text published in: Ruurd R. Nauta (ed.), Desultoria scientia. Genre in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and related texts, Caeculus, papers on Mediterranean archaeology and Greek and Roman studies 5, (Peeters) Leuven / Paris / Dudley MA 2006 (ISBN 90 429 1846 2), 33-42

[start p.33] Whenever one thinks of 'genre in Apuleius, some passage of his works and a specific genre comes to one's mind, e.g. tragedy, epic, or satire. But after a second or two, one starts to think of another genre that is connected in some way to that same passage, and the image becomes less clear. What I propose to do in this paper is to show some selected passages from Apuleius, notably from his rhetorical works Apology and Florida, where we can observe how Apuleius seems to play with genres, sometimes simultaneously, and how he can even mix them up to something quite unique.

Tragedy in court  

First, we may turn to the Apology (Apol.), Apuleius' famous speech, which is perhaps more often praised and quoted than read.[1] In literary complexity, versatility, wit, and linguistical skills, the speech is by no means inferior to the novel, and it fully deserves the sort of literary analysis we apply without hesitation to the Metamorphoses (Met.).

At an earlier occasion, I attempted to review the elements of comedy in the speech, which prompted me to the conclusion that the speech was even, in a way, modelled on the basic pattern of a comedy: it has a plot, standard characters, and a happy end.[2] By way of contrast, let me now highlight some elements of tragedy, equally present in the text, and see how these are connected in the context.

Tragedy is much less dominant in the speech than comedy, but some interesting places may be referred to. In c.13 we see a reference to several dramatic genres at once:  

Quid enim? Si choragium thymelicum possiderem, num ex eo argumentarere etiam uti me consuesse tragoedi syrmate, histrionis crocota, orgia, mimi centuncu­lo? Non opinor. Nam et contra plurimis rebus possessu careo, usu fruor. (Apol. 13,7) [start p.34] >Look, if I possessed an actor's equipment, would you argue that I was regularly wearing the long cloak of tragedy, the saffron-coloured dress of the stage, or the patchwork robe of mime? I do not think so. On the other hand there are many things I do not possess, but use nonetheless.'[3]  

The reference is only small, but interestingly, the actor of tragedy, the histrio and the player of mime, or rather their specific garments, are put alongside each other without further comment. Apparently these forms of drama were all still commonly known to Apuleius' audience, which in the case of tragedy may seem surprising.[4]

The mention of the tragedy, as casual as it already is, is given further depth by the context, which has little to do with this genre. The argument Apuleius is developing in the context is one of a highly rhetorical nature: can the circumstance that someone possesses a mirror be taken as a sign that he repeatedly stands before it and uses it? This is, of course, most likely, but Apuleius defends the opposite.

The same passage confronts us with another reference to tragedy:  

Quem tu librum, Aemiliane, si nosses ac non modo campo et glebis, uerum etiam abaco et puluisculo te dedisses, mihi istud crede, quanquam teterrimum os tuum minimum a Thyesta tragico demutet, tamen profecto discendi cupidine speculum inuiseres et aliquando relicto aratro mirarere tot in facie tua sulcos rugarum. (Apol. 16,7) >If you had known his book, Aemilianus, and had not devoted yourself just to the clods of the field but also to the sand on the counting-board, believe me: although your hideous face differs only a little from the mask of tragic Thyestes, curiosity would certainly have made you look into a mirror. Yes, finally you would have left your plough and wondered about all those furrows in your face.'  

The tone is even sharper here, and seems outright polemical and sarcastic. Moreover, the context alludes to other types of texts too, notably the language of scientific inquiry. Still discussing the allegation that he possessed a mirror, Apuleius has substantially broadened the scope of his speech, including various scientific problems in his account: for instance, in c.15 he refers to the various philosophical schools and their different physical explanations of the likeness of images in mirrors (a rather ostentatious display of erudition in court). Plato, Archytas, and the Stoics, are all mentioned. So, Apuleius adds, a philosopher has to investigate all of this. Various optical effects are added, for which Archimedes is quoted as an authority (16,6). After the quotation, Apuleius goes on to make fun [start p.35] of his opponent, adding puns and briefly entering upon an entirely different theme, the question of >possessing only a few slaves'. For this, he adduces historical examples such as Cato, and the whole theme is developed as a proper popular philosophical diatribe. So here we have a mixture of rhetoric, satire and polemic, tragedy, science, and philosophy.

Something similar can be observed much later in the Apology, where the abominable Rufinus is the target of Apuleius' wit, erudition, and polemics.  

Vix hercule possum irae moderari, ingens indignatio animo oboritur. Tune, effeminatissime, tua manu cuiquam uiro mortem minitaris? At qua tandem manu? Philomelae an Medeae an Clytemnestrae? Quas tamen cum saltas tanta mollitia animi, tanta formido ferri est , sine cludine saltas. (Apol. 78,3-4) >I can hardly control my anger, and an immense indignation is surging within me! So you, the most effeminate of men, are threatening death to a real male `with your own hand'? But what hand will it be? That of Philomela, or Medea, or Clytemnestra? But if you perform these roles, you do so without a dagger: such is your weakness, such your fear of steel!'  

Rufinus, one of the opponents, has threatened, so we are told, that he will kill Apuleius, who now reacts with great indignation, comparing him to legendary female figures (killers and sorcerers) from tragedy. A comparison to women and killers is bad enough as it is but Rufinus even performs these roles[5] with fake daggers because of his cowardice. The epic element in the indignant question qua tandem manu is immediately subverted by the sarcastic triple perversion implied by the tragic roles.

Rufinus is ridiculed not only by means of tragedy. He is also called a >pimp' (leno), a clear echo of Roman comedy and mime, and he is amply criticized by the speaker, who takes the position of the wise philosopher and morally superior >family man'. Again it may be seen how Apuleius refers to various genres, high and low, and easily shifts between them in order to achieve his rhetorical aim.

Apart from one or two other scattered references to drama,[6] there is one other major section dealing with tragedy. It is a piece of literary history concerning Sophocles.  

>The poet Sophocles, the rival of Euripides, whom he also survived (for he became extremely old), was accused by his son of insanity. It was alleged [start p.36]  that he was `out of his mind' due to his age. Then, it is said, he took a copy of his Oedipus in Colonus, that most excellent tragedy, which he happened to be writing at the time. He read it aloud to the judges, without adding a word in his defence, except that they should not hesitate to declare him `insane' if they disliked the poem of an old man. At that point, so I read, all the judges rose for this great poet and praised him highly for the skilful plot and the solemn style. They all very nearly declared the accuser himself `insane'! (To the attendant:) Have you found the book? Thank you very much! Well, let us see whether my writings can help me too in court. Please read a few lines from the beginning and then some lines about the fish. (To another attendant:) In the meantime, while he is reading, please stop the waterclock.' (Apol. 37)  

This is a very interesting passage, not primarily for the information it contains, which is attested in other sources too,[7] but for its functions in the speech. The narrative about the tragedy recited by Sophocles functions as a break in the speech and is closely connected with Apuleius' further aims. He literally compares himself with Sophocles, and points to the parallel in their situations: both are unjustly sued on enormous charges concerning property. Of course Apuleius also takes pride in his erudition here and makes the audience share in it.

The passage obviously attests Apuleius' knowledge of tragedy, but here too, the context equally refers to many other forms of literature. The whole argument is about... fish. Apuleius has been accused of searching fishes for magical purposes, and as in the case of the mirror, be brings in everything he can to broaden the horizon. Among the literary authorities he refers to are Homer, Vergil, Pythagoras, Orpheus, and Laevius (c.30-32). He brings in medicine (c.32), sexual vocabulary related to fish names (c.33), his own (lost) works as a source for such names (c.34), some dangerous remarks involving cases of sympathetic magic (c.35), culminating in a account about the zoological works of Aristotle and others (c.36). The anecdote on Sophocles is inserted at a moment when a court attendant leaves the floor to pick up a zoological volume of Apuleius. On his return, some of the book is read,[8] followed by further biological particulars and a list of ominously sounding Greek fish names (c.38), and as a surprising climax, a culinary poem about luxury fishes by the famous Ennius (c.39), which represents the rather abstruse [start p.37] genre of gastronomical didactic poetry.[9] On account of the many verse inserts in the Apol., one might be tempted to consider the speech as a Menippean satire on the lines of Petronius' Satyricon.[10] But it may equally be seen as a  comedy,[11] a philosophical and scientific text, or a novelistic text.[12]

So within just a few pages, we see a complete panorama of ancient literature, Greek and Latin, high and low, with all elements ultimately serving Apuleius' main rhetorical purpose. All genres, as it were, have become material from which the speaker can freely select and combine. I have now focussed on drama but a fascinating, and possibly even richer field of study here would be the numerous references in the Apology to epic, notably Homer and Vergil.[13]

The same phenomenon may be observed again and again: references to tragedy, epic and other genres are made mostly in passing-by, and come in quite naturally in the context of the argument of the speech as a whole. But as soon as one has started concentrating upon such a genre, the attention is shifted to some other genre, leaving readers with the impression that Apuleius' speech encompasses them all. Genres are not literally confused, but the overall effect may be somewhat confusing at least.


A little drama in the Florida  

Before passing on to the Met. some brief remarks may be added about the Florida (Fl.). Being a collection of fragments, this work is certainly more difficult to analyse in terms of genre or shifts of genre. Nonetheless, there are some passages that seem relevant here too, if only because they have a clearly theatrical connection.

The first of these is Fl. 16, which is set in a theatre and deals with a theatrical story, the tale of Philemon. One day, this Greek comic poet started a recitation[14] of one of his plays, but had to postpone the last part, due to rain. Next day, he was found dead.

 Stetere paulisper qui introierant, perculsi tam inopinatae rei, tam formonsae mortis miraculo. Dein regressi ad populum renuntiauere Philemonem poetam, qui expectaretur, qui in theatro fictum argumentum finiret, iam domi [start p.38] ueram fabulam consummasse; enimuero iam dixisse rebus humanis ualere et plaudere, suis uero familiaribus dolere et plangere; hesternum illi imbrem lacrimas auspicasse; comoediam eius prius ad funebrem facem quam ad nubtialem uenisse; proin, quoniam poeta optimus personam uitae deposuerit, recta de auditorio eius exequias eundum, legenda eius esse nunc ossa, mox carmina. (Fl. 16,16-18) >Those who had entered stood still awhile, struck with wonder at so unexpected an event, so beautiful a death. They then returned to the people and announced that the poet Philemon, who was expected to finish his fictious plot in the theatre, had concluded the real story at home. He had said "farewell and applaud" to human affairs but "lament and wail" to his friends. That shower yesterday had been an omen of tears; his comedy reached the funereal torch before the wedding torch. And that since this excellent poet had laid aside his role in life, everyone should go to his funeral straight from the auditorium; and that his bones should now be collected, and then his poems.'[15]  

Everybody is expecting a comedy, which has, in fact, begun the day before. But the dramatical fiction changes into a reality: instead of a fictional play on stage, Philemon performs a real story at home. He says valete et plaudite to human affairs, in a typical turn from comedy,[16] but he also says dolete et plangite to his family, in a turn which seems coined for the occasion. The many references to tears, grief and death make us realize that comedy has turned into tragedy,[17] for this surely cannot be called a happy end.

Again we may note the many genres that are present in the context: these words reflect a speech or, possibly, `messenger report', and the whole tale is next taken by Apuleius as an exemplum in his epideictic speech with its his gratulatory, laudatory, and self-laudatory purposes. One may also note another instance of scientific, medical details (Fl. 16,20-22).

The second passage from the Florida to which I would like to refer is Fl. 2, Apuleius' elaborate description of the majesty of the eagle. In this case too, one may properly ask what sort of text the passage really is. It is, of course, a speech, as the inclusion in the Florida makes clear. But many things happen in it. It starts making a point about Socrates, which more or less automatically strikes a philosophical note: >one must not judge people by looking with the eyes of the [start p.39] body, but by means of the sharpness of the mind.' For this, Apuleius quotes a line of Plautus, that is: from comedy, funnily suggesting that Socrates had rewritten it. Next, the notion that the eyes would prevail brings in higher genre notes: quodam modo caecutimus (2,6) we are, in a way, blind (a notion widely present in tragedy), and we humans cannot see far, because of a cloud hanging before our face, limiting our view intra lapidis iactum (2,7). This is, of course, full-blown epic.[18]

The rest of the passage is a description of the lofty flight of the eagle, which continues the epic notes, with points reminding of tragedy, notably the nautic image of flying as `rowing' (2,10), ultimately going back to Aeschylus,[19] but here phrased in Lucretian terms.[20] In the end, we do not know very clearly what genre we are in: rhetoric, philosophy, drama, didactic poetry, or epic. The clear boundaries between these genres seem to be fading.  

A judicial speech in the novel  

Finally, from 'tragedy in court', 'comedy turned tragedy', and 'philosophy turned epic' I now jump desultoria scientia (cf. Met. 1,1) to 'a court in the novel', more specifically, the famous scene where Lucius stands trial in the context of what turns out to be the festival of Risus, the first major section of book 3.

At the opening of book 3 we see how Lucius feels at a loss: surely he cannot escape condemnation in a trial for the three murders he has committed. Then all of a sudden people start shouting that the trial must take place in a theatre, and Lucius is dragged along as a hostia and put in the orchestra (end of c.2). This is surely a first clear signal of the genre confusion we are about to witness.

Even in the theatrical surroundings, the trial is presented in >judicial' terms: after an erudite periphrasis for the well-known waterclock (c.3, beginning), an old man stands up and presents an accusation [start p.40] quite according to the rules of the genre: an address to the audience, followed by a claim of personal integrity, a narratio, and an appeal to severity (c.3).

Lucius first only cries but then manages to utter his defence, which starts no less according to the rules (c.4-5): an attempt to make the audience docilem, followed by the start of a narratio. But then something interesting happens: he starts to give the alleged words of one of the robbers in direct speech.

 "Heus pueri, quam maribus animis et uiribus alacribus dormientes adgrediamur. Omnis cunctatio ignauia omnis facessat e pectore; stricto mucrone per totam domum caedes ambulet. Qui sopitus iacebit, trucidetur; qui repugnare temptauerit, feriatur. Sic salui recedemus, si saluum in domo neminem reliquerimus." (Met. 3,5) >"Come on, lads, let's attack them, while they sleep, with all our manly spirit and ready vigour. Away with all feelings of hesitation and cowardice! Let slaughter stalk with drawn sword throughout the house. Let's cut down those who lie sleeping, and run through those who try to resist. We shall make good our retreat unscathed only if we leave no one in the house unscathed."'[21]  

The words themselves have a rather heroic and military colour: the robber uses rather elevated language indeed, but it may be observed that most characters in Apuleius' novel use a similar style.[22] But the fact that it is direct speech is noteworthy, for this is most unusual indeed within a judicial speech. It would be customary to refer to other people's words indirectly only. So here we see, as it were, typical elements of narrative or historiography merging into judicial speech.

Of course, the speech by Lucius is entirely fictitious, for he presents his case as a right cause against injustice, quite unlike how his bad conscience had shown it to be in c.1-2. So in this respect too, one might point to elements of fiction merging into the speech, but this might be seen as >normal' within rhetoric.

Next, we see Lucius crying again (c.7) and beseeching the audience to believe him. This then appears to be a role, for Lucius stops when he thinks the effect has been sufficient. The reaction is strange: people are roaring with laughter, as if it were a comedy or a farce, to the indignation of Lucius, who is apparently starting to believe his own heroic fiction. [start p.41] He expresses this in a short speech to himself, a technique which seems an echo of tragedy or Ovid's Metamorphoses[23] rather than rhetoric or other forms of prose.

Next there follow speeches by an old woman, appealing for compassion for her three killed darlings, and a magistrate, pleading for severe measures (c.8-9). Here the context seems firmly judicial again, even with references to torture instruments at the beginning of c.9.[24] But then Lucius is asked to uncover the dead bodies himself, a procedure unheard of in court, and clearly recalling a scene in tragedy, where Aegisthus is made to unveil the corpse of Clytaemnestra, which he thinks is Orestes.[25] What follows, after some pathetic exclamations by Lucius, is like the solution in a comedy: the corpses appear to be wine-skins. Notes of comedy are, again, strong. Everybody starts laughing and leaves the theatre, as if the show is over.

Lucius is struck with amazement, and is comforted by Milo. In c.11 he is soothed and calmed by a magistrate with a very polite and complimentary speech, much as we know them from Apuleius' own Florida, and Lucius answers in similar vein, even politely refusing a statue. It is really as if we are in the epideictic sphere of the Florida.

On a further confusing note, next Lucius answers to his aunt Byrrhena, declining her dinner invitation. He does so in the form of a small speech. Or is it a letter he is dictating to the messenger? With Lucius, we may well feel quite confused: inpos animi stupebam (c.12). Matters are not really clarified later on, when Photis explains to Lucius what has happened. In an atmosphere of magic and sorcery she gradually uncovers the mystery, comparing Lucius to Ajax killing animals (c.18). In his answer, Lucius compares himself to Hercules and his deeds, in a clear echo of tragedy and epic, but immediately changes his tone to that of elegy, in a flattering address of the adorable Fotis (c.19) in openly elegiac terms, to which she replies with religious language (>keep this secret'), and with the erotic language of the body, as they start making love.

The question comes up: what is it we have been reading? Was it a judicial account with speeches? Or an epic fiction extolling rather meagre facts, first interpreted as a crime, but turning out to be a comedy? Or is the key element that of private speeches in the epideictic genre? What [start p.42] was Lucius' performance in the Risus Festival anyway: a theatrical show? A religious ceremony? A carnival in which the rich and famous may be made fun of?[26] Was there a real crime or not? On all of these points, readers are left in great doubt. More than any other scene, this passage about the Risus festival shows how all genres get confused into something really new.[27]

It is, perhaps, unwise to analyse the text as I have done until now. Apuleius' book clearly cannot be fully understood by means of definitions of genre in the traditional way. But the work clearly brings in all of ancient literature we know (there may be much that we do not know) and plays with everything.

Since much of this can also be observed in Petronius, one might assume that it is a characteristic of the Roman novel as such: parodying, varying and deliberately confusing all genres. In that way, the confusion of genre has become a specific genre convention of the novel by itself.

Vincent Hunink



[1]. For an English version of Apuleius' speeches see: S.J.  Harrison [a.o.], Apuleius, Rhetorical works, translated by S.J. Harrison, J.L. Hilton and V.J.C. Hunink, Oxford 2001.

[2]. Cf. Vincent Hunink, `Comedy in Apuleius' Apology', in: Groningen Colloquia on the Novel 9, 1998, 97-113.

[3]. Translation Vincent Hunink, in: S.J. Harrison [a.o.], Apuleius, Rhetorical works, translated by S.J. Harrison, J.L. Hilton and V.J.C. Hunink, Oxford 2001. All following translations from the Apology are also from this edition.

[4]. In this period, tragic subjects were usually no longer dealt with in traditional tragedies but in fabulae salticae, ballet-like mythological narratives performed by a pantomime dancer, who was accompanied by a choir.

[5]. Notice saltas, a clear reference to the way these roles were staged: by means of a sort of pantomime.

[6]. Cf. Apol. 30,11 ex comoediis et tragoediis graecis et ex historiis...; and Apol. 79,1 An sola Phaedra falsum epistolium de amore commenta est? We may observe that the latter quotation is a fairly uncomplimentary reference to Apuleius' own wife.

[7]. The story about Sophocles is told in other sources as well, although with minor differences. Cf. Vita Soph. 13; Cic. Sen. 22; Plut. Mor. 785 a-b (who even gives the lines allegedly read in court: OC 668-73); Ps.Lucian. Macr. 24; Athen. 12, 510 b; Charisius, GLK 1, p.215; for the different versions of the anecdote cf. P. Mazon, 'Sophocle devant les juges', REA 47, 1945, 82-96 and Powell on Cic. Sen. 22.

[8]. Regrettably, the quotation has not been preserved.

[9]. Cf. also Vincent Hunink, 'The fish catalogue in Ausonius' Mosella. Literary backgrounds of Mos. 75-149', in: A.P. Orbán, M.G.M. van der Poel (edd.), Ad litteras. Latin studies in honour of J.H. Brouwers, Nijmegen 2001, 163-176.

[10]. The Met. contains hardly any poetical inserts, with the notable exception of the oracular text in 4,32.

[11]. Cf. note 2.

[12]. Cf. Klaus Sallmann, 'Erzählendes in der Apologie des Apuleius, oder: Argumentation als Unterhaltung', in: Groningen Colloquia on the Novel 6, Groningen 1995, 137-58.

[13]. To mention one thing, opponents are easily compared with Vergilian figures such as Charon or Mezentius (both in 56,7), or Homeric heroes such as Odysseus (57,4, ironical).

[14]. A curious anachronism, for such recitation is unattested in Philemon's days, and is typical for Apuleius' own days.

[15]. Translation John Hilton in: S.J.  Harrison [a.o.], Apuleius, Rhetorical works, translated by S.J. Harrison, J.L. Hilton and V.J.C. Hunink, Oxford 2001. Subsequent translations from the Florida are also from this edition.

[16]. Cf. e.g. Pl. Men. 1162 nunc, spectatores, ualete et nobis clare plaudite; Per. 858; Truc. 968; further Ter. Eu. 1094 ualete et plaudite; Hau. 1067; and Ph. 1055; further Hor. Ars 155. In the present text the words are fittingly ascribed to Philemon as his last words, directed to `human affairs' in general, and so they continue the metaphor of life as a play. Cf. a similar use in Cic. Sen. 70 neque sapientibus usque ad "plaudite" ueniendum est.

[17]. For other references to tragedy in the Fl., see 17,8; 18,4; and 18,6.

[18]. Apuleius clearly refers to a famous passage in Iliad 3,10-12 and to Verg. Aen. 11,608 intra iactum teli.

[19]. Aesch. Ag. 52.

[20]. Cf. DRN 6,743 remigi oblitae pennarum uela remittunt. There are several other clear echoes in Fl. 2 to Lucretius: cf. the tranquil abode of the Gods in DRN 3,19-22 quas neque concutiunt uenti nec nubila nimbis / aspergunt neque nix acri concreta pruina / cana cadens uiolat semperque innubilus aether / integit et large diffuso lumine ridet; cf. further the distinction between fulgur and fulmen in DRN 6, 160-218 and 219-422.

[21]. Translation P.G. Walsh: P.G. Walsh, Apuleius, The Golden Ass, translated with Introduction and Explanatory Notes, Oxford 1994, p.42.

[22]. In this, the Met. are markedly different from Petronius' Satyricon, where characters use different, and often lower, styles of language, often in accordance with their social status or characterisation. One may think of the freedmen talking at Trimalchio's dinner, whose speeches are an important source for our knowledge of Vulgar Latin. Cf. e.g. B. Boyce, The language of the freedmen in Petronius' Cena Trimalchionis, Leiden 1991.

[23]. To mention one example, one may think of Medea's long speech to herself in Ov. Met. 7,11-71.

[24]. A somewhat confusing element, since Lucius, a freeborn citizen, certainly could be put to torture.

[25]. Sophocles, Electra 1470-82. I owe the reference to Dr. Stephen Harrison.

[26]. Many other suggestions have been made. Recently, Stavros Frangoulidis argued for the view that the scene represents a kind of integration rite enachted in the theatre. See: Stavros Frangoulidis, 'The Laughter Festival as a Community Integration Rite in Apuleius' Metamorphoses', in: Ancient Narrative Supplementa 1, 2002.

[27]. Walsh (1994), XXIX mentions the scene (along with the Phaedra episode in 10,7ff. and another parody, outside court in 7,27) as an example of >literary parody', for which lawcourts offer an opportunity, a literary device also figuring prominently in the Greek romances. I would suggest, however, that Apuleius' aims go somewhat further than >parody' of one genre. It is the deliberate confusion of all genres that strikes the eye.


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