Apuleius: Sorcerer, Fortune-hunter, and Cultist?

The sorcerer, Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, purportedly bewitched a friend’s wealthy mother in 157 AD, and then nearly went to trial for that and murder. Romans and sorcerers are not usually associated, and though there may have been other sorcerers, their stories were likely lost to time. However, the most is known about Apuleius since he is also a well-known Latin author–Latin III students will be reading his Cupid and Psyche which was the only complete novel that survived from antiquity. 

Apuleius was born in Madaura, a Roman colony in Northern Africa, at about 125 AD. His father was a duumvir, the highest municipal office in the colony, which afforded Apuleius his extensive education. He completed secondary school in Carthage and then went to Athens for the equivalent of college. Apuleius made many friends there, including a man who he would know later in life, Pontianus. He studied at the University and abroad longer than most; he could afford it with his inheritance valued at 3.3 million today. 

Yet, under ambiguous circumstances, scholars theorize that Apuleius then lost his fortune, which forced him to leave Athens for Rome. However, by the time he left, Apuleius had been converted to the cult of Isis (not the terrorists!), which could be another reason for his departure. 

In Rome, Apuleius worked as a successful pleader in Roman basilicas, which were courthouses– not yet places of religious worship. While he was there, he maintained his devotion to the cult of Isis and published his first work, Metamorphoses, which is about Lucius, who wishes to possess magic and accidentally turns himself into a donkey. Lucius then goes on a journey which is sprinkled with embedded magical stories. However, his earlier unofficial publications were so scandalous that later versions included religious conversions at the end of the most disreputable parts to maintain political correctness. 

After five years, Apuleius returned to Africa and travelled to Alexandria. During his travels, he fell ill in Oea, modern-day Tripoli, and stayed with a friend to recuperate. While he was there, Pontianus, his friend from Athens, visited. Pontianus was looking for a husband for his mother, Pudentilla, and did not want her to marry someone who would take his inheritance. Thinking Apuleius would be an ideal suitor, he invited him for a long stay at their home to help him and his younger brother in their studies. While he stayed with Pontianus, Apuleius gave lectures to everyone in Oea and became so well-liked that nobody wanted him to leave; when he and Pudentilla were engaged, the town was delighted. 

Unfortunately, Pontianus’s wife and uncle began scheming to break off Apuleius and Pudentilla’s union to ensure they would receive all of the inheritance. Apuleius, catching wind of the plot, made Pudentilla promise to leave her fortune to her sons. When Pontianus found out, he apologised for his wife’s scheming, but died just a year later. Pudentilla’s younger son and his uncle accused Apuleius of murdering Pontianus and an addiction to magic. Frightened by Apuleius’s vehement demands to go to court, the accusers dropped the charge of murder.

The trial of sorcery was held in Sabrata, and at the time magic was not such an unreasonable charge, even if ad hominem attacks could lead to a conviction. Additionally, Apuleius may have seemed foreign to the townspeople on account of his association with multiple mysteries, knowledge of Platonic theology and science, and general education; at the time, prejudice against ‘barbarians’ or outsiders was common. Furthermore, Apuleius is rumored to have been arrogant about his education and refinement, which added to the growing enmity. When writing his defense, Apologia, he acknowledged this by dropping pretension and using humility to win his case. 

After the trial, Apuleius moved to Carthage, where he lived the rest of his days. He became a renowned lecturer, but there was no larger meaning or significance behind his writings as there had been; he wrote what people wanted to hear including panegyrics, valedictories, and thanks– nothing controversial. Metamorphoses became popular with the context of his priesthood and it lifted him in public esteem. 

It all seemed to magically work out for Apuleius, but what happened to his book of heretical stories during the trial?

Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, Cupid and Psyche; Purser, Louis C., London, George Bell & Sons, 1910.

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