Apuleius was born in Madaura, the present-day city of Mdaourouch in Algeria, in approximately 125 CE. Although coming from a Roman colony, Apuleius did not identify as a Roman citizen, preferring to regard himself as part-Numidian and part-Gaetulian (in reference to the location of Madaura between Numidia and Gaetulia). His family was prosperous enough to provide him with an excellent education that included schooling in Carthage, Athens and possibly Rome.

The extant works of Apuleius include the Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, a novel in 11 books; the Apology, the published version of a self-defence speech originally delivered in court in CE 158; the Florida, 23 oratorical pieces; and the philosophical work, The God of Socrates, in addition to two more works of a similar nature but of questionable authorship, On the Universe and On the Philosophy of Plato. Further works of spurious authenticity include the dialogue Asclepius in which Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius discuss matters cosmological and theological, and On Interpretation, a treatise in Latin on Aristotelian logic.

From the list of works, both authentic and otherwise, in addition to those traditionally ascribed to Apuleius but no longer extant, an image emerges of an individual concerned with philosophy, magic, rhetoric and science. The philosophical writings (but also the Metamorphoses and the Apology) indicate not only a familiarity but also a scholarly mastery of Platonic and Aristotelian tracts as well as an active involvement in the cultural and intellectual movement known as the Second Sophistic (a period of time dating from the reign of Nero, commencing in CE 37, to the middle of the Third Century). The latter is characterised by an increased awareness and interrogation of the natural world, an interest in the tensions between traditional religion and magic, a fascination with mystery cults and the utilisation of established and emerging philosophies in an attempt to understand and elucidate facets of the irrational and the holy. As an itinerant lecturer and scholar, Apuleius embodies the ideal man of the Second Sophistic age.

Although Greek was his native tongue, Apuleius wrote in Latin and his major extant works, the Metamorphoses and the Apology, reflect a complex and at times difficult style that is nonetheless a triumph of linguistic virtuosity. This is particularly obvious in the Metamorphoses, the only example of a fully preserved Latin novel from antiquity. As a genre, novel was not looked upon favourably by the intellectuals of his time, but this did not deter Apuleius from writing a work that fully embraced all the bawdiness and despicable elements associated with this literary genus. In keeping with the precepts of the genre, the central anti-hero, Lucius, is driven by a fascination with a socially unacceptable pursuit, in this case magic, and inevitably ends up in Thessaly, land of the witches. The title of the work is taken from the major action or episode of the novel, namely the transformation of Lucius into an ass as a result of a magical spell gone wrong. After the actual metamorphosis, there ensures a series of adventures, typical of the novel format, as the hero endeavours to discover a remedy for his condition, culminating in the restored Lucius becoming an initiate in the cult of Isis in the eleventh and final chapter.

The Metamorphoses reflects the fascination with the occult that partly characterised the Second Sophistic movement. Apuleius in particular appears to have had a very active interest in all things magical; an attraction that seems to have moved beyond an academic study into the realm of practice. This is the backdrop to the Apology, the published version of a speech Apuleius gave in court in self-defence against the charges of sorcery. During 155-56 CE, while travelling to Alexandria, the scholar stopped at Oea (modern-day Tripoli) and encountered a former schoolmate from Athens, Pontianus; there it transpired that Apuleius met Pontianus' mother, the wealthy widow Pudentilla, and certain events unfolded resulting in their marriage. In an event that must have appeared to have arisen straight from the pages of a novel, Apuleius soon found himself charged with using sorcery to secure the marriage; a case brought against him by Pudentilla's relatives. The Apology is a remarkable piece of Latin oratorical writing; in the tradition of Cicero's playful Pro Caelio, the work is characterised by sarcasm, irony, vituperation, theatricality, literary allusions and word play. Yet, despite the influence, the speech is not a reworking of traditional republican oratory; it is coarser in its aggression and intellectual self-aggrandisement, and coloured with vulgarity, colloquialisms, neologisms, the spectacular and the outrageous. Amid all this, Apuleius still manages to reinforce his image as a philosopher first and foremost, perhaps to secure a carefully manufactured reputation for posterity.

Apuleius won his case, most likely due to the simple fact that Pudentilla listed her surviving son Pudens as sole heir and not her new husband, rather than the scholar's outrageously persuasive and unceasingly entertaining self-defence. As an ironic testimony to the power of the Apology, Apuleius was remembered in late antiquity as a magician (as well as a philosopher) and not as a novelist. During the 14th century the Metamorphoses reappeared in Europe. Among the most popular sections of the novel proved to be the story-within-a-story of Cupid and Psyche. This inset, spanning three chapters (four, five and six), is arguably Apuleius' most famous piece of writing and has remained so well into modern times. As a story of high melodrama and encompassing the powerful themes of love, jealousy and erotic desire, the tale of Cupid and Psyche is regularly read and appreciated as an independent piece of literature, functioning separately as well as integrally to the novel overall. Its influence can be seen in the works of Boccaccio, Spencer, Milton, Shakespeare (who utilised more from the novel than the Cupid and Psyche section) and Keats, and has been sometimes regarded as the major source for early written accounts of “Beauty and the Beast”, particularly in the French tradition of contes de fée of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Johnson, Marguerite. "Apuleius". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 April 2009
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=134, accessed 25 September 2016.]

Articles on Apuleius' works

  1. Metamorphoses [The Golden Ass]
  2. Philosophical Works [On Plato and His Doctrine (De Platone et eius dogmate), On the god of Socrates (De Deo Socratis), and On the Universe (De Mundo)]
  3. Rhetorical Works (Apologia or De magia; Florida; De deo Socratis)