1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Apuleius, Lucius
APULEIUS, LUCIUS, Platonic philosopher and rhetorician, was born at Madaura in Numidia about A.D. 125. As the son of one of the principal officials, he received an excellent education, first at Carthage and subsequently at Athens. After leaving Athens he undertook a long course of travel, especially in the East, principally with the view of obtaining initiation into religious mysteries. Having practised for some time as an advocate at Rome, he returned to Africa. On a journey to Alexandria he fell sick at Oea (Tripoli), where he made the acquaintance of a rich widow, Aemilia Pudentilla, whom he subsequently married. The members of her family disapproved of the marriage, and indicted Apuleius on a charge of having gained her affections by magical arts. He easily established his innocence, and his spirited, highly entertaining, but inordinately long defence (Apologia or De Magia) before the proconsul Claudius Maximus is our principal authority for his biography. From allusions in his subsequent writings, and the mention of him by St. Augustine, we gather that the remainder of his prosperous life was devoted to literature and philosophy. At Carthage he was elected provincial priest of the imperial cult, in which capacity he occupied a prominent position in the provincial council, had the duty of collecting and managing the funds for the temples of the cult, and the superintendence of the games in the amphitheatre. He lectured on philosophy and rhetoric, like the Greek sophists, apparently with success, since statues were erected in his honour at Carthage and elsewhere. The year of his death is not known.
The work on which the fame of Apuleius principally rests has little claim to originality. The Metamorphoses or Golden Ass (the latter title seems not to be the author’s own, but to have been bestowed in compliment, just as the Libri Rerum Quotidianarum of Gaius were called Aurei) was founded on a narrative in the Metamorphoses of Lucius of Patrae, a work extant in the time of Photius. From Photius’s account (impugned, however, by Wieland and Courier), this book would seem to have consisted of a collection of marvellous stories, related in an inartistic fashion, and in perfect good faith. The literary capabilities of this particular narrative attracted the attention of Apuleius’s contemporary, Lucian, who proceeded to work it up in his own manner, adhering, as Photius seems to indicate, very closely to the original, but giving it a comic and satiric turn. Apuleius followed this rifacimento, making it, however, the groundwork of an elaborate romance, interspersed with numerous episodes, of which the beautiful story of Cupid and Psyche is the most celebrated, and altering the dénouement to suit the religious revival of which he was an apostle.
The adventures of the youthful hero in the form of an ass are much the same in both romances, but in Apuleius he is restored to human shape by the aid of Isis, into whose mysteries he is initiated, and finally becomes her priestess. The book is a remarkable illustration of the contemporary reaction against a period of scepticism, of the general appetite for miracle and magic, and of the influx of oriental and Egyptian ideas into the old theology. It is also composed with a well-marked literary aim, defined by Kretzschmann as the emulation of the Greek sophists, and the transplantation of their tours de force into the Latin language. Nothing, indeed, is more characteristic of Apuleius than his versatility, unless it be his ostentation and self-confidence in the display of it. The dignified, the ludicrous, the voluptuous, the horrible, succeed each other with bewildering rapidity; fancy and feeling are everywhere apparent, but not less so affectation, meretricious ornament, and that effort to say everything finely which prevents anything being said well. The Latinity has a strong African colouring, and is crammed with obsolete words, agreeably to the taste of the time. When these defects are mitigated or overlooked, the Golden Ass will be pronounced a most successful work, invaluable as an illustration of ancient manners, and full of entertainment from beginning to end. The most famous and poetically beautiful portion is the episode of Cupid and Psyche, adapted from a popular legend of which traces are found in most fairy mythologies, which explains the seeming incongruity of its being placed in the mouth of an old hag. The allegorical purport he has infused into it is his own, and entirely in the spirit of the Platonic philosophy. Don Quixote’s adventure with the wine-skins, and Gil Blas’s captivity among the robbers, are palpably borrowed from Apuleius; and several of the humorous episodes, probably current as popular stories long before his time, reappear in Boccaccio.
Of Apuleius’s other writings, the Apology has been already mentioned. The Florida (probably meaning simply “anthology,” without any reference to style) consists of a collection of excerpts from his declamations, ingenious but highly affected, and in general perfect examples of the sophistical art of saying nothing with emphasis. They deal with the most varied subjects, and are intended to exemplify the author’s versatility. The pleasing little tract On the God of Socrates expounds the Platonic doctrine of beneficent daemons, an intermediate class between gods and men. Two books on Plato (De Platone et Ejus Dogmate) treat of his life, and his physical and ethical philosophy; a third, treating of logic, is generally considered spurious. The De Mundo is an adaptation of the Περὶ κόσμόυ wrongly attributed to Aristotle. Apuleius informs us that he had also composed numerous poems in almost all possible styles, and several works on natural history, some in Greek. In the preparation of these he seems to have attended more closely to actual anatomical research than was customary with ancient naturalists. Some other works—dealing with theology, the properties of herbs, medical remedies and physiognomy, are wrongly attributed to him.
The character of Apuleius, as delineated by himself, is attractive; he appears vehement and passionate, but devoid of rancour; enterprising, munificent, genial and an enthusiast for the beautiful and good. His vanity and love of display are conspicuous, but are extenuated by a genuine thirst for knowledge and a surprising versatility of attainments. He prided himself on his proficiency in both Greek and Latin. His place in letters is accidentally more important than his genius strictly entitles him to hold. He is the only extant example in Latin literature of an accomplished sophist in the good sense of the term. The loss of other ancient romances has secured him a peculiar influence on modern fiction; while his chronological position in a transitional period renders him at once the evening star of the Platonic, and the morning star of the Neo-Platonic philosophy.