The Golden Ass: How Does This Roman Novel Explore Love and the Soul?

Apuleius’ Golden Ass is the only surviving novel from ancient Rome. A tale of love and laughter with surprisingly profound philosophical undertones.

Dec 27, 2022By Aiden Nel, BA Classical History and Psychology, MA Classical History

burne jones pan psyche boucher painting


Apuleius’s The Golden Ass is the only intact Roman novel to survive to the present day. Written in the 2nd century CE, the novel follows the misadventures of a young man named Lucius, who is accidentally transformed into a donkey after stealing a witch’s magical ointments. The novel incorporates several stories into a grander narrative. Apuleius calls them Milesian tales: a type of short story or fable that focuses on themes of romance, action-adventure, and erotic pursuits.


Every tale incorporated by Apuleius has an intended allegorical meaning that relates to Lucius’s journey and the author’s Platonist philosophy. The centerpiece of the novel is the tale of Cupid and Psyche. On the surface, it is a story of two lovers fighting against the gods to be together. However, the narrative not only foreshadows Lucius’s inevitable fate, but it also allows the clever author to imbue this amusing and raunchy novel with deep philosophical meaning concerning the nature of love and the soul.


Apuleius, Author of The Golden Ass 

apuleuis late antique ceiling painting
Restoration of a late antique ceiling painting, depicting prose writer Apuleius, Unknown, 330 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


Apuleius was an African-born Greek-speaking Latin novelist, Platonist philosopher, and rhetorician. He was born around 124 CE in Madaura, a Roman colony in North Africa, and now Madourouch in Algeria. His father was a wealthy magistrate in the city, and Apuleius received an expensive education and later inherited a substantial fortune from him. Apuleius was first educated in Carthage and then Athens. He studied Platonist philosophy in Athens and would later write two works dedicated to the subject: On Plato and his Doctrine and On the God of Socrates.


Apuleius traveled the empire extensively and spent some time practicing as a lawyer in Rome. While traveling back to Madaura, he became ill at Oea in Tripoli. While recovering, he met and married a wealthy widow named Pudentilla, at the behest of her son an old friend of his. However, Pudentilla’s family objected to the marriage, and Apuleius was accused of seducing her with witchcraft and put on trial. Apuleius successfully defended himself in his now famous speech the Apology, which still survives to this day. He is thought to have spent the remainder of his life in Carthage where he dedicated himself to writing and the priesthood.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


paolina marriage of cupid and psyche fresco
The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, by Perino del Vaga, 1545-47, via the Web Gallery of Art


The Golden Ass is an adaptation of a now lost Greek work called Lucius, or the Ass by Lucius of Patrae. Although entirely lost to us, the original story also focuses on a man transformed into an ass and the trials he must face to transform back. Apuleius named his protagonist after the original author and adapted his simple comic story of a man’s metamorphism into a story rich in philosophical allegory and spiritual transcendence. Apuleius’s most significant alteration from the original is the ending. Lucian’s religious awakening and initiation into the cult of the mother goddess Isis may appear out of place in a novel so concerned with raunchy and violent tales. However, every story slowly reveals the true metamorphosis within The Golden Ass, the metamorphosis of the human soul in the wake of the divine.


The Golden Ass is to some extent semi-autobiographical. Like Apuleius, Lucius is a wealthy well educated Greek-speaking man from North Africa with the means to travel the empire at his leisure. They both share a deep fascination with the mystical arts, an interest that takes both men to trial where they successfully defend themselves against accusations of witchcraft. Furthermore, both men would end their days serving a higher power. Lucius dedicates himself to the mother goddess while Apuleius went on to become a high priest in Carthage in his later life.


A Summary of The Golden Ass

child and donkey istanbul golden ass
Child and Donkey Byzantine mosaic, 5th CE, via Hotelarcadiablue


The Golden Ass tells the tale of Lucius, a young, wealthy, and well-educated Greek man with a deep curiosity for both magic and Milesian discourse.  The narrative begins with Lucius traveling to Hypata, a city in Thessaly infamous for its magic and witchcraft. On the journey, Lucius meets Aristomenes, who tells him a cautionary tale set in Hypata about an evil witch who killed and reanimated his friend Socrates. Lucius is the only person who chooses to believe Aristomenes’s story, claiming that anything is possible.


In Hypata, Lucius stays with a friend of a friend named Milo and his wife Pamphile.  He meets his aunt Byrrhena who warns him to avoid Pamphile, an infamous witch with a taste for young men. Although Lucius promises his aunt to stay away, his curiosity for magic is piqued, and Lucius begins an affair with Pamphile’s assistant, Photis. While in Hypata, Lucius attends a dinner with his aunt and hears several interesting tales about witchcraft, betrayal, and adultery. As a drunk Lucius returns home, he encounters three robbers outside Milo’s home. He attacks and kills them and wakes up in jail the next morning. Lucius is forced to defend himself, however, despite his elegant defense, the crowds only laugh at him. He discovers that he is the centerpiece of the local festival of laughter and that the entire town has played a joke on him.


golden ass page 295 illustration
Illustration from the book The Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass of Apuleius page 295, unknown, 1787, via


Lucius learns from Photis that Pamphile used magic to help trick him into thinking he killed three people. Lucius convinces Photis to let him observe Pamphile using magic. The two watch Pamphile transform into an owl after applying an ointment. Lucius begs Photis to allow him to use it also. Although reluctant, Photis fetches the ointment for Lucius. Photis accidentally gets the wrong ointment and Lucius transforms into a donkey instead of an owl.


Photis informs Lucius that the only way to change back is to eat a fresh rose, which grows in abundance in Milo’s Garden. However, before Lucius can get to one, the estate is raided by bandits who take Lucius with them as a pack animal.


The bandits beat and push Lucius to the point of exhaustion. They take him to their cave where Lucius hears several stories about the bandits. The bandits later kidnap a wealthy young bride, named Charite, who they intend to ransom. An elderly woman working for the bandits tells them the tale of Cupid and Psyche. The story recounts the union between Psyche and Cupid and the many trials they faced along the way. Soon after, the two are rescued by Charite’s husband Tlepolemus, who disguises himself as a bandit and drugs their wine while he regales them with tales of his adventures.


apuleius golden ass listening to woman
Apuleius changed into a donkey listening to the story told by the old woman spinning, by Master of the Die, 1520–70, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


Lucius initially receives a place of honor in Charite and Tlepolemus’s home. However, he is soon given to a sadistic servant boy who mistreats him. Lucius then hears the news that Charite and Tlepolemus have been killed by Thrasyllus, a jealous man who wants to be with Charite. Lucius learns that Thrasyllus murdered Tlepolemus to be with Charite, who later finds out and cuts out his eyes before committing suicide in front of the town. Lucius leaves with Charitie’s servants and is quickly sold to a priest.


The priests turn out to be charlatans who are more interested in young men and easy money than religion. Thanks to Lucius the priests are forced to leave town and they almost eat Lucius along their travels. Lucius is then passed from one owner to another, where he hears and observes several interesting stories all focused on adultery and witchcraft.


Eventually, he is sold to two slave brothers, a baker, and a cook. The slaves realize that Lucius enjoys eating human food and inform their master, who finds it hilarious. The master begins to put Lucius on display where he eats and acts like a human to amuse spectators. A wealthy widow falls in love with Lucian (and his package) and pays to make love to him. The master sees profit in this and plans to force Lucius to sleep with a local woman jailed for murder at a three-day festival.


golden ass page 173 illustration
Illustration from The Golden Ass of Apuleius page 173, 1787, via Wikimedia Commons


Lucius laments the prospect, as the woman is a local murderer who killed her husband and children. The shame is too much and Lucian escapes the night before the festival. Lucian runs for miles before falling asleep.


The next morning, he prays to the heavens asking for salvation or death, he receives an answer from the great mother goddess. She promises to help turn him back into a human on the condition that he devotes the rest of his life to her. Lucian agrees, and following her instructions enters a procession celebrating the goddess and meets a priest with a bundle of roses. He eats one and turns back into a man. Lucian dedicates himself to the goddess, becomes one of her devoted priests, and moves to Rome where he goes on to join the cult of Osiris.


The Tale of Cupid and Psyche in the Golden Ass

picot amor and psyche golden ass painting
Amor and Psyche, by François-Édouard Picot, 1817, via the French Ministry for Culture


The tale of Cupid and Psyche is the longest and most detailed story within the novel. The Golden Ass is divided into 11 books and the tale of Cupid and Psyche begins at the end of book four and is finished halfway through book six. Furthermore, Apuleius set this particular tale directly in the middle of the Golden Ass, it is the centerpiece of the book and arguably the most famous and enlightening tale provided to us.


There once was a king and queen who had three beautiful daughters. The youngest and most naive daughter Psyche was considered the most beautiful and people traveled from afar to see her. The goddess Venus became jealous of the young girl’s mythic beauty and ordered her son Cupid to punish her by making her fall in love with a vile monster. Despite her beauty Psyche remained unbetrothed while her sisters married.


Her father consults the oracle of Delphi who prophesizes that Psyche will marry a snake-like monster. Psyche’s family laments her fate and brings her to a steep rock to await her prophesied husband. The west wind, Zephyr, envelops her and spirits Psyche away to a beautiful valley where she sees a palace.


fragonard psyche showing sisters gifts cupid painting
Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid, by Jean Honore Fragonard, 1753, via National Gallery, London


When Psyche enters the palace, she hears voices announcing that the palace and all its contents are hers. The voices are invisible servants that feed her and entertain her with music. When she goes to bed, she is joined by an unknown man who claims to be her fated husband. The two make love, and although Psyche cannot see him, he feels soft to the touch.


Her husband is none other than Cupid, who fell in love with her when she was cursed by his mother. He orchestrates his current deception to avoid his mother’s wrath and tells Psyche that for now she cannot look at him nor should she believe anything her sisters tell her. Cupid informs Psyche that she is pregnant and that if she tells anyone, the child will be born mortal instead of divine. Psyche promises to listen but she soon becomes lonely in the giant palace, as Cupid only returns when Psyche is in bed.


Lonely, Psyche soon invites her two sisters over. The two sisters immediately become jealous of Psyche’s new life and quickly discern that her new husband must be a god. They begin to tell Psyche that her husband is truly a vile monster who intends to eat her after she gives birth.


The naive Psyche believes her sisters, who tell her she must kill her husband while he sleeps. That night Psyche creeps out of bed and lights an oil lamp and for the first time sees her husband in all his true beauty. While gazing at her husband Psyche pricks herself on one of Cupid’s arrows and drops hot oil on Cupid’s arm. Cupid wakes up and scorns Psyche for her betrayal and flies away.


hale psyche at throne of venus painting
Psyche at the Throne of Venus, by Edward Matthew Hale, 1883, via


Heartbroken, Psyche attempts to kill herself in a river but is miraculously unharmed. She then meets the rustic god, Pan, who advises her to try and win her love back. Psyche then begins her wanderings. She first goes to her sisters, and she tells both of them separately that her husband was Cupid. She tells the two that Cupid has left her for not listening to him and that he now wishes to marry one of her sisters. Each sister then runs off the steep rocks expecting the west wind Zephyr to take them down to the palace. However, there is no wind and each sister falls to their death.


While Psyche wanders, Cupid recovers from the pain of his oil burn and his broken heart while Venus reproaches him. Venus orders Psyche found so she can be punished for what she has done to her son. Psyche is brought before Venus who initially beats her and mocks her. Venus then gives Psyche several impossible tasks to perform.


First, she must organize a massive pile of different seeds, which Psyche only achieves with the help of some friendly ants. Second, she must gather a tuft of wool from the golden fleece of a sheep by the river. Psyche gets help from the river, who tells her to wait until midday when the sheep are drowsy. Third, Venus orders her to bring a jug of cold water from the highest mountain peak. This time, Psyche is helped by an eagle.


waterhouse psyche golden ass painting
Psyche Opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse, 1904, via


Finally, Venus orders Psyche to travel to the underworld and collect a bit of Persephone’s beauty and deliver them in a tiny box. Psyche is helped by the tower Venus has imprisoned her in. The tower gives her advice on how to navigate the underworld safely and tells her never to peek inside the tiny box. Psyche manages to get the box, but her inherent curiosity and naivety lead her to peek inside and fall under a powerful sleeping spell.


Psyche is quickly rescued by Cupid who flies her up to Olympus and asks Jupiter for permission to marry her. Jupiter allows the marriage and makes Psyche an immortal god, alleviating Venus’s pride and anger. Psyche gives birth to their divine child Voluptas or pleasure.


Cupid and Psyche a Platonist Allegory

glaize psyche painting
Psyche, by Auguste-Barthélemy Glaize, 1856, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California


Apuleius was a Platonist philosopher and elements of his school of thought can be found embedded within the Golden Ass and the tale of Cupid and Psyche. In particular, the tale of Cupid and Psyche is connected to Platonist ideas about love and the soul. The Symposium tells the story of how poverty and plenty gave birth to desire which is described as “the daemon love… neither mortal nor immortal, neither beautiful nor ugly, never wealthy but always drawn to riches by desire.” The allegory implies that there are different kinds of love that humans can feel. There is lower love, which focuses on the physical desire for beautiful bodies and there is also higher love. Which focuses on the desire for absolute beauty itself, which is God/the Divine.


Another important allegory from Platonic thought is the great Myth of Phaedrus and the fallen soul. The story speaks of a chariot that altogether represents the human soul, the driver represents rationality, and the two horses that power the chariot are spirit and desire. The moral is that if you do not use your rational mind to control spirit and desire your soul will succumb to calamity.


Once the chariot falls from grace, it must remain there until it grows its wings and begins “a return that is begun by the discovery of beauty in human bodies” and completed by learning from philosophy. What is important about the Phaedrus myth is the potential fall from grace that the soul can succumb to if it is not vigilant.


Psyche goes through such a fall from grace. In ancient Greek Psyche means “soul” and Cupid is essentially the embodiment of love. Cupid and Psyche are an allegory for Platonist views of the transcendence of love and the soul.


nicolas phaéton on chariot painting
Phaéton on the Chariot of Apollo, by Nicolas Bertin, 1720, via Louvre Museum, Paris, France


If we see Psyche as the embodiment of the human soul, her story changes drastically. Neoplatonists argued that the soul goes through a sequence of events before it settles: union, separation, wandering, and return. This sequence easily fits into Psyche’s story, she is initially unified with Cupid in marriage, however, she does not know his true identity yet.


Dowden remarks that the hallmark of Psyche is simplicitas, which refers to the inexperience of childhood. Psyche is easily influenced by her two despicable sisters. Psyche’s interactions with them can be compared to the Phaedrus myth of the soul. The sisters represent the two black horses, desire and spirit. While Psyche, being the youngest and most beautiful of the three represents the rational aspect of the soul. This aspect is added after spirit and desire, which is why Psyche’s age is significant to the story, as she represents the naive aspect of the soul.


As in the myth in the Phaedrus, Psych is pulled down by her jealous sisters’ lies about her husband. Despite Cupid’s many warnings, Psyche succumbs to loneliness and invites them over, where they eventually convince her to find out her husband’s true form. Initially, Psyche can ignore her curious nature. However, her sisters finally convince her when they describe her husband as an immense serpent that plans to eat her once she gives birth to their child.


burne jones pan and psyche painting
Pan and Psyche, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1874, via Harvard Art Museums


Psyche quickly realizes that her husband is not a monster but the god of love Cupid. Who flees from Psyche upon realizing what she has done. Due to her curiosity and naive nature, Psyche fell from grace, became separated from her love, and fated to wander. After her fall from grace, Psyche attempts to commit suicide and only stops after advice from the rustic god Pan. So begins the wanderings and trials of Psyche, during her travels she takes vengeance on her two sisters. After dealing with her sisters, Psyche becomes a servant of Venus.


Venus is enraged when she discovers that her beloved son has married a mortal woman, especially a mortal that Venus already hates. Here we see another Platonic idea — Venus the goddess of love can have two forms, the lower vulgar form of love that deals with desire, envy, and lust and a higher more platonic form of love. This higher form of love is sometimes referred to as Celestial Venus, a kind of love that is pure and untainted by physical urges.


In the story of Cupid and Psyche, Venus represents the lower form of love, one based on lust, envy, and instant satisfaction; illustrated by how unfairly Venus treats Psyche during her trials. These trials are important to Psyche’s metamorphosis as a character. Although she is punished and tested by lower love, she is saved thanks to Celestial love, represented by Cupid in the story.


bouguereau psyche golden ass painting
Psyche and Love, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1889, via Culture Collective News


During her final trial Psyche is instructed to go to the underworld and ask the goddess Persephone to place some of her beauty in a box. Like with the previous three trials Cupid indirectly helps his love complete the trial safely. However, Psyche is warned not to look inside the box, and so for one final time, Psyche’s curiosity gets the better of her. Once she opens the box, she immediately falls under a powerful sleeping spell, as Venus intended. However, Cupid directly intervenes and saves Psyche from her eternal slumber.


Cupid then flies her up towards the heavens where he convinces Jupiter, king of the gods, to make her immortal to appease Venus’ anger. At this point, the tragic tale of Cupid and Psyche becomes a happy story of two separated lovers who struggle against the odds to reunite. According to Platonic thought, love carries the soul heavenward. However, this is not a common or lower love that deals with lust and desire, but a higher form of love that represents absolute beauty itself. In this sense, the tale of Cupid and Psyche can be seen as an allegory for Platonic ideas concerning love and the soul.


However, we cannot assume that Apuleius only meant for this story to be about philosophy, we must remember that The Golden Ass contains many elements of satire that must not be overlooked. Nor should we forget how the tale of Cupid and Psyche relates to our main hero Lucius the Ass.


How Do Cupid and Psyche Relate to the Golden Ass?

abildgaard lucius golden ass painting
Fotis sees her Lover Lucius Transformed into an Ass, by Nicolai Abildgaard, 1808, via Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark


At first glance, the tale of Cupid and Psyche does not seem to relate to the tragic misadventures of Lucius. However, after looking at the tale as a Platonic allegory for the soul’s transcendence from lower love to a higher celestial love, the similarities begin to present themselves.


Like Psyche, Lucius is a slave to his curiosity and despite many warnings decides to dabble in magic. To achieve his goal of observing actual magic, he begins a sexual relationship with the witch Pamphile’s servant and apprentice, Photis. Lucius convinces Photis to let him observe Pamphile’s magic and after he sees her transform into an owl, persuades Photis to let him transform as well. However, he is transformed into an ass, which is the starting point not only for Lucius’s physical metamorphoses but his spiritual one as well.


Due to their curiosity, both Psyche and Lucius fall from grace and begin their wanderings. Both initially submit to lower love, seen by Psyche’s literal enslavement to Venus and Lucius’s sexual relationship with Photis. After their fall, both are forced to wander the lands and silently suffer for their choices. During his wanderings Lucius is exposed to the most extreme forms of lower-based love, he encounters numerous adulterers, murderers, and charlatans. By the end of his journey, he is disgusted by what he has seen and prays to the heavens for help. To his surprise, someone was listening.


rosa allegory of fortune painting
Allegory of Fortune, by Salvator Rosa, 1659, via Getty Center, Los Angeles, California


Much like how Psyche is helped by Cupid after she opens Persephone’s box, the goddess Isis comes to the aid of Lucius. Where Cupid represents higher love for Psyche, the mother goddess does the same for Lucius. Edwards (1992) argues in line with Plutarch, that there is a strong connection between the cult of the goddesses Isis and Venus and argues that both goddesses represent the double face of fortune. Psyche is saved by Cupid (higher love) and brought before the gods, where she ends her journey with one final physical metamorphosis, from a lowly mortal to a divine Olympian. Lucius does the same, however, his metamorphism plays out differently from Psyche’s.


The mother goddess promises to help transform him back but at a cost, requesting that he must devote himself to the cult of the goddess (XI: 6). Despite the hefty price, Lucius agrees and follows her instructions to the best of his ability, which results in him finally turning back into a man. This is not Lucius’ final metamorphosis as he has yet to embrace higher love as Psyche did with Cupid. To truly embrace higher love, Lucius joins the goddess Isis cult of mysteries and eventually moves on to join the mysterious cult of Osiris, the mother goddess’ male counterpart. Lucius’s spiritual metamorphosis is only complete once he fully devotes himself to Platonic love. Similar to Psyche, Lucius is fated to suffer due to his inexperienced and curious nature and in both cases, it is a special divine form of love that rescues them from their fate.


The Golden Ass: Final Thoughts

boucher mariage psyche painting
Le Mariage de Psyché et de l’Amour, by François Boucher, 1744, via the Louvre


The tale of Cupid and Psyche foreshadows the fate of Lucius. The tale is also influenced by Platonic thought which helps us appreciate Lucius’s metamorphosis on a deeper level. However, even though these subtle elements are worth recognition they must not be taken too seriously. The Golden Ass is foremost a comic parody of common Greek stories known as Milesian tales, one which incorporates a larger narrative to connect them all.


Although, we must appreciate Apuleius’s clever use of allegory and storytelling and how he effortlessly incorporates humor into a story about the metamorphosis of the human soul. All of these elements should be appreciated by the readers of the Golden Ass, however, we must not forget Apuleius’s own words “Give me your ear, reader: you will enjoy yourself.”

Author Image

By Aiden NelBA Classical History and Psychology, MA Classical HistoryAiden is a contributing writer and researcher with a passion for ancient literature and mythology. He holds a BA in Classical history and a MA in classical history, writing his dissertation on the Greek god Hermes.