Monday, November 17, 2014


Response: Finkelpearl on Hunink on May, 'Apuleius: Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, Book 1'. Response to 2014.09.46

Response by Ellen Finkelpearl, Scripps College (

Version at BMCR home site

While I am in agreement with Vincent Hunink's positive assessment of Regine May's recent edition of Apuleius' Metamorphoses Book 1, I find the following sentence, hailing the book as a much-needed teaching-tool, misleading: "In terms of material fit for students, there is comparatively little. Paul Murgatroyd's attractive 'Intermediate Latin reader' (see BMCR 2009.11.29) offers perhaps not quite enough for university students, whereas complete editions or the GCA volumes may be rather too much."1

In fact, there are now quite a few commentaries on Apuleius' Metamorphoses designed for college students, including an earlier commentary on Book 1:

James Ruebel, Apuleius, The Metamorphoses Book 1, Bolchazy-Carducci 2000 (ISBN 9780865164840, 2011 reprint of 2000 with corrections).2
William Turpin Metamorphoses Book III, Bryn Mawr Commentaries, 2002 (ISBN 9780929524986)
E.J. Kenney, Apuleius: Cupid and Psyche, Cambridge 1991 (9780521278133)
Ellen Finkelpearl, An Apuleius Reader, Bolchazy-Carducci 2012 (9780865167148)

Nor am I certain that Regine May's commentary, excellent though it is, is "fit for students." May's commentary, in line with the Aris and Phillips goals, is a scholarly and sophisticated piece of work aimed at scholars of Apuleius and scholars in other fields who know very little Latin, and perhaps at graduate students. Almost no grammatical help is offered in the notes. To give a sense of the focus of the book, here is May's coverage of one of the most impossible parts of Book 1. 1.4 is the section in which Lucius almost chokes on some cheese-polenta, and yet, he says, he recently saw a sword-swallower plunge a sword down his throat after which a young supple acrobat did a sinuous dance on the shaft: et ecce pone lanceae ferrum, qua bacillum inversi teli ad occipitium per ingluviem subit, puer in mollitiem decorus insurgit inque flexibus tortuosis enervam et exossam saltationem explicat (1.4.4). The translation opposite the text (with which I have no disagreement) reads: "And look, behind the iron of the lance, where the shaft of the inverted weapon rises up from his gullet near the back of the man's head, a boy, beautiful to the point of effeminate softness, climbs up and unfolds a dance in undulating twists, without muscles or bones…" Part of the difficulty here is in deciphering exactly what acrobatic trick is being performed because Apuleius seems so specific without really giving us enough information to figure out what is. Yet the Latin itself is difficult, with phrases like in mollitiem decorus and the unclear meanings of occipitium, subit, and of ferrum as only part of a sword. May's commentary mentions that the "translation of the whole passage is problematic" but, in part because a translation is given, no explicit guidance is given for the student to unravel the translation him/herself—which is the Aris and Phillips norm. May focuses on two things here: 1) What is really going on? Could a dancer really slither up and down the shaft of a lance while the sword is in another man's throat, and 2) the theme of softness, effeminacy, dancing in public, with cross-references to Lucilius, Pliny and Augustine and to Apuleius' characterization of his enemy Herrennius' effeminacy in the Apology. May also gives coverage to archaic and purposely non-normative Apuleian forms (e.g. the use of the unusual 1st-2nd declension form enerva rather than the usual 3rd declension enervis), but this sort of grammatical gloss is not the central focus of the book. The notes are long and thorough, but, compared with the definitive Groningen commentary by Wytse Keulen, they are legible to non-specialists.

Regine May's is an impressive and learned book that makes original contributions to Apuleian scholarship and presents complex issues in a clear manner. As Hunink mentions, the book contains an admirable and lengthy introduction, with background on the ancient novel and on the state of interpretation of the text. There is also a very useful 5-6 page excursus on ancient magic and an even longer section on the reception of Apuleius. However, I cannot agree with Hunink that this is a text for the undergraduate classroom (at least in the US). Not only is there a facing English translation, but the notes are introduced by the English translation rather than the Latin, and, as mentioned above, there is very little grammatical notation. This series is not designed primarily for use in the college Latin class of the traditional sort. May's book would be an excellent resource for someone teaching Apuleius or anyone seriously interested in the author, for a graduate course where students' Latin is beyond question, and perhaps for students in an upper division Latin class as they write their papers. Her entries should be seen as contributions to Apuleian scholarship and should be cited as such. I also look forward to learning much from this commentary myself. 3


1.  Note that Paul Murgatroyd's "attractive Intermediate reader" abbreviates Apuleius' Latin, sometimes quite radically.
2.   Ruebel's Book 1 is explicitly aimed at intermediate students in approximately the fourth semester, is equipped with mainly grammatical notes on the same page as the text, and has a glossary in the back. The book has some flaws; see Trzaskoma in BMCR 2001.09.04.
3.   Incidentally, several of Hunink's mild criticisms of the book seem misguided: May does not, on p. i, say that Book 1 may be seen as a self-contained text, but that it may be read in a class as a self-contained text, i.e. without a deep knowledge of the rest of the Metamorphoses. Nor does the issue of whether the commentary is called a "commentary" seem in the least a matter of anything except the use of a different word on the back cover.

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