William Murad
Apuleius the Magician

During the course of his trial for practicing magic before the Roman provincial court at the North African city of Sabratha around 158 C.E., Apuleius fully enjoyed the privileges of the craft for which he has been accused.

Here are some examples:

Apuleius conjures up Lady Philosophy to stand by his side as co-defendant in the trial.[1]

He resurrects Plato, a notorious critic of the "art" of rhetoric, [2] and goes so far as to turn the great philosopher into a rhetorician and advocate for the defense. [3]

By merely rereading certain poems of his, he is able to turn whatever was found objectionable in them by his opponents into arguments for his own case. [4]

Upon vigorous cross-examination, he even evinces articulate and indemnifying responses from the letter of his wife Pudentilla, whose words had previously existed among the evidentiary exhibits of the prosecution. [5]

These few tricks do not represent a complete catalog of the magical acts performed by Apuleius in his defense speech; however, they do illuminate some of the various and clever ways in which Apuleius treats not only authoritative textual sources external to the case but also those texts that played an important role in the speech for the prosecution. In this essay, I intend to look mainly at the latter phenomenon and to highlight instances in his Apology where Apuleius strives to recapture, for his defense, the literary and epistolary evidence cited by his opponents. [6]


The first actual text to which Apuleius refers as having been used as evidence by the prosecution is one of the defendant's own "poems", called an epistolium and addressed to Calpurnianus, a witness for the prosecution. The verses chronicle how, at the recipient's request, Apuleius sent Calpurnianus a dentifrice (munditias dentium) made from exotic ingredients from Arabia. Exactly what exists in these verses per se to indicate any sort of criminal activity is quite unclear, [7] and that this was also the case for Apuleius' listeners is made evident when Apuleius himself voices this same question. [8] Even more interesting than conjecturing as to why these verses were incrimination, however, is a discussion of how they are treated in the Apology itself. Apuleius first describes the scene of their introduction as evidence: ...iam de vorsibus dissertabo quos a me factos quasi pudendos protulerunt, cum quidem me animadvertisti cum risu illis suscensentem, quod eas absone et indocte [9] pronuntiarent.[10] [V, 7, 6-9] Apuleius' opponents, who attempted to cast scorn and shame on the defendant's verses, are in turn scorned for the beastly manner in which they undertook to read them. Apuleius castigates the prosecution with regard both to their physical voicing of the poem (absone) and to their ability to understand it (indocte). From this point, we find an invective tirade against his main opponent, Aemilianus, that lasts about two full chapters. The whole of c.6, however, works as an attempt by Apuleius to reclaim his poetry from the prosecution and to show that, rather than condemning him, the lines either incriminate a witness of the prosecution, Calpurnianus, for taking part in the activities of Apuleius or bring to light the ignorance and inanity of his opponents. To secure this result, Apuleius needs only to reread the lines with the proper intonation and understanding.

This whole process is revisted in almost the exact same order and phraseology three chapters later at c.9. This time, however, Apuleius is even more scornful toward his opposition, and subject to scrutiny here are two supposed love poems that Apuleius composed for the two children of his friend Scribonius Laetius. As in the case above, Apuleius begins his presentation of the lines by complaining about the poor reading and interpretation of his opponents: venio ad ceteros versus ut illi vocant amatorios, quos tamen tam dure et rustice legere, ut odium moverent.[IX, 10, 3-5] Apuleius asserts that the prosecution even rouses hatred among the listeners against the author by their careless reading. As in the case of the dentifrice poem, Apuleius must now recite his verses properly so that they appear in their intended sense and become helpful to his case, or at least not harmful to it: recitem, denuo, ut sciant me eorum non pigere.[IX, 11, 1-2] Then, before he reads the second poem, he again accuses the prosecution of a gross misreading: recitem nunc et alios, quos illi quasi intemperantissimos postremum legere.[IX, 11, 9-10] At the end of these readings, instead of, as at c.6, expressing indignation and wonder at what could be found criminal in these verses, Apuleius immediately begins his tirade against his opponents by voicing the scorn which he alluded to at c.6 (me..suscensentem) in his rather sarcastic conclusion about the crime found by the prosecution in these last two poems: [11] Habes crimen meum, Maxime, quasi improbri comisatoris de sertis et canticis compositum. hic illud etiam reprehendi animadvertisti, quod, cum aliis nominibus pueri vocentur, ego eos Charinum et Critian apellitarim. [X, 11, 23-26] What is actually culpable in these two poems has been widely debated,[12] but whatever their use to the prosecution, Apuleius uses them, as with the epistolium to Calpurnianus, chiefly to show, through his professional reading and proper interpretation of the lines, just how unskilled and ignorant his opponents were in trying to use these lines against him. Apuleius is thereby able to reroute his own writings from the prosecution's hoard of evidence into his own growing collection of counterproofs. Another point to consider briefly here is the stress which Apuleius seems to place on the actual reading of the poems. Written evidence, according to Butler and Owen who cite Cicero as authority, was generally read by a neutral party, an official at the court, and this is the case for almost every other piece of written evidence used in the present case. [13] The argument that grew around these small poems, which, though they might have been included among the pieces of written evidence, were not, perhaps provides a rationale for why they should have been entrusted to a neutral party.

The next instance of autocitation in the Apology comes in chapter 33, where Apuleius summarizes the prosecution's claims as to his quest for rare and oddly named fish. Tannonius Pudens, an advocate for the prosecution, could not bring himself to name one of the fish, which was called by the same term as the female pudenda, for which he accused Apuleius of searching. Apuleius pokes fun at the incident, and states that, instead of naming the fish, Pudens reads from one of Apuleius' books: interfeminium tegat et femoris obiectu et palmae velamento. [XXXIII, 39, 22-23] [14] Here, Apuleius does not need to recapture his writing from the prosecution; he only cites it to make Tannonius Pudens' actions appear rather silly. In fact, he makes this point clear with the question: cedo enim, si ego de Veneris statua nihil dixissem neque interfeminium nominassem, quibus tandem verbis accusasses crimen illud tam stultitiae quam linguae tuae congruens? [XXXIV, 40, 1-4] Here, the prosecution's inability to read or pronounce their evidence properly is only cursorily alluded to (linguae tuae congruens).

The remaining spots where Apuleius cites himself [15] in his defense speech are not points of contention with the prosecution; i.e., Apuleius brings them up only to support his integrity and innocence. Therefore, I will not deal with them at length here. It was my purpose in this section only to explicate instances where Apuleius' own writings were at stake in an argument with the prosecution. In these few instances, Apuleius tends to follow a general pattern. First, he ridicules them for their uncouth manners and inability to properly read the literature. Second, Apuleius rereads the passage "properly," or in the way in which he intended them to be read. He does this to show unequivocally that he is neither ashamed of his writings nor does he feel that there is anything in them which might cause him shame. Finally, he begins an extended invective passage against the manners, culture, etc. of his opponents. By the end of this process, the reader should unequivocally feel that Apuleius has regained control of the very writings, which the prosecution sought to turn against him.


The most important letter over which Apuleius battles with his prosecutors is the one written by Pudentilla, the woman Apuleius supposedly coerced through magical charms into being his wife, to her eldest son Pontianus. In this letter, Pudentilla exclaims "Apuleius is a magician, and I have been enchanted by him, and I am in love." She then instructs him to pack up his wife and his little brother, Sicinius Pudens, and to stay with her until she regains her senses (hews eti swphronw) [LXXXII, 90, 12-13]. The prosecution alleges that this is a cry for help from a woman in the throes of a magically-induced mania. Truly, what more proof is necessary when the woman herself has so clearly called Apuleius a magician? In response, Apuleius accuses the prosecution of reading this part of the letter out of context, and he states that, if the whole letter were read, it would easily be discovered that Pudentilla is only speaking ironically when she calls Apuleius a magician and that she is really telling her family that they should come so that they can put their minds at ease about her sanity and about her decision to marry him.

Apuleius first describes the presentation of this letter by his accusers in chapter 28, where he summarizes the remainder of his defense speech. Apuleius, as he did during the discussion of his poetry, refers with scorn to the manner in which his opponents both read and interpreted this letter. He explains, ...deque epistulis mulieris perperam lectis et nequius interpretatis... diputabo.[XXVIII, 33, 8-9] Gone are the country bumpkins who read poems so rudely and ignorantly (absone, indocte, dure, rustice) that they evoked a contemptuous smile from their author. Now, they are being depicted as purely evil men, capable of manipulating the text of Pudentilla's letter to their own wicked ends by reading them falsely and interpreting them even worse (perperam... et nequius). It is here that Apuleius first explicitly brings up the concept of reading/interpreting texts properly which was only implicit and of marginal importance in the chapters on his poetry, where the physical reading of the lines played the greater role.

When Apuleius returns to this letter in detail at chapters 78 - 86, though, we will soon find textual interpretation at the heart of his discourse. [16] Apuleius begins his case in this matter slowly. First, he establishes the legitimacy of his copy of the letter. [17] Next, he appeals to the general unreliability of women in love, citing the wicked Phaedra as a case in point. Then, he discusses how absurd it would be if he were convicted based solely on Pudentilla's one sentence (commenting, at one point, quid, si consulem me scripsisset: consul essem?). He then quibbles over her state of mind: if she were sane, she had obviously not been made insane by his magic; but if she were insane, she could have neither understood her state nor diagnosed it so correctly in her letter. At last, he has the letter read until just before the part which his opponents cited as proof that he had bewitched Pudentilla, and he maintains that, up to that point, the letter speaks in his favor. Then, Apuleius describes how the letter was mishandled and maliciously interpreted by the prosecution: [18]

superest ea pars epistulae, quae similiter pro me scripta in memet ipsum vertit cornua, ad expellendum a me crimen magiae sedulo missa memorabili laude Rufini vicem mutavit et ultro contrariam mihi opinionem quorundam Oeensium quasi mago quaesivit. [LXXXI, 89, 18-23]
The prosecutors have taken an innocent letter and turned it into a rabid beast that attacks the person whom it was meant to protect. Apuleius even calls Rufinus, the father-in-law of Pontianus, a magician for effecting such a prodigious metamorphosis.

As in the case of the "love" poetry, the prosecution stirred up hatred against Apuleius with their reading of the letter: quae purgandi mei gratia scripta erant, eadem mihi immanem invidiam apud imperitos concivere.[LXXXII, 90, 21-23] This time, however, instead of being a mere simpleton and rustic in his reading, Apuleius' opponent is a raving lunatic, an impurus... bacchabundus[LXXXII, 90, 23-24] who incites the vulgar throng. To fight this sort of malicious textual interpretation, Apuleius must invent a witness to take his side amongst the crowd that listens to Rufinus' version. This witness astutely recognizes the many layers of textual interpretation and how easily a listener can be hoodwinked by someone, like Rufinus, who imposes their own reading on a text. Smartly, Apuleius' dream witness asks for a complete and "impartial" reading of the letter:

totam sodes epistulam cedo: sine omnia inspiciam a principio ad finem perlegam. multa sunt, quae sola prolata calumniae possint videri obnoxia. cuiavis oratio insimulari potest, si ea quae ex prioribus nexa sunt principio sui defrudentur, si quaedam ex ordine scriptorum ad lubidinem supprimantur, si quae simulationis causa dicta sunt adseverantis pronuntiatione quam exprobrantis leagantur. [LXXXII, 91, 1-8]

Not to be remiss, Apuleius quickly indulges his phantom witness. He challenges Aemilianus to deny the authenticity of the words he is about to read, and then dramatically reads up to the last sentence of the letter. Pudentilla, rather than accusing Apuleius, seems to scorn the charge of magic as an invention of the dissolute men who had first instigated Pontianus against Apuleius and have now brought him to court in the name of her younger son, Sicinius Pudens. She then sarcastically begs for him to come and save her. And, in paragraph 84, when Apuleius reads the last sentence of the letter, we find out for certain that she was being sarcastic in the preceding portion. She states explicitly, "I have neither been enchanted nor am I in love."

Sandwiched between the reading of this last line and the reading of the previous few lines of the letter is a very interesting scene where Apuleius imagines what the words of Pudentilla which had been suppressed by Rufinus would say if they could physically speak. They, too, like Apuleius' aforementioned phantom witness, would disrupt Rufinus' frenzied appeals to the crowds in the forum, and just like this witness, the words of Pudentilla describe the perfidy in Rufinus' reading of the letter: [19]

totum forum tumultu complessent: 'se quoque a Pudentilla missas, sibi etiam quae dicerent mandata; improbo ac nefario homini per alienas litteras falsum facere temptanti nec auscultarent, sibi potius audirent; Apuleium magiae non accusatum a Pudentilla, sed accusante Rufino absolutum'[LXIII, 92, 8-12]

From here on, it is clear that the prosecution can not be trusted to present an honest reading of the evidence, and when, in chapter 87, Apuleius confronts a letter, submitted as evidence by the prosecution and supposedly written by Apuleius himself to flatter Pudentilla and prepare her for his magical charms, the author only has to scoff at it as being forged. Certainly Apuleius had proven that Rufinus, at least, was not above such activity and, for all intents and purposes, had forged sentiments when he read from Pudentilla's letter. Apuleius does not even grace this letter with a reading. Perhaps, by reading it, he might seem to be appropriating it as his own. The patterns chronicled above would indicate that Apuleius read, or had read, only the written evidence that showed him in a good light or had been misread by his opponents. [20] Other letters that are read during the course of the defense speech, e.g., the letters of Pontianus praising Apuleius [c.96], the letter of Lollianus Avitus [c.94] which also praises our author, certainly fit this description. The letter of Aemilianus to Pontianus [c.69] and another one of Pudentilla to Pontianus [c.70] are read in order to embarass the accusers and to show that Pudentilla had planned to marry even before she met Apuleius. There is also the letter of Sicinius Pudens to Pontianus [c.86], which is not read, but appears to be something that the prosecution should have actually suppressed.

In this essay, I have attempted to highlight areas in the Apology where Apuleius deals with textual authorities introduced by the prosecution as evidence. The first group of these texts were classified as instances of autocitation, where Apuleius is compelled by the prosecution to defend his own literary works. In the cases of the epistolium addressed to Calpurnianus and of the two supposed love poems, Apuleius first and most importantly counters his accusers by reading his poems aloud properly, thus showing that he is not ashamed of them and that his accusers, when they tried to read the poems, were only contemptible, ignorant and rustics. Following his reading, Apuleius can then undertake an invective tirade against his opponents' attempts to incriminate him through texts they can not even read properly. I classified the second group of texts directly related to the case as epistolary evidence, and I concentrated mainly on the one letter written by Pudentilla to her son Pontianus. Apuleius deals with this text similarly to how he handles his poems in that he castigates his opponents for their horrible reading of the text. Now, however, instead of simple and uncouth, Apuleius labels the reading and interpretation of written evidence by his opponents as morally reprehensible and wicked. Apuleius expends much energy to prove that Rufinus and his party are unscrupulous misinterpreters and manipulators of texts. This conclusion, once drawn and accepted, allows Apuleius to act as the only honest reader of texts on either side of the court case. He is then able, at will, to dismiss texts (the forged letter of c.87) as forgeries or to claim legitimacy for them (Pudentilla's birth registry, the dowry agreement, and Pudentilla's will). A thorough discussion of these texts makes it clear how important they were both to the prosecutors and to Apuleius' defense speech. The question remains as to how successfully Apuleius reclaimed these texts in the eyes of the court and whether or not success in this area would indicate acquittal...


1. In chapter 3, Apuleius claims, sustineo enim non modo meam, verum etiam philosophiae defensionem, cuia magnitudo vel minimam reprehensionem pro maximo crimine aspernatur. I find the personification here in the concept cuia magnitudo... aspernatur. See also the beginning of chapter 1, where there a similar sentiment is expressed, but the personification is, perhaps, not as clear.

2. For a good discussion on Plato's attitude toward rhetoric and, thus, advocacy, see Jacqueline de Romilly, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, pp.23-44.

3. See chapter 65, ut omnium assensus declaravit, Maxime quique in consilio estis, competentissime videor usus Platone ut vitae magistro, ita causae patrono, cuius legibus obedientem me videtis. (bold mine) Apuleius says this immediately after quoting from Plato's Laws.

4. See chapters 6-10 and the discussion of autocitation below.

5. See chapter 83 and the discussion of epistolary evidence below.

6. For discussions of the former phenomenon, see, among others, Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, (The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD, 1987), p. 559, who sees Apuleius' use of citations from Pythagoras as a manifestation of neo-Pythagorean philosophy and as, practically, an admission of magical practice. Also Ellen Finkelpearl, Metamorphosis of Language in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1986, and look for Thomas McCreight, Apuleius, lector Sallustii: Lexicographical, Textual and Intertextual Observations on Sallust and Apuleius. As yet unpublished, but I thank the author very much for allowing me to look through it.

7. See Adam Abt, Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei, p. 95. He mentions a possible motive, outside of an actual charge, for the prosecution's citing of this poem: "Vielleicht wollen die Gegner nur sagen: wer sich ueberhaupt mit der Herstellung von medicamina abgibt, dem sind auch mala medicamina zuzutrauen."

8. In chapter 6, Apuleius asks, quaeso, quid habent isti versus re aut verbo pudendum, quid omnino quod philosophus suum nolit videri?

9. These words (absone, indocte) are certainly part of the general program of invective. See Thomas McCreight, Invective Techniques in Apuleius' Apology, as well as. Andy Wiesner's discussion of invective on this site.

10. All references to the Apologia are quoted from Helm's edition. In the brackets, I cite the chapter number, the page number in the Helm edition, and the line numbers on the page.

11. Abt notes about the following passage that, if Apuleius was trying to enchant these boys or use them in a magical proceeding he would have used their real names, and he goes on to wonder: "...ob es nicht vielleicht erst Apuleius ist, der aus der Muecke den Elefanten macht, waehrend die Klaeger ueber diese Tatsache rascher weggegangen waren." (Abt, p. 98)

12. On this debate, cf. Butler and Owen p. 23 who disagree with Abt, who believes that ambiguities in word meanings here, esp. carmen which can denote magical charms, could signify that he is being accused of authoring spells. B&O show that the word is used elsewhere without any ambiguity. The word amatorius, they concede, is often used to describe the magically-created love philtre (on which see also Jacqueline de Romilly, p. 12).

13. Butler and Owen, p. 149 and p. 167. For other places in this speech where written evidence is referred to as being read by another party, see c.37 and c.55

14. Butler and Owen, p.84, observe that this passage contains similar language to Metamorphoses ii.17; though, they conclude that the line is most likely from a lost declamation. Hal Wyner, during the seminar, pointed out that the line also resembles the passage in Met. xi.14, when Lucius regains his human shape and strives to cover his naked body.

15. Other places where Apuleius cites himself or alludes to his works: c.24, c.37, c.38, c.55, c.73

16. Apuleius, as an author, seems to be particularly aware of issues of textual interpretation within his texts. See John J. Winkler, Auctor et Actor, esp. p.8-22, but the issue permeates the entire work. Winkler illustrates several passages in the Metamorphoses that are "about the process of interpretation." He also notes that Apuleius begins his novel by telling the reader to expect pleasant tales, but in at XI.15, the Isiac priest who helps Lucius regain his humanity also explains that the tales in the novel need to be reinterpreted.

The discussion of textual interpretation with a text is quite wonderfully illustrated in a scene from Dante's Purgatory, canto XXII, where the first century C.E. Roman poet Statius claims that he became a Christian from reading and interpreting properly a passage in Vergil's fourth Eclogue, an interpretation that Vergil obviously never intended. It is both pathetic and ironic that, in this scene, Vergil is standing right next to Statius and it was he who asked Statius how he was converted. Of course, Vergil, the author of those salvific lines, must languish in eternal unfulfillment in the first circle of Hell.

17. The question of authenticity of texts does not come up often in the Apologia, and I feel that this is significant. The verification of texts is encountered here, at c.87 where Apuleius prounounces a letter to be forged, at c.89 where Apuleius pulls out Pudentilla's birth registries, and at c.2 where Aemilianus tries to discredit the will of his uncle as a forgery (pro falso).

18. What letter or part of the letter Rufinus actually possessed is discussed in Elaine Fantham, Aemilia Pudentilla: or the wealthy widow's choice, p. 227. She entertains the notion that the context surrounding what the prosecution quotes could have been invented; however, she also doubts that Rufinus could have only possessed that small part of the letter. The fact that, according to Apuleius, Aemilianus had copied the letter at the same time as himself would speak for the conclusion that the prosecution had the entire letter and that, as Apuleius states, they were indeed maliciously suppressing the rest of it.

19. Both the words of the imaginary witness and the imagined exclamations of Pudentilla's letter describe, in a fair amount of detail, the process of altering texts to one's fancy through the reading and interpreting of it. That Apuleius is intimately aware of the process of repackaging texts can be seen at c.41, where, as noted in Butler and Owen p.100, Apuleius misquotes (intentionally?) Plato (probably Timaeus 59). Also, in c.22, Apuleius approves of Crates, who refashioned a verse in Homer so that it would celebrate poverty.

20. At chapter 61, we hear of another letter of Pudentilla from which Apuleius' opponents got the information to charge Apuleius with the worship of his little Mercury idol. Of course, this letter is never quoted from at length, and Apuleius never tells us in what context Pudentilla chronicled this habit of his.