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Persius' Polenta and Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Sasha-Mae Eccleston

In this paper I consider Apuleius' allusions to Persius' Satires at Metamorphoses 1.3-4. I intend to demonstrate how references to Persius' Stoic brand of satire characterize the speech of Lucius, the Metamorphoses' protagonist, as morally vacuous.  Although Keulen (2007) pointed out echoes of Persius in his commentary on Metamorphoses I and Gowers (2001) read the prologue alongside Persius, there has been no reading of the allusions in this scene collectively. I claim that through clever framing of these allusions Apuleius' philosophically sensitive reading of Latin literature outs Lucius' ethically irresponsible use of it as an intertext in his life narrative. 

At Met. 1.3, Lucius dismisses the incredulousness of Aristomenes' unnamed companion.  As part of his counter, Lucius shares that he nearly died during a polenta eating contest at a cena and recently saw a sword-swallower at the Stoa Poikile.  Lucius confidently encourages the friend to be more careful about unfamiliar phenomena and to dig a little deeper before dismissing things outright.  Keulen (2007) has argued that, on the one hand, through its connection to Greek comedy the polenta characterizes Lucius as a low-status guest in keeping with the generally accepted juxtaposition of high and low in the narrative. On the other hand, the adjective porticus points to Apuleius' disdain for the foolish credulity of the Stoics.  Moreover, as many have noted since Winkler (1991), Lucius' choice of 'proof texts' highlights the low quality of his wisdom.

I contend that it is significant Lucius mentions polenta in such close proximity with the Stoic porch as he rebuts the unnamed speaker.  The combination points us to Persius 3.52-55 where the polenta, Stoa, and narrative frame all figure in Persius' moral therapy.   In the poem, Persius talks to a previous version of himself, encouraging himself to use Stoic training to self-assess rather than perform morality for and critique the morality of others.   For Persius, polenta and beans represent the fastidiousness of the Stoic proficiens; in Lucius' narrative, polenta is fattened with cheese, gulped down whole, and helps him show off at a convivium.  Unlike Persius' time there, Lucius' trip to the Stoa is typified by parlor tricks, not late night study.  Moreover, because Lucius shares his experience as part of what reads like a Cynic diatribe against Aristomenes' comes (an unnamed speaker is interrupted, quoted, and refuted in a live situation), he thus betrays his ignorance of Persius' poem as a form of self-scrutiny (meditatio).  When Lucius chides the friend saying obstinato corde respuis (Met. 1.3), he demonstrates he has not heeded Persius' injunction respue quod non es (Sat. 4.51) by focusing on others' flaws rather than his own.  In the Apology, Apuleius dismissed the Cynics as particularly unlearned (rudi et indocto, 39).  Therefore, Lucius' choice to utter Cynic diatribe is further proof of his rudis sermo (Met. 1.1) and not moral or intellectual rigor. 

I further argue that Apuleius' allusions to Persius' Satires are part of a larger citational strategy in the Apuleian corpus. As recent scholarship on the oeuvre of Plutarch, Apuleius' Middle Platonist forebear, has shown (Nikolaidis 2008, Van Hoof 2010), the Moralia and Lives reinforce one another, teaching the same lessons in different, yet complementary ways.  I claim that Apuleius' Platonism (which is strongly influenced by both Stoicism and Aristotelian thought) bestows a similar unity upon his work so that the Metamorphoses is less anomalous than Apuleius' contemporaries and subsequent readers have thought. Allusion in the Metamorphoses reflects the role of paideia in moral development as it is defined in the Apology, Florida, and philosophical treatises and is not merely indicative of Apuleius' recherché familiarity with Latin literature and elite identity. By reading allusions and the episodes of which they are a part according to the precepts of Apuleius' Platonism, I reposition the Metamorphoses more squarely in the tradition of philosophical discourse instead of the 'ancient novel' and Greek romances. 

Session/Panel Title

The Descent of Satire from Old Comedy to the Gothic

Session/Paper Number

21.4

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