Was Apuleius a Witch?

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

A Problem of Biography

We don’t know very much about most Greek or Roman writers. Sometimes we have solid information, in the form of inscriptions (for example); also, there are ancient scholars and grammarians whose work sometimes seems generally trustworthy. Or rather, there are often plausible-seeming bits of data to be found in surviving biographies and commentaries. We can’t always demonstrate them to be authentic facts. Independently verifiable information turns out to be rare where ancient writers’ lives are concerned.

Even the most prestigious Classical authors ought to be treated with caution when they tell us about the lives of their peers and forebears. We revere Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.484–425 BC) as the ‘Father of History’ whilst taking his work with a pinch of salt, as (for example) when he tells us (Histories 1.24) that the poet Arion of Methymna was saved from drowning by a dolphin who carried him on its back to Taenarum and deposited him safely on shore, still dressed in the singing costume he was wearing when forced to jump into the sea by mutineers.

Whatever the origins of this story, the facts appear to have been garbled somewhat in the retelling. No doubt we should blame the available sources, not Herodotus himself…

Arion on a dolphin, engraving by Jan Muller, after a painting by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, c.1590.

Ancient writers who talk about themselves can often mislead the reader. If you have ever studied the Satires of Horace (65–8 BC) you might feel as though you know the poet intimately. But try to extract verifiable data from any of Horace’s works. This is much harder than it looks. When you look at the notes in any intelligent, responsibly-written scholarly commentary, you see that the number of well-established, inarguable facts about Horace turns out to be small. There is no way to avoid extensive speculation about his life, because so little of what the poet tells us turns out to be straightforward or unequivocal. And yet we think we know more about Horace than virtually any other Classical poet, save perhaps for Ovid (43 BC–AD 17/18) who, in thousands of lines of autobiographical self-revelation, neglected to mention precisely why he was banished from Rome in AD 8.

Among Classical authors, perhaps only Cicero (106–43 BC) left behind enough written information about himself to enable a modern scholar to put together a substantial biography.[1] A few of the Latin Fathers of the early Church did so as well, notably St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), who told us quite a bit about himself and left behind an enormous body of work. Yet there are holes even in his life story: his magnificent Confessions (AD 397–400) recounts his inner life and spiritual growth whilst leaving out many of the details that most of us try to include in a standard CV.

Scenes from the life of St Augustine of Hippo, by “The Master of Saint Augustine”, for a triptych produced in Bruges, c.1490 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Hostile Sources

Another problem for historians: sometimes we have next to no information on a given figure, beyond accusations, condemnations and/or tendentiously unfavourable presentations by hostile parties. For instance, much of what we know about the Athenian general Cleon, who died in 422 BC, comes from sources including Thucydides and Aristophanes, both of whom loathed him and considered him a coarse, unscrupulous demagogue. Evidently he was a formidable orator; but we have no written text for any of his speeches, only the words that were later put in his mouth by adversaries. Augustine turns out to be no less hostile to those whom he considered to be enemies of Christianity. His writings provide an important data mine of sorts for schismatic, heretical, blasphemous and/or profane works that no longer survive.

St Augustine’s Dispute with the Donatists, Charles-André van Loo, 1753 (Basilica of Our Lady of Victories, Paris, France).  

Augustine began composing his masterpiece The City of God after 24 August AD 410, when Alaric the Visigoth sacked the city of Rome. Throughout this work, Augustine stoutly defends Christianity against accusations that the rise of this religion was responsible for the decline of the Roman Empire. He also attacks the traditional beliefs and practices of the ‘pagans’, among whom he includes the writer Apuleius, a figure we think of today as a flamboyant Latin stylist with a flair for memorable imagery and a real genius for storytelling. To Augustine he was a magician, not on account of his bewitching prose, but because he quite literally practised witchcraft.

Books 8 and 9 of The City of God feature a sustained attack on Apuleius and his beliefs. Much of this focusses on Apuleius’ extant treatise De Deo Socratis (“On Socrates’ daemōn”), although the most interesting point of attack will be found in Chapter 19 of Book 8, where Augustine discusses Apuleius’ speech of self-defence against accusations that he practised magic. Augustine thinks he was definitely guilty, and develops his condemnation in some detail. In his eyes Apuleius is no comic novelist, but a sleazy, pathetic demon-worshipper.

All this comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who think of Apuleius mainly as a harmless (if sometimes scurrilous) entertainer. Was he really a witch? Whom should we trust on this matter, Apuleius or Augustine? Luckily we have the accused’s attempt to defend himself, so we can judge for ourselves as to who was telling the truth.

Portrait of Apuleius, detail of a (heavily-restored) late-antique ceiling painting in Augusta Treverorum, AD 330 (Bishop’s Palace Museum, Trier, Germany).

(Some of) The Life of Apuleius

Apuleius was born between AD 120 and 125 in Madauros, a Roman military colony in the province of Africa Proconsularis. A few of its ruins still survive, near the town of M’Daourouch (or Mdawrush) in Algeria. We don’t know when or where Apuleius died; most of our information about him comes from either his own writings or what Augustine wrote about him. 

As it happens, Augustine went to school in Madauros in the 360s, and seems to have devoured Apuleius’ work, which is the most original body of Latin literature to survive from the later Roman Empire (other than Augustine’s own vast output). Throughout the third and fourth centuries, Roman Africa turned out to be fertile ground for Latin writers, although the most important of these (other than Augustine) are Christian apologists who have nothing to tell us about Apuleius.

Lucius takes on human form, illuminated initial by Bartolomeo de’ Bartoli from a manuscript of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, c.1345 (Vatican Library MS Vat. Lat. 2194).

Scholars have long thought Apuleius’ first name was Lucius, because the narrator of his comic novel The Golden Ass is called Lucius, and the story seems somewhat autobiographical, as long as you ignore the part where Lucius is magically transformed into a donkey, and then spends half the book trying to turn back into a man, until he sees the Queen of Heaven in a vision and is told that he will return to human form, once he eats a garland of roses during a religious procession (provided he promises to devote his life to worshipping the goddess Isis). Also, The Golden Ass is an adaptation of a Greek novel said to be by Lucius of Patrae, who is the main character (and first-person narrator) of the story. This novel might not be the most reliable source for biographical information…

Apuleius spent his twenties as a professional student, roaming the great cities of the Mediterranean and picking up esoteric knowledge. He seems to have mastered literally every single ancient branch of learning from astronomy to zoology. Most of his writings are lost; the few that survive make clear just how erudite he was. His restless curiosity and playful imagination must have made him a spellbinding conversationalist: he loved to digress and ramble, and indulge in linguistic trickery; but he never became a bore. Not in his writings anyway. He was too observant, and too attentive to his audience.

Places that mattered to Apuleius within the Roman Empire of the 2nd century AD.

Apuleius the Sophist

In Apuleius’ time, people like him were in demand as entertainers. Philosophers and intellectuals, then known as ‘sophists’, could make a decent living wandering throughout the Roman Empire, lecturing to students and making public speeches on a wide variety of topics. Apuleius was obviously born to be a sophist. By the age of 35 he might not have had any other choice: he was running out of money fast. All that travel and education had exhausted his inheritance, and he could no longer afford to stick around Athens perfecting his knowledge of Greek philosophy.

Apuleius decided to go back home. He didn’t intend to stay for long; his ultimate destination was Alexandria in Egypt. As a cultural and intellectual centre Alexandria was well past its prime; but the city remained prosperous, and the legendary library and ‘Musaeum’ (or university) were still there, attracting patronage on the strength of scientific and scholarly achievements that were already centuries in the past. There was money to be made in Alexandria if you were a sophist – or so Apuleius thought. He never found out for certain, because he didn’t quite make it there in the end.

The Farnese Atlas, Roman marble copy of a bronze statue said to have originally stood in the Musaeum in Alexandria (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

A Warning to the Reader

The story that follows was taken directly from Apuleius’ Apologia, and is dizzyingly complex. To make it somewhat easier to follow, we have provided a list of the main characters, whose names will also be printed in boldface when they first appear in the narrative below. If you find any of this confusing, you will not be alone: Apuleius’ real life, by his account, was no less complicated by plot twists than his surviving fiction.

And now, the Dramatis Personae:

PUDENTILLA: a wealthy widow


AMICUS (deceased): Pudentilla’s husband, dead for thirteen years or more

SICINIUS (recently deceased): father of Amicus; father-in-law of Pudentilla

CLARUS: son of Sicinius, brother of Amicus; frustrated suitor to Pudentilla

AEMILIANUS: son of Sicinius, brother of Clarus and Amicus


PONTIANUS: elder son of Pudentilla; engaged to Herennia

PUDENS: younger son of Pudentilla


HERENNIUS RUFINUS: future father-in-law to Pontianus

HERENNIA: Herennius Rufinus’ daughter; fiancée of Pontianus


APULEIUS: a wandering scholar


Three women in theatrical masks, mosaic from the Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii, 1st cent. AD (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

A Matter of Inheritance

In the winter of AD 156/157, Apuleius arrived at Oea (modern Tripoli) and stayed with his friend Appius Quintianus to recover from the journey, which had all but wrecked his health. Whilst recuperating, he had a visit from his friend Pontianus, who had shared a flat with him in Athens. Latterly Pontianus had been living in Rome, but rushed home upon receiving a letter from his mother Pudentilla. It concerned the family fortune.

Pontianus’ grandfather Sicinius had just died. Sicinius had been his grandsons’ legal guardian for over thirteen years, ever since the death of his son Amicus, who was Pontianus’ father. At the time Pontianus was only ten or eleven; his younger brother Pudens was an infant. Sicinius had had little to do with his grandsons’ upbringing. Pudentilla raised the boys by herself; her husband’s family were more interested in their own inheritances.

Sicinius had wanted Pudentilla to remarry. There was no shortage of suitors: she was worth over four million sesterces – a substantial amount of money, especially in a provincial town where there wasn’t so much to spend it on. Sicinius preferred to keep that fortune in the family, and tried to force his daughter-in-law to marry her husband’s brother Clarus, threatening to disinherit his own grandsons if she refused to obey him.

The marriage (from the Rake’s Progress series of paintings), William Hogarth, 1732/35 (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, UK).

The threat worked, or looked like it did. Pudentilla gave in and signed a nuptial agreement with Clarus. In return, Sicinius fulfilled his side of the bargain and designated Pontianus and Pudens as his heirs, on condition that Pontianus act from the age of seventeen as his younger brother’s guardian. This was simply to relieve Sicinius of potential liabilities (not to mention duties like looking after Pudens).

Once the will was changed in her sons’ favour, Pudentilla started finding excuses to put off marrying Clarus. She managed to string him along until Sicinius’ death. It turned out that the nuptial agreement had a catch: Clarus couldn’t make Pudentilla marry him, nor could the rest of the family. She did want to marry again, though: according to her doctors, it was a matter of life and death.

The marriage settlement (from the Mariage à la Mode series of paintings), William Hogarth, 1743 (National Gallery, London, UK).

Health Issues

Some ancient medical theorists claimed that abstinence from sex could prove dangerous for a woman, or even fatal. After thirteen celibate years, Pudentilla had contracted a painful infection of the uterus, and fallen into a deep depression. Marrying Clarus was unlikely to cure her afflictions: he was all but impotent by this point. Even so, Clarus’ brother Aemilianus saw Pudentilla’s condition as the family’s best chance for getting her to fulfil the nuptial agreement at last. But she wouldn’t give in unless she had Pontianus’ consent. It would take a while to get it, she pointed out, now that he was in Rome, all the way over on the other side of the Mediterranean….

Pudentilla was obviously stalling, so Aemilianus decided to write his nephew an ingratiating letter to help speed up Clarus’ long-delayed marriage. Alas he didn’t have Pontianus’ address, so he sealed the letter and gave it to Pudentilla, presuming she would forward it along. She didn’t. She broke the seal and read it, and was appalled by the brazen attempt to influence her son behind her back.

The toilette (from the Mariage à la Mode series of paintings), William Hogarth, 1743 (National Gallery, London, UK).

Pudentilla wrote a letter of her own to beg Pontianus to let her find a new husband – anyone but Clarus. She reminded him of how she’d spent thirteen bored, lonely years as a widow, sacrificing her health as well as her happiness to protect her sons’ inheritance. Every eligible bachelor in the district had been after her for years, and she was tired of turning each one down. Now Sicinius was dead, and his money was in his grandsons’ hands, and Pontianus was ready for marriage himself, whilst Pudens was soon to take on the toga virilis (the white toga that was the Roman symbol of manhood). Surely Pudentilla could start receiving suitors again now, with her son’s blessing?

Any man Pudentilla married would be able to do as he wished with her fortune. If a future husband decided to cut Pontianus and Pudens out of the will, or spend all the money and leave the boys nothing to inherit, there would be no stopping him. Pontianus sailed home to prevent his mother’s doing anything rash.

Fresco of a woman from the Villa Arianna, Stabiae, 1st cent. AD (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

A Convenient Houseguest

On his arrival back in Oea, he found out that his old flatmate Apuleius was broke, single and without obvious professional prospects. A man like that could surely be trusted with money. Pontianus instantly decided whom he wanted as his new stepfather, and set about plotting to convince Apuleius to marry Pudentilla. That was how Apuleius later told the story anyway.

Apuleius wanted to leave for Alexandria as soon as possible. Pontianus thought his friend should wait. He hadn’t recovered from his journey yet, and this was the worst time of year to travel by land to Egypt. There were no roads, and the terrain between Oea and Alexandria was infested with snakes and wild animals. Also, the heat and humidity would soon be unbearable even for a healthy traveller. It made more sense for Apuleius to wait until next winter, when Pontianus happened to be planning on a trip in that direction too. Perhaps they could go to Alexandria together? In the meantime, Apuleius might be interested in staying with Pontianus and his mother for a little while, at Pudentilla’s villa by the sea.

Apuleius ended up as a houseguest for much longer than planned. His recuperation was unusually slow; also, Pontianus had drafted him in to helping Pudens with his studies. Unlike his brother, Pudens demonstrated little interest in cultivating his intellect, and resisted all attempts at being educated. At least Pudentilla came to appreciate, and even admire, Apuleius’ efforts to civilise her rowdy son, fruitless though they were. That was all part of Pontianus’ plan too (allegedly).

Apuleius claimed he was getting sick of tutoring, and wanted to get on with his career as a sophist. Pontianus decided to help him find a local speaking engagement. It took a while; at last Apuleius was booked to give a public lecture at the town hall towards the end of autumn. It went so well that he was offered honorary citizenship of Oea. When Apuleius was still on a high from all the audience applause, Pontianus found his moment, took his friend aside, and asked him to think about marrying Pudentilla.

Fresco of a man and woman from the Villa Boscoreale in Pompeii, 1st cent. AD (Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA).

A Tale as Old as Time

At first Apuleius refused the offer: he was five years younger than Pontianus’ mother, and they weren’t physically attracted to each other. All the same, a strong bond of affection had developed between them: they shared certain intellectual interests, and had spent much of the year discussing them. So Apuleius and Pudentilla soon agreed to marry, provided that their wedding took place after Pontianus’ own marriage; they would also have to wait for Pudens’ coming of age ceremony, to avoid potential legal problems with his inheritance. Meanwhile, there were other complications.

Pontianus’ future father-in-law Rufinus had managed to squander an inheritance worth over three million sesterces. Apuleius did not think much of Rufinus, later alleging (among other things) that he was the son of a fraudster, and that he had pimped out his own wife and daughter to help pay for a shamefully immoral lifestyle. Most of this must have been slander.

It was at least true that Rufinus had borrowed four hundred thousand sesterces for his daughter Herennia’s dowry from his creditors, since he was so short of cash. He must have expected to get at least some of that back from his son-in-law at some point: four hundred thousand sesterces sufficed to meet the entire property qualification for a Roman knight. When he found out that Pudentilla was engaged to a stranger, he panicked.

Rufinus had no leverage with Pudentilla, but he did have power over Pontianus, who was hopelessly in love with Herennia, so he threatened to call off his daughter’s wedding unless Apuleius’ marriage was stopped. Pontianus hurried to his mother and tried to convince her that Apuleius might not be such a good husband after all. She refused to listen, and scolded her son for his weakness. Pontianus reported her answer back to Rufinus, who swore he would kill Apuleius with his bare hands.

Scene of a duel from a mosaic floor in the Roman Villa at Nennig, Germany, 3rd cent. AD.

Pudentilla foresaw danger, and retreated to the country. She sent her son a bitterly angry letter in Greek. It included the lines:

βουλομένην γάρ με δι᾽ ἃς εἶπον αἰτίας γαμηθῆναι, αὐτὸς ἔπεισας τοῦτον ἀντὶ πάντων αἱρεῖσθαι, θαυμάζων τὸν ἄνδρα καὶ σπουδάζων αὐτὸν οἰκεῖον ὑμῖν δι᾽ ἐμοῦ ποιεῖσθαι. νῦν δὲ ὡς κακήγοροι ἡμῶν κακοήθεις σε ἀναπείθουσιν, αἰφνίδιον ἐγένετο Ἀπολέϊος μάγος, καὶ ἐγὼ μεμάγευμαι ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐρῶ. ἐλθὲ τοίνυν πρὸς ἐμέ, ἕως ἔτι σωφρονῶ. (Apologia 83)

I wanted to get married for the reasons I’d said. You yourself persuaded me to choose [Apuleius] over anyone else, since you admired the fellow and wanted to make him a member of our family through me. But now that our accusers maliciously convince you otherwise, that Apuleius has suddenly become a magician, and I have been bewitched by him and now love him. Come see me then, whilst I’m still in my right mind.

Pontianus was crushed. He thought his mother’s stubbornness had lost him his bride-to-be. Rufinus paraded his daughter’s now-ex-fiancé through the town square to show everyone how the poor wretch was beside himself with grief, and proceeded to trumpet a selective quotation from Pudentilla’s letter:

Apuleius [is] a magician, and I have been bewitched by him and now love him. Come see me then, whilst I’m still in my right mind.

Apuleius, was widely accused of seducing Pudentilla to defraud her of her money. But he was craftier than his opponents, and managed to slip out of town and sign a marriage contract with Pudentilla at her country house. At a stroke, Pontianus and Pudens had become Apuleius’ stepsons.

Fresco of Perseus and Andromeda from the villa at Boscotrecase, Italy, late 1st cent. BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

The Stepfather

Apuleius’ first move as a stepfather was to grant his stepsons an agricultural estate, along with a grand town house, four hundred slaves, and a staggering quantity of produce and livestock. The total value was in the hundreds of thousands of sesterces, not the millions; still, Pontianus and Pudens were temporarily reassured of Apuleius’ good intentions. He’d accepted a dowry from his wife worth three hundred thousand sesterces – less than half of what he’d given his stepsons in land and commodities. Apuleius wouldn’t even be able to keep any of it: all the dowry money would be split between Pontianus and Pudens when their mother died.

When news spread of Apuleius’ generosity to his stepsons, public opinion turned against Rufinus, who now had no choice but to let Herennia marry Pontianus if he wanted to save face. But the marriage didn’t last very long: after a few months, Pontianus left for Carthage on a business trip and died on the way back, under circumstances which were never fully explained. He left Herennia nothing in his will; all his property reverted to Pudentilla, and her new husband.

Rufinus suspected Apuleius of being somehow responsible for Pontianus’ death. He persuaded Pudens to leave his mother and new stepfather and live with Aemilianus, who had an interest in winning custody of his nephew: as guardian, he would have control over Pudens’ properties until he came of age. To sweeten his offer of a change of scenery, Aemilianus promised to end Pudens’ education, if he agreed to move in with him.

Fresco of a banquet from the House of the Triclinium, Pompeii, 1st cent. AD (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

The incentive worked: Pudens left his mother’s house; soon the lad was out of college and spending his time in taverns and brothels whilst his uncle took charge of his affairs. Now Apuleius and Pudentilla were totally isolated from the rest of the family.

On Rufinus’ advice, Aemilianus publicly accused Apuleius of Pontianus’ murder. Apuleius challenged him to bring the matter to court. Aemilianus and his lawyers realised that they would never be able to secure a conviction: there was too little evidence. They dropped the charge and settled on a formal denunciation against Apuleius, alleging that he had used black magic to seduce Pudentilla, with the intention of defrauding Pudens of his rightful inheritance. If convicted, Apuleius could face exile, or even death; all depended on the discretion of the presiding magistrate.

The court, William Hogarth, 1758 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK).

His Day in Court

Unlike Aemilianus, Apuleius had no need of lawyers to argue his case. The Apologia, his defence of himself, is the only forensic speech to survive from the five centuries of imperial Rome. As with Cicero’s prosecutions and defences from the last period of the Roman Republic, Apuleius’ speech can be enjoyed simply as literature, for the sheer delight of watching a master rhetorician exercise his skill with words at someone else’s expense. Yet there is something disturbing about it.

The Apologia informs the reader, not merely about the facts of this case, but on a wide range of topics, from ancient toothpaste and the conventions of Roman love poetry to the lives and moral principles of Greek philosophers, and the finer points of ichthyology. All in the service of ridiculing Aemilianus’ ludicrous charges. In its current form this speech would have taken around three hours to deliver, and yet Apuleius manages to captivate the reader’s attention all the way through. He is manifestly a champion talker; but he dances so ingeniously around the substance of the accusations against him that one cannot help suspecting his guilt.

To the disinterested observer, Apuleius looks remarkably like a charming, penniless adventurer who managed to outsmart a wealthy widow and her family and win control of a comfortable fortune. The one person who could have vouched for his honourable intentions, his old friend Pontianus, was dead. The Apologia provides explanations for all the prosecution’s minor complaints: the erotic poems Apuleius sent to Pudentilla; his hasty marriage; his unsuitability as a husband; his sudden extravagance when he gained control over his wife’s property; and his peculiar behaviour when he arrived in Oea. But on the major charges, there are no straight answers in plain language.

Allegory of Rhetoric, Laurent de La Hyre, c.1650 (priv. coll.).

There’s Always an Explanation

The prosecution accused Apuleius of seeking out exotic sea creatures to use as ingredients in an aphrodisiac. He retorts that he sought to dissect them as part of his scientific research, then spends over half an hour of a three-hour speech on a learned rumination about fish whilst avoiding the question of whether he used any to manufacture a love potion.

As to Aemilianus’ suspicion that he induced a slave to collapse in a dead faint: Apuleius was simply treating the boy for epilepsy, he says. Apparently his knowledge of medical science was unparalleled in Oea; in fact, another supposed victim of his enchantment had actually been brought to him by a doctor for examination. It was not Apuleius’ fault that his patients kept passing out.

Was he testing poisons on his slaves? After all, Pontianus’ sudden offstage death was never explained.

Physician binding a patient’s head, illustration in a 13th-cent. manuscript of medical texts attributed to “Pseudo-Apuleius” (among others) (Wellcome Collection, London, UK).

In general, Apuleius does little to dispel the impression that his philosophical and scientific projects seem like either complicated seduction tactics or attempts at black magic (or both). He might have been right to laugh at his wife’s in-laws for conflating modern science with witchcraft. Still, Apuleius’ experiments are not his only activities that demand explanation.

The Apologia conspicuously fails to address the details of a third-party deposition alleging that Apuleius and his friend Appius Quintianus were caught conducting magical ceremonies together at midnight. Also, the sinister-looking idol that Apuleius commissioned from a local woodcarver might indeed have been a religious statuette of the messenger god Mercury, and not a wooden skeleton as the prosecution claimed. But of course, the Romans associated Mercury with trickery, eloquence, magic and theft.

The inspection (depicting mercury’s use in the treatment of syphilis, from the Mariage à la Mode series of paintings), William Hogarth, 1743 (National Gallery, London, UK).

Uses of Snobbery

Apuleius was tried in a judicial hearing presided over by the proconsul of the province. His basic defensive strategy was to ingratiate himself with the magistrate and remind him that they were members of the same ruling caste, even if Apuleius was the mere son of a provincial duumvir. Still, they might have been the only educated men in the room, unless any of the proconsul’s advisors were present. In the Apologia, Apuleius constantly draws a distinction between decent, cultured Roman citizens (Apuleius, Pudentilla, the judge) and the ignorant, backwards local gentry. This is where his self-defence turns unpleasant.

Nobody knows whether Apuleius was descended from the Roman soldiers who had settled in Africa Proconsularis during the 70s and 80s AD. He might have come instead from the indigenous nobility. Either way he almost certainly grew up speaking Punic, the local language, and had to learn his Latin at school. Though even if Latin wasn’t his mother tongue, it became his first language, and he grew proud of how well he spoke it. His superior command of Latin style and diction helped mitigate any anxieties about coming from the provinces rather than the imperial capital. It also gave him an excuse to think himself better than his fellow north Africans.

Fresco of Theseus after his victory over the Minotaur, from the house of M. Gavius Rufus in Pompeii, 1st cent. AD (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Apuleius’ best jokes in the Apologia are all at the expense of Aemilianus, Rufinus and Pudens, who are presented as coarse, greedy, illiterate, Punic-speaking drunks. The Romans regarded Punic as a barbaric peasant tongue, rather than a language with a long history of its own. Apuleius brutally derides his stepson Pudens for his inability to communicate fluently in Latin. Yet he saves his most vicious insults for Aemilianus, whom he condemns as an ugly yokel from an impoverished village called Zarath. He sneers at the very name “Zarath”, which is obviously un-Roman, and thus intrinsically inferior in the eyes of a Roman gentleman like Apuleius.

The depth of self-loathing here is difficult to gauge; though one wonders whether the author’s slippery identity games, here and in The Golden Ass, might reflect a profound confusion about who he might be.

Byzantine mosaic illustrating a scene from The Golden Ass (Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul, Turkey).

The Aftermath

In the absence of documentary evidence, it seems safe to assume that Apuleius won his case; after all, had he been convicted he would not have triumphantly published his defence speech. Augustine assumes (City of God 8.19) that he was acquitted of all charges, albeit by non-Christian authorities. Yet his condemnation of Apuleius seems difficult to disprove, even if you reject Augustine’s own beliefs. Apuleius defends himself, not like a straightforward, plainspoken defender of the truth, but a crooked, pettifogging, ambulance-chasing shyster – the sort you want on your side when you wake up one morning in a prison cell with a terrible hangover and no idea of how you got there..

The rest of Apuleius’ career remains shrouded in mystery. He was elected to a prestigious priesthood in the 160s, and possibly became a member of the Senate in Carthage; statues of him could be seen all over Africa Proconsularis. After that he disappears from the record.

At least we know that he remained a prominent literary figure. An anthology of rhetorical highlights from his speeches, the Florida, was collected after his death; his Plato-inspired treatise on demonology De deo Socratis circulated widely in antiquity even before Saint Augustine drew attention to it in his City of God. Above all there is The Golden Ass, which was probably composed at some point in the 170s, and has inspired countless other writers since at least the time of Augustine.[2]

Lucius in the form of a donkey, listening to the story told by the old woman (one of a series of engravings by various artists illustrating Apuleius’ story of Cupid and Psyche, in Books 4-6 of The Golden Ass), mid-16th cent.

Repudiated by a Saint

As noted above, Apuleius haunted Augustine, whose Confessions reads like an anti-Golden Ass – a complete repudiation of Apuleius’ guiltless, easy-going, worldly-wise libertinism and sincere faith in pagan gods (not to mention his grandly baroque sentences). Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a louche man-about-town just as Apuleius seems to have been. The very thought of his past life repelled him, particularly after he became a bishop. In the eyes of his less Christian modern commentators, he was obsessed by his own sins. Yet he never quite seemed to escape Apuleius’ shadow in some ways.

Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries Apuleius was renowned throughout Roman Africa, not as a novelist, orator or philosophical writer, but as a powerful miracle-worker. Augustine scorned this folk legend and felt the need to attack it; though instead of denouncing Apuleius as a practitioner of black magic, he mocked him for being such a feeble wizard that he was forced to lie about his magical powers when put on trial for witchcraft. Far from being a miracle-worker, he couldn’t even use his dark arts to get a job.

The triumph of St Augustine, Claudio Coello, 1664 (Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain).

Augustine’s demolition job finished off Apuleius’ reputation as a magician, if not as a writer. The saint remained in awe of his former literary hero, and never found fault with his intelligence, learning or rhetorical prowess. But Apuleius wasn’t a Christian, so he had to be contradicted about everything that mattered most to Augustine: philosophy, theology, morality, the nature of truth. He really must have been a magician. How else could he cast such a powerful spell over the early church’s greatest apologist, two hundred years after his own death?

Apuleius could turn the most unpromising material – a philosophical treatise, an after-dinner speech, a legal defence – into an engrossing literary performance. He treated every subject as though it featured in a comic novel; hence the eccentrically colourful, unpredictable quality of his best work. He couldn’t help spinning stories: it was a compulsion. Everything had to turn into an anecdote. Apuleius had the gifts, not of a magician, but a con artist. This is his secret; even when you figure it out you still can’t stop reading. He’s too good at it.

The laughing jester, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (attrib.), c.1500 (Davis Museum at Wellesley College, MA, USA).

Final Verdict

Guilty as charged. But it’s too late to burn the witch now.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here, on the pleasures of Poussin here, and on Neo-Latin syphilis here.

Further Reading

Apuleius’ major works are easily found in the Loeb Classical Library; the 2017 edition of the Apologia, Florida and De Deo Socratis (edited and translated by Christopher P. Jones) has an excellent introductory bibliography, and seems by far the best starting-point for those interested in Apuleius as a rhetorician. His syntax and grammar are rarely a problem once you get the hang of his style; the vocabulary is often eccentric, but if you can handle Plautus’ Latin, Apuleius’ shouldn’t prove daunting.

St Augustine’s City of God is enormous; you shouldn’t tackle it until and unless you have gone through a fair bit of classical Latin, and have not yet forgotten all your Roman history. But if you only want to see how Augustine deals with Apuleius, then look for the 2013 Aris and Phillips edition of Books 8 and 9, with commentary and translation by the late P.G. Walsh (who sadly did not live to complete his bilingual edition of the entire City of God).


1 With Julius Caesar the most interesting stories are surely the ones that he himself didn’t bother to commit to the page…
2 Connoisseurs of twentieth-century English literature and experts in postcolonial theory may by interested to know that The Golden Ass turns out to be the most important common influence shared by the novelists Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul. Section 5 of Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses features a pedantic ex-schoolmaster from Bangladesh who not only refers (somewhat inaccurately) to Apuleius and his novel, but also mentions the accusations of witchcraft. Naipaul, in his last great book A Writer’s People (2007), discusses The Golden Ass warmly and at some length. Rushdie has never known enough Latin to be able to read a classical text unaided; whereas Naipaul kept up the habit throughout his life of struggling through Roman literature in Loeb Classical Library editions, and at least tried to glance at the Latin on every page.