Awe and Opposition: the Ambivalent Presence of Lucretius in Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Maaike Zimmerman

University of Groningen

In the first chapter of his De deo Socratis, Apuleius is speaking about the light of the moon, and introduces a quotation from Lucretius: after mentioning the different opinions on the source of the moon's light, he continues:  ceu quodam speculo radios solis obstipi vel adversi usurpat, et, ut verbis utar Lucreti, notham iactat de corpore lucem. The lines of Lucretius to which Apuleius, apparently quoting by heart, here alludes, are:  lunaque sive notho fertur loca lumine lustrans / sive suam proprio iactat de corpore lucem (Lucr. 5,575 f.). At first sight Apuleius' expression "ut verbis utar Lucreti" could be considered against the background of the general, renewed appreciation of Lucretius which arose in the middle of the second century A.D. In the first century A.D. Lucretius had been neglected; he was considered a difficult writer, and his utility in rhetorical instruction was doubted by Quintilian. Tacitus, in his Dialogus, has Aper mock those who prefer to imitate Lucretius instead of Virgil.

But admirers of Lucretius became more numerous, and in the time of the archaists, especially Fronto and Gellius, Lucretius was studied with enthusiasm. Many passages in Fronto's correspondence testify to the warm appreciation for Lucretius, and also Gellius speaks highly about him. The marked interest of these archaizers, who perhaps even made him a school author, was restricted to appreciation of De Rerum Natura as a poem into which one could delve for surprising word-choice and remarkable diction in order to embellish one's own writings. Their younger contemporary Apuleius also read Lucretius well and thoroughly. In this paper I will argue that Apuleius' reading of Lucretius goes deeper than "delving" for original and surprising expressions. A considerable number of Lucretian allusions acquire new meaning in the context of Apuleius' work, and thus go beyond a pure "ornamenting" function. In discussions on "influence" of Lucretius, Apuleius most often is not mentioned at all, or mentioned summarily and negatively, as by Alfonsi (1978, 296): "e ben poco ci dice qualche discutibile ricordo di Lucrezio in Apuleio" ("and very little tell us some disputable Lucretian reminiscences in Apuleius" [L. Alfonsi, 'L'avventura di Lucrezio nel mondo antico ... e oltre', in: O. Gigon (ed.), Lucrèce, Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique Tome XXIV, Fondation Hardt, Genève 1978, 271–315]). In this paper I will dispute, indeed, and now in a positive sense, the Lucretian reminiscences in Apuleius, and especially those in his novel, the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass.

The final book of this novel, the Isis book, a surprising conclusion of the novel, has recently by several scholars been shown to be full of irony, and, indeed, the exalted devotion of Lucius to his new protector and savior, Isis, often raises doubts concerning the seriousness of this conversion. But this conclusion of the novel in any case attests to the never-ending search for bridging the gap between man and god, a search which in the devotion to Isis probably not has found its definite destination, but a possible stage in that search. This search is in itself a serious thread pervading all of Apuleius' works. This earnest quest for a possible communion with the supreme divinity is no doubt motivated by the belief that after all, such a communion must be possible. This belief runs counter to the depressing message of Lucretius' poem, where it is, time and again, stressed that human beings cannot communicate with the divine. This is an unacceptable message for the religiously inclined philosopher Apuleius. However much he admires the poetic power of Lucretius, he at the same time applies allusions to the poet for polemic ends.


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