Apuleius Unbridled

This 16th-century fresco by an unknown artist depicts a scene from Metamorphoses, better known as the Golden Ass—a rollicking novel whose barbed critique of the Roman Empire has lost none of its edge over the millennia.

Professor Sonia Sabnis reads The Golden Ass with a fresh eye.

By Bill Donahue
Sonia Sabnis

Professor Sonia Sabnis
Photo by Leah Nash

So this dude named Lucius fools around with magic and (check it out, yo!) turns himself into a donkey.  As he wanders through the boondocks, he keeps hearing weird stories—a randy witch who transforms men into animals, thieves who try to sell a young bride to a brothel, a frog that jumps out of a dog’s mouth. Lucius finally turns back into a man, only to be completely duped by this goofy religious cult, which suckers Homeboy out of all the cash lining his sorry pockets.

The author of this outlandish tale, written in the second century, is a disheveled street wiseman named Apuleius—a sort of second-century Bob Dylan. His wry barbs at the indolent Roman gentry are so well aimed that we can safely assume, even in the absence of photographs, that Apuleius had rock star charisma.

Or at least that is, roughly speaking, the considered opinion of professor Sonia Sabnis [classics 2006–], an Apuleius scholar who earned her PhD from University of California, Berkeley. As Sabnis sees it, Apuleius was writing when the fatted Roman Empire was, like today’s America, “highly stratified and obsessed with appearances and absurd spectacles.” Just as today’s Americans revel in celebrity gossip and reality TV shows like Biggest Loser, the Roman elite honed a blood thirst for gladiatorial games. Apuleius took a shank to their inflated egos, and Sabnis is following suit with her own sharp, iconoclastic critique. 

When she presented a paper at the 2011 meeting of the American Philological Association, she took issue with the stodgy archaisms that abound in The Golden Ass translations used by today’s college students—“verily,” for instance, and “forsooth.” In that paper, she celebrates the “innovation of Apuleius’s language in combination with the colloquialism and humor of his storytelling.” She zeroes in on one of Apuleius’s favorite adverbs, prorsus, which, despite more than two millennia of Latin scholarship, still eludes definition. Sabnis suggested that prorsus might be compared to the pause word “like” popularized by, like, you know, Valley Girls. She shows how both John Arthur Hanson, the Princeton professor behind a popular 1989 translation, and she herself render one sentence uttered by a young nobleman, Tlepolemus, who, disguised as a bandit, voices a boast to a band of thieves. The sentence is “totamque prorsus deuastaui Macedoniam.

Hanson: “I laid waste the whole of Macedonia.”

Sabnis: “I wasted like all of Macedonia.”

Sabnis points out that the English word “like” is an intensifier used to lay extra stress on what follows—and argues that the word fits in Tlepolemus’s mouth because he is “trying to ingratiate himself to a robber band by mimicking the solemn heroization and amplification that they use when describing their feats of banditry on the margins of society.” Dude’s trying to sound like he’s got some street, in other words; he’s trying to fit in.

Later, Sabnis discusses a passage in which an old woman is mocking—and also quoting—a young bride, in hopes of making the lass seem like an airhead. The old woman says, “se nunc maxime prorsus.” P.G. Walsh, a distinguished Scottish classicist, renders the sentence, “She kept repeating that now all was up with her.” And Sabnis? “She kept saying that she was now like totally dead.”

The Golden Ass (or, to use the book’s Latin name, The Metamorphoses) has made frequent appearances in Humanities 110 since at least 1990 and will return to the syllabus in spring 2014. “The book has a lot of intellectual depth,” explains professor Wally Englert [classics 1981–]. “It references the ancient Egyptians, and it references Plato and Virgil. It’s a great way to end the course—in The Golden Ass, students can see reflections of the earlier things they’ve read.”

No one could be happier about The Golden Ass’s comeback than Sabnis, who has spent much of her career studying the book—and also reveling in the subversive bent of its author. “Apuleius was from a fairly elite family,” she explains, “but he wasn’t from Rome. He was from North Africa. He had an outsider’s perspective, and his characters aren’t Roman noblemen.” No, in The Golden Ass, rural Greek women and slaves play starring roles, and we get the inside story from a lowly donkey. Lucius spends most of the book as an ass—and as such, he plays a sort of undercover reporter, spying on Roman citizens in their least gracious moments. They swap husbands and wives and engage in lurid trysts. They party like it’s spring break at Daytona Beach. They beat their animals and enlist them to perform in sex shows. One wealthy chucklehead even serves Lucius honeyed wine and hires a stableman to teach him silly tricks—never mind that he’s a donkey.

As Sabnis sees it, Apuleius is “resisting the Roman Empire through storytelling.” Her dissertation, “Storytelling Slaves and Narrative Resistance in Apuleius,” considers how slaves assert their voices in an unfair, hierarchical Roman society. In a subsequent paper on Florida 6, Apuleius’ meditation on India, Sabnis credits the ancient author with a cultural sensitivity that eluded most Roman chroniclers. As she tells it, Apuleius discusses the Indian allures that mesmerized many Romans—“enormous elephants, dusky inhabitants, and a majestic river”—but then goes on to add that he is bored hearing about such things, given that they exist in Africa as well. Apuleius turns ironic when he says that India is procul a nobis, meaning “far from us,” and, Sabnis says, he points up the “severe limitations” of his contemporaries, who tended to regard India as a sort of jasmine-scented amusement park. 

Is she a fan? Is she smitten? Well, consider Sabnis’ favorite necklace, which is a gold-plated donkey with the letters ASS stamped on it. At Reed, Sabnis’s trademark is her “Zidane lecture,” in which she compares Apuleius to Zinedine Zidane, the dashing Egyptian-born soccer star who, while playing for France in the 2006 World Cup final, famously head butted an Italian defender, earning himself an ejection and (ultimately) a five-meter-high bronze statue in Paris. “Just as Apuleius is resisting the Roman Empire,” Sabnis reasons, “Zidane is resisting the Italians.”