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The Novelist and Philosopher as Biographer: Traces of the Biographical in Apuleius

Thomas McCreight

Loyola University Maryland


This paper presents a sketch of Apuleius’ descriptions of the lives of both historical personages and literary characters; it then compares these with the preoccupations and techniques of ancient biography.  This is an approach largely missing in the critical literature.  Through an examination of selected examples drawn from the range of Apuleius’ oeuvre, the paper exposes a similarity in approach and technique between Apuleius and ancient biographers.

Context and Examples

In his recent illuminating study of Apuleius’ Platonism, Richard Fletcher (see esp. 46-52 with notes) points out that no one discusses Apuleius as a writer of biographically-oriented prose (no mention, e.g., in the old or new Pauly nor in Sonnabend’s 2002 survey of the genre).  This is despite the presence of a rich, if brief, life of Plato as the introduction to (and, cum Fletcher, interpretative key to,) Apuleius’ De Platone et eius dogmate.  We also have the vivid sketches of intellectuals and rulers that sparkle in his Florida (e.g., Crates the Cynic 14 & 22; Protagoras and Thales in 18; Pythagoras in 15; Alexander the Great 7).  Apuleius’ characterization of his enemies in his De Magia is masterful, as is his skill in delineating the personalities of his judges, family members, and self (cf. also Flor. 20). 

These accomplishments in the realm of “the biographical” writ large (see Swain, 1 for the term) extend of course to the Metamorphoses, where brilliant vignettes portray the personalities and accomplishments of major and, especially, minor characters (cf. the scathing portraits of Psyche’s sisters from birth to death in Cupid and Psyche; the daring and admirable acts of Plotina the virtuous and committed wife in 7.6-7; the sketches of Barbarus, Myrmex and Philesitherus in the adultery tale in 9.14-22).  These and other episodes clearly owe much to genres other than biography (mime, encomium, comedy, to name a few).  But it is precisely this capacity of the “open” genre of the novel to encompass various genres (e.g., history, epic, elegy) that argues for the inclusion of biography as a genre from which Apuleius borrows, and which was itself expressed in various and flexible forms and styles (for example, Satyrus’ life of Euripides includes dialogue).

Comparison of Apuleius’ biographical vignettes to material in Imperial biographical writers is illuminating.  There is, for example, a clear focus on names and family history in Suet. Nero 1-2 and De Platone 180.  See also the lengthy treatment of portents presaging future greatness in Suet. Augustus 94 and De Platone 181; see also Plut. Alexander 2.2-3 and De Platone 180.  Longer examples include the scathing mini-“life” of one of Apuleius’ accusers, Herennius Rufinus in Apology 74.4-75.10, juxtaposed with Suetonius’ damning sketch of Nero in Nero 26.1.  The marked tendency toward asyndeton in the service of moral condemnation that one sees in Suetonius’s list of attributes in Nero 26  is also on display in Apuleius’ portrait of the baker’s wife, especially in Metamorphoses 9.14.2-4.

Apuleius was arguably “the greatest writer and man of letters of the second century” (Moreschini, 511), a period during which biography also flourished.  This epoch saw the flowering of the morally based lives of Plutarch and the documentary and research-oriented (in the Peripatetic tradition) biographies of Suetonius.  A versatile stylist and writer in many genres, Apuleius was certainly exposed to and interested in the fashion for biographical writing characteristic of his age (see Swain 24-25).  Keulen, among others, has demonstrated the taste of the period for “self-fashioning” (see e.g. 2014, 130-131) and Apuleius’ participation in it.  The scrutiny of self and other that we see in, e.g., Gellius as well as in Apuleius is not unlike the critical analysis that biographers exercise upon their subjects.  My paper shows that this connection merits more in-depth study than it has so far received.

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The Philosophical Life

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