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Opinion

‘The Golden Ass,’ Rome’s oldest surviving novel, still appeals today

March 2, 2016

“The Golden Ass,” written by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis around the years 170-180 AD, is the only ancient Roman novel surviving in its entirety. Written nearly two thousand years ago, this book is just as interesting today as it was then.

The book revolves around a young man named Lucius who, through a series of misadventures, is transformed into a donkey (hence, ass). The author, known as Apuleius, was from what is now Algeria but, in his time, was known as Numidia. An incredibly talented writer, he was born into wealth and had the opportunities to study in Athens, visit Egypt, Rome, much of Italy and Asia minor. These travels, which would be a great time for the modern man, were much more difficult back then when the best means of travel was a trireme or one’s own two feet through Gaul-infested land. These many travels clearly led Apuleius to see a great many things and hear a great many tales.

Apuleius himself was a very interesting man, being part of several secret cults, and secret religious schools. He himself was put on trial after being accused of using witchcraft on a wealthy widow, in order to gain her property. His experience in magic and the occult translates well in the book, as it is apparent he is knowledgeable. These experiences and stories are wonderfully transcribed in the book itself.

The book is set up in a simple manner. It is written as the first hand account of a man (Lucius) who, after stealing a potion from a local witch, is turned into a donkey. In his time in this form, he still has the mind of a man, hearing and seeing all as a man does, but being trapped in the body off a donkey.

The book takes a raw look at the inequality of ancient Rome, and the life lived by the lower class or plebeians. This is interesting, as, for the most part, not much was written of their lives because this lower class was unable to read and write. The Roman authors liked to speak of the glory of Rome, and to mention how the poor live would be an embarrassment. Lucius forgoes this worry and instead tells the truth, albeit in a strange way. The adventures of Lucius in the form of a donkey are far from a good time; despite how poorly the plebeians lived, their livestock was often treated far worse.

The book tells many interesting stories, and it almost feels like an anthology, as the stories often do not pertain to the overarching narrative. The book shows an insight to the way the average Roman lived and spoke, and the modern reader may find it to be a bit vulgar and at times grotesque. While reading such unsettling and descriptive scenes such as a murderous witch who pulls out a man’s heart through a stab wound in his throat, we must remember the time and place this was written. The book was written at the height of the Roman empire, not long before its decline and the destructive barbarian invasions, and yet the average man had a life expectancy of about forty (not including those who died in childhood). Much has been said of the decadence of Rome, and often that is blamed for the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD. This book does an excellent job of showing such decadence. The world was rough, violent and dirty, and “The Golden Ass” illustrates this world. The novel is host to a multitude of fascinating and unique characters, such as an appearance by the Goddess Isis. A modern reader could see the book as surreal or even absurd, but it is difficult to use modern labels on a book written so long ago.

The book, translated into modern English, is an easy read, fluid and clear in its design. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history, ancient Rome, magic and the occult or anyone who needs an excuse to have a book with “ass” in the title.