Monday, October 3, 2011

The Golden Ass and the Fall of the Roman Empire

I am not a historian and my knowledge of Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass is very thin indeed. I know that he was a Roman citizen from north Africa (Algeria or thereabouts) and that Latin was not his first language. He lived between 125 and 180 AD (or CE). He studied philosophy in Carthage and Athens. His family was wealthy and Apuleius was a priest in several cults and widely traveled as an adult. He was interested in magic, religion, law and politics. I get all of this from the introduction to my copy of The Golden Ass. I don't know how accurate it is.

Anyway, this weekend I finished Apuleius' novel (the only surviving novel-length story from the Roman empire). The final chapter is a bit dull and over-long, being Lucius' metamorphosis back from an ass to a man (which is not a spoiler because all through the narrative Lucius refers to "when I was an ass" and "before I was transformed back to a man") when Isis grants his prayer for release, and his subsequent indoctrination into the mysteries of the cults of Isis and Osiris. More on that in a minute.

The strengths of The Golden Ass are many: Apuleius is funny and insightful into the wickedness of man, his language is colorful and surprising (and that's not just Jack Lindsay's translation; Lindsay in the introduction gives plenty of examples (in Latin) of Apuleius' word games, his coining of new terms, his alliteration and use of cognates, etc), and while the frame story of Lucius-turned-into-an-ass is amusing by itself, the stories-within-the-story are also good stuff. The centerpiece of the narrative is a long version of "Psyche and Cupid" that served as inspiration for too many later authors to list.

The Golden Ass is a picaresque novel that points mostly at the decline of the Roman empire, illustrating how the local Roman governments have become ineffective and corrupt as banditry goes unchecked and populations descend into barbarity. What also interested me, especially in the otherwise dull final chapter, is how the local deities, especially those of ancient Egypt, are more important than any of the official Roman gods. The provinces, by the latter half of the second century at least, were all going native again. This sort of stuff fascinates me in first-hand historical accounts, and it's all by the way from Apuleius. Possibly I'm only fascinated by this because I lack any real historical knowledge of the era.

Anyway, I'm done with Apuleius and Lucius and declared myself happy last night to be free to return to Mr Chekhov. I'm reading "The Party" right now. It's excellent. When I get my hands on Illustrious House of Ramires, I'll lay Mr Chekhov aside for a bit.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Apuleius is funny, strange, and revealing. I think the Relihan translation reads most smoothly.
    Just a picky thing, but Becket's work is titled "The Unnamable", not "The Unnamed", unless you are reading it in French, in which case the difference is just semantic. Enjoy it!