Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 180 CE) was a Latin-language prose writer. He was a Numidian Berber and lived under the Roman Empire. He studied Platonist philosophy in Athens; travelled to Italy, Asia Minor and Egypt; and was an initiate in the Mysteries. His most famous work is the Metamorphoses, otherwise known as The Golden Ass.
Apuleius was born in Madaurus (now M'Daourouch, Algeria), a Roman colony in Numidia on the North African coast, bordering Gaetulia, and he described himself as "half-Numidian half-Gaetulian." As to his first name, no praenomen is given in any ancient source; late-medieval manuscripts began the tradition of calling him Lucius from the name of the hero of his novel. Details regarding his life come mostly from his defense speech (Apology) and his work Florida, which consists of snippets taken from some of his best speeches.
His father was a provincial magistrate who bequeathed, at his death, the sum of nearly two millions of sesterces to his two sons. Apuleius studied with a master at Carthage (where he later settled) and later at Athens, where he studied Platonist philosophy among other subjects. He subsequently went to Rome to study Latin rhetoric. He also travelled extensively in Asia Minor and Egypt, studying philosophy and religion.
Apuleius was an initiate in several mysteries, including the Dionysian mysteries. He became a hierophant of Aesculapius and, according to Augustine, sacerdos provinciae Africae (i. e. priest of the province of Carthage).
Not long after his return home he set out upon a new journey to Alexandria. On his way there he was taken ill at the town of Oea (modern-day Tripoli) and was hospitably received into the house of Sicinius Pontianus, with whom he had been friends when he had studied in Athens.
The mother of Pontianus, Pudentilla, was a very rich widow. With her son's consent – indeed encouragement – Apuleius agreed to marry her. But then Pontianus ‘indignant that Pudentilla's wealth should pass out of the family’, instigated a family plot to impeach Apuleius upon the charge that he had gained the affections of Pudentilla by ‘charms and magic spells’.
The case was heard at Sabratha, near Tripoli, c. 158 CE, before Claudius Maximus, proconsul of Africa. The spirited and triumphant defence spoken by Apuleius is still extant. This is known as the Apologia (A Discourse on Magic).
The Golden Ass (Asinus Aureus) or Metamorphoses is the only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety. It is an 'imaginative, irreverent, and amusing work' that relates the adventures of one Lucius, who experiments with magic and is accidentally turned into an ass. In this guise he hears and sees many unusual things, until escaping from his predicament in a rather unexpected way.
Most people seem to believe that this is a work of fiction, but I think Apuleius was practising shape shifting, got it wrong and decided to capitalise on his mistakes by writing a funny story – such is the way with jesters and magicians.
The Metamorphoses ends with the (once again human) hero, Lucius, eager to be initiated into the mystery cult of Isis; he abstains from forbidden foods, bathes and purifies himself. He is introduced to the Navigium Isidis. Then the secrets of the cult's books are explained to him, and further secrets revealed before going through the process of initiation which involves a trial by the elements in a journey to the underworld. Lucius is then asked to seek initiation into the cult of Osiris in Rome, and eventually is initiated into the pastophoroi—a group of priests that serves Isis and Osiris.
Although the real ceremonies associated with the Mysteries are never explained or spoken of, as they are intended to remain ‘a mystery’ to all but the candidates themselves, Apuleius does at least provide useful glimpses into the processes and effects of the process.
Of his subsequent career we know little. Judging from the many works of which he was author, he must have devoted himself assiduously to literature. He died relatively young – aged just 55.
His main works are:
- Apologia (A Discourse on Magic). Apuleius' courtroom defense.
- Florida. A compilation of twenty-three extracts from his various speeches and lectures.
- On Plato and his Doctrine. An outline in two books of Plato's physics and ethics, preceded by a life of Plato
- De Deo Socratis (On the God of Socrates). A work on the existence and nature of daemons, - Higher spirits It contains a passage explaining the relationship between gods and kings and is the first recorded occurrence of the proverb "familiarity breeds contempt"
parit enim conversatio contemptum, raritas conciliat admirationem
(familiarity breeds contempt, rarity brings admiration)
- On the Universe. This Latin translation of the work De Mundo is probably by Apuleius.
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