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Apuleius’ Metamorphoses presents a world awash with the supernatural: witches inflict torments on countless characters leading to physical transformation, dismemberment, and death. The only authority in the text that comes close to vying with magic for power is Roman law. Several aspects of Apuleius’ depiction of magic have previously been explored, such as necromancy (Slater) and the narratological role of magic (Frangoulidis). Similarly, the ubiquity of law in the Met. has been thoroughly demonstrated (e.g., Summers, Keulen 1997, Osgood). There has not yet, however, been a focused study of how Apuleius equates the compulsion of magic with the compulsion of law through thematic continuity and shared diction. This study seeks to fill this gap, arguing that in Apuleius’ fictional world, magic and the law go hand-in-hand, wreaking havoc on the lives of those who encounter them.

Throughout the novel, magic and the law are paired thematically. For instance, both have the power to destroy lives unjustly (magic – 1.9ff., 2.30, 9.29-30; law – 3.1ff., 7.26, 9.42); both are capable of obstructing and traversing domestic thresholds, while the residents have no power to stop them (magic – 1.10, 1.11, 1.14; law – 3.2, 9.41); both push men and women to suicide (magic – 9.30; law – 1.15-16); and both strive to seize the control wielded by the other (magic attempting to usurp the authority of the law – 1.10; law attempting to overcome magic – 1.10, 3.23, where the witch-like, ill-omened bubo is said to be caught and executed, cruciatus, when it enters a home).

In two scenes, however, a more sustained discourse on the intersections of magic and the law takes place in which sorcerers are shown employing magical powers described with legal terminology and making use of witchcraft in specifically juridical contexts. In Book 1, the townspeople of Hypata grow increasingly angry at the socially-destructive behavior of their neighborhood witch, Meroe, and are portrayed conspiring against her in language particularly associated with Roman law (1.1 – nocere, statutum, consilium). In response, Meroe turns to supernatural powers also described with legal terms: she traps the people in their homes until they make a pledge to protect her, a pledge that looks a great deal like an oath of sacrosanctitas on behalf of a tribune (Keulen 2007, citing McCreight). Likewise, when she releases them, Apuleius uses the verb absolvo to describe her actions (1.10). And Meroe’s actions against the instigator of the “conspiracy” are also political in tone, strongly suggesting exile (e.g., his home is deposited outside the walls of a distant city, potently symbolizing his social death by placing him where the necropolis of the town would be, and his new city is described as lacking water, evoking the Roman legal stricture interdictio aqua et igni). The witch has seized the power of law, exerting her control over the citizens of the town and dictating who is to be pardoned and who punished.

Periodically, however, Apuleius depicts law and magic working in tandem. In Book 2, Lucius hears Thelyphron recount his overnight employment guarding the corpse of a young man. Upon completing his watch and receiving his pay, Thelyphron witnesses the corpse being carried out. Immediately, an old man publicly accuses the young man’s widow of killing him using venenum, implying that she is a witch. To decide her fate, a sort of de facto trial follows with the old man as accuser and the widow as defendant. Lacking living witnesses, however, they resort to necromancy, hiring – for a great sum, appropriate to a lawyer/magician – Zatchlas, a man costumed as an Egyptian priest, to perform the rite. The enlivened corpse testifies under threat of torture (2.29 – torqueri), adducing Thelyphron as the sole documenta (“proof”).

In Apuleius’ novelistic world, witchcraft and Roman law both harness the power of words to control the world and, consequently, both are feared and loathed.


  • Frangoulidis, S. 2008. Witches, Isis and Narrative: Approaches to Magic inApuleius’ Metamorphoses. New York.
  • Keulen, W. 2007. Groningen Commentaries on Apuleius: Metamorphoses Book I. Groningen.
  • ——1997. “Some Legal Themes in an ApuleianContext,” in Der antikeRoman und seine mittelalterliche Rezeption. M. Picone and B. Zimmermann, eds. Basel: 203-230.
  • Osgood, J. 2006. “Nuptiae Iure Civili Congruae: Apuleius’ Story of Cupid and Psyche and theRoman Law of Marriage,” TAPA 136: 415-441.
  • Slater, N. 2007. “Posthumous Parleys: Chatting up theDead in Ancient Novels,” in AN Suppl.8. M. Paschalis, S. Frangoulidis, S.Harrison, M. Zimmerman, eds. Groningen: 57-69.
  • Summers, R.G. 1970. “Justice and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses,” TAPA 101: 511-531.
  • ——1967. A LegalCommentary on the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. Ph.D. Diss., Princeton.

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