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In the final book of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, a crowd of Isis worshippers is on parade, costumed in unexpected ways: from a man in the garb of a hunter to a bear pretending to be a matrona. This parade can be read as a montage of the novel, demonstrating that physical appearance is mutable and may not reflect the underlying truth: men can dress as women, animals can become human, and anyone can costume as a Roman magistrate or philosopher. The preoccupation with deceptive appearances apparent in Apuleius’ Met., most notable in Lucius’ asinine transformation, is also present in his rhetorical works, the Florida and Apology. Starting with Sebesta and Bonfante (1994), who established a foundation for understanding the signification of Roman clothing, scholars have focused on clothing as a way of asserting and policing social identity in the Roman Empire (e.g. Edmondson and Keith 2008). Costuming and falsification of identity in literature and how this relates to the larger political context has also been explored (Gleason 2011 on Cassius Dio). Incorporating the work of Bradley (2008) on the centrality of physical appearance in the rhetoric of Apuleius’ Apol., this study moves beyond previous scholarship in two ways: first, it reads Apuleius’ literary and rhetorical oeuvre in a tightly integrated way, relatively unusual in Apuleian studies; second, it offers a sustained discourse on Apuleius’ treatment of physical appearance and deception, arguing that he uses the clothed body to explore the mutability of identity in his fictional and lived worlds.

Apuleius’ Met. depicts the inadequacy of appearance as a tool to interpret the identity of others and to represent oneself. In addition to the parade of Isis worshippers, the novel shows characters intentionally and unintentionally misrepresenting themselves through alterations to their ‘costume’. Lucius’ identity is somewhat accidentally concealed beneath the hide of an ass, thrusting him into a life far below his birth, while many characters use dress to deceive others about their identities (e.g. Milo as a poor man – 1.21; Thrasyleon, a bear– 4.15; Plotina, a man – 7.6; Haemus, a woman – 7.8). In the novel, the connection between physical appearance and identity is portrayed as tenuous at best, a notion explored more fully in Lucius’ bizarre encounter with his childhood friend Pythias, a man described as having attendants, rods, and habitum prorsus magistratui congruentem (1.24). Pythias’ costume suggests that he has become a Roman magistrate and yet he wields power out of proportion to his station, raising questions about whether his new habitus conveys or conceals the truth of his identity.

Similar anxieties about deceptive appearances are evident in the Flor., where Apuleius decries the loss of integrity of the philosopher’s pallium and clothing is shown to obscure rather than reveal the truth. On several occasions in his collected speeches, Apuleius offers a negative judgment of those who falsely wear the pallium: in Flor. 9, he distinguishes himself, a true philosopher, from qaedam…palliata mendicabula obambulant; likewise, in Flor. 7, after praising Alexander’s edict forbidding any but the best artists from reproducing his image, Apuleius expresses a desire of similar protections for philosophy to prevent men from donning the pallium and seeming to be philosophers (7.9). Finally, in Flor. 4, Apuleius bemoans the confusion of identity caused by duplication of costume, connecting his own distaste for the fact that, in the Rome of his day, people with radically different statuses are indistinguishable to the laments of the Greek aulete, Antigenidas, who disliked that the name of his high-status profession was shared by funeral pipers. This final example reveals that, for Apuleius, the ambiguity of identity created by dress may also be present in the lack of fixity of language itself.

In a world without objective means of decisively establishing or refuting social identity, costume becomes critically important in identifying individuals. By demonstrating the changeability of appearance and the mismatch between appearance and reality, Apuleius offers a biting social critique.