Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Beatriz Ávila Vasconcelos, Bilder der Sklaverei in den Metamorphosen des Apuleius. Vertumnus Bd. 7. Göttingen: Edition Ruprecht, 2009. Pp. 281. ISBN 9783767530843. ₤47.90.
Reviewed by Warren S. Smith, University of New Mexico

This ambitious study is a revised version of a dissertation written in 2008 at Humboldt University in Berlin, under the direction of Ulrich Schmitzer. Vasconcelos considers the concept of slavery (or the "semantics of slavery" as noted on the back cover) in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. The first chapter is an overview which categorizes the concept of slavery in the novel and provides some background on views about slavery in Greek and Roman authors. Chapter two looks at terms applied to slaves and their implications. Chapter three is largely a semantic look at the implications of specific passages in the novel in which the connotation of terms is affected by words in close context. Also under consideration are the legal implications of the terms servus and liber (cf. esp. the Conclusion on 227-231). The book includes sections on moral and ethical concepts of slavery in writers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle and Plautus (pp. 53-71), a combination perhaps less curious than it sounds because of Apuleius' own far-reaching use of sources and his tendency to dazzle with a show of varied learning (cf. V.p. 62). It is notoriously hard to pin down the attitude of an author whose favorite sources of inspiration include both Plato and Plautus.

Slavery in the novel can sometimes be designated as literal slavery, as when the narrator describes the wretched condition of the slaves who work in the mill, for example (Met9.12-13); virtual slavery, such as the forced labor imposed on Lucius as an ass, a human spirit trapped in an animal's body; or metaphorical slavery, such as Lucius, in love with Fotis, speaking of himself as her slave (servitium amoris), or later becoming a "slave" of the goddess Isis. Overriding all such categories is the ever-present issue of the implications of the narrator's transformation into an ass, a "metamorphosis" whose moral and religious implications Vasconcelos does not shrink from asserting early in the book (pp. 31-32), approving of critics who see the transformation as a kind of mystery-cult related atonement by Lucius for his wrongdoing. The fate of Psyche, who becomes a fugitiva and the ancilla of Venus, is also a reflection on Lucius' deprivation of freedom (pp.43-44). Our attitudes toward this impossible, but somehow real, beastly transformation are pushed in many directions, prompted by Apuleius or his narrator variously so as to delve into comic farce, tragedy, or Platonic allegory; more subtly, as Vasconcelos rightly observes (p. 37), the narrator's point of view seems to vary from that of a representative of the aristocracy, to one whose sympathies are with the oppressed and downtrodden in society, victims whose plight he is privileged as an ass to view closely. Lucius is "slumming it," indeed introducing us to an aspect of ancient society which is usually invisible to us, but never quite loses the hauteur of his previous self.

We see the former attitude very clearly—the narrator as defender of conservative values, appalled that the traditionally disempowered elements in society are getting out of hand—in a passage such as Met. 10.3-4 (examined by Vasconcelos at some length pp.184-192,) where the crimes of the murderous wicked stepmother and her confidante, an evil slave, are described. Vasconcelos is particularly interested in passages where the nuance of an epithet are enhanced by verbal parallelism or contrast, and these are explored in one of the most interesting sections of the book, "Semantische Aspekte der Sklavereitermini," pp. 140-217. In this instance, the text at 10.12.4 reads servi nequissimi atque mulieris nequioris patefactis sceleribus; surely a striking expression as Vasconcelos says (187) in which indeed the moral nadir of the novel is reached by the appalling alliance of a "worthless slave and a more worthless woman," a term which also ominously echoes Lucius' condemnation of Fotis, after her mistake leads to his transformation. Here we see Vasconcelos's semantic methods at their most effective: a word is known by the company it keeps; there is sometimes doubt in Apuleius as to what is the literal meaning of "slavery" and what is imaginary, and the context of a term can add significance (see "Fiktion und Realitaet," pp. 76-81). But in some other instances the attempts to find nuance in semantic parallelism are less effective, as at pages 172-177 where she examines the eunuch priests' discovery that their leader has substituted "not a deer for a virgin, but an ass for a human being;" here her analysis of these antitheses seems to take a joke too seriously, a familiar risk in the reading of this novel.

For all its thoroughness, Vasconcelos, it seems to me at least, might have done more to incorporate the issue of Lucius' new service to Isis in Book 11 as part of her thesis. In the early part of the book she introduces the issue of the Metamorphoses as shedding light on mystery religions in the ancient world (p. 31), and speaks of Lucius' obsequium and ministerium to Isis (p. 51), comparing it with Psyche's service to Venus. But these ideas are not developed in detail; her close study of individual passages in Chapter 3, for example, does not include one directly relating to Isis, and her index lists no mention of Isis after p. 205, so that the goddess is not mentioned in the Conclusion of the book (pp. 218-232; it must be added, however, that Isis is richly included in the appendix, the "Tabelle der Haushalte" on pp. 260-263). By contrast, Vasconcelos offers a detailed look (pp. 197-205) at the significance of the servus Candidus mentioned in a dream at Met. 11.20.1, which, it turns out, refers to a white horse. This seems to me to reflect something of an imbalance which reminds us that the Metamorphoses is not, after all, an encyclopedia of slavery but a novel in which every episode which is introduced must be read in the light of what has gone before; as Vasconcelos so eloquently shows, slavery is one of the novel's prominent themes, centering usually on degradation and the deprivation of freedom, and the reader must be painfully aware of this by the time she reads of Lucius taking on a new kind of slavery after he regains his human shape.

I want to end on a positive note, since I consider this an important and valuable book for what it does. Two of the most valuable parts of Vasconcelos's very painstaking study are chapter 2 in which she classifies and analyzes the functions of slaves within the novel by various methods including their names, their places of origin, and their functions within the household; this includes passages in which others are compared to slaves, such as a wife saying she feels like the slave of her husband (p.107). Also useful is the appendix on 233-263 in which households in the novel are categorized by the number and functions of their slaves (this includes divine households in the "Cupid and Psyche Tale.") There is also a helpful bibliography. This is detailed work which gives us easier access to the varied and often sordid world which Apuleius' novel opens up for us.

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