title probably points to the work’s origin as an anthology rather than representing a stylistic judgment. The final section discusses the principles of selection that might have produced the work we now have. Though H’s conclusions are inevitably tentative, the picture of the extant Florida as a kind of rhetor’s pattern book is convincing enough. He notes that “all the extracts provide useful models of particular rhetorical techniques” (133), while many of them have direct links to specific progymnasmata. The prominence of Carthage in the selections may point to a Carthaginian excerptor, though it might simply reflect Apuleius’s close connection with the city.

The central portion of the chapter analyzes the individual excerpts (including the so-called ‘false preface’ to the De Deo Socratis). H. focuses on theme and subject matter but also devotes a good deal of attention to the stylistic construction of each piece and to the circumstances of delivery, so far as those can be inferred from the text. The discussion is no substitute for the full commentary this text still badly needs, as H. is the first to acknowledge (89), but it is a valuable start. H. is of course primarily interested in the sophistic features of the excerpts. He draws attention to themes shared by Apuleius and his Greek counterparts, e.g. the anecdotes and chreiai involving intellectuals, the valorization of philosophers and polymaths, and the superficial ethnographic interests on display in Florida 6. He is also good at bringing out the incessant preening and self-aggrandizement contained in these pieces, behavior as characteristic of second century rhetoricians as of modern hip-hop artists (Herodes Atticus and Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs would have more to talk about than just their legal tribulations). Such sophistic jousting is often conducted in elaborate metaphors or through mythological proxies, as in Florida 3, where H. is surely correct to see the story of Apollo and Marsyas as a set-up for a comparison of Apuleius with some rival. Something similar no doubt underlies the famous parrot description of Florida 12, though H. is properly cautious here.

With chapter 4 we turn to the the philosophical works and specifically to the De Deo Socratis. Once again, H. begins by laying out the textual situation; the work is acephalous and probably lacks its original conclusion as well. Though he acknowledges the value of the work for ancient demonology, H.’s primary emphasis here is on the literary aspects and once again on the interplay between sophistic and Roman elements. He notes the general interest in Socrates’s daemon among authors associated with the Second Sophistic, as well as the specific links with Maximus of Tyre’s treatment of the subject ( Or. 8 and 9), which probably indicate a common Greek source. At the same time, H. is concerned to underline the Roman elements that Apuleius introduces: a heavy Lucretian coloring, along with echoes of Cicero’s philosophica and Seneca; citations from Ennius, Accius, Plautus and Vergil; and other features of Roman cultural discourse, like the catalogue of omens and prodigies at 135, the accounting imagery at 170, and the condemnation of extravagant building at 171. “Once again Apuleius is seen to be purveying something of the culture of the Greek Second Sophistic to a Roman North African audience, adapting his protreptic discouse … to local cultural horizons” (173).

Chapter 5 covers the De Mundo and the De Platone, which are linked both by their didactic traits and by suspicions about their authenticity; H. accepts a late dating for both and does not see differences in prose rhythm as a necessary bar to Apuleian authorship. In assessing the De Mundo, H. is convincing on the divergences between Apuleius’s Latin and the Greek original, which once again he sees as a conscious adaptation of a Greek original to the needs of a Latin-speaking readership. Thus Athenian institutions are transformed into Roman terms, items of interest only to a Greek audience are omitted, and Homeric allusions take a back-seat to new Vergilian echoes. The De Platone H. views as a “translation or adaptation of a Greek handbook belonging to the same Middle Platonist tradition as [Alcinous’s] Didaskalikos” (197), a comparison he develops in detail but without positing a direct connection between the two works. As in the other philosophic works, Apuleius introduces a certain amount of Roman literary color; H. notes echoes of Plautus, Lucretius and Cicero in particular. Given the pedestrian nature of these two texts, H.’s literary approach has less to work with; if readers are inclined to skip to the final chapter on the Metamorphoses, the blame lies largely with Apuleius.

H’s Golden Ass is “A Sophist’s Novel” in at least two senses: a book not only by a sophist but in some sense about one. Lucius, H. argues, is characterized “as a sophist in the making, or at least as a figure with recognizably high status and ambitions within the cultural world of the Second Sophistic.” I would myself prefer the second, more cautious formulation. That Lucius is capable of launching into an impromptu defence speech at the Risus festival suggests that he has undergone a standard upper-class rhetorical training — but surely it takes more than that to make a man a sophist. Lucius, after all, lacks many of the essential sophistic characteristics; he travels, but not as a declaimer; he has no students; and though the Lucius of Book 11 makes a living with his tongue, it is forensic and not epideictic oratory that he practices. I am even less convinced by H’s suggestion that Lucius is specifically meant to recall the credulous orator Aelius Aristides. H. notes that both are gullible consumers of religion and have visions and dreams in which they receive instructions; both are initiated into the cults of Egyptian deities; both find the gods’ favor helpful in their oratorical careers. “It seems difficult to believe that these parallels are coincidental” observes H. (251) But I have to say that I find it not at all difficult. The survival of the Sacred Tales leaves Aelius Aristides as the best-documented example of what must surely have been a much more widespread phenomenon. One can accept that Apuleius is “sending-up his age’s taste for writing about religious cults and personal religious experience” (ibid.) without necessarily taking aim at a particular individual.

On the other hand, H. is certainly right to emphasize the sophistic features that characterize the text itself. Rhetorical improvisation does feature prominently at the Risus festival — a controversia come to life — while the story of the pauper and the rapacious neighbor at 9.35ff. recalls common declamatory situations (I wonder, incidentally, if Apuleius’s puzzling reluctance to give names to his characters might have something to do with his training in the generic world of the declamation schools, populated as it is with unnamed fratres, novercae, patres and uxores ?). Along with sophistic situations in the narrative, H. notes also the presence of sophistic compositional techniques: the various examples of ecphrasis (the Actaeon statue, Cupid’s palace, the robbers’ cave …), the omnipresent literary allusions (especially to epic), the sly reworking of the Phaedrus and Symposium, and the ostentatious display of technical knowledge, expended with equal facility on elephant pregnancy, the symptoms of rabies, or Isiac rituals.

As this last conjunction might suggest, H takes a more cavalier view of Lucius’s Isiac conversion than many recent interpreters. He is upfront about this: “the Metamorphoses shows an undoubtedly detailed knowledge of Isiac religion, but … this interest is used for cultural and intellectual display and satirical entertainment rather than to assert any ideological or personal commitment” (238). The final book is in fact a sophistic satire on religious charlatanry, comparable to Lucian’s “Alexander the False Prophet.” H. here owes (and acknowledges) a considerable debt to Jack Winkler, whose influential Auctor & Actor first laid out much of the evidence for this reading. But where Winkler saw the satirical reading as coexisting with a serious one — Apuleius inviting both while authorizing neither — H. opts decisively for the comic interpretation. The money, the endless string of new initiations, Lucius’s open-eyed naivete — for H. these are too much to swallow. Lucius’s visions remain somewhat problematic, but H. gets around them by arguing that Lucius, “a hyperdutiful and autosuggestive religious maniac” (246), is in effect complicit in his own exploitation.5

But if the Metamorphoses is not intended to be a moving narrative of the soul’s journey to faith, an involved Platonic allegory, or a meditation on the nature of religious belief, what is its purpose? For H. it has two goals: to entertain its audience (is this not what the preface promises us, after all?) and to extend the fame of its author. The novel in fact is an extended “display of cultural capital” (a phrase borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu), intended to show off Apuleius’s powers of composition, for which it presents the supreme challenge. As H. puts it, “the problem for a self-promoting sophistic intellectual in writing fictional narrative is that of how to keep the spotlight on himself when not talking about himself” (232), as he can do when declaiming. Hence the novel’s obtrusive metafictional elements (the shifting voice of the prologue, the momentary replacement of the old woman by the huius Milesiae conditor at 4.32.6, the notorious “Madaurensis” passage in Book 11), together constituting a “strategy which draws attention to the existence and virtuoso status of the work’s author” (233). This is an insight, in fact, which could be extended more broadly. Readers have often noted that all the characters, from slaves and robbers to priests, magistrates and the goddess Isis herself, speak in the same elaborate Apuleian Latin. Why does Apuleius pass up the opportunity (so congenial to Petronius) to “do the police in different voices”? H. implicitly provides an answer: the usefulness of this style is precisely its uniform artificiality. Unlikely Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, who is instructed to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” we are continually being reminded who is pulling the strings and moving the levers of this impressively baroque machine.

One shrinks at applying the word “radical” to such a painstaking, level-headed, and lucidly-argued book. Yet its conclusion is indeed a radical one. Paradoxically, H. argues, we can better appreciate Apuleius’s real achievement by taking him less seriously (deep down, he’s really very shallow). To be sure, others have expressed similar judgments from time to time. Many readers of H. will be reminded of Perry’s analysis of the Metamorphoses as a slapdash piece of Unterhaltungsliteratur (though H. has greater respect for Apuleius’s compositional skill) or Rudolf Helm’s characterization of the Apology as a masterpiece of the Second Sophistic.6 But the center of discourse has been elsewhere. From Fulgentius and Beroaldus to Merkelbach and Winkler, criticism of the Metamorphoses has persistently yearned for deeper significance in Apuleius (or in Winkler’s case, perhaps, a deeper lack of significance). Not all intending readers will be delighted by H’s portrait of a writer “to whom breadth and rapid composition must have often been more important than depth and elaborate literary craftsmanship” (209). But even those who disagree will be stimulated by this book, easily the best study to date of this curious and perplexing author.7


1. A. Laird and A. Kahane, eds. A Companion to the Prologue to Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (Oxford, forthcoming).

2. With H’s subtitle compare the subtitle of Sandy’s Chapter One (“The Formation of a Latin Sophist”), and the titles of Chapters Four (“Orator Sophisticus Latinus”) and Five (“Philosophus Sophisticus Latinus”).

3. One does sigh at reading that Apuleius probably “spoke Punic as his vernacular first language” (2). This may not be strictly untrue (note the qualifying “vernacular”), but it feeds the still too common belief that Latin was not Apuleius’s first language and that this somehow accounts for his baroque prose style — as if he were a sort of second century Nabokov. The important point is the one H. makes on the next page: “Apuleius … is fundamentally Roman in cultural identity and a native speaker and writer of Latin.”

4. Harrison is unconvinced (rightly, I think) by V. Hunink, “Apuleius and the Asclepius,” Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996), 288-308, who attempts to move discussion to a more agnostic position.

5. H. does not deal with the later reception of Apuleius, but he might have noted that the Metamorphoses‘ best reader may be the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes, whose picaresque hero concludes his account by describing how he settled down as the town crier of Toledo and married through the aid of a local prelate; the sceptical reader soon realizes that the prelate’s motives are not as innocent as they seem. If they ever get around to making the movie of the Golden Ass that Helen Elsom once called for (“Apuleius and the Movies, GCN 2 (1989), 141-150 it will have to end with Lucius as a convert to scientology, working at a law firm to pay for his endless auditing sessions.

6. Ben Edwin Perry, The Ancient Romances (Berkeley, 1967) 236-282 (incorporating earlier work); R. Helm, “Apuleius’ Apologie — ein Meisterwerk der zweiten Sophistik,” Das Altertum 1 (1955), 86-108, also available online at

7. One final note: Page 210.n.5 includes two URLs (the first I can remember seeing in the footnotes of an OUP book). For those who approve of this trend, it should be chastening to note that one of these now evokes a “404 Not Found” and the other a “403 Forbidden.” The Petronian Society’s bibliography on the ancient novel can currently be found at For Luca Graverini’s Apuleius bibliography point your browser to: