Witches, Warlocks, and Magic

16 Apuleius: A Wizard On Trial

In this section you will learn:


  • About Apuleius, a second century CE polymath, whose defense speech on a charge of magic you will read below;
  • His background, education, and marriage to a rich widow in a town in North Africa;
  • The background to his trial for enchanting that rich widow in marriage;
  • His local opponents in court, who included his young stepson and the previous husband’s family;
  • How his opponents tried to present him to the judge, a high Roman official, as unRoman;
  • How Apuleius, in turn, argued that his opponents we unRoman and he was very Roman, just like the judge;
  • Why Apuleius was successful, and his opponents were not;
  • About Apuleius’ novel, The Golden Ass, packed full of witches among other things’
  • Why Apuleius is the most interesting man in the ancient world.
The Roman forum at Madauros (modern M’daourouch in Algeria). Image by Michel-georges Bernard, from Wikimedia Commons.

The second century CE Roman author, Apuleius of Madauros, is a truly fascinating figure for many reasons. Madauros, as you will read in his defense speech, was a town on the borders of the Roman empire in Roman North Africa. It was located in modern Algeria, and while it had been a town long before the Romans arrived, they ‘refounded’ it as a colony for veteran soldiers, and with the addition of these soldiers the town became patterned after a Roman town,, complete with forum and theatre.

Roman theatre in Madauros. Image from Wikimedia Commons, by Dan Sloan

Apuleius was born to  wealthy parents and his father was a leading figure in their town, as he discusses below. He travelled and studied widely, spending time in Athens and Rome as well as other locations. He spoke and wrote Latin and Greek, and translated a great deal of Greek literature – in fact he wrote an enormous amount, not all of which survives. He is also the author of our only complete Latin novel, The Golden Ass (often called Metamorphoses), a story about a student who heads to Thessaly, a remote region in Greece in search of witches, finds them, and as a result spends most of the novel as a donkey.


One of the ways that we know about Apuleius’ life is through his Apology, his defence speech on a charge of enchanting a wealthy widow to marry him. The widow was called Pudentila, and the brother of her previous husband objected to this strenuously, as he had hoped she would marry back into his family and bring her money with her. Her seventeen year old son, and, for a while, her older son, who had been friends with Apuleius during their studies overseas.[1], were also part of the prosecution. The trial was held in 158 CE before the governor of the province, Claudius Maximus, and his advisory council, and presumably as many people in the town (Sabratha) and its surroundings as could fit in the semi-open space where the trial was held. It, after all, promised everything: family intrigue, love, magic, fish, good-looking philosophers, extremely rich people’s private letters being read out, and more.

The ancient Roman theatre in Sabratha. Image by Ahmed A Abdurahman

First before you read extracts from the defence speech, here is a fellow North African author, the fourth century Christian, Augustine, on Apuleius’ remarkably successful life, even if he did not, as Augustine points out, ever make consul or  any lower pisition in the city of Rome.

19. Apuleius (of whom I choose rather to speak, because, as our own countryman, he is better known to us Africans), though born in a place of some note, and a man of superior education and great eloquence, never succeeded, with all his magical arts, in reaching, I do not say the supreme power, but even any subordinate office as a magistrate in the Empire. Does it seem probable that he, as a philosopher, voluntarily despised these things, who, being the priest of a province, was so ambitious of greatness that he gave spectacles of gladiatorial combats, provided the dresses worn by those who fought with wild beasts in the circus, and, in order to get a statue of himself erected in the town of Oea, thebirthplace of his wife, appealed to law against the opposition made by some of the citizens to the proposal, and then, to prevent this from being forgotten by posterity, published the speech delivered by him on that occasion? So far, therefore, as concerns worldly prosperity, that magician did his utmost in order to success; whence it is manifest that he failed not because he was not wishful, but because he was not able to do more. At the same time we admit that he defended himself with brilliant eloquence against some who imputed to him the crime of practising magical arts; which makes me wonder at those who praise him, who, in affirming that by these arts he achieved some miracles, attempt to bring evidence contradicting his own defense of himself from the charge. Let them, however, examine whether, indeed, they are bringing true testimony, and he was guilty of arguing what he knew to be false. Those who pursue magical arts only with a view to worldly prosperity or from an accursed curiosity, and those also who, though innocent of such arts, still praise them with a dangerous admiration, I would encourage to pay attention, if they are smart, and to observe how, without any such arts, David became a king from the position of a shepherd, of whom Scripture has faithfully recorded both the sinful and the meritorious actions, in order that we might know both how to avoid offending God, and how, when he has been offended, gis anger may be appeased.

Augustine, Letters 138.19

The following are extracts from his defence speech, The Apology,[footnote]An Apology in Latin or Greek was a defence speech, and not an apology in the modern sense. Apuleius does not seem terribly sorry for anything he has done in his life.[/footnote] which must have been successful as he went on to a very successful career as a public intellectual in Carthage, as one can see from Augustine’s knowledge of him and his work. The extracts show the avenues of attack that were employed against him, trying to paint him as barely Roman and devious. They also show that he was very effective in showing himself to be the true Roman, and his opponents as barely literate morons, who struggled to read Greek, unlike Apuleius and the Governor in charge of the court, Claudius Maximus.

To begin then, only a short while ago, at the commencement of the indictment, you heard them say, `He, whom we accuse in your court, is a philosopher of the most elegant appearance and a master of eloquence not merely in Latin but also in Greek!’ What a damning insinuation! Unless I am mistaken, those were the very words with which Tannonius Pudens, whom no one could accuse of being a master of eloquence, began the indictment. I wish that these serious attacks on my beauty and eloquence had been true. It would have been easy to answer in the words, with which Homer makes Paris reply to Hector which I may interpret thus: `The most glorious gifts of the gods should not at all be despised; but the things which they are accustomed to give are withheld from many that would gladly possess them.’[2] Such would have been my reply.I should have added that philosophers are not forbidden to possess a handsome face. Pythagoras,[3] the first to take the name of `philosopher’, was the handsomest man of his day. Zeno also, the ancient philosopher of Velia, who was the first to discover that most ingenious device of refuting hypotheses by the method of self-inconsistency, that same Zeno was — so Plato asserts — by far the most striking in appearance of all the men of his generation. It is further recorded of many other philosophers that they were very good looking and added fresh charm to their personal beauty by their beauty of character. But such a defence is, as I have already said, far from me. Not only has nature given me but a commonplace appearance, but continued literary labour has swept away such charm as my body ever possessed, has reduced me to a lean habit of body, sucked away all the freshness of life, destroyed my complexion and impaired my vigour. As to my hair, which they with unblushing lies declare I have allowed to grow long to pimp myself out, you can judge its elegance and beauty. As you see, it is tangled, twisted and unkempt like a lump of cord, shaggy and irregular in length, so knotted and matted that the tangle is past the art of man to unravel. This is due not to mere carelessness in how I style my hair, but to the fact that I never so much as comb or part it. I think this is a sufficient refutation of the accusations concerning my hair which they hurl against me as though it were something worthy of the death penalty.

5. As to my eloquence — if only eloquence were mine — it would be small matter either for wonder or envy if I, who from my earliest years to the present moment have devoted myself with all my powers to the sole study of literature and for this spurned all other pleasures, had sought to win eloquence to be mine with toil such as few or none have ever expended, ceasing neither night nor day, to the neglect and impairment of my bodily health. But my opponents need fear nothing from my eloquence. If I have made any real advance therein, it is my aspirations rather than my attainments on which I must base my claim. ertainly if the aphorism said to occur in the poems of Statius Caecilius be true, that innocence is eloquence itself, to that extent I may lay claim to eloquence and boast that I yield to none. For on that assumption what living man could be more eloquent than myself? I have never even harboured in my thoughts anything to which I should fear to give utterance. Nay, my eloquence is consummate, for I have ever held all sin in abomination; I have the highest oratory at my command, for I have uttered no word, I have done no deed, of which I need fear to discourse in public. I will begin therefore to discourse of those verses of mine, which they have produced as though they were something of which I ought to be ashamed. You must have noticed the laughter with which I showed my annoyance at the absurd and illiterate manner in which they recited them.



Apuleius spends some time discussing the poetry they read out, including a poem on tooth powder, and poems in praise of some attractive males slaves owned by a friend, among other things. He then turns to the prosecution’s charge of poverty, which he says is a compliment for a philosopher, before pointing out that he was, in fact, born into a well-off and distinguished family.

23.. I acknowledge that my father left my brother and myself a little under 2,000,000 sesterces — a sum on which my lengthy travels, continual studies, and frequent generosity have made considerable inroads. For I have often assisted my friends and have shown substantial gratitude to many of my instructors, on more than one occasion going so far as to provide dowries for their daughters. Indeed, I should not have hesitated to expend every farthing of my inheritance, if so I might acquire what is far better by contempt for it. But as for you, Aemilianus, and ignorant boors of your type, in your case the fortune makes the man. You are like barren and diseased trees that produce no fruit, but are valued only for the timber that their trunks contain. But I beg you, Aemilianus, in future to abstain from reviling any one for their poverty, since you yourself used, after waiting for some seasonable shower to soften the ground, to expend three days in ploughing single-handed, with the aid of one wretched ass, that miserable farm at Zarath, which was all your father left you. It is only recently that fortune has smiled on you in the shape of wholly undeserved inheritances which have fallen to you by the frequent deaths of relatives, deaths to which, far more than to your hideous face, you owe your nickname of Charon[4]. As to my birthplace, you assert that my writings prove it to lie right on the borders of Numidia and Gaetulia, for I publicly described myself as half Numidian, half Gaetulian in a discourse delivered in the presence of that most distinguished senator Lollianus Avitus. I do not see that I have any more reason to be ashamed of that than had Cyrus the Elder for being of mixed descent, half Mede, half Persian. A man’s birthplace is of no importance, it is his character that matters. We must consider not in what part of the world, but with what purpose he set out to live his life. Sellers of wine and cabbages are permitted to enhance the value of their wares by advertising the excellence of the soil whence they spring, as for instance with the wine of Thasos and the cabbages of Phlius. For those products of the soil are wonderfully improved in flavour by the fertility of the district which produces them, the moistness of the climate, the mildness of the winds, the warmth of the sun, and the richness of the soil. But in the case of man, the soul enters the tenement of the body from without. What, then, can such circumstances as these add to or take away from his virtues or his vices? Has there ever been a time or place in which a race has not produced a variety of intellects, although some races seem stupider and some wiser than others? The Scythians are the stupidest of men, and yet the wise Anacharsis was a Scyth. The Athenians are shrewd, and yet the Athenian Meletides was a fool.

I say this not because I am ashamed of my home, since even in the time of Syphax we were a township. When he was conquered we were transferred by the gift of the Roman people to the dominion of King Masinissa, and finally as the result of a settlement of veteran soldiers, our second founders, we have become a colony of the highest distinction. In this same colony my father attained to the post of duumvir and became the foremost citizen of the place, after filling all the municipal offices of honour. I myself, immediately after my first entry into the municipal senate, succeeded to my father’s position in the community, and, as I hope, am in no ways a degenerate successor, but receive like honour and esteem for my maintenance of the dignity of my position. Why do I mention this? That you, Aemilianus, may be less angry with me in future and may more readily pardon me for having been negligent enough not to select your `Attic’ Zarath for my birthplace.


Apuleius defended himself vigorously on the charge of magic, but he was also willing to claim great things for it:

25. I will now deal with the actual charge of magic. You spared no violence in fanning the flame of hatred against me. But you have disappointed all men’s expectations by your old wives’ fables, and the fire kindled by your accusations has burned itself away. I ask you, Maximus, have you ever seen fire spring up among the stubble, crackling sharply, blazing wide and spreading fast, but soon exhausting its flimsy fuel, dying fast away, leaving not a wrack behind? So they have kindled their accusation with abuse and fanned it with words, but it lacks the fuel of facts and, your verdict once given, is destined to leave not a wrack of calumny behind. The whole of Aemilianus’ calumnious accusation was centred in the charge of magic. I should therefore like to ask his most learned advocates how, precisely, they would define a magician.

If what I read in a large number of authors is true, namely, that magician is the Persian word for priest, what is there criminal in being a priest and having due knowledge, science, and skill in all ceremonial law, sacrificial duties, and the binding rules of religion, at least if magic consists in that which Plato sets forth in his description of the methods employed by the Persians in the education of their young princes? I remember the very words of that divine philosopher. Let me recall them to your memory, Maximus:

When the boy has reached the age of fourteen he is handed over to the care of men known as the Royal Masters. They are four in number, and are chosen as being the best of the elders of Persia, one the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, a fourth the bravest. And one of these teaches the boy the magic of Zoroaster the son of Oromazes; and this magic is no other than the worship of the gods. He also teaches him the arts of kingship. 26. Do you hear, you who so rashly accuse the art of magic? It is an art acceptable to the immortal gods, full of all knowledge of worship and of prayer, full of piety and wisdom in things divine, full of honour and glory since the day when Zoroaster and Oromazes established it, high-priestess of the powers of heaven. Nay, it is one of the first elements of princely instruction, nor do they lightly admit any chance person to be a magician, any more than they would admit him to be a king. Plato — if I may quote him again — in another passage dealing with a certain Zalmoxis, a Thracian and also a master of this art has written that magical charms are merely beautiful words. If that is so, why should I be forbidden to learn the fair words of Zalmoxis or the priestly lore. of Zoroaster?

But if these accusers of mine, after the fashion of the common herd, define a magician as one who by communion of speech with the immortal gods has power to do all the marvels that he will, through a strange power of incantation, I really wonder that they are not afraid to attack one whom they acknowledge to be so powerful. For it is impossible to guard against such a mysterious and divine power. Against other dangers we may take adequate precautions. He who summons a murderer before the judge comes into court with an escort of friends; he who denounces a poisoner is unusually careful as to what he eats; he who accuses a thief sets a guard over his possessions. But for the man who exposes a magician, credited with such awful powers, to the danger of a capital sentence, how can escort or precaution or watchmen save him from unforeseen and inevitable disaster? Nothing can save him, and therefore the man who believes in the truth of such a charge as this is certainly the last person in the world who should bring such an accusation.

One of the accusation against Apuleius was that he had bought special fish to work magic with. He responded by pointing out that fish were decidedly unromantic.

27. I fear, however, Maximus, that you may regard the empty, ridiculous and childish fictions which my opponents have advanced in support of their case as serious charges merely because they have been put forward. `Why,’ says my accuser, `have you sought out particular kinds of fish?’ Why should not a philosopher be permitted to do for the satisfaction of his desire for knowledge what the gourmand is permitted to do for the satisfaction of his gluttony? `What,’ he asks, `induced a free woman to marry you after thirteen years of widowhood?’ As if it were not more remarkable that she should have remained a widow so long. `Why, before she married you, did she express certain opinions in a letter?’ As if anyone should give the reasons for another person’s private opinions. `But,’ he goes on, `although she was your senior in years, she did not despise your youth.’ Surely this simply serves to show that there was no need of magic to induce a woman to marry a man, or a widow to wed a bachelor some years her junior. There are more charges equally frivolous. `Apuleius,’ he persists, `keeps a mysterious object in his house which he worships with veneration.’ As if it were not a worse offence to have nothing to worship at all. `A boy fell to the ground in Apuleius’ presence.’ What if a young man or even an old man had fallen in my presence through a sudden stroke of disease or merely owing to the slipperiness of the ground? Do you really think to prove your charge of magic by such arguments as these: the fall of a wretched boy, my marriage to my wife, my purchases of fish?

28. I should run but small risk if I were to content myself with what I have already said and begin my peroration. But since as a result of the length at which my accusers spoke, the water-clock still allows me plenty of time, let us, if there is no objection, consider the charges in detail. I will deny none of them, be they true or false. I will assume their truth, that this great crowd, which has gathered from all directions to hear this case, may clearly understand not only that no true incrimination can be brought against philosophers, but that not even any false charge can be fabricated against them, which — such is their confidence in their innocence — they will not be prepared to admit and to defend, even though it be in their power to deny it.

I will therefore begin by refuting their arguments, and will prove that they have nothing to do with magic. Next I will show that even on the assumption of my being the most consummate magician, I have never given cause or occasion for conviction of any evil practice. I will also deal with the lies with which they have endeavoured to arouse hostility against me, with their misquotation and misinterpretation of my wife’s letters, and with my marriage with Pudentilla, whom, as I will proceed to prove, I married for love and not for money. This marriage of ours caused frightful annoyance and distress to Aemilianus. Hence springs all the anger, frenzy, and raving madness that he has shown in the conduct of this accusation.

If I succeed in making all these points abundantly clear and obvious, I shall then appeal to you, Claudius Maximus, and to all here present to bear me out, that the boy Sicinius Pudens, my step-son, through whom and with whose consent his uncle now accuses me, was quite recently stolen from my charge after the death of Pontianus his brother, who was as much his superior in character as in years, and that he was fiercely embittered against myself and his mother through no fault of mine: that he abandoned his study of the liberal arts and cast off all restraint, and — thanks to the education afforded him by this villanous accusation — is more likely to resemble his uncle Aemilianus than his brother Pontianus.

29. I will now, as I promised, take Aemilianus’ ravings one by one, beginning with that charge which you must have noticed was given the place of honour in the accuser’s speech, as his most effective method of exciting suspicion against me as a sorcerer, the charge that I had sought to purchase certain kinds of fish from some fishermen. Which of these two points is of the slightest value as affording suspicion of sorcery? That fishermen sought to procure me the fish ? Would you have me entrust such a task to gold-embroiderers or carpenters, and, to avoid your calumnies, make them change their trades so that the carpenter would net me the fish, and the fisherman take his place and hew his timber? Or did you infer that the fish were wanted for evil purposes because I paid to get them? I presume, if I had wanted them for a dinner-party, I should have got them for nothing. Why do not you go farther and accuse me on many similar grounds ? I have often bought wine and vegetables, fruit and bread. The principles laid down by you would involve the starvation of all purveyors of dainties. Who will ever venture to purchase food from them, if it be decided that all provisions for which money is given are wanted not for food but for sorcery?

But if there is nothing in all this that can give rise to suspicion, neither the payment of the fishermen to ply their usual trade, to wit, the capture of fish — I may point out that the prosecution never produced any of these fishermen, who are, as a matter of fact, wholly creatures of their imagination — nor the purchase of a common article of sale — the prosecution have never stated the amount paid, for fear that if they mentioned a small sum, it would be regarded as trivial, or if they mentioned a large sum it would fail to win belief, — if, I say, there is no cause for suspicion on any of these grounds, I would ask Aemilianus to tell me what, failing these, induced them to accuse me of magic.

30. `You seek to purchase fish,’ he says. I will not deny it. But, I ask you, is any one who does that a magician? No more, in my opinion, than if I should seek to purchase hares or boar’s flesh or fatted capons. Or is there something mysterious in fish and fish alone, hidden from all save sorcerers only? If you know what it is, clearly you are a magician. If you do not know, you must confess that you are bringing an accusation of the nature of which you are entirely ignorant. To think that you should be so ignorant not only of all literature, but even of popular tales, that you cannot even invent charges that will have some show of plausibility! For of what use for the kindling of love is an unfeeling chilly creature like a fish, or indeed anything else drawn from the sea, unless indeed you propose to bring forward in support of your lie the legend that Venus was born from the sea?

I beg you to listen to me, Tannonius Pudens, that you may learn the extent of the ignorance which you have shown by accepting the possession of a fish as a proof of sorcery. If you had read your Vergil, you would certainly have known that very different things are sought for this purpose. He, as far as I recollect, mentions soft garlands and rich herbs and male incense and threads of diverse hues, and, in addition to these, brittle laurel, clay to be hardened, and wax to be melted in the fire. There are also the objects mentioned by him in a more serious poem.

Rank herbs are sought, with milky venom dark
by brazen sickles under moonlight mown;
sought also is that wondrous talisman,
torn from the forehead of the foal at birth
before its mother could snatch it.

But you who take such exception to fish attribute far different instruments to magicians, charms not to be torn from new-born foreheads, but to be cut from scaly backs; not to be plucked from the fields of earth, but to be drawn up from the deep fields of ocean; not to be mowed with sickles, but to be caught on hooks. Finally, when he is speaking of the black art, Vergil mentions poison, you produce an entree; he mentions herbs and young shoots, you talk of scales and bones; he crops the meadow, you search the waves.

I would also have quoted for your benefit similar passages from Theocritus with many others from Homer and Orpheus, from the comic and tragic poets and from the historians, had I not noticed ere now that you were unable to read Pudentilla’s letter which was written in Greek. I will, therefore, do no more than cite one Latin poet. Those who have read Laevius will recognize the lines.

Love-charms the warlocks seek through all the world:
The `lover’s knot’ they try, the magic wheel,
ribbons and nails and roots and herbs and shoots,
the two-tailed lizard that draws on to love,
and eke the charm tbat gods the whinnying mare.

31. You would have made out a far more plausible case by pretending that I made use of such things instead of fish, if only you had possessed the slightest erudition. For the belief in the use of these things is so widespread that you might have been believed. But of what use are fish save to be cooked and eaten at meals? In magic they seem to me to be absolutely useless. I will tell you why I think so.

Many hold Pythagoras to have been a pupil of Zoroaster, and, like him, to have been skilled in magic. And yet it is recorded that once near Metapontum, on the shores of Italy, his home, which his influence had converted into a second Greece, he noticed certain fishermen draw up their net. He offered to buy whatever it might contain, and after depositing the price ordered all the fish caught in meshes of the net to be relea~ed and thrown back into the sea. He would assuredly never have allowed them to slip from his possession had he known them to possess any valuable magical properties. For being a man of abnormal learning, and a great admirer of the men of old, he remembered that Homer, a poet of manifold or, rather I should say, absolute knowledge of all that may be known, spoke of the power of all the drugs that earth produces, but made no mention of the sea, when speasing of a certain witch, he wrote the line:

All drugs, that wide earth nourishes, she knew.

Similarly in another passage he says:

Earth the grain-giver
yields up to her its store of drugs, whereo
many be healing, mingled in the cup,
and many baneful.

But never in the works of Homer did Proteus anoint his face nor Ulysses his magic trench, nor Aeolus his windbags, nor Helen her mixing bowl, nor Circe her cup, nor Venus her girdle, with any charm drawn from the sea or its inhabitants. You alone within the memory of man have been found to sweep as it were by some convulsion of nature all the powers of herbs and roots and young shoots and small pebbles from their hilltops into the sea, and there confine them in the entrails of fish. And so whereas sorcerers at their rites used to call on Mercury the giver of oracles, Venus that lures the soul, the moon that knows the mystery of the night, and Trivia the mistress of the shades, you will transfer Neptune, with Salacia and Portumnus and all the company of Nereids from the cold tides of the sea to the burning tides of love.

In this section Apuleius attacks his accusers’ ability in Greek, while touting his own. Knowledge of Greek as well as Latin was one essential element of being an elite Roman citizen, and, as you can see, that sometimes extended to women as well as men, as Pudentilla clearly could write Greek very well:

87. But I cannot bring myself to believe Aemilianus such a fool as to think that the letter of a mere boy,[5] who is also one of my accusers, could seriously tell against me. There is also that forged letter by which they attempted to prove that I beguiled Pudentilla with flattery. I never wrote it and the forgery is not even plausible. What need did I have of flattery, if I put my trust in magic? And how did they secure possession of that letter which must, as is usual in such affairs, have been sent to Pudentilla by some confidential servant? Why, again, should I write in such faulty words, such barbarous language, I whom my accusers admit to be quite at home in Greek? And why should I seek to seduce her by flattery so absurd and coarse? They themselves admit that I write amatory verse with sufficient sprightliness and skill. The explanation is obvious to everyone; it is this: he who could not read the letter which Pudentilla wrote in Greek altogether too refined for his comprehension, found it easier to read this letter and set it off to greater advantage because it was his own.

One more point and I shall have said enough about the letters. Pudentilla, after writing jokingly and ironically those words `Come then, while I am yet in my senses,’sent for her sons and her daughter-in-law and lived with them for about two months. I beg this most dutiful of sons to tell us whether he then noticed his mother’s alleged madness to have changed for the worse either her words or her deeds. Let him deny that she showed the utmost shrewdness in her examination of the accounts of the bailiffs, grooms, and shepherds, that she earnestly warned his brother Pontianus to be on his guard against the designs of Rufinus, that she rebuked him severely for having freely published the letter she had sent him without having read it honestly as it was written! Let him deny that, after what I have just related to you, his mother married me in her country house, as had been agreed some time previously!

Apuleius then moves on to a somewhat surprising praise of magic, given the circumstances:

90. I have done with this. I come now to the very heart of the accusation, to the actual motive for the use of magic. I ask Rufinus and Aemilianus to answer me and tell me — even assuming that I am the greatest magician ever — what I had to gain by persuading Pudentilla to marry me by means of my love potions and my incantations. I am well aware that many persons, when accused of some crime or other, even if it has been shown that there was some real motive for the offense, have amply cleared themselves of guilt by this one line of defense, that the whole record of their lives renders the suspicion of such a crime incredible and that even though there may have been strong temptation to sin, the mere fact of the existence of the temptation should not be counted against them. We have no right to assume that everything that might have been done actually has been done. Circumstances may alter; the one true guide is a man’s character; the one sure indication that a charge should be rejected or believed is the fact that through all his life the accused has set his face towards vice or virtue as the case may be. I might with the utmost justice put in such a plea for myself, but I waive my right in your favour, and shall think that I have made out but a poor case for myself, if I merely clear myself of all your charges, if I merely show that there exists not the slightest ground for suspecting me of sorcery. Consider what confidence in my innocence and what contempt of you is implied by my conduct. If you can discover one trivial reason that might have led me to woo Pudentilla for the sake of some personal advantage, if you can prove that I have made the very slightest profit out of my marriage, I am ready to be any magician you please — the great Carmendas himself or Damigeron or Moses, or Jannes or Apollobex or Dardanus himself or any sorcerer of note from the time of Zoroaster and Ostanes till now.

91. See, Maximus, what a disturbance they have raised, merely because I have mentioned a few magicians by name. What am I to do with men so stupid and uncivilized? Shall I proceed to prove to you that I have come across these names and many more in the course of my study of distinguished authors in the public libraries? Or shall I argue that the knowledge of the names of sorcerers is one thing, participation in their art another, and that it is not tantamount to confessing a crime to have one’s brain well stored with learning and a memory retentive of its erudition? Or shall I take what is far the best course and, relying on your learning, Maximus, and your perfect erudition, disdain to reply to the accusations of these stupid and uncultivated fellows? Yes, that is what I will do. I will not care one bit for what they may think. I will go on with the argument on which I had entered and will show that I had no motive for seducing Pudentilla into marriage by the use of love potions. My accusers have gone out of their way to make disparaging remarks both about her age and her appearance; they have denounced me for desiring such a wife from motives of greed and robbing her of her vast and magnificent dowry at the very beginning of our wedded life.

I do not intend to weary you Maximus, with a long reply on these points. There is no need for words from me, our deeds of settlement will speak more eloquently than I can do. From them you will see that both in my provision for the future and in my action at the time my conduct was precisely the opposite of that which they have attributed to me, inferring my rapacity from their own. You will see that Pudentilla’s dowry was small, considering her wealth, and was made over to me as a trust, not as a gift,[6] and moreover that the marriage only took place on this condition that if my wife should die without leaving me any children, the dowry should go to her sons Pontianus and Pudens, while if at her death she should leave me one son or daughter, half of the dowry was to go to the offspring of the second marriage, the remainder to the sons of the first.[7]

92. This, as I say, I will prove from the actual deed of settlement. It may be that Aemilianus will still refuse to believe that the total sum recorded is only 30,000 sesterces, and that the reversion of this sum is given by the settlement to Pudentilla’s sons. Take the deeds into your own hands, give them to Rufinus who incited you to this accusation. Let him read them, let him blush for his arrogant temper and his pretentious beggary. He is poor and ill-clad and borrowed 400,000 sesterces to dower his daughter, while Pudentilla, a woman of fortune, was content with 300,000, and her husband, who has often refused the hand of the richest heiresses, is also content with this trifling dowry, a mere nominal sum. He cares for nothing save his wife and counts harmony with his spouse and great love as his sole treasure, his only wealth.

Who that had the least experience of life, would dare to pass any censure if a widow of inconsiderable beauty and considerable age, being desirous of marriage, had by the offer of a large dowry and easy conditions invited a young man, who, whether as regards appearance, character or wealth, was no despicable match, to become her husband? A beautiful maiden, even though she is poor, is amply dowered. For she brings to her husband a fresh untainted spirit, the charm of her beauty, the unblemished glory of her prime. The very fact that she is a maiden is rightly and deservedly regarded by all husbands as the strongest recommendation. For whatever else you receive as your wife’s dowry you can, when it pleases you and if you desire to feel yourself under no further obligation, repay in full just as you received it; you can count back the money, restore the slaves, leave the howe, abandon the estates. Virginity only, once it has been given, can never be repaid; it is the one portion of the dowry that remains irrevocably with the husband.

A widow on the other hand, if divorced, leaves you as she came. She brings you nothing that she cannot ask back, she has been another’s and is certainly far from tractable to your wishes; she looks suspiciously on her new home, while you regard her with suspicion because she has already been parted from one husband: if it was by death she lost her husband, the evil omen of her ill-starred union minimizes her attractions, while, if she left him by divorce, she possesses one of two faults: either she was so intolerable that she was divorced by her husband, or so insolent as to divorce him. It is for reasons of this kind among others that widows offer a larger dowry to attract suitors for their hands. Pudentilla would have done the same had she not found a philosopher indifferent to her dowry.

93. Consider. If I had desired her from motives of avarice, what could have been more profitable to me in my attempt to make myself master in her house than the dissemination of strife between mother and sons, the alienation of her children from her affections, so that I might have unfettered and supreme control over her loneliness? Such would have been, would it not, the action of the brigand you pretend me to be.

But as a matter of fact I did all I could to promote, to restore and foster quiet and harmony and family affection, and not only abstained from sowing fresh feuds, but utterly extinguished those already in existence. I urged my wife — whose whole fortune according to my accusers I had by this time devoured — I urged her and finally persuaded her, when her sons demanded back the money of which I spoke above, to pay over the whole sum at once in the shape of farms, at a low valuation and at the price suggested by themselves, and further to surrender from her own private property certain exceedingly fertile lands, a large house richly decorated, a great quantity of wheat, barley, wine and oil, and other fruits of the earth, together with not less than four hundred slaves and a large number of valuable cattle. Finally I persuaded her to abandon all claims on the portion she had given them and to give them good hopes of one day coming into the rest of the property. All these concessions I extorted from Pudentilla with difficulty and against her will — I have her leave to tell the whole story as it happened — I wrung them from her by my urgent entreaty, though she was angry and reluctant. I reconciled the mother with her sons, and began my career as a step-father by enriching my step-sons with a large sum of money.
cursed Rufinus and praised my conduct. Pontianus together with his very inferior brother had come to visit us, before his mother had completed her donation. He fell at our feet and implored us to forgive and forget all his past offences; he wept, kissed our hands and expressed his penitence for listening to Rufinus and others like him. He also most humbly begged me to make hisexcuses to the most honourable Lollianus Avitus to whom I had recommended him not long before when he was beginning the study of oratory. He had discovered that I had written to Avitus a few days previously a full account of all that had happened. I granted him this request also and gave him a letter with which he set off to Carthage, where Lollianus Avitus, the term of his proconsulate having neariy expired, was awaiting your arrival, Maximus. After reading my letters he congratulated Pontianus with the exquisite courtesy which always characterizes him for having so soon rectified his error and entrusted him with a reply. Ah! what learning! what wit! what grace and charm was in that reply! Only a `good man and an orator’ could have written it.

We have no record of the outcome of the trial, but presumably Apuleius was voted innocent because he published the defense speech (not a thing he would have been likely to do if he had lost) and later went on to be a celebrated public intellectual in Carthage, one of the greatest cities of the Roman world. So, if his enemies had thought they could win by making him look unRoman and an outsider, they lost. However, Apuleius had enormous advantages that other accused did not: he was a master orator, well -connected, and wealthy,


Do you think Apuleius was using magic? If so, for what reasons? If not, why did he get prosecuted?


Clearly Apuleius knew a lot about magic: it is not just obvious from his defense speech, but from his novel, The Golden Ass, which is pack with witches among other things. The choice of subject matter reflects the appeal of these topics to his audience, even if they were supposed to view of magic as deeply unRoman. Apuleius’ novel is set in

Apuleius wrote a novel, The Golden Ass, in which the hero, Lucius, goes in search of magic to Thessaly – and finds it:

1 Now, what I propose in this Milesian tale[8] is to string together for you a series of different stories and to charm your ears, kind  reader, with amusing gossip – always assuming that you are not too  proud to look at an Egyptian book written with the sharpness of a  pen from the Nile; and to make you marvel at a story of men’s shapes  and fortunes changed into other forms and then restored all over  again. So I’ll begin. But who is this? In brief: Attic Hymettus, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Spartan Taenarus, fruitful lands immortalized  in yet more fruitful books, these make up my ancient ancestry. It was there that I served my earliest apprenticeship to the language of  Athens. Later, arriving in Rome a stranger to its culture, with no teacher to show me the way, by my own painful efforts I attacked and mastered the Latin language. That then is my excuse, if as an unpractised speaker of the foreign idiom of the Roman courts I should stumble and give offence. In fact this linguistic metamorphosis suits the style of writing I have tackled here – the  trick, you might call it, of changing literary horses at the gallop. It is a Grecian story that I am going to begin. Give me your ear, reader: you will enjoy yourself. 2 I was on my way to Thessaly – for on my mother’s side our family goes back there, being proud to number among our ancestors the  distinguished philosopher Plutarch and his nephew Sextus – I was  on my way, I say, to Thessaly on particular business. 

Apuleius, The Golden Ass 1.1



Saller, Richard P. “Roman Dowry and the Devolution of Property in the Principate.” The Classical Quarterly 34: 195–205.

Gardner, Jane. 1985. ‘The Recovery of Dowry in Roman Law.’ The Classical Quarterly 35: 449-453.

(The links take you to the articles on Jstor; no login or access is required to read them online.)


The Golden Ass, our only complete Roman novel, is packed with witches. The narrator, Lucius, is a wealthy college student travelling to Thessaly in search of magic and witches. After introducing himself, he narrates how he overheard a story about witchcraft. Notice in this who the witches are and how they overturn what the Romans would think of as acceptable hierarchies about gender and sexuality:

I caught up with two fellow travellers who happened to have gone on a short way ahead. As I began to eavesdrop, one was roaring with laughter and saying: ‘Stop lying like that – I’ve never heard anything so totally ridiculous.’ At that I, thirsting as always for novelty, struck in: ‘No, please,’ I said, ‘let me in on this – not that I’m nosy, it’s just that I’m the sort of person who likes to know everything, or at least as much as I can. And an agreeable and amusing story or two will lessen the steepness of this hill we’re climbing.’ ‘Yes,’ said the first speaker, ‘these lies are just as true as it would be to say that because of magic rivers can suddenly reverse their flow, the sea be becalmed, the winds cease to blow, the sun stand still, the moon be milked of her dew, the stars uprooted, the daylight banished, the night prolonged.’ Then I, emboldened, said: ‘You, sir, who began this story, please don’t be annoyed or too disgusted to tell us the rest’; and to the other man, ‘But what you are stupidly refusing to listen to and stubbornly making fun may very well be a true story. Really, I think you are being ignorant and perverse when you account as a lie anything you’ve never heard of or aren’t familiar with the sight of or just find too difficult for your understanding to grasp. If you look into these things a little more closely, you’ll find out that they aren’t only reliably attested but can easily happen. Look at me, yesterday evening: trying desperately to keep my end up at dinner, I rashly tried to cram down a piece of cheesecake that was too big, and the gooey stuff lodged in my throat and blocked my windpipe -I was very nearly a goner. Then again, when I was in Athens only the other day, in front of the Painted Stoa,[5] I saw with these two eyes a juggler swallow a sharp cavalry sabre, point first; and then the same man, encouraged by a small donation, lowered a hunting spear right down into his inside, lethal point first. And then, lo and behold, above the blade of the lance, where the shaft of the inverted weapon entered the man’s throat and stood up over his head, there appeared a boy, pretty as a girl, who proceeded to wreathe himself round it in a bonelessly sensuous dance. We were all lost in amazement; you’d have thought it was Aesculapius’ own rough-hewn staff, with his sacred serpent twining sinuously round it. But sir, please do go on with your story. I promise you I’ll believe it even if our friend here won’t, and at the first inn we come to I’ll stand you lunch – there’s your payment secured.’ ‘Very kind of you,’ he said, ‘but I’ll start my story again in any case, thanks all the same.


First however let me swear to you by this all-seeing divine Sun that what I’m going to tell you really happened; and if you get to the next town in Thessaly, you’ll be left in no doubt; all this was done in public and everyone there is still talking about it. But to let you know who I am, and where I come from: my name is Aristomenes, from Aegium. Let me tell you how I get a living: I travel all over Thessaly and Aetolia and Boeotia in honey and cheese and suchlike innkeeper’s staples. So, hearing that at Hypata – it’s the most important place in Thessaly – there was some new and particularly tasty cheese on offer at a very reasonable price, I hurried off there to put in a bid for the lot. But as tends to happen, I got off on the wrong foot and was disappointed in my hope of making a killing: a wholesaler called Lupus had bought it all the day before. So, worn out by my useless hurry, I went at sunset to the public baths; and who should I see there but my old friend Socrates. He was sitting on the ground, half wrapped in a tattered old coat, his face sickly yellow so that I hardly recognized him, miserably thin, looking just like one of those bits of Fortune’s flotsam one sees begging in the streets. Seeing him looking like this, though as I say I knew him extremely well, it was with some hesitation that I went up to him. “Socrates, my good friend,” I said, “what’s up? Why are you looking like this? What have they done to you? Back home you’ve been mourned and given up for dead, and your children have been given guardians by the court. Your wife has given you a funeral, and now, disfigured by months of grieving and having wept herself nearly blind, she’s being urged by her parents to cheer up the family misfortunes by getting happily married again.[6] And here are you, looking like a ghost and putting us all to shame.” ‘“Aristomenes,” he said, “you just don’t understand the deceitful twists and turns of Fortune, her surprise attacks, her reversals of direction,” and as he spoke he covered his face, which had become red with shame, with his rags and patches, leaving himself naked from navel to groin. I couldn’t bear the pitiful sight of his distress, and tried to pull him to his feet. But he, keeping his head covered, cried: “Leave me alone, leave me, and let Fortune go on enjoying the spectacle of this trophy that she’s set up.” However, I got him to come with me, and taking off one of my tunics I dressed or at least covered him up with it, and took him off to the baths. I got him oil and towels and with much effort scrubbed off the horrible filth he was encrusted with; and then when he had been thoroughly put to rights (by which time I was worn out myself and was hard put to it to hold him up), I took him back to my inn, put him to bed to recover, gave him a good dinner and a relaxing glass or two of wine, and chatted to him to calm him down. ‘He was just beginning to talk freely, to crack the odd joke, even to get mildly flippant and answer back, when suddenly, heaving an excruciating sigh from the depths of his chest and passionately slapping his forehead, he broke out: “Gods, what miserable luck! It was only because I went in search of a bit of pleasure, to see a gladiatorial show I’d heard a lot about, that I got into this dreadful mess. As you know, I’d gone to Macedonia on business. I’d been hard at it there for nine months, and having made a decent profit I was on my way home. Not far from Larissa, where I was planning to see the show on my way through, I was waylaid in a wild and watery glen by a gang of bandits – absolute monsters – and robbed of everything I had, though in the end I escaped with my life. Reduced to this desperate state, I took shelter at an inn kept by a woman called Meroe, not at all bad-looking for her age. I told her everything, why I’d been away so long, my anxiety to get home, and the lamentable story of the robbery. She welcomed me more than kindly, treating me first to a good dinner, free gratis and for nothing, and then to a share of her bed – she really was on heat. And that’s how I came to grief: that first night with her was the start of a long and degrading association. Even the rags which the robbers had generously left me to cover myself with, even those I made over to her, along with the pittance I earned as a porter while I was still fit enough for the work. And that’s how this worthy wife, so called, and the malevolence of Fortune between them have reduced me to what you saw just now.” ‘“Well, damn it,” I said, “you deserve anything you get and worse than that, for preferring the pleasure of fornicating with a leathery old hag to your home and children.” But he put his finger to his lips and looked utterly horrified. “Shh, quiet,” he said, looking round to see that we weren’t overheard. “Don’t talk like that about a woman with superhuman powers, or your rash tongue will get you into trouble.” “Really?” I said. “What sort of woman is this mighty bar-queen?” “A witch,” he answered, “with supernatural powers; she can bring down the sky, raise up the earth, solidify springs, dissolve mountains, raise the dead, send the gods down below, blot out the stars, and illuminate Hell itself.” “Come on,” I said, “spare me the histrionics and let’s have it in plain language.” “Well,” he said, “do you want to hear one or two of her exploits? There are lots I could tell you about. It’s not only our own people that she can make fall madly in love with her, but the Indians, the Ethiopians – both lots – even the Antipodeans; that’s nothing, the merest ABC of her art. But let me tell you what she did in full view of a crowd of eyewitnesses.

9 ‘“When one of her lovers was unfaithful to her, with a single word she turned him into a beaver, because when they’re afraid of being caught beavers escape their pursuers by biting off their balls[7] – the idea being that something like that would happen to him. An innkeeper, who was a neighbour and therefore a trade rival, she changed into a frog; and now the poor old chap swims around in a barrel of his own wine and greets his old customers with a polite croak as he squats there in the lees. Another time she changed a lawyer who appeared against her in court into a ram, and it’s as a ram that he now pleads his cases. Again, the wife of another of her lovers she condemned to perpetual pregnancy for being witty at her expense; she shut up the woman’s womb and halted the growth of the foetus, so that it’s now eight years (we’ve all done the sum) that this unfortunate creature has been swollen with her burden, as if it was an elephant that she was going to produce. 10 ‘“This sort of thing kept happening, and a lot of people suffered at her hands, so that public indignation grew and spread; and a meeting was held at which it was decided that on the following day she should receive drastic punishment by stoning to death. However, she thwarted this move by the strength of her spells – just like the famous Medea when, having obtained a single day’s grace from Creon, she used it to burn up the old king’s palace, his daughter, and himself, with the crown of fire. Just so Meroe sacrificed into a trench to the powers of darkness (she told me all this the other day when she was drunk), and shut up the whole population in their houses by silent supernatural force. For two whole days they couldn’t undo their bolts or get their doors open or even break through their walls, until in the end they came to an agreement among themselves and all called out, swearing by what they held most sacred, that they would not lay a finger on her and that if anybody had other ideas they would come to her assistance. So she was appeased and let them all off, except for the man who had convened the public meeting. Him she whisked off at dead of night, with his whole house – walls, foundations, the ground it stood on – still shut up, a hundred miles away to another town which was situated on the top of a rocky and waterless mountain. And since the houses there were too closely packed to allow room for another one, she simply dumped it outside the town gates and decamped.”

11 ‘“My dear Socrates,” I said, “what you tell me is as ghastly as it’s astonishing. You really have made me very uneasy – no, you’ve terrified me. It’s not just a pinprick of anxiety but a positive spearthrust that you’ve inflicted – the fear that the old woman may invoke some supernatural aid as she’s done before to eavesdrop on this conversation. So let’s get to bed straight away, and when we’ve slept off our fatigue let’s get as far as possible away from here before it’s light.” Before I had finished offering this advice, my friend, who had been tried to the limit by so many wearing experiences and more wine than he was used to, was fast asleep and snoring noisily. So I closed the door and shot the bolts firmly, and also wedged my bed hard up against the hinges and lay down on it. At first my fear kept me awake for a time, but then about midnight I dropped off. Hardly had I done so when suddenly (you wouldn’t think a whole gang of robbers could manage such an onslaught) the door was thrown open, or rather broken down and torn right off its hinges and sent crashing to the ground. My bed, which was only a cot, with a foot missing and riddled with worm, was overturned by this violent shock, and I was hurled out of it and rolled on to the floor with the bed upside down on top of me and hiding me. 12 ‘Then I discovered that some emotions naturally express themselves by their opposites. Just as one very often weeps tears of joy, so then, utterly terrified as I was, I couldn’t help laughing at the idea of myself as a tortoise. Grovelling there in the dirt I was able from under the protection of my resourceful bed to get a sideways view of what was happening. I saw two elderly women, one carrying a lighted lamp, the other a sponge and a naked sword. So arrayed, they stood on either side of Socrates, who was still sound asleep. The one with the sword spoke first: “There he is, sister Panthia, my beloved Endymion, my Ganymede, who by night and day has played fast and loose with my tender youth, who scorns my love, and not content with calumniating me is trying to escape me. I take it I’m supposed to play abandoned Calypso to his wily Ulysses, left to mourn in perpetual solitude?” And then she pointed and indicated me to Panthia: “But here we have our friend Aristomenes the Counsellor, who is the author of this escape plan and now lies on the ground under that bed within a hair’s-breadth of death, watching all this and thinking that the injuries he has done me will go unpunished. One day – what am I saying, now, this very moment – I’ll make him sorry for his past impudence and his present curiosity.”

13 ‘Hearing this I was in agony, drenched in an icy sweat and shaking all over, so that the bed too was convulsed by my shudders and heaved up and down on top of me. Then said the amiable Panthia: “Now, sister, shall we take this one first and tear him limb from limb like Maenads, or tie him down and castrate him?” But Meroe – for she it was, as I realized from what Socrates had told me – said: “No, let him survive to give a modest burial to the body of his poor friend,” and twisting Socrates’ head to one side she buried her sword up to the hilt in the left-hand side of his throat, catching the blood that spurted out in a leather bottle so neatly that not a drop was spilled. This I saw with my own eyes. Next dear Meroe, wanting I suppose to keep as closely as possible to the sacrificial forms, plunged her hand into the wound right down to his entrails, rummaged about, and pulled out my poor friend’s heart. At this he let out through the wound in his throat, which the violent stroke of the sword had totally severed, an inarticulate whistling sound, and gave up the ghost. Then Panthia, blocking the gaping wound with her sponge said, “Now, sponge,” she said, “you were born in the sea – take care not to cross a river.” With these words they left, but first they pulled the bed off me and squatted down and emptied their bladders over my face, leaving me soaked in their filthy piss. The moment they had gone the door reverted to normal: the hinges flew back into position, the bars returned to the doorposts, and the bolts shot back into the slot. As for me, I remained where I was, grovelling on the floor, fainting, naked, cold and drenched in piss, just like a new-born baby – or rather half dead, a posthumous survivor of myself, an absolutely certain candidate for crucifixion. “What’s going to happen to me,” I said to myself, “when he’s found in the morning with his throat cut? I can tell the truth, but who’ll believe me? I can hear them now. ‘Couldn’t you at least have called for help if you couldn’t cope with a woman – a big chap like you? A man murdered before your eyes, and not a peep out of you? And how is it that you weren’t likewise made away with by these female bandits? Why should their cruelty have spared a witness who could inform against them? So, you escaped Death; now go back to him!”’ ‘While I was going over this in my mind again and again, the night wore on. The best plan then seemed to be to get clear surreptitiously before dawn and to take the road, though I had no very clear idea where to go. So I shouldered my luggage and tried to undo the bolts; but the upright and conscientious door, which earlier had unbarred itself so readily, now only opened with great difficulty and after many turnings of the key. Then, “Hey, porter,” I called, “where are you? Open the front door. I want to be off early.” The porter was lying on the ground behind the door and was still half asleep. “Have some sense,” he said. “Don’t you know the roads are stiff with robbers, and you want to start out at this time of night? You may have some crime on your conscience that makes you eager to die, but I’m not such a fathead as to want to take your place.” “It’s nearly light,” I said, “and anyway, what can robbers take away from a traveller who’s got nothing? Don’t be stupid: you know that ten wrestlers can’t strip a naked man.” But he, drowsy and half asleep, turned over in bed and muttered: “Anyway, how do I know you haven’t murdered your companion that you came in with last night and aren’t trying to save yourself by doing a bunk?” ‘At that moment, I remember, I saw the earth opening and the depths of Hell, and Cerberus hungering for me; and I realized that it wasn’t in pity that dear old Meroe had spared my life, but in a spirit of sadism, saving me for the cross.

So I went back to my room to mull over the form my suicide was to take. Since the only lethal weapon provided by Fortune was my bed, “Now, now, O bed,” I cried, “my dearest bed, thou who hast endured with me so many sufferings, confidant and beholder of the night’s happenings, the only witness to my innocence that I can call against my accusers, do you provide me as I hasten to the shades with the weapon that shall save me.” With these words I set about undoing the cord with which it was strung and made one end of it fast to a beam which jutted out under the window; the other end I knotted firmly into a noose, and then climbing on the bed and mounting to my doom I put my head into the halter. But when I kicked the support away, so that the rope, tightened round my throat by my weight, should cut off the function of my breathing – at that moment the rotten old rope broke, and I fell from where I was standing on to Socrates, who lay nearby, and rolled with him on to the floor. 17 And precisely at that very same moment the porter burst abruptly in, shouting: “Where are you? You wanted to be off at dead of night, and now you’re back in bed and snoring!” At this, aroused either by my fall or the porter’s raucous bellowing, Socrates was on his feet first, remarking: “No wonder travellers hate all innkeepers! Look at this officious oaf, shoving in where he’s not wanted – to see what he can steal, I expect – and waking me up with his noise when I was fast asleep and still tired out.” ‘I then got up too, happily revived by this unexpected stroke of luck. “There, O most faithful of porters,” I said, “you see my companion and brother, the one that last night, when you were drunk, you accused me of murdering”; and as I spoke I embraced Socrates and kissed him. He was shocked by the smell of the foul fluid with which the witches had drenched me, and pushed me violently away, shouting “Get off me, you stink like the worst kind of urinal”, and then proceeded to ask me facetiously why I smelled like that. Embarrassed and on the spur of the moment I cracked some stupid joke to divert his attention to another subject. Then, slapping him on the back, I said: “Come on, let’s be off and enjoy an early start.” So, shouldering my traps, I paid the bill, and we set out.

18 ‘When we had gone some way the sun rose; and now that it was fully light, I looked very closely at my friend’s neck where I had seen the sword go in, and I said to myself: “You’re crazy; you were dead drunk and had a horrible dream. There’s Socrates whole, sound and unharmed. Where’s the wound? Where’s the sponge? And where’s the fresh deep scar?” Aloud I said: “The doctors are quite right when they tell us that eating and drinking too much causes nightmares. Look at me; I had a drop too much yesterday evening, and I passed a night of such dreadful threatening dreams that I still can’t believe I’m not spattered and defiled with human gore.” He smiled and said: “It’s not blood but piss you were drenched with. But to tell the truth, I too had a dream, that my throat was cut; I had a pain there, and I thought the heart was plucked out of me – and even now I feel faint, my knees are trembling and I can’t walk properly. I think I need something to eat to put the life back in me.” “Right,” I answered, “I’ve got some breakfast all ready for you,” and taking off my knapsack I quickly gave him some bread and cheese, adding, “let’s sit down under that plane tree.” ‘This we did, and I too had a little something. He was eating greedily, but as I watched him, I saw that his face was becoming drawn and waxy pale, and his strength seemed to be ebbing away. Indeed he was so altered by this deathly change of complexion that I panicked, thinking of those Furies of last night; and the first piece of bread I’d taken, not a very big one, lodged right in my throat and refused either to go down or to come back up. What increased my alarm was that there was almost nobody about. Who was going to believe that one of a pair of companions had been done in without foul play on the part of the other? Meanwhile Socrates, having made short work of the food, became desperately thirsty, as well he might, having wolfed down the best part of a first-rate cheese. Not far from the plane tree there flowed a gentle stream, its current so slow that it looked like a placid pool, all silver and glass. “There,” I said, “quench your thirst in that limpid spring.” He got up, and finding a place that sloped down to the water, he knelt and leaned over eagerly to drink. He had hardly touched the surface with his lips when the wound in his throat gaped wide open to the bottom and the sponge shot out, followed by a little blood. His lifeless body nearly pitched headlong into the water, but I managed to get hold of one foot and drag him laboriously up the bank. There, after mourning him as best I could in the circumstances, I covered my unfortunate friend with the sandy soil to rest there for ever by the river. Then, panic-stricken and in fear of my life, I made my escape through remote and pathless wildernesses; and like a man with murder on his conscience I left country and home to embrace voluntary exile. And now I have remarried and live in Aetolia.’

20 That was Aristomenes’ story. His companion, who from the start had remained stubbornly incredulous and would have no truck with what he told us, broke out: ‘Of all the fairytales that were ever invented, of all the lies that were ever told, that takes the biscuit’; and turning to me, ‘But you,’ he said, ‘to judge from your dress and appearance you’re an educated man – do you go along with this stuff?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘my opinion is that nothing is impossible and that we mortals get whatever the Fates have decided for us. You, I, everybody, we all meet with many amazing and unprecedented experiences, which aren’t believed when they’re told to somebody who lacks first-hand knowledge of them. But I do, I swear, believe our friend here, and I’m most grateful to him for amusing us with such a charming and delightful story. Here I’ve got to the end of this long and rugged road without effort and haven’t been bored. I believe my horse too thinks you’ve done him a favour, for without tiring him I see I’ve reached the city gates transported not on his back but, you might say, by my ears.’

Apuleius, The Golden Ass 1.5-21


Compare the depiction of witches in this with how Apuleius represent wizards in his defense speech. What differences do you notice?

The following is another story about witches from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. In it a young man tells the tale of how he had to watch a corpse one night to prevent witches stealing it. Notice how nothing is safe from witches, and how people even have to fear them in their homes on every occasion. The first speaker is Lucius, and the scene is a dinner party at a wealthy person’s house.

‘Very true,’ I said; ‘and I don’t think I’ve ever felt freer anywhere than I have here. But I really dread the dark and inescapable haunts of the magic arts. They say that even the dead aren’t safe in their graves, but that their remains are gathered from tombs and funeral pyres, and pieces are snipped from corpses in order to destroy the living; and that at the very moment of the funeral preparations old hags of sorceresses will swoop down to snatch a body before its own people can bury it.’ To this another guest added: ‘Round here even the living aren’t spared. Somebody we know had a similar experience which left him mutilated and totally disfigured.’ At this the whole company burst into helpless laughter, and everybody’s eyes turned to a man sitting in the corner. He was put out by this unwelcome attention and muttering indignantly got up to go. ‘No, do stay for a bit, my dear Thelyphron,’ said Byrrhena, ‘and like the good fellow you are tell us your story again, so that my son Lucius here can enjoy your agreeable and amusing tale.’ ‘You, dear madam,’ he answered, ‘are always kind and considerate, but some people’s rudeness is intolerable.’ He was evidently upset, but when Byrrhena persisted and pressed him, unwilling though he was, to tell his story as a personal favour to her, he eventually did as she asked. 21 So having piled the coverlets into a heap and reclining half upright on one elbow, Thelyphron stretched out his right hand like a man making a formal speech, with the third and fourth fingers bent, the other two extended, and the thumb raised slightly as if in warning, and began. ‘I had not yet come of age when I left Miletus to see the Olympic games. Then I wanted to visit this part of your famous province, and so after touring all over Thessaly I came in an evil hour to Larissa. My money was running low, and I was looking round the town in search of some remedy for my poverty, when I saw in the public square a tall old man. He was standing on a stone and loudly announcing that if anybody was willing to watch a corpse, he would negotiate a price. “What’s this?” I asked a passer-by. “Are corpses here in the habit of running away?” “No, no,” he said. “A mere boy and a stranger like you obviously can’t be expected to realize that this is Thessaly you’re in, where witches regularly nibble pieces off the faces of the dead to get supplies for their magic art.” 22 ‘“But tell me, please,” I said, “about this business of watching over the dead.” “First of all,” he said, “you have to stay wide awake for the entire night; you mustn’t close your eyes for a second but must keep them firmly fixed on the body. You mustn’t let your attention wander or even steal a sidelong glance: these dreadful creatures, who can change themselves into anything, will take on the shape of any animal you like to name and creep up on you in stealth – it’s no trouble to them to outwit the eyes even of the Sun or Justice herself. They can take on the forms of birds or dogs or mice or even flies. Then they lull the watchers to sleep with their infernal enchantments. There’s no end to the tricks that these vile women contrive to work their wicked will. But the fee for this deadly job isn’t as a rule more than five or six gold pieces. Oh, I nearly forgot: if the body isn’t intact when it’s handed over in the morning, whatever’s been removed or mutilated has to be made good from the watcher’s own person.” 23 ‘Having taken this on board, I summoned up my courage and went up to the crier. “You can stop shouting,” I said. “Here’s a watcher all prepared. Name the price.” “You’ll get a thousand sesterces,” he said. “But look here, young fellow: this is the son of one of our chief citizens who’s died, and you must guard his body faithfully against the evil Harpies.” “Nonsense,” I said, “don’t give me that rubbish. You see before you a man of iron, who never sleeps, sharper-eyed than Lynceus or Argus, eyes all over him.” I had hardly finished speaking when he took me straight off. The house to which he brought me had its front door closed, and he ushered me in through a small back door, then into a shuttered room where he showed me in the gloom a weeping woman in deep mourning. Standing by her, “Here’s a man,” he said, “who has engaged himself to guard your husband and is confident he can do the job.” She parted the hair that hung down in front to reveal a face that was beautiful even in grief. Looking at me, she said: “Please, I beg you, do your duty with all possible alertness.” “You need not worry,” I said, “just so long as the fee is satisfactory.” 24 ‘Agreement reached, she rose and took me into another room. There was the body draped in snow-white linen, and when seven witnesses had been brought in she uncovered it herself. After weeping over it for some time she invoked the good faith of those present and proceeded to call off meticulously every feature of the body while one of the witnesses carefully wrote down a formal inventory. “Here you are,” she said. “Nose all there, eyes intact, ears entire, lips undamaged, chin in good shape. I ask you, fellow citizens, to note and attest this.” The tablets with the list were then sealed and she made to leave the room. But I said: “Please, madam, will you give orders for me to be supplied with everything I’ll need?” “What might that be?” she asked. “A large lamp,” I said, “and enough oil to last until dawn, and warm water with flagons of wine and a cup, and a plate of left-overs from dinner.” She shook her head. “You talk like a fool,” she said, “asking for suppers and left-overs in a house of mourning where there hasn’t even been a fire lit for days and days. Do you think you’re here to enjoy yourself? You would do better to remember where you are and look sad and tearful.” With these words she turned to a maid. “Myrrhine,” she said, “make haste and get a lamp and some oil, and then lock up the room and leave him to his watch.” 25 ‘Left alone with the corpse for company I rubbed my eyes to arm them for their watch, and began to sing to encourage myself. Dusk came, and darkness fell, and time wore on until it was the dead of night. My fear was at its height when there suddenly glided in a weasel which stood in front of me and fixed me with a piercing stare. I was alarmed at seeing this tiny animal so bold. “Get out,” I shouted, “you filthy beast, get back to your rat friends before I give you something to remember me by. Will you get out?” It turned and left the room, at which moment I was abruptly plunged into a bottomless abyss of sleep; the god of prophecy himself couldn’t have told which of the two of us lying there was deader, so lifeless was I. Indeed I needed somebody to mount guard over me, since I might just as well have been elsewhere. 26 ‘The crowing of the crested company was singing truce to darkness when I at last woke up. With my heart in my mouth I rushed over to the body with the lamp, uncovered its face and checked off all the features: they were all there. Now the poor weeping widow, in great anxiety, came bursting in with yesterday’s witnesses and fell on the body, covering it with kisses. Then after examining every detail by the light of the lamp she turned and called her steward Philodespotus. Having ordered him to pay over the fee immediately to their trusty watchman, which was done then and there, she added: “We are most grateful to you, young man; and what’s more, for this faithful service we shall from now on count you as a particular friend.” Delighted at this unexpected windfall and spellbound by the shining gold, which I was now jingling in my hand, “Madam,” I said, “count me rather as one of your servants, and whenever you need my services, don’t hesitate to command me.” The words were scarcely out of my mouth when the whole household, cursing the evil omen, fell on me with every weapon they could lay their hands on. One punched me on the jaw, another thumped me across the shoulders, and a third jabbed me viciously in the ribs; they kicked me, they pulled out my hair, they tore my clothes. So, bloodied and ripped apart like another Pentheus or Orpheus, I was thrown out of the house. 27 ‘While I was getting my breath back in the street outside, I belatedly realized how thoughtless and ill-omened my words had been, and admitted to myself that I had got off more lightly than I deserved. At this point I saw that the final lamentations and last goodbyes had been uttered, and the corpse had now left the house. As was traditional for a member of an aristocratic family, it was being given a public funeral. The procession was passing through the city square when there appeared an old man in black, weeping and tearing his handsome white hair. Seizing the bier with both hands he cried loudly, his voice choked by sobs: “Citizens! I charge you, as you are true men and loyal subjects, to avenge a murdered fellow citizen and punish this wicked woman as she deserves for her horrible crime. She, and no one else, to please her lover and get her hands on the estate, has poisoned this unfortunate young man, my sister’s son.” These tearful complaints the old man loudly directed now to this individual and now to that. The crowd began to turn ugly, the probability of the thing leading them to believe his accusation. They called for fire, and started picking up stones and egging on the street- urchins to kill her. She burst into tears (which were obviously rehearsed), and by all that she held sacred called on the gods to witness that she denied this awful crime. 28 ‘Then the old man said: “Suppose we leave the proof of the truth to divine Providence. We have here in Zatchlas of Egypt a prophet of the first rank. He has already agreed with me a large fee to bring back the soul of the deceased from the Underworld for a short while and restore his body to life.” So saying he led forward a young man dressed in a linen tunic and palm-leaf sandals with his head shaved bare. Repeatedly he kissed the man’s hands and touched his knees in supplication. “Have pity, O Priest,” he said, “have pity by the stars of heaven, by the infernal powers, by the natural elements, by the silences of night and the sanctuaries of Coptos, and by the risings of Nile and the secrets of Memphis and the sistrums of Pharos. Give him a brief enjoyment of the sun and let a little light into those eyes which are closed for ever. We do not seek to resist Fate or to deny Earth what is rightfully hers; we beg only for a short spell of life so that we may find consolation in vengeance.” The prophet, propitiated, laid some sort of herb on the corpse’s mouth and another on his breast. Then turning eastwards he silently invoked the majesty of the rising sun, arousing among the witnesses of this impressive performance excited expectations of a great miracle. 29 ‘I joined the crowd, and taking up a position on a tall stone just behind the bier I watched the whole scene curiously. The corpse’s chest began to fill, its pulse to beat, its breath to come; it sat up and the young man spoke. “Why, why,” he said, “have you called me back for these few moments to life and its obligations, when I have already drunk the water of Lethe and embarked on the marshes of the Styx? Leave me, I beg you, leave me to my rest.” To these words of the corpse the prophet returned a sharp answer: “Come now, tell the people everything and clear up the mystery of your death. Don’t you know that my incantations can call up Furies and that your weary body can still be tortured?” The man on the bier answered and with a deep groan addressed the people: “I died by the wicked arts of my new wife; doomed to drink her poisoned cup I surrendered my marriage bed to an adulterer before it had grown cold.” At this the exemplary widow put on a bold front and began to bandy words with her husband in a blasphemous attempt to rebut his accusations. The people were swayed this way and that, some calling for this abominable woman to be buried alive along with her husband’s body, others holding that the corpse was lying and should not be believed. 30 ‘However, the young man’s next words put an end to their doubts. With another deep groan he said: “I will give you the clearest proof that I speak nothing but the truth, and I will tell you something that nobody else could know or predict.” Then he pointed at me. “There is the man,” he said, “who guarded my body. He performed his duties with the utmost alertness, so that the hags who were waiting to plunder my corpse, though they changed themselves into all sorts of shapes to achieve their purpose, failed to outwit his vigilance. At last they wrapped a cloud of sleep round him, and while he was buried in deep oblivion they kept calling me by name, until my numbed limbs and chilled body made reluctant efforts to obey their magic summons. But at this point he heard his own name, which is the same as mine, and being in fact alive, though sleeping like the dead, got up without knowing what he was doing and like a lifeless ghost walked mechanically over to the door. Though it had been carefully bolted, there was a hole in it, and through that they cut off first his nose and then his ears; so he suffered the mutilation that was meant for me. Then, so as not to give the game away, they made shapes of his missing ears and nose in wax and fitted them exactly in place. And there he stands, poor devil, paid not for his work but for his disfigurement.” Horrified at what I had heard, I started to feel my face. I took hold of my nose, and it came off; I tried my ears, and so did they. Everybody was pointing at me, turning round to look at me, and there was a roar of laughter. Bathed in a cold sweat I slunk away through the crowd, and since then I’ve not been able to face returning home to be mocked, looking like this. So I’ve grown my hair long to hide my missing ears, and my shameful nose I keep decently covered with this linen pad.’

Apuleius, The Golden Ass 2.20-30.

Citations and further reading:

The scholarship on Apuleius tends not to be that accessible. Reading an introduction to a translation is sometimes the easiest way to place him in his context; though be aware some of the older translations have some really problematic values.

This website from a seminar has the entire text of the apology and a lot of other useful information and might be the best place to start for someone interested in his defense speech. While it is for a graduate seminar it has a lot of information that is useful if you are interested in learning more about the speech and its setting.

Benjamin Todd Lee, Ellen Finkelpearl, Luca Graverini. 2014. Apuleius in Africa. Routledge.

A collection of essays focused on Apuleius as a writer from North Africa. Not intended for undergraduates or non-specialists, but still worth looking through.


Media Attributions

  • Madaure.1975.2 © Michel-georges bernard
  • Theatre_-_Madaure_(near_Souk_Ahras)_(15678551077)(1) © Dan Sloan
  • Theatresabratha © Ahmed A Abdurahman

  1. Everyone involved was a Roman citizen, and trial was held under Roman law.
  2. This is a quote from an 7th century Greek epic by Homer, the Iliad. Paris was very, very goodlooking.
  3. This is the Pythagoras of Pythagoras' Theorem. He was a 6th century CE philosopher from the island of Samos - apparently a very good looking one.
  4. in Greek and Roman mythology he ferried souls across the River Styx into the Underworld
  5. That is, his stepson, who was nominally bringing the case.
  6. Roman law was extremely strict about dowries and wives giving their husbands gifts of their property and vice versa. Dowries, except under a few circumstances had to be returned in total, and if the husband took over managing his wife's property he had to make up any losses that had occurred under his management, so he did not steal from her or manage his own property better than hers. Wives and husbands were also not allowed to give each other gifts, out of fear that their properties would become too intertwined, so returning a woman's property and dowry on divorce was something that Roman law took very seriously.
  7. For those interested in the law on Roman dowries, here is a link to an old, but still useful dictionary entry that tries to explain th law.. Those who know Latin, or who have taken a course on Roman law may find Saller 1984 and Gardner 1985 useful, but they are rather technical discussions and take some fortitude to read unless you really, really enjoy legal dates.
  8. Milesian tales seem to have been highly pornographic and loosely related stories.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

UnRoman Romans Copyright © by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book