Monday, April 6, 2015


Benjamin Todd Lee, Ellen Finkelpearl, Luca Graverini (ed.), Apuleius and Africa. Routledge monographs in classical studies, 18. New York; London: Routledge, 2014. Pp. xvi, 344. ISBN 9780415533096. $135.00.

Reviewed by Vincent Hunink, Radboud University Nijmegen (

Version at BMCR home site


Recent years have seen a steady flow of studies on Apuleius, which focus not only on his famous novel Metamorphoses but also on his rhetorical works, notably the Apology and the Florida. The present volume has gathered some of the most prominent Apuleian scholars around a theme that can be called both traditional and new: Apuleius and Africa.

Possible connections between Apuleius and Africa seem manifold, if only given the fact that the author was of African birth. His native town was situated on the boundary between Numidia and Gaetulia, as Apuleius himself declares in a well-known and often quoted passage, Apology 24. Here he proclaims himself to be 'half Numidian' and 'half Gaetulian', adding this is nothing to be ashamed of, since what really counts is not where a man is born, but how he lives his life. In addition, he argues, there is even reason to feel proud about his native town.

African 'couleur locale', on the other hand, does seem relatively scarce within Apuleius' extant works. In the Metamorphoses it is conspicuously absent (if we label the 11th book on Isis as Egyptian rather than African). Most strikingly, there is no reference to Africa in the (in)famous prologue to the novel, for all its varied geographical names referring to the Greek and Roman world. There are some passages, in the Florida, however, which seem distinctly 'African', or more specifically, Carthaginian, such as the extravagant praise of Carthage in Florida 20 'Carthage, the respected teacher of our province, Carthage, the heavenly Muse of Africa, Carthage, the inspiration of those who wear the toga' (tr. John Hilton)

On the level of Latin, the 'African' element has been the interest of generations of scholars, who discussed the extent in which his Latin style may be said to be specifically 'African'. Accordingly, the concept of alleged Africitas dominated much of early 20th century scholarly literature on Apuleius, and, for that matter, other African authors such as Fronto and Augustine. Roughly after 1945, the interest in this Africitas diminished and the whole debate could until recently be considered buried and dead.

In April 2010, however, the theme was put back prominently on the agenda, on the occasion of a conference at Oberlin College (US) devoted to Apuleius and Africa. Scholars from various fields redirected their attention to Africa, but of course in a broader sense. Inevitably, the 'old' strictly linguistic concept of Africitas was discussed, but most scholars highlighted wider issues such as Apuleius' African heritage, his Romano-African identity, and possible connections with material and literary culture of Africa.

Thirteen conference papers have now been published in an inspiring Routledge volume, edited by Ellen Finkelpearl, Luca Graverini, and Benjamin Todd Lee. The editors have produced an interesting book, which will certainly provoke further discussion and thus promote Apuleian studies. All texts have been extensively reworked with many cross-references underscoring the cohesion and inner unity of the volume as a whole. The result is a valuable and mostly very readable contribution to scholarship of Latin literature.

If the volume as a whole may be argued to form a 'unity', this does not imply that all thirteen contributions are much alike or show considerable agreement on any scholarly issue or even the relevance of the 'African' element to begin with.

Apart from a preface and an introduction, the volume consists of three main parts: 'Historical contexts' (comprising four papers), 'Cultural contexts' (five papers), and 'Theoretical approaches' (four papers). These headings are general enough, of course, to allow for papers on virtually any topic, and one may actually question the inclusion of some papers in a specific section. In addition, some overlap of themes may be discerned. But in a volume of conference papers, this is inevitable, and so it seems better to concentrate on some of the main issues discussed.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the very concept of Africitas. Opinions about this vary greatly, even to mutual exclusion. On the one hand there are scholars who subscribe to what may be called the 'communis opinio' from the last decades, namely that Africanism is not really an issue at all. Thus, in a discussion on Apuleius' position in the classical canon, Joseph Farrell argues that 'modern concern with Apuleius' Africanism is greatly exaggerated and quite possibly fundamentally mistaken' (p.76). Of course, investigation of African themes is worthwhile, he adds, but he rejects 'the hypostatization of Apuleius' African origins to a linguistic and literary-historical issue' (p.76). Nonetheless, Farrell makes the sympathetic suggestion that other African authors such as Perpetua and Fronto should be given a place in the canon.

Silvia Mattiacci, on the other hand, proposes to redefine the concept of Africitas, so as to include the notion of a spoken form of Latin with regional, African characteristics, and the notion of African schools with special features that may have influenced literary Latin (pp.92-93). One might remark here that it seems widely accepted that regional variants of spoken Latin have existed. However, no similar scholarly debate discussion on, say, 'Germaniitas' or 'Brittanitas' has ever come up. Moreover, any influence of spoken Latin on Apuleius' rather idiosyncratic Latin style seems questionable. As to the Latin taught in schools in Africa, there is little to say with certainty, and African Latin authors show only limited stylistic similarities. All in all, the renewed concept of Africitas in this sense does not seem particularly helpful.

Other scholars shift the approach and discuss whether or not Apuleius can be argued to have emphasized an African 'cultural identity'. Here too, opinions differ. In his fine paper on the Apology, Carlos Noreña aptly remarks that a Roman criminal trial was, perhaps, not a very suitable place to assert one's cultural identity. Apuleius rather 'subordinates his intellectual achievements to the higher principles of Roman law and justice and, in the process, exposed his own, imperial, subjectivity' (p.46).

Likewise, in his paper on 'identity and identification' in Apuleius' rhetorical works, David L. Stone observes that Apuleius employs a variety of means of identification for himself and other characters, such as social status, wealth, age, gender, language, literacy, and religious practice. Scholars 'seem to have overemphasized', he adds, 'what is Roman, Greek, or African about him at the expense of considering these other features.' (p.166).

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there are scholars such as Sonia Sabnis ('Apuleius and India') and Richard Fletcher ('Apuleius, the Afro-Platonist'), who clearly wish to bring some form of Africanism to the foreground, on the basis of philosophical and theoretical approaches such as post-colonial theory. It is with interest that I read the ardent pleas for application of post-colonial notions to Apuleian studies, but I have not yet been able to see what helpful new insights into Apuleius' texts we may gain from them. Perhaps, our corpus of Apuleian texts, and of clearly 'African' Latin texts in general, is just too small to allow for far reaching conclusions on regional cultural identity.

Moving away from such 'essentialist' issues, or avoiding them, are other papers in the volume, that highlight some form of African influence or African background to specific issues in Apuleius' works. In her informative paper, Julia Gaisser discusses the transmission of Apuleius' texts, and his reception in Africa (with a useful survey of the scanty relevant material in four 'phases': ca.170-ca.300; ca.300-ca.400; ca.412-425 Augustine; ca.430-530 allegories; pp. 55-59). In her view, the main 'African connection' in the transmission is the interest in Apuleius shown by Augustine.

Benjamin Todd Lee zooms in on a rather inconspicuous element, the Latin abbreviation 'A.V.' (Africae viri, used once in the transmitted text of the Florida, suggesting that this points to an African origin of the text. Luca Graverini even tries to bring in something of Africa into the Metamorphoses, arguing for instance that the city of Hypata in Met. 2 is modeled on Virgil's description of Dido's city, and therefore, Carthage.

Some scholars venture still further. Emmanuel and Nedjima Plantade suggest that Apuleius' myth of Cupid and Psyche is not a personal, literary invention, but rather owes much to the Berber folkloric tradition. They analyse a number of stories as they were still told in the early 20th century, and point to some intriguing similarities with the Apuleian tale. A number of methodological issues, however, could be raised here. For one thing, it appears to be tacitly assumed that the Berber tales have been orally transmitted for so many centuries without undergoing substantial changes or influences. In fact, we hardly know a thing about Berber oral folklore in Apuleius' days, and it seems a little hazardous to extrapolate from modern material into such a distant and unknown past.

In what is by far the longest paper in the book (counting no fewer than 66 pages), Daniel L. Selden makes the equally bold claim that Apuleius' flowery, 'Asianist' rhetorical style is due not merely to archaizing in the Roman literary tradition, but also to Libyac-Punic norms of poetic expression. In the wealth of interesting African material adduced by Selden, with a great number of pictures and texts in exotic languages, it is easy to forget that there is actually very little evidence for anything he claims. It is, perhaps, significant, that Selden closes his impressive showpiece with a soberingly small list of eight 'facts' followed by four 'conjectures'.

All of this is interesting reading and food for thought. Skeptical readers, meanwhile, may feel that in some papers the dangers of attributing too much importance to small elements loom rather high.

I personally liked best those papers that remain close to the texts and aim at somewhat less adventurous conclusions. For instance, Wytse Keulen draws a learned comparison of the careers of these two second-century Roman Africans, Fronto and Apuleius, who are said to 'embody two different ways of being an African intellectual in Roman Africa' (p.142). And Carlos Noreña makes a number of acute remarks on the Apology, opening up new ways to approach the text. For instance, there is his luminous idea that the two parts of the speech are, in fact, united at a higher level by the picture of Apuleius as an authoritative interpreter of written texts (p.37). The speaker consistently constructs his authority as a learned scholar and man of literature, so as to find belief as an interpreter of e.g. Pudentilla's Greek letter (p.40). Noreña's synthesis of the Apology is a convincing advance, which will guide future readings of, especially, the somewhat neglected second half of the speech.

All in all, the volume offers much for various groups of readers. Historians, Latinists, lovers of literary and cultural theory, scholars looking for daring new ideas: all will find something here that suits their tastes. By all means, Apuleius is really 'hot', so it seems, and is drawing scholarly attention from various angles. That by itself is good news indeed.

The carefully edited volume is a must have for any serious classical library, and will be a source of inspiration for scholars and students, even if not all conclusions of all papers can be simultaneously right.


  1. Part I.
    First, I would like to thank Dr. Hunink for having taken the trouble to write such a labor-intensive overview of Apuleius and Africa—a book, moreover, with which he clearly feels little affinity. In fact, summing up the volume as a whole, Dr. Hunink finds little more to say than: “All of this is interesting reading and food for thought.” So are cookbooks.
    The core of Dr. Hunink’s review identifies Africitas as the most important of Apuleius and Africa’s “main themes” and, in this connection, he selects ten of the volume’s thirteen papers, presented out of order, rearranging them so that they follow a tacit trajectory of decline: the more distance that the paper puts between Apuleius and the African societies which surrounded him or the less the weight that the essay places on non-Roman African material, the better Dr. Hunink appears to like the piece. The series begins with Joe Farrell who—in Farrell’s own words—cautions that “modern concern with Apuleius' Africanism is greatly exaggerated and quite possibly fundamentally mistaken,” and ends with Dan Selden, whom Hunink credits with arguing that “Apuleius' flowery, 'Asianist' rhetorical style is due not merely to archaizing in the Roman literary tradition, but also to Libyac-Punic norms of poetic expression.”
    While it is by no means incumbent upon a reviewer to agree either with the arguments that a book or essay makes, or with the general tenor of the study, it does seem to me that she or he ought to possess (1) the capacity to read carefully; (2) the ability to understand the logic of an argument; and (3) the good faith to reproduce what the author has actually said. With this in mind, I like would to correct some of the misrepresentations in what Dr. Hunink has written about my own contribution to the volume, “Apuleius and Afroasiatic Poetics,” which he seems to consider “an impressive showpiece” with little in the way of “factual” results. -- see Part II

  2. Part II
    To begin with Dr. Hunink leads readers to believe that I have put forth a “bold claim” regarding Apuleius and his relationship to Afroasiatic poetry. Here, however, is how the essay actually opens: “. . . a point of de¬¬¬¬parture, perhaps, a premise, one that would make it possible—perhaps, here and now, yet only ex hy¬pothesi—to rethink Apuleius not simply as a Roman but also—yet always already—as an African.” Here is how the essay closes: “. . . according to the amplitude and the profundity of the contacts that each of us entertains with the history that nuestra América shares, then and now, with precolonial Africa, wit¬ness as our responsibility, then and now, to think this, then and now and into the future’s future, as a condition of the possibility of a recuperation, here and then, of a ‘Lucius Apuleius’ al-maġribi perhaps . . .” Evidently, Dr. Hunink does not know the difference between a “claim” and a “hypothesis”, a “premise” and a “con¬clusion,” a “possibility” and a “fact”. Perhaps he does not know that nuestra América is not a rhetorical flour¬ish, but an allusion to an essay of that title by José Martí, written in 1891, whose argument is not only germane to Apuleius and Afroasiatic poetics as a whole but actually essential to anyone who would like to try to under¬stand how I put the paper “Apuleius and Afroasiatic Poetics” together—Dr. Hunink seems to forget that the conference was held in America. Beyond that, however, perhaps Dr. Hunink does not understand the Arabic al-maġribī, or what the term connoted in classical Islamic writers such as Ibn Sīnā or al-Suhrawardī, whose work is not irrelevant to situating Apuleius within a larger world of African literary production. Perhaps he has failed to observe that the opening is a clear stylistic pastiche the later work of Jacques Derrida whose “politics of deconstruction” inform the argument of the essay through and through. Perhaps he has not pondered the wider, historical res¬pon¬si¬bilities of the literary critic (cf. Gayatri Spivak), or taken the trouble to consider what conditions the possibility of historical and philological recuperation, so that the repetition of the phrase “then and now” only irritates him. Or per¬haps he simply doesn’t understand the mean¬ing of the English word “perhaps.” -- See Part III

  3. Part III
    After noting somewhat petulantly that the essay runs to 66 pages, Dr. Hunink asserts: “there is ac-tu¬ally very little evidence for ANYTHING [that Selden] claims” (emphasis added). Has Dr. Hunink read the essay so cursorily that he cannot see that these 66 pages constitute the—perhaps overabundant, but certainly not exiguous—evidence for every proposal that the paper makes, or is he just incapable of following the argument? Turning from the paper’s general hypo¬theses, then, to some of its specific assertions: is there really “very little evidence” that “the Apuleian world conversed primarily in three languages, with varying de¬grees of proficiency, depending on the speaker: Libyac and Punic, [and] Latin” (p. 210)? Does the documentation that the essay supplies really fail to substantiate that “Apuleius represents himself as Libyac by birth, as well as fluent in Punic, in his extant work” (p. 261)? Is Cosima Wagner’s German diary not evidence enough for the claim that on Monday, April 7, 1873 she wrote: “Jewish blood is far more corrosive than Latin blood” (p. 263)? Does Dr. Hunink also find “very little evidence” for the claim that “[a]ll of Apuleius’ extant work was written in Latin and dealt mainly with Greco-Roman themes” (p. 261)? Are the fifteen passages of Afroasiatic poetry from eight different branches of that language family (of which Libyac and Punic are but two) insufficient to establish what the commonalities of Afroasiatic poetic ex¬pres¬sion consist of—a high degree of assonance and alliteration, a penchant for internal rhyme, or¬ganization in thought coup¬lets, a preference for parataxis, and so forth (pp. 245-56). Does it really get us very far to say that the style of Apuleius, the language of the Hebrew prophets or the saj’ of the Qur’an are—compared to the sober prose of Lysias—written in a “flowery, ‘Asianist’ rhetorical style”? Inevitably there are places in the essay where, for lack of space, the docu¬men¬tation could be fuller, but does that mean that NOTHING that the essay adduces has sufficient support?

  4. Part IV
    Finally, Dr. Hunink notes that the essay adduces “a great number of . . . texts in exotic langauges.” Exotic for whom? For Apuleius, who claims to have been born among the Berbers, and to have spoken Punic, Latin, and Greek? For other Latin speakers in North Africa who—and it is the burden the 66-page essay to shows this—were surrounded on a daily basis not only by inscriptions in Libyac and Punic, but also non-Roman forms of architect¬ure, monuments, city planning, and so forth? In California, I am daily surrounded by signs in Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Lao—languages that I do not read—but does that illegibility make them “exotic”? No, they are just the various ways in which my neighbors express themselves, and it is I who have failed to learn them who suffers the loss. Beyond the main scripts of Roman Africa—Punic, Latin, Berber—the essay includes passages printed in Egyptian (hieroglyphs and demotic), Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. How many scholars of the ancient Mediterranean world today find Egyptian, Hebrew, and Arabic “exotic”? Dr. Hunink may not read these scripts but a great many scholars of the Classics and of Me¬di¬ter¬ranean Studies do. Is Dr. Hunink actually so out of touch with these disciplines that he does not realize how fre¬quently these languages (and their scripts) have begun to appear in the major journals of these fields? Moreover, Dr. Hunink appears so unconversant with postcolonial criticism—a field which the volume explicitly addresses—as not to realize that “exotic” is a rhetorically dismissive term, just another means for “othering”, a means for dismissing the culture(s) of the colonized, suggesting that they are too outlandish to take seriously on their own terms. Perhaps he missed the irony of the essay’s subheading “The Final Solution” which discusses the displaced politics of “othering” Phoenician culture in the field of Alterthumswissenschaft. Perhaps he also happened to skip over the sentence in the essay which reminds readers that “Martin Bernal has documented how, from the latter half of the nineteenth centuries through the 1930s, classical scholarship came to construct Phoi¬ni¬kian culture as (1) diesseits des Hellentums, and (2) (therefore) funda¬mentally barbaric—[in fact,] Friedrich Schlegel . . . classified Phoinikian as an ‘animal’ language’” (p. 259). How perfectly “exotic”! But perhaps Dr. Hunink should be commended for upholding tradition and the racial profiling that evidently still prevail in the field . . .

  5. Part V
    Unfortunately, it is true that most European and American students of Apuleius have never taken the trouble to learn Berber or Punic, much less read its several scripts. In fact, most of the folks whom I talked with at the conference were surprised to learn that there was not just one but actually two different pre-Roman languages spoken in Roman Africa: that is, not only Punic but also Berber—this is simply igno¬rance. But these are some of the lapses in Euro-American Apuleian scholarship that both the conference on “Apuleius and Africa” and the volume that came out of it were intended to address. In disparaging that project, Dr. Hunink’s review has—so far as I can see—done the field more damage than good. Dr. Hunink is a meticulous scholar. He has published in¬dis¬pensable editions of Apu¬leius’ work. If, however, there were a word or phrase taken over in translation from Punic or Berber in the Metamorphoses or the Florida, how would he—or any other editor whose linguistic arsenal remains restricted to Latin—ever know? In the literature of Greco-Roman Egypt, scholars have for some time now been publishing Greek locutions that appear in Egyptian texts and Egyptian locutions that appear Greek texts, to say nothing of a wide body of shared literary motifs. Why should we think that the situation in Roman Africa was any different? Dr. Hunink is a respectable scholar. I admire his work. What qualifies him, however, to review a volume on multiculturalism in Roman Africa when, from what I can deduce, the only ancient languages that he reads are Greek and Latin and the only culture with which his work has seriously engaged is Rome? If all you know is Latin, all you will ever see is Latin. Perhaps, one should also not forget that it is enor¬mously convenient to insist that writers like Apuleius did not know "exotic" languages such as Berber of Punic, since that means that as a scholar you don’t have to bother learning these languages yourself. This is the kind of myopia that is no longer tolerated in scholars of Mediterranean or Postcolonial Studies. Why should it still be acceptable in Classics? In the long run, whatever Dr. Hunink wants to write about my work is trivial and ultimately of little consequence. The essay stands or falls on its own merits. If he fails to see the relevance of José Martí to Apuleian studies, perhaps others will. His attitude, however, and that of other Classicists who still prefer to work with blinders, spells—so far as I can see—the death of the discipline.


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