Apuleius Unbridled

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

By Bill Donahue | June 1, 2013

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.”

Sabnis’ passion for Apuleius would have been hard to predict 20-odd years ago when she first encountered Latin as an eighth grader in Southern California. Then, she was drawn to the puzzle the language presented—to “the challenge of doing the grammar in a way that balanced.” Latin was a dead language to her, and it didn’t come alive, really, until, as a junior at Columbia University, she spent a semester in Rome, where suddenly the wonders of the ancient world were all around her, as taxis and Vespas spritzed about in the streets. She went to restaurants and ate in grotto-like basements where the brickwork was a remnant from the Theatre of Pompey, completed in 55 BC. She saw the Norwegian folk pop duo, the Kings of Convenience, play amid the ruins of Ostia, an old Roman harbor town. “I was in a place that had never not been a Roman city,” she remembers, with delight. “There are layers and layers of history in Rome, and you have to interact with all of them.” Sabnis began realizing that being a classical scholar was all about connecting the ancient to the modern. She asked herself, “Why would I ever want to do anything else?”

Eventually, as her Latin evolved, Sabnis came to recognize that Apuleius is like, say, James Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov, a nimble trickster with language—so deft that he can load brief phrases with political satire. When Lucius shambles into the barn as a donkey, for instance, Apuleius ironically gives him highfalutin airs, so that he expects loca lautia—that is, the red carpet treatment reserved for Roman noblemen. As Lucius lasciviously eyes a comely slave maiden stirring a pot, Apuleius describes him as obstupui, or stupefied, thereby making a sarcastic allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, wherein the mighty hero gazes obstupui upon the fall of Troy.

Readers don’t need to understand the references to catch the drift. “He’s offering a critique,” Sabnis says, “but you don’t have to give it deep thought. It’s light entertainment.” The wry mix of the satirical and the sublime sings to Sabnis. “Well,” she says, “I grew up in the ’80s, in front of the television.” She herself has a knack for wordplay. In the photo on her Reed website, she clutches a small placard reading, “LAETABERIS,” which is Latin for “You shall rejoice.” Follow the link to Sabnis’ personal website, and you’ll find “something I did when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation”: a small drama that Sabnis created by moving plastic figurines around on her desk and snapping photos. We see the Belgian cartoon hero, Tintin, the boy reporter, cowering inside a clay lamp. He is attacked by two Swiss knights bearing battle-axes, only to be later saved by a gaunt, almond-eyed space alien. “Bravo!” Sabnis writes in a caption. “But how was the clay lamp mixed up in all of this?”

Spurious? Well, for centuries, many belletrists regarded The Golden Ass itself as throwaway—as nothing but an amusing donkey romp through the Greek countryside. But then in 1985, John J. Winkler, a Stanford professor and erstwhile Benedictine monk, attacked that reading with his book, Auctor and Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius. Winkler called The Golden Ass “a philosophical comedy about religious knowledge”—and also described the book as a detective novel challenging the reader with “hermeneutic entertainment.” He explained that 60% of the text consists of 15 tales that Lucius, the narrator, pastes in while taking breaks from his own asinine autobiography. There is, for instance, a story a baker tells about an adulterous wife and a long fable that an old woman tells about a love affair between the god Cupid and a mortal girl named Psyche. All of these stories—indeed the whole of The Golden Ass—is shrouded, Winkler feels, in complexity. We don’t know how credible the storytellers are, or what their agendas are, and we need to read as gumshoes might. We need to be discerning from the very moment, a few lines into the prologue, when Apuleius signals that we’re stepping into a swamp of ambiguity. “Quis ile?” he asks before introducing Lucius. “Who’s speaking?”

At a recent conference of her Latin 312 class, Sabnis spoke of how easily Psyche enters the underworld: “She just walks right in, as compared to Virgil’s Aeneas, who has great difficulty getting into the underworld. You can read Psyche’s story as a dream or as allegory. It’s up to the reader.” One student said, “I’m reminded of Augustine, who says that reading Scripture is like a puzzle.”

Many of Sabnis’ students diverge from her take on The Golden Ass, however, to embrace the book as a growing-up story and Lucius as a sort of ancient world big brother to Holden Caulfield. “Lucius’ curiosity accompanies him throughout his journey, even when times are most difficult and dismal,” Brian Urrutia ’09 wrote in a paper for Sabnis. “Is this so unlike a student at Reed?” Helen Spencer-Wallace ’14, who is readying to write her junior qualifying paper on The Golden Ass, is meanwhile intrigued by how Lucius, a recent college grad and budding professional, negotiates the pressure to conform. “Everyone has to appear to conform, and then not conform,” she says. “Lucius is figuring out how to do that.”

At the end of The Golden Ass, Lucius seems to conform completely. The goddess Isis metamorphoses the donkey Lucius back into a man—and then insists that, in exchange, “All the remaining days of your life must be dedicated to me.” Lucius lets himself be led, sheep-like, to the temple, and when he steps inside, to encounter, within “the secret recesses,” a stack of sacred texts, he’s all gaga, reveling over the books’ “unknown characters.”

If Apuleius left it at that, we might take him at face value. But no, he begins to lay the whole reverence shtick on with a trowel, describing the books’ “hierographically painted animals” and their “wreathed and twisted letters with tails that twirled like wheels or spiraled together like the vine tendrils, so that it was altogether impossible for any peeping profane to comprehend.”

We’re lost in the fun house, ultimately, and that’s exactly where Apuleius wants to keep us, laughing, and trying to figure out the magic underlying all his tricks.

Tags: Professors, Research