Discussion Post: The Golden Ass

July 15, 2010 at 12:00 am 1 comment

Welcome to another of LT’s patented Classics Challenge discussion posts! Feel free to participate in discussion in the comments below or at your own blog and remember that anyone who does participate is entered in a drawing for a completely book-lustful Penguin Clothbound Classic.

Next week, we’ll be trying out some Colette (click here for the full list of books we will be reading this summer), but for now we’re looking at Apuleius’ The Golden Ass:

This book is the only complete novel to survive antiquity, something which sounds pretty cool until you realize these things were almost entirely decided by chance rather than literary merit or popularity. Despite this, The Golden Ass is still uniquely useful to modern scholars looking at the period. Discuss!

Beyond the obvious things this book tells us (i.e. what Romans in the early centuries of the common era enjoyed reading in terms of format, story, and style), this book is a veritable goldmine of source material for cultural customs and societal norms in the Roman Empire at the time it was written. Everything Apuleius writes of as just mundane detail (how mills were run, how marriages functioned, how people traveled from A to B, etc.) is super-helpful for historians seeking to learn more about daily life in the period. Like Wharton novels of the 19th century, the plot may not help us in piecing together what the time period was like, but the things that the author unintentionally included as just incidentals are often the most valuable in terms of using the novel as a primary source document. The Golden Ass is, in short, incidental-rich!

The story, as you may have noticed, takes a weird turn in the final book (XI). Do you think there is a reason Apuleius felt compelled to temper his otherwise romping story with a more somber religious ending? And does his decision have anything to do with modern-day claims that Book XI is actually autobiographical?

If Book XI is autobiographical, that explains a lot. The whole story has been compared to Homer’s Odyssey because the protagonist goes through all kinds of adventures and danger to eventually come home and find himself. Therefore, I was assuming that Lucius would eventually be made human again (how hard can it really be to find a rose to eat?!) and then return to Fotis and live happily ever after. Imagine my surprise when he was instead inducted into the mysteries of Isis and became a priest!

I think the argument that the final book is autobiographical makes this whole swerve make much more sense. It does not fit in with the rest of the novel (unless the rest of the novel is taken as illustrating various sins from which Lucius learns he must retire from and therefore become a priest) in tone or content, so I hope it was just Apuleius pointing out to his own detractors that he did the correct thing in also becoming a priest. Otherwise, there’s really no excuse for it!

What do you make of the various romantic relationships portrayed in the book, notably Lucius and Fotis? What is Apuleius trying to say about these bonds and what can we take away from his portrayals of the general treatment of women by men and of men by women?

The treatment of women was, to me, actually the most interesting part of The Golden Ass, particularly in the relationship between Lucius and Fotis. The fact that Lucius blames Fotis for his assification after he himself forced her to turn him into something else is just one example of how women get blamed for everything in this book. In almost all cases, women are shown as being somehow two-faced or untrustworthy. Meanwhile, men are either violent or stupid, but always blameless. I think the blame placed on women for a whole litany of things was most interesting from a scholarly perspective and most demoralizing from an anachronistically feminist one!

Favorite Part: The lengthy and random retelling of “Cupid and Psyche” in the middle. I’ve always liked that story for some reason (despite the blame being placed on Psyche–seriously, Cupid, you really needed to hide yourself? Take some blame, buddy.).

Least Favorite Part: The rest of the book? I wasn’t particularly wowed by it. Since Lucius spends most of the book as an ass, he doesn’t have any agency, so the narrative just plodded along as different people bought and mistreated him. Oh yeah, and he blamed Fotis every time something bad happened to him.

Tell me your thoughts below! I’m sorry mine were not super-well-formed, this book was just kind of bleh to me so I didn’t feel too passionately one way or the other about it. Do you disagree? Tell on!


Entry filed under: Classics, LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Scott Avery  |  March 21, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    LOVED this book, assume you read the superlative Robert Graves’ translation?


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