The Satyricon of Petronius, and the Metamorphoses of Apuleius introduce prose fiction to Latin literature



The romance in prose was a literary form used by the Greeks in the second century AD. In the hands of Petronius and Apuleius in particular, the Roman novel took on a different aspect. Hovering between prose fiction and satire is the Satyricon of Gaius Petronius (d. AD 66), known also as Petronius Arbiter, from his job-title as organizer of Nero’s personal revels. It is also the original picaresque novel, a kind of bisexual odyssey of two men and their boy round the towns of southern Italy. We only have fragments, the best known being “Trimalchio’s Dinner-Party”, which splendidly reflects the manners and mores of the Roman nouveaux riches.


First-century AD mosaic from Pompeii of a skeleton with two wine jugs, illustrating the Epicurean philosophy which Horace called “carpe diem” (enjoy today while you can). It seems that bronze miniature jointed skeletons were handed out as gifts at dinner-parties. At Trimalchio’s they were, of course, made of silver! (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus)

Petronius, victim of one of Nero’s periodic purges, bled himself to death, while conversing, eating, and even sleeping, having committed to paper, and sent to Nero, a classified list of the emperor’s most perverted sexual acts.

Lucius Apuleius was born in about AD 125 at Madaura in north Africa. According to his own account, he married a rich widow much older than himself, and was then accused by her family of sorcery - he was certainly much interested in magic and its effects. He conducted his own defence and was acquitted.

curse tablet - defixio

Sorcery! First- to third-century Roman lead curse tablet, hinged and fastened, which was found in a pot with bones. It contains more than twelve names. The curse itself is scratched on the surface with the words written backwards to give it more power. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

His novel Metamorphoses, better known as The Golden Ass, is a rollicking tale of the supernatural, told in the first person, of how Lucius tries to dabble in magic, is given the wrong ointment by the serving-maid who is also his bed-mate, and is turned into an ass.

Cupid & Psyche

(VRoma: Cleveland Museum of Art: Susan Bonvallet)

Several good stories are spliced into the action of The Golden Ass, including an excellent version of the legend of Cupid and Psyche, depicted in this painting by David (1774 - 1825). The conversion of Lucius to the cult of Isis after his re-transformation into human form gives the ending a religious significance as well as a narrative twist. Apuleius himself became a priest of Osiris and Isis, and was also a devotee of Asclepius, god of medicine, which he seems to have found compatible with organizing gladiatorial shows for the province of Africa.


First-century AD wall painting from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii depicts a statue of Harpocrates (son of Isis) in a niche, with a priest with two silver candle holders. (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus)



From the Spanish pícaro, meaning a wily trickster. The term has come to be applied to the adventures of a resourceful hero on a journey, told in a series of episodes. Examples are Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (1722), Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749), J P Donleavy, The Ginger Man (1956), and, in verse, Byron’s Don Juan (1819-24).

Cupid & Psyche

For a racy retelling of the Cupid and Psyche story from Apuleius's Metamorphoses on the Classics Pages, go here.