The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass Study Guide

Apuleius’s The Golden Ass is famous not just for its amusing, allegorical content, but also because it has the distinction of being the only surviving Roman novel in its entirety. It was published in the 2nd century CE and has endured as a classic for two thousand years.

Apuleius initially titled the work Metamorphoses, but it was renamed by editors. Scholars debate whether or not it was written in Rome or Carthage; currently most agree that it was written in the latter during the 160s or 170s CE.

Its content regarding witchcraft has an important autobiographical element, as Apuleius was accused of witchcraft by his wife’s relatives; he was acquitted, mostly due to his stirring Apologia.

Despite similarities with Apuleius's life, The Golden Ass is not considered a fully autobiographical novel. It came out of an earlier work of his entitled Lucius, or the Ass. Apuleius interwove new stories in this work and gave it the ending of the hero’s conversion to the cult of Isis. One of its stories, the tale of Cupid and Psyche, became perhaps even more famous than the novel itself. Scholar P.G. Walsh writes, “it is…clear that Apuleius has converted a Greek short story into an extended romance with a tripartite structure.”

The novel is critically discussed in terms of its comic vs. serious and allegorical elements, and is successful in that it functions on multiple levels simultaneously.

Writers and other cultural figures have been inspired by the work throughout the centuries. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his own version in a poem, although it was uncompleted at his death. Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915) features a character being transformed into a large insect, and C.S. Lewis took the story of Cupid and Psyche and told it from the perspective of one of psyche's ugly sisters in Till We Have Faces (1956). The work has also be staged and adapted into a comic book.