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Becoming Romanae: Apuleius and the Identity of Provincial Women

Laura Brant

           Whenever one culture exerts power over another, there exists the possibility of (and anxiety about) the values and standards of the more dominant culture supplanting the traditional ones of the other culture, either forcefully or by willing adoption. In the context of the Roman Empire, this process is patently apparent in the mid-2nd century CE writings of Apuleius, who illustrates his clear adoption of, and even preference for, many traditional Roman standards over those of other cultures, especially Greek and his native African. While examples of this preference can be seen in Apuleius’ discussion of any member of society, in this paper I focus on the effect of Roman standards, expressed primarily through the lens of literature, on Apuleius’ depiction of women. I argue that “good” women, not only in the sense of proper women, but also ones portrayed sympathetically, are characterized by Apuleius as embodying the traditional virtues of Roman matrons, even when they are not Roman, but provincials. “Bad” women, though, are characterized in un-Roman, usually Greek, terms.

            The primary focus of my paper will be Apuleius’ Apologia. In this speech, the “good” woman, Apuleius’ wife Pudentilla, is characterized as a quintessential Roman matron. She focuses on the good of her family, efficiently running her vast estates and taking great pains to guard her sons’ inheritance. She is loyal to her husband, defending Apuleius even when her sons turn against him. And she is not motivated by lust, instead being prompted to remarry for medical reasons. In contrast, the “bad” women, the wife and daughter of Rufinus (one of the prosecutors), are likened to characters in New Comedy, specifically prostitutes who lure in foolish young men at their pimp’s behest. Likening a female opponent to a prostitute in nothing new in Latin forensic oratory (Cicero’s Pro Caelio springs to mind), but the degree to which Apuleius bases his characterization on depictions of prostitutes in New Comedy, whose realm is the Greek-world, is striking. Cicero might term Clodia Metelli a meretrix, but her status as a Roman woman is not called into question. Apuleius’ “bad” women, on the other hand, are not described in terms of being Roman women, but are presented with a thoroughly non-Roman identity. By identifying the works of literature which influenced Apuleius’ descriptions of Pudentilla and Rufinus’ female relations and comparing those depictions to similar oratorical accounts of women, I show that the dichotomy between Pudentilla’s characterization and that of the other women stands out as particularly Roman versus non-Roman.

              After discussing the Apologia, I turn to some examples in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses which support the strong presence of this dichotomy. Many of the “good” women, such as Lucius’ aunt Byrrhena, are described in terms of proper Roman matrons or are likened to famous Roman literary figures. Especially telling is that Plotina, the only true Roman matron in the story, is held up as a paragon of womanhood.  Apuleius’ strong emphasis on the Roman-ness of his “good” female characters in both the Apologia and the Metamorphoses shows a conscious effort to promote Roman standards of female behavior as the correct standards, rather than, say, Greek or Punic standards. To conclude my paper, I suggest some reasons why Apuleius may have taken this stance and, finally, suggest that perhaps provincial women themselves were likewise adopting Roman standards to judge and model their own behavior on. Thus, by understanding the social standards which Apuleius holds as a reference point when depicting women, we may better understand the evolving identity of Roman provincial women, both the identity which outsiders give them and the one which they give themselves.

Session/Panel Title

Provincial Women in the Roman Imagination

Session/Paper Number

37.1

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