The Trial of Apuleius
Second-century Roman author Apuleius is most famous for his novel The Metamorphosis, otherwise known as The Golden Ass. Apuleius came from a prominent family in Numidia where his father held the post of magistrate. Apuleius’s family was wealthy, enabling him to study in Carthage, Athens and finally Rome where he practiced as an advocate for a time. His travels and studies made him an expert on philosophy- and the beliefs and practice of magic. Somewhat ironically, in 158 AD, Apuleius was tried for practicing magic himself.
After his time in Rome, Apuleius returned to Numidia but continued to travel and study. On one journey to Alexandria in Egypt, he fell ill, in the town of Oea- modern-day Tripoli. As luck would have it, a friend from his student days in Athens lived nearby. This friend, Sicinius Pontianus agreed to allow Apuleius to stay with him while he recovered. It was during this time that Apuleius met Prudentilla, Pontianus’s mother, and a very wealthy widow.
Apuleius and Prudentilla began to grow close. For whatever reason, Pontianus encouraged the relationship between his mother and friend and gave his consent when Apuleius wished to marry her. However, Pontianus’s father in law, Herennius Rufinus was so not happy. A new marriage meant that Prudentilla’s wealth would now pass out of the family. So, Rufinus stirred up Pontianus, his younger brother, Sicinius Pudens and their paternal Uncle into such a pitch that eventually they united and had Apuleius impeached on the charge of seducing Prudentilla by using charms and magic.
The case was heard in the city of Sabratha, on the Libyan coast, before Claudius Maximus, the proconsul of Africa. Apuleius wittily and cleverly deflected the arguments of his accusers. He pointed out he was a wealthy man in his own right, having inherited nearly a million sesterces from his father- so why would he marry Prudentilla for her money? As for his accuser’s attempts to portray him as a dandy, Apuleius turned their argument upon them. He agreed he was much younger than his wife and yes; maybe he was good looking although he couldn’t comment on that. However, wasn’t it more usual for widows to bewitch younger handsome men- not the other way round?
The court acquitted Apuleius on all charges. However, what is interesting is that the details of the trial, preserved in Apuleius’s Discourse on Magic make it clear that Apuleius’s magical knowledge was extensive. Apuleius was aware that the origins of the term magician lay within the priesthood of the Persians. He was also familiar with various methods of divination, including the use of mirrors magical statues. None of this knowledge weighed against him. In later ages, however, even the religious was becoming magical.