History: This is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety. It is also the only surviving work of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world to examine, from a first-hand perspective, the abhorrent condition of the lower classes.
Plot: The prologue establishes an audience and a speaker, who defines himself by location, education, and occupation. The narrator journeys to Thessaly on business. On the way, he runs into Aristomenes and an unnamed traveler. Aristomenes’ tale begins with him going on business for cheese and he runs into his friend Socrates, who is disheveled and emaciated. Aristomenes clothes Socrates and takes him to the bathhouse. Aristomenes berates Socrates for leaving his family. While they’re eating lunch, Socrates tells about his affair with Meroë. Socrates tells Aristomenes that Meroë is an ugly witch who turns her ex-lovers into rather unfortunate animals. Aristomenes doesn’t believe Socrates’ tale but is nevertheless afraid. Aristomenes barricades the door and they both go to bed. In the middle of the night, Meroë and Panthia break in, cut open Socrates, drain his blood, rip out his heart, and replace it with a sponge. Before leaving, they urinate on Aristomenes. The witches spare Aristomenes because they want him to bury Socrates in the land. Aristomenes fears that he will be blamed for the death of his friend and attempts to hang himself, but is comically stopped when the rope is revealed to be too rotten to support his weight. In the morning, Socrates wakes up and everything seems to be normal. They continue travelling and reach a stream, where Socrates bends to take a drink, which causes the sponge to fall out and him to die. Aristomenes buries Socrates in the ground, and then proceeds on his way. The narrator believes Aristomenes’ tale and becomes more eager to learn about magic. The narrator arrives at Hypata, where he stays with Milo, a family friend and miser, and his wife Pamphile. Photis, Milo’s servant, takes the narrator to the baths, after which the narrator goes to the marketplace. There, he buys some fish and runs into his old friend Pytheas, who is now a magistrate. Pytheas reveals the narrator’s name as Lucius. Pytheas says that Lucius overpaid for the fish and humiliates the fish-monger by trampling on the fish. Lucius returns to Milo’s house, hungry and empty-handed. Milo asks Lucius about his life, his friends, and his wanderings. Lucius goes to sleep hungry.
The next morning, Lucius meets his aunt Byrrhena in the town, and she warns him that Milo's wife is an evil witch who will kill Lucius. Lucius, however, is interested in becoming a witch himself. He then returns to Milo's house, where he repeatedly makes love to the slave-girl Fotis. The next day, Lucius goes to his aunt's home for dinner, and there meets Thelyphron, who relates the tale of how witches cut off his nose and ears. After the meal, Lucius drunkenly returns to Milo's house in the dark, where he encounters three robbers, whom he soon slays before retiring to bed.
The next morning, Lucius is abruptly awoken and arrested for the murder of the three men. He is taken to court where he is laughed at constantly and witnesses are brought against him. They are just about to announce his guilt when the widow demands to bring out the dead bodies; but when the three bodies of the murdered men are revealed, they have miraculously transformed into bladders. It then turns out that it was a prank played by the town upon Lucius. Later that day, Lucius and Fotis watch Milo's wife perform her witchcraft and transform herself into a bird. Attempting to copy her, Lucius accidentally turns himself into an ass, at which point Fotis tells him that the only way for him to return to his human state is to eat a rose.
Lucius the ass trots over to a garden to munch on a rose when he is beaten by the gardener and chased by dogs. He is then stolen from Milo's house by thieves, who talk about how their leader Thrasileon has been killed while dressed as a bear. The thieves then kidnap a young woman, Charites, who is housed in a cave with Lucius the ass. Charites starts crying, so an elderly woman who is in league with the thieves begins to tell her the story of Cupid and Psyche.
The elderly woman continues telling the story of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche is the most beautiful woman on earth, and Venus' jealously arranges for Psyche's destruction. Cupid, Venus's son, secretly preserves Psyche; Cupid becomes Psyche's anonymous lover. Psyche's jealous sisters arouse her curiosity and fear; Psyche, against Cupid's commands, looks at him; Cupid abandons Psyche, who wanders in search of him.
The elderly woman finishes telling the story of Cupid and Psyche. Lucius the ass and Charites escape from the cave but they are caught by the thieves, and sentenced to death.
A man appears to the thieves and announces that he is the renowned thief Haemus the Thracian, who suggests that they should not kill the captives but sell them. Haemus later reveals himself secretly to Charites as her fiancé Lepolemus, and drugs all of the thieves. When they are asleep he slays them all. Lepolemus, Charites and Lucius the ass safely escape back to the town. Once there, the ass is entrusted to a horrid boy who torments him but the boy is later killed by a bear. Enraged, the boy's mother plans to kill the ass.
A man arrives at the mother's house and announces that Lepolemus and Charites are dead, caused by the scheming of the evil Thrasillus who wants Charites to marry him. After hearing the news of their master's death, the slaves run away, taking the ass Lucius with them. The large group of traveling slaves is mistaken for a band of robbers and attacked by farmhands of a rich estate. Several other misfortunes befall the travelers until they reach a village. Lucius as the narrator often digresses from the plot in order to recount several scandal-filled stories that he learns of during his journey. Lucius is eventually sold to a catamite priest. He is entrusted with carrying the statue of a goddess on his back while he follows around the group of sinful priests. While engaging in lewd activity with a local boy, the group of priests is discovered by a man in search of a stolen ass who mistakes Lucius' braying for that of his own animal. The priests flee to a new city where they are well received by one of its chief citizens. They are preparing to dine when his cook realizes that the meat that was to be served was stolen by a dog. The cook, at the suggestion of his wife, prepares to kill Lucius in order to serve his meat instead.
\Lucius' untimely escape from the cook coincides with an attack by rabid dogs, and his wild behavior is attributed to their viral bites. The men barricade him in a room until it is decided that he is no longer infected. The band of priests packs up and moves out. The narrative is interrupted by The Tale of the Wife's Tub. After the arrest of the priests Lucius is sold into labor, driving a baker's mill-wheel. Lucius, though bemoaning his labor as an ass, also realizes that this state has allowed him to hear many novel things with his long ass-ears. The Tale of the Jealous Husband and The Tale of the Fuller's Wife mark a break in the narrative. The theme of the two intervening stories is adultery, and the text appropriately follows with the adultery of the baker's wife and the subsequent murder of the baker. Lucius the ass is then auctioned off to a farmer. The Tale of the Oppressive Landlord is here told. The farmer duly assaults a legionary who makes advances on his ass (Lucius), but he is found out and jailed.
Lucius comes into the legionary's possession, and after lodging with a decurion Lucius recounts The Tale of the Wicked Stepmother. He is then sold to two brothers, a confectioner and a cook, who treated him kindly. When they would go out Lucius would secretly eat his fill of their food. At first a source of vexation, when the ass was discovered to be the one behind the disappearing food it was much laughed at and celebrated. Again he was sold, and he was taught many amusing tricks. Rumor spread, and great fame came to the ass and his master. As it happened, a woman was so enamored of the sideshow ass that she paid off his keeper and took him to bed with her. The Tale of the Jealous Wife is aired. The murderess depicted in this tale is precisely she whom Lucius is made to mate with at the Shows. After an enactment of the judgment of Paris and a brief but important digression, the time comes for Lucius to make his much awaited appearance. At the last moment he decides against this, fearing for his life, and he runs away to Cenchreae eventually to nap on the beach.
Lucius wakes up in a panic during the first watch of the night. Considering Fate to be done tormenting him, he takes the opportunity to purify himself by seven consecutive immersions in the sea. He then offers a prayer to the Queen of Heaven, for his return to human form, citing all the various names the Goddess is known by to people everywhere (Venus, Ceres, Paphos, Proserpine, etc.). The Queen of Heaven appears in a vision to him and explains to him how he can be returned to human form by eating the crown of roses that will be held by one of her priests during a religious procession the following day. In return for his redemption, Lucius is expected to be initiated into Isis’ priesthood (Isis being the Queen of Heaven’s true name, according to her). Lucius follows her instructions and is returned to human form and, at length, initiated into her priesthood. Lucius is then sent to his ancestral home, Rome, where he continues to worship Isis, under the local name, Campensis. After a time, he is visited once more by the Goddess who speaks again of mysteries and holy rites which Lucius comes to understand as a command to be initiated into the cult of Isis. He does so. Shortly afterwards, he receives a third vision. Though he is confused, the God appears to him and reassures him that he is much blessed and that he is to become once more initiated that he might supplicate in Rome as well. The story concludes with the Goddess, Isis, appearing to Lucius and declaring that Lucius shall rise to a prominent position in the legal profession and that he shall be appointed to the College of Pastophori that he might serve Osiris and Isis’ mysteries. Lucius is so happy that he goes about freely exposing his bald head.
Review: The transformation of man into ass provides a well-lit stage for the drama of this struggle to play upon; his form of an ass allows the narrator a unique vantagepoint from which he is able to better gather together the threads of the mundane world to weave his fantastic tale. But the story remains that of man and his place in the world. This is not to say that Apuleius was not a believer in magic--he had been initiated into the mysteries of Isis and is reputed to have himself performed miracles necessitating the mastery of magic and sorcery.
Opening Line: As I fortuned to take my voyage into Thessaly, about certaine affaires which I had to doe ( for there myne auncestry by my mothers side inhabiteth, descended of the line of that most excellent person Plutarch, and of Sextus the Philosopher his Nephew, which is to us
a great honour) and after that by much travell and great paine I had passed over the high mountaines and slipperie vallies, and had ridden through the cloggy fallowed fields; perceiving that my horse did wax somewhat slow, and to the intent likewise that I might repose and strengthen my self (being weary with riding) I lighted off my horse, and wiping the sweat from every part of his body, I unbrideled him, and walked him softly in my hand, to the end he might pisse, and ease himself of his weariness and travell: and while he went grazing freshly in the field (casting his head sometimes aside, as a token of rejoycing and gladnesse) I perceived a little before me two companions riding, and so I overtaking them made a third.
Closing Line: After this sort, the divine majesty perswaded me in my sleepe, whereupon by and by I went towards the Priest, and declared all that which I had seene, then I fasted ten dayes according to the custome, and of mine owne proper will I abstained longer then I was commanded: and verely I did nothing repent of the paine which I had taken, and of the charges
which I was at, considering that the divine providence had given me such an order, that I gained much money in pleading of causes: Finally after a few dayes, the great god Osiris appeared to me in the night, not disguised in any other forme, but in his owne essence, commanding me that I should be an Advocate in the court, and not feare the slander and envie of ill persons, which beare me stomacke and grudge by reason of my doctrine, which I had gotten by much labour: moreover, he would not that
I should be any longer of the number of his Priests, but he allotted me to be one of the Decurions and Senatours: and after he appointed me a place within the ancient pallace, which was erected in the time of Silla, where I executed my office in great joy with a shaven Crowne.
Quotes: "For my deforme and Assie face abated, and first the rugged haire of my body fell off, my thick skin waxed soft and
tender, the hooves of my feet changed into toes, my hands returned againe, my neck grew short, my head and mouth began round, my long eares were made little, my great and stonie teeth waxed lesse like the teeth of men, and my tayle which combred me most, appeared no where: then the people began to marvaile, and the religious honoured the goddesse, for so evident a miracle, they wondered at the visions which they saw in the night, and the facilitie of my reformation, whereby they rendered
testimonie of so great a benefit which I received of the goddesse.
Rating: Not good.