Why a New Edition of The Golden Ass?

Peter Singer

The end of April saw the release of my new abridged and illustrated edition of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (c. AD 170), a book I had not even read seven years ago and knew little about. It was one of those many books with titles that are vaguely familiar, but if you had asked me who wrote it, when it was written, or what it is about, I would not have been able to tell you.

The story begins when I received an email from Richard Zimler, a novelist I know, in which Richard mentioned that he had been reading The Golden Ass and enjoying not only its literary qualities, but also the manner in which the author had created a work of fiction “that places the idea of animal rights in the reader’s head and heart in a very appealing and strong way.” 

That got my attention! I looked up the work and found that Apuleius (c. AD 123–80), who wrote in Latin, was born during the reign of Hadrian (ruled 117–38), in what is now Algeria, but was then part of the Roman Empire. This was a twofold surprise. First, when I was in high school, I was told that the first novel was Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, written in 1726. Later, I realized that was an Anglophone bias – obviously Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a novel, and it was published more than a century earlier.

Illustration for The Golden Ass, Anna and Varvara Kendel, 2021.

Later still, I discovered that my belief that this was the first novel was a Eurocentric bias, for Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is six hundred years older still. But I didn’t know the Greeks or Romans wrote novels, let alone that any had survived. If this is the oldest surviving novel, or even just one of the earliest, why didn’t I know about it? Why, and this is even more extraordinary, doesn’t Google know about it? (You don’t believe me? Then put “What is the earliest novel?” into Google. I always get The Tale of Genji.)

The second surprise was that a Roman novel should raise the idea of animal rights – or, if that is too great an anachronism, at least present an animal’s perspective on the way we treat animals. Forty years earlier I had written Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (Random House, New York, 1975), sometimes said to have triggered the modern animal rights movement. When we think of the Romans and animals we are most likely to think of the crowds in the Colosseum cheering as exotic animals, brought in from the distant provinces of the Empire, fight it out with gladiators or with other animals. There were kinder voices in Roman times too – Plutarch is the most notable – but I hadn’t known of any novels. The Golden Ass doesn’t talk explicitly about animal rights, but in choosing a donkey as the protagonist, Apuleius is forgoing any appeal to particularly lovable animals. If we end up with empathy for the donkey, we can have empathy for all animals.

Mosaic, 5th century AD, Great Palace, Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey).

Why did I know so little about this work? My bookshelves have several meters of books about animals, including a fiction section that includes Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), Brigid Brophy’s Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs (1977), J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999), and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014). The obvious explanation for the absence of The Golden Ass from the works with which I was familiar was that, despite Zimler’s praise of its literary qualities, it can’t be really be a good work of literature.

Notwithstanding my low expectations, I started out on it – and immediately got my third surprise. The Golden Ass is a rollicking first-person tale told by a man whose curiosity about magic results in him getting turned into a donkey. It boasts lots of action, a wide array of interesting characters, erotic adventures, and vivid depictions of life and love over 1800 years ago. As a novel, however, it does have one major drawback. The donkey, with his big ears, hears many people telling stories, and insists on retelling them to us. Some of them are entertaining, but the overall effect of so many digressions is that the reader ceases to be gripped by the main narrative of the adventures of the donkey. This, I thought, must be why the work is so little known and read.

Mosaic, 5th century AD, Great Palace, Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey).

So I conceived the idea of cutting out the episodes that stray from the main story. When I did that, I was left with a novel about half the length of the original, but still retaining all the material that shows Apuleius’ remarkable empathy for an animal and, most importantly, is exciting and fun to read. To that, I thought, I would add an essay of my own on the ethical significance of The Golden Ass and on the treatment of animals in Roman times and today, pointing out that although we think of ourselves as far more civilized and humane, we apply today’s technologies to animals just as ruthlessly as the Roman miller who forced the donkey to walk endlessly in circles turning the millstone. Moreover, the development of factory farms containing thousands or even millions of animals crowded and confined indoors for their entire lives means that we are inflicting misery on vastly more animals than the Romans ever did.

My agent, Kathy Robbins, liked the idea and pitched it to Robert Weil, at W.W. Norton/Liveright, who was excited about the proposal and agreed to commission a new translation for it. For a translator I was fortunate to find Ellen Finkelpearl, a professor of Ancient Studies at Scripps College and a scholar of Apuleius, who, unknown to me when I approached her, is a vegetarian with a life-long concern about our treatment of animals. She doesn’t share my view of the embedded stories (as she prefers to call what I think of as digressions) but nevertheless enthusiastically agreed to provide a lively modern translation of my abridged version, in order to find a new readership for The Golden Ass and a greater appreciation of Apuleius.

Ellen has contributed an essay of her own, giving us more information about Apuleius and his work’s literary and cultural context. She also discusses other literary and philosophical works of antiquity that are sympathetic to animals, in contrast to the better-known views of the Stoics, who drew a sharp distinction between humans and other animals. She points out, too, that even if The Golden Ass is not well known today, it was widely read in Renaissance Europe, when it was rediscovered along with many other classical texts. Boccaccio and Cervantes borrowed from it for the Decameron and Don Quixote. Shakespeare must have read William Adlington’s English translation, for phrases from it crop up in several of his plays, and it appears to have been the inspiration for the transformation of Bottom into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/6).

Illustration for The Golden Ass, Anna and Varvara Kendel, 2021.

Anna and Varvara Kendel, Russian book illustrators and award-winning artists, have contributed their own vision of key moments in the The Golden Ass, with a striking set of illustrations.

I will be delighted if my edition enables one of the world’s earliest novels to regain the readership and recognition it so thoroughly deserves, so that it can once again lead people to ask themselves what life may be like for the animals around us.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Life You Can Save, and The Most Good You Can Do. His writings have been influential in both the animal rights movement and effective altruism, and he is the founder of the charity The Life You Can Save.

This article was first published in the May 2021 issue of Literary Review.