BMCR 2008.02.45

Apuleius and the Drama. The Ass on Stage

, Apuleius and drama : the ass on stage. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xi, 379 pages).. ISBN 9780199202928. $110.00/€68.00.

Table of Contents

May’s essay focuses on the intertextual connection of Apuleius’ works with drama and covers a rather broad field, ranging — as the author herself points out (p. 1) — “from tragedy to comedy, from mime to pantomime”. Among these different theatrical genres, comedy plays the leading role in M.’s analysis; in fact, comedy, especially Plautine drama, is assumed to provide Apuleius with a linguistic and a stylistic model, as well as with a “methodological” one. That is, in M.’s opinion, Apuleius not only resorts to Plautus’ archaic language and style but also emulates, particularly in the Metamorphoses, his peculiar technique of merging different genres.

Most of the exposition focuses on the novel (chaps. V-XII), whereas the remaining works are examined in the initial chapters (chaps. II-IV). After a useful and well-documented overview of the reception of drama in the 2nd century A.D. and an appropriate setting of Apuleius in an archaizing environment, the focus shifts to the “Minor works” (chap. III). The influence of comedy occupies the foreground: it is remarkable that, among several references to both comedy and tragedy in Apuleius’ philosophical works, only a few comic quotations are scrutinized in detail. Furthermore, special interest is shown in Anechomenos, a text referring to both Menander and Plautus, by a more complex method than using quotations: the same method which Apuleius turns to in his Metamorphoses. Starting from a Greek text (the Menandrean gnome), he merges different genres (neotheric poetry and comedy) in order to create a new work, a sort of “pastiche” based on Plautine diction.

Comic models are also examined in chapter IV, with thorough analysis of Apuleius’ Apology. As is well-known, in the “courtroom drama”, references to comedy are functional for Apuleius’ defensive strategy, according to which the orator manages to discredit his opponents through rendering them ridiculous by the identification with the less sympathetic comic characters (the senex, the leno). However, M. highlights Apuleius’ concern in avoiding his own association with comic stock types; by claiming a more detached role, he portrays himself as a philosopher and a litteratus, relying on different genres such as epigram and scientific treatise to establish his own identity.

Chapter V continues the analysis of the Metamorphoses. The influence of Latin comedy is here found at both linguistic and structural levels: attention is drawn not only to the employment of comic (especially Plautine) language but also to the structural analogy between comedy and the novel, and M. stresses the use of stage terms like fabula potentially alluding to the “dramatic” nature of the Apuleian novel. M. also points out that some aspects of the narrative texture may be read as “metatheatrical” elements: for instance, the address to the lector in the novel’s prologue could be drawn from the typical Plautine technique by which an actor breaks the dramatic action and addresses the audience directly. About the metatheatrical value of fabula (see M. p. 124-126), however, it can be noticed that this word is supposed to be the very term to designate, in Latin, the narratio; it would be difficult in fact to find a more suitable word to define Apuleius’ novel. And, while the metatheatrical function of the prologue is captivating, the address to the reader is not expressed by a pronoun but with the vocative lector : such a term, evoking the very act of reading, doesn’t really fit the dramatic performance. Furthermore, this form of address, though not very common, is not unattested in Latin literature (especially in Martial), where it is often associated with didactic intention in genres like fable (Phaedrus) and Ovidian elegy (which also M. refers to, p. 121, n. 53). Apuleius doesn’t seem take a different course: in my opinion, a more convenient interpretation for the lector address is offered by R. Nicolai’s theory of “romanzo paideutico”,1 according to which the author of the novel, in his prologue, promises entertainment to the reader who places confidence in him.

M. follows the structure of the novel and devotes the two ensuing chapters to the analysis of comical themes and actors in the first three books of the Metamorphoses. The influence of comedy on this section of the novel has been pointed out several times: M.’s merit is to have made a detailed survey and to have extended the intertextual analysis to the genre of mime (a very interesting and so far neglected model), which matches the degraded athmosphere of Aristomenes’ narration (chap. VI). Equally effective is the reading of the Milo episode, with the presentation of the miser’s house and of its inhabitants as domus comica. The identification of Lucius with the character of the parasite is less convincing, at least in the phase preceding the actual metamorphosis. As M. observes, the character of Lucius as guest of Milo shows the distinct features of the amans ephebus (he comes from a respectable family, has a relationship with the slave, suffers the avarice of an elderly character), but I do not think his desire for food after a long journey is enough to associate him with the character of the parasite, which is a degraded and not very likeable one. It would be too much to say that he is “obsessed with eating”, p. 148. It might be more appropriate to say that Lucius’ frustrated hunger is to be connected with the comic features of other characters (Milo’s avarice, the aedilis‘s stupid inflexibility). Furthermore, even if the themes of food and avarice (typical of comedy) dominate the relationship between Lucius and Milo, specific allusions to Plautus’ Aulularia are not easy to find. Linguistic proofs for the comparison are sometimes weak: the locution exiguo Lare, which is argued to refer to the Lar familiaris of Plautus’ Prologus is too common a metonymy to be considered an allusion. And, in fact, the combination of Lar with adjectives such as exiguus, parvus, modicus does not seem ascribable to the comedy or to Plautus.2 Such expressions are common in poetry (see for instance parvo sub Lare di Hor. carm. 1,22,4) and also in tragedy (the only occurrence of exiguo Lare before Apuleius is in Seneca, Phoen. 594). On the other hand none of the terms listed here (p. 165) is specific to Plautus.3 The analysis of the linguistic level, therefore, can suggest similarity in themes with comedy on a broader range (and not only with Plautine comedy). Any direct correspondence between the two texts will indeed be hard to find.

M. does not ignore the theatrical nature of the Risus Festival (chap. VIII) and recognises Aristophanic elements in the complex structure of the episode. She focuses on the interesting parallel between the episode of Lucius utricida and the Aristophanic scene in Thesmophoriazousai (689ss.) where Euripides threatens with death a boy who is actually a wineskin. To shed some light on the difficult issue of the relationship between Apuleius and Aristophanes, M. underlines the presence in both authors of some proverbs; we could also add that the motif of “killing a wineskin” adopted by Apuleius and Aristophanes seems to refer to a proverb ἀσκὸν δαίρεις, “kill a wineskin” i.e. threaten with ferocity and for no reason, as observed by Stramaglia-Brancaleone.4

Considerable room is devoted to the fabella of Cupid and Psyche (chap. IX). Well-read on the matter of the dramatic colour of the episode, M. looks for an intertext explaining the coexistence, in the novel, of tragic features (Psyche and the other characters belong to the myth and can easily feature in tragedy) and elements closer to comedy (first of all the happy ending). Once again the model is Plautus, the Amphitruo, a “tragicomedy” where the mythical environment co-exists with the comic nature of the drama. To prove her interpretation, M. proceeds with an accurate examination of the comical elements in Apuleius’ narration, analyzing the correspondence between single characters and stock-characters of the comedy. In some instances the identification is successful: Cupid is similar to the amans ephebus, hindered in the fulfilment of his erotic desires, whereas Venus can be compared, in some respects, to the lena. Some doubts arise from the comic, Plautine, characterisation of Psyche: according to M., the character, having features of different tragic heroines, is similar to the “Lost Girl” of comedy when in the second part of the fabella, she has both the role of the fugitive slave and of the suppliant. However, it does not seem to me that such roles (above all the suppliant) are more comic than tragic: the statement that “tragic suppliants at temple altars are never slaves” (p. 224) is not entirely convincing, whereas slaves seeking refuge at altars are recurrent in comedy. The statement could be contradicted by Euripides’ Andromache, an enslaved princess, who seeks liberation at Thetis’ altar. We are here on the borderline between certain Euripidean characters and some characters from New Comedy who inspire Plautus. In this rich literary tradition the suppliant slave Palestra from Plautus’s Rudens can be mentioned — a paratragical character5 to whom M. compares the character of Psyche. Some similarities can be traced as far as ethos is concerned, but they cannot be due to direct influence of the Rudens. The fact that Apuleius refers to Psyche with the adjective scitula is not enough to prove a relationship between the two characters; this adjective derives from the Rudens, but does not describe the main features of the “Lost Girl” and in the Metamorphoses it also accompanies “non paratragic” characters (such as the servant Photis and the sorceress Meroe).6 The only “direct allusion” to the Rudens can be found in Psyche’s prayer to Ceres ( met. 6,1-2), which alludes to Palaestra’s plea to Venus: however, we must not forget that both texts, when describing the suppliants’ attitude at the altar, exploit a structure which is formulaic since the archaic age and crosses different literary genres. To conclude, the model of Plautus’ tragicomedy, though interesting, is not an enterely convincing model: besides, precise textual comparison with the Amphitruo is limited to Psyche’s involuntary irony, when telling her husband that she prefers him even to Cupid ( nec ipsi Cupidini comparo, met. 5,6). These bases do not seem sufficient to extend the Amphitruo model to the whole of the fabella.

The mixture of genres is stressed also in the last chapters: the story of Charite (χ even if characterised by a tragic end, does not lack comic elements, accordingly treated by M. As far as the problematic end of the novel is concerned (χιἰ, the saving apparition of the divinity can recall the deus ex machina (typical of Euripides, but even for this instance M. first recalls the Amphitruo).

In sum, the work has certainly many interesting aspects: it provides the reader with a usefully structured bibliography on the theme of the relationship between Apuleius and the theatrical genres. It also enables to see in perspective how drama was perceived in the historical and cultural life of the 2nd Century A.D. The author is also to be praised for her constant effort to avoid taking everything for granted: M. always provides all necessary information to reconstruct intertextual relationships, even when complex. As far as the global framework of the work is concerned, it is useful to point out that even though the author promises to deal with the relationship between Apuleius and drama under different points of view, she privileges comedy and Plautus. This approach often produces coherent and effective analyses (as in the case of the Apologia): however, sometimes we have the impression that the search for comical elements leads her to overestimate non-significant elements. If it is true, as M. observes that “comic” does not mean humorous but belonging to comedy (p. 3), it must not be forgotten that not everything in comedy is “comic”.


1. Cf. R. Nicolai, Il proemio delle Metamorfosi di Apuleio, MD, 42, 1999, pp. 142-164.

2. Cf. ThlL VII/2, 966, 47ss.

3. opulentus and foedus are standard-terms without specific stylistic value, whereas arrabo is less a typical Plautine word than sermo cotidianus. (cf. L. Callebat, Sermo Cotidianus dans les Métamorphose d’Apulée, Caen 1968, p. 60).

4. Cf. A. Stramaglia-F. Brancaleone, Otri e proverbi in Apuleio, met. 2,32-3,18, in O. Pecere-A. Stramaglia, Studi Apuleiani, note di aggiornamento di Luca Graverini, Cassino 2003, pp. 113-117.

5. About this character, see most recently M.M. Bianco, Interdum vocem comoedia tollit. Paratragedia ‘al femminile’ nella commedia plautina, Bologna 2007, pp. 150-220.

6. Actually Apuleius’ fondenss of the term scitula is not due to signification but to memorability: cf. at least A. Traina, Forma e Suono, Bologna 1999: the very impressive sequence of diminutives forma scitula atque aetatula of Rud. 894 comes back in Apuleius’ forma scitula ( met. 2,6) and scitulae formulae ( met. 3,15): in neither case does the adjective refer to paratragic characters.