BMCR 2010.09.42

Der elegische Esel. Apuleius’ Metamorphosen und Ovids Ars amatoria. Studien zur klassischen Philologie Bd. 162

, Der elegische Esel. Apuleius' Metamorphosen und Ovids Ars amatoria. Studien zur klassischen Philologie Bd. 162. Frankfurt am Mein: Peter Lang, 2009. 229. ISBN 9783631592304 $66.95.

Table of Contents

Whereas the influence of Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses on Apuleius’ eponymous novel seems to be an accepted fact among researchers of the ancient novel, the intertextual relations between Ovid the elegiac poet and Apuleius have been more or less neglected so far. For that reason it is most gratifying that Judith Hindermann took on this question in her 2008 Basel doctoral thesis which has now been published. Hindermann centers her study on the assumption that love and eroticism form a core motif of Apuleius’ novel, and that he has therefore made extensive use of the works of the Roman elegiac love poets, especially Ovid’s Ars amatoria for his portrayal of love relationships in his novel.

After an informative introduction about previous research on the intertextual relations between Ovid’s epic and Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses and the reception of Ovid’s erotic textbook of the Ars amatoria, Hindermann turns in the second chapter of her book to the Greek model of Apuleius’ novel, the epitomized Ὄνος, which has been handed down to us in the manuscripts of Lucian. She compares the explicit description of the sexual relationship between the protagonist Lucius and the slave girl Palaistra in the Greek version with Apuleius’ version of Lucius’ encounter with Photis, the slave of his host Milo, in book 2 of the Metamorphoses, and comes to the conclusion that in the novel Apuleius has softened the solid eroticism of the Greek version to a much more refined version conforming to the ideals of Roman love elegy. This fact is made clear by the prominent change of the girl’s name from Palaistra, which stands for the more aggressive character of love as a synonym for wrestling, to Photis, which seems to be connected with light φῶς. In addition to changing her name, Apuleius has also depicted Photis differently by portraying her as an emancipated and cunning young woman much more on equal terms with her lover than her Greek counterpart Palaistra is. As a consequence, Hindermann interprets the relationship between Lucius and Photis as interplay between power and submission, which is typical of the elegiac concept of love.

In chapter III Hindermann turns to her main task and deciphers the reception of Ovid’s Ars amatoria within Apuleius’ novel. She begins with the observation that there are striking structural parallels between Ovid’s elegiac poem and Apuleius’ novel, as both focus on young men burning with desire and eager to subordinate themselves to a master or mistress in order to learn new things, and escape their lifestyles, which are dominated by the negotium society expects them to adopt. Hindermann develops her argument by analyzing all the stages of a growing love affair which Ovid treats in the Ars, from the inventio (3.2), to the avoidance of the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis (3.3), the captatio of the puella (3.4), and finally the ideal appearance of her hair and dress (3.5. According to Hindermann, the idea of the lex Iulia, part of Augustus’ marriage code that made conjugal unfaithfulness not only a private, but a public offense that could be punished by a penalty, clearly plays a central, yet ambivalent role in the world of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, as almost all examples of adultery in the novel are punished. Yet the protagonist Lucius, who in human form follows the idea of the lex Iulia strictly by consciously avoiding libidinous contact with matronae, is later faced with the prospect of being forced to copulate with one publicly as an ass. The law itself is named twice explicitly, first in the inset story of Cupid and Psyche ( Met. 6,22,4 where it is ironically transferred to the realm of the gods), and second, in book 9,27,4, in the course of the adultery tales. In most of these cases the women are clearly to blame for their unfaithfulness, but interestingly enough the cuckolded miller is later punished for clinging too closely to the rules of the law. Hindermann interprets this twist in conjunction with Ovid’s open claim for leniency with the lover’s infidelity that he repeatedly advocates by labelling any form of exaggerated jealousy and possessiveness as rusticitas (e.g. Ars 3.128).

Chapters 3.6 to 3.9 then focus on the three main elegiac concepts of militia amoris, servitium amoris and the apotheosis of the loved one. Hindermann considers behavioral aspects as well as the sexual position of the pendula Venus in Apuleius, and compares both with Ovid’s prescriptions. In this process she confirms the hypothesis1 that Ovid, in contrast to the elegiac poets Tibullus and Propertius, follows a significantly different concept of servitium amoris, one that is not characterized by the total self-abandonment of the male lover. Instead it can be described as a strategic means to win the desired partner in the end, and is therefore analogous to the usage of the modern food industry called servitium amoris light (p.158) by the author. A counter example to this kind of servitium in Apuleius’ novel is the figure of Socrates in book 1, who, after becoming involved with a witch, is murdered by her witchcraft ( Met. 1,6-7).

After this very detailed and fruitful analysis, the fourth chapter, in which Hindermann concentrates on the last book of Apuleius’ novel, falls a bit short. Yet she points to the several parallels between Photis and the goddess Isis, and in accordance with the recent trend in research that doubts the seriousness of the Isis book, concludes that Lucius’ conversion to the goddess is far from earnest, as his religious piety and service to the goddess is nothing more than a prolongation and comic perversion of his former servitium amoris, triggered by his erotic appetite. In his relationship to the goddess Lucius again is following traditional elegiac patterns like the paraclausithyron or the foedus aeternum, whereas Isis displays the avaritia of the puella.

Hindermann’s argument stands and falls with the assumption that the relation between Photis and Lucius and the latter’s search for love are really central to the plot of Apuleius’s novel. One could argue against this by pointing out that the encounter with the slave-girl Photis is simply initiated by the protagonist’s curiosity for the magic arts of her mistress Pamphile and that magic is a much more central theme to the overall novel than love or eroticism. Yet it remains a fact that magic and female (sexual) love are closely linked in the Metamorphoses, as e.g. the witch Pamphile is well known for her insatiable sexual appetite ( Met. 2,5). Another example is the adulterous miller’s wife in book 9 who kills her husband in revenge for expelling her from their house after he detected her hidden lover with the help of Lucius (still in the form of an ass). So both powers, love and magic, can have the same disastrous effect on the lover. But love is not always linked with disaster: certainly the inspection of some of the other female characters in the novel like Psyche or the minor figure of Plotina in Met. 7, who in their sincere (marital) devotion certainly influence Lucius’s behaviour and attitude before he has returned to human form,2 would have been a desirable addition.

In conclusion, Hindermann’s book is a very detailed and knowledgeable study on the intertextual relation between Apuleius’ novel and Ovid’s didactic love elegy on a large scale, and a useful addition to growing research on the influence of other literary genres on the ancient novel. It especially demonstrates the importance of Ovid as an important example for the later author, as Apuleius not only followed the concept of metamorphosis that Ovid varied in his epic, but also used the ideas of his elegiac works to modulate the amorous relationships in his novel.


1. Cf. Julia Wildberger, Ovids Schule der “elegischen” Liebe. Erotodidaxe und Psychagogie in der Ars amatoria, Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang 1998.

2. H. Müller-Reineke,‘ rarae fidei atque singularis pudicitiae femina — The Figure of Plotina in Apuleius’ Novel (Metamorphoses 7.6-7)’, Mnemosyne 61, 2008, 619-633.