Review of The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Whenever someone says Don Quixote was the first novel ever written, one-up them with this one.

Same if they claim Tale of Genji was first. Other novels, poems, and fragments might claim to be the first, but none are so convincing a contender as The Golden Ass. Supposedly, other Roman novels existed like this one, but we are left with mere sections of those. This is complete as far as we can tell.

I recommend this as a good follow up to Petronius’ Satyricon. While the two differ in content, the tone and time felt the same to me. I still prefer Petronius, despite it’s fragmentary nature, but Apuleius impressed me with his witty, verbose and graphic, gruesome, rollicking tale. It could be summed up as the adventures of a curious gentleman who is transformed into an ass. He passes through various trials, is bought, sold, worked nearly to death, tortured in heinous ways, tricked, and also gets the chance to play the trickster. It is not the sort of thing you read your child before bed. Most compelling was the sudden and unnerving resolution which goes into some detail about the mysterious cult of Isis, and how our protagonist turns over a new, pagan leaf. I noticed plenty of Christian and pagan references, though I suspect some of them were clarified by the modern translator.

Apuleius maintains an irreverent tone, and inspires great sadness in this reader, for all of the lost literature of ancient times. Reading Roman and Greek classics are an exercise in comparison for me. In a lot of ways, people have not changed over the centuries. We still suffer from the same debilitating desires, the same quirks and the same proclivities, but the society arounds us does something to mold our characters, perhaps.

The book has entertained and probably concerned many people since time immemorial. For something more tame, try Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe.

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