Persians: Apuleius of Madaura’s defence against the charge of harmful Magian actions (ca. 158 CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Apuleius of Madaura’s defence against the charge of harmful Magian actions (ca. 158 CE),' Last modified January 23, 2023,

Ancient author: Apuleius of Madaura in Numidia (mid-second century), Defence / Apologia (link to Latin text; link to full translation)

Comments: These portions of the defense speech by Apuleius of Madaura in Numidia (northern Africa) provide a glimpse into the ongoing popular (so to speak) interest in – and/or fear of – traditions and practices supposedly emanating from the East, in particular from Persia and its Magians / Magi (on which see Pliny’s story of the dissemination of Magian skills at this link). It seems clear that the real issue lying behind the case is personal dislike for Apuleius on the part of relatives of the older woman Apuleius had married (Pudentilla) – married by means of Magian skill and potions, so the story goes.

Unfortunately, we do not know precisely the nuances of the accusations brought by Apuleius’ accuser, Aemilianus (the brother of Pudentilla’s deceased former husband). Nor do we know the Roman laws Aemilianus hoped to appeal to in order to win the case before the Roman proconsul of Africa around 158 CE. However, there is a possibility that the so-called “Cornelian Law against Murderers and Poisoners” (Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis), first put forward in 81 BCE by Sulla, but subsequently modified and supplemented in less than clear ways afterwards, may be among the factors. (On this, see Rives 2003, although I do not agree with Rives’ methodological starting point of assuming the value of the etic category of “magic” to make sense of this material). As Rives explains, we know very little about modifications of this law beyond that the “poisoners” (venenficii) section began as a hindrance to harmful actions or murder by use of potions or medical materials. Then there are signs (though again not clear ones) that this was subsequently either modified or interpreted to apply to other attempts to harm someone by means other than poison, including malevolent sacrificial rites (mala sacrificia), at least as explained by the third century CE jurist Modestinus (in Digest 48.8.13). Most pertinent here is Quintillian’s first century brief mention of debates about whether or not “the chants of Magians are equivalent to poisoning (an carmina magorum veneficiura)” (Institutes of Oratory 7.3.7 – link to work). The evidence is tantalizingly sparse.

Regardless of the nuances of the accusations and the strategy of the accuser, what is clear is that, as a defense strategy, Apuleius proposes that he is being charged with being a Magian (Magus) and of engaging in Magian harmful or evil actions (magicorum maleficiorum, on which also see the Suda lexicon’s definitions of Magian terms at this link). Overall, Apuleius denies the charge of being a Magian (which was partly built on a misinterpretation of a letter to his wife, Pudentilla). But thankfully for our purposes, he also explains more about Magian knowledge and Magian practices in a way that directly highlights the Persian connection and is quite positive about Magian matters: “Do you hear, you who so rashly accuse the Magian skill itself? It is a skill acceptable to the immortal gods, full of all knowledge of worship and of prayer, full of piety and wisdom in things divine, full of honour and glory since the day when Zoroaster and Ahura Mazda [chief Iranian deity in Zoroaster’s outlook] established it high-priestess of the powers of heaven.” Both Plato and Pythagoras are presented as Greek philosophers who appreciated the value of Magian knowledge, and Apuleius concurs.

Moreover, Apuleius suggests that, even if he had done such things, that is no basis to bring charges against someone. Apuleius seems to enjoy demonstrating his significant knowlege about precisely Magian traditions from Persia, including, apparently, having read Pliny the Elder (as the list of historical Magians suggests – link). So Apuleius’ speech gives us another view of Magian ways from a highly educated Latin writer who also self-identified as a native Numidian. But this writing also sketches a picture of circulating rumours, knowledge and worries about the dangers or excitements of foreign ways from the east in the populace more generally.

Works consulted: J.B. Rives, “Magic in Roman Law: The Reconstruction of a Crime,” Classical Antiquity 22 (2003): 313–39 (link).

Source of translation: H.E. Butler, The Apologia and Florida of Apuleius of Madaura (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), adapted by Harland with particular attention to terms related to Magians and Magian practices. (Despite an otherwise lively translation, unfortunately Butler had lost the Persian and Magian background by modernizing or rather medievalizing concepts with use of the terms “black art”  for magicorum maleficiorum – now Magian harmful actions or offences or similar – and “wizards” for Magi – now Magians).


[Introduction of the defence against accusations of Magian harmful actions]

1 For my part, Claudius Maximus [proconsul of Africa], and you, gentlemen who sit beside him on the bench, I regarded it as a foregone conclusion that Sicinius Aemilianus [brother of Aemilia Pudentilla’s deceased husband and Apuleius’ current wife] would for sheer lack of any real ground for accusation cram his indictment with mere vulgar abuse. For the old rascal is notorious for his unscrupulous audacity. Furthermore, Aemilianus launched forward on his task of bringing me to trial in your court before he had given a thought to the line his prosecution should pursue. Now while the most innocent of men may be the victim of false accusation, only the criminal can have his guilt brought home to him. It is this thought that gives me special confidence, but I have further ground for self-congratulation in the fact that I have you for my judge on an occasion when it is my privilege to have the opportunity of clearing philosophy of the aspersions cast upon her by the uninstructed and of proving my own innocence. Nevertheless, these false charges are on the face of them serious enough, and the suddenness with which they have been improvised makes them the more difficult to refute.

For you will remember that it is only four or five days since his advocates of intentional malice attacked me with slanderous accusations, and began to charge me with Magian harmful actions (magicorum maleficiorum) and with the murder of my step-son Pontianus [son of Pudentilla, Apuleius’ current wife]. I was at the moment totally unprepared for such a charge, and was occupied in defending an action brought by the brothers Granius against my wife Pudentilla. I perceived that these charges were brought forward not so much in a serious spirit as to gratify my opponents’ taste for unrestrained slander. I therefore straightway challenged them, not once only, but frequently and emphatically, to proceed with their accusation.

The result was that Aemilianus, perceiving that you, Maximus (not to speak of others) were strongly moved by what had occurred, and that his words had created a serious scandal, began to be alarmed and to seek for some safe refuge from the consequences of his rashness.

2 Therefore as soon as he was compelled to set his name to the indictment, he conveniently forgot Pontianus, his own brother’s son, of whose death he had been continually accusing me only a few days previously. He made absolutely no mention of the death of his young kinsman. He abandoned this most serious charge, but – to avoid the appearance of having totally abandoned his mendacious accusations – he selected, as the sole support of his indictment, the false accusation of Magian activity (calumniam magiae), a charge with which it is easy to create a prejudice against the accused, but which it is hard to prove. . . . [omitted section in which Apuleius points to Aemilianus fear of making the accusation in person and undermines Aemilianus by pointing to other false legal actions].

[Apuleius as philosopher, not Magian]

3. . . For I am pleading not merely my own cause, but that of philosophy as well, philosophy, whose greatness is such that she resents even the slightest slur cast upon her perfection as though it were the most serious accusation. Knowing this, Aemilianus’ advocates, only a short time ago, poured forth with all their usual loquacity a flood of drivelling accusations, many of which were specially invented for the purpose of tainting my character, while the remainder were such general charges as the uninstructed are in the habit of levelling at philosophers. It is true that we may regard these accusations as mere interested vapourings, bought at a price and uttered to prove their shamelessness worthy of its hire. . . . [omitted material].

[Accusation of performing Magian love incantations]

9 . . . Now what has it to do with Magian harmful actions if I write poems in praise of the boys of my friend Scribonius Laetus? Does the mere fact of my being a poet make me a Magian? Who ever heard any orator produce such likely ground for suspicion, such apt conjectures, such close-reasoned argument? “Apuleius has written verses!” If they are bad, that is something against him as a poet, but not as a philosopher. If they are good, why do you accuse him? “But they were frivolous verses of an erotic character.” So that is the charge you bring against me? and it was a mere slip of the tongue when you indicted me for Magian harmful actions? . . . [material omitted].

[Apuleius’ reference to his own ethnic background]

24 As to my birthplace, you assert that my writings prove it is located on the boundaries of Numidia and Gaetulia, for I publicly described myself as half Numidian, half Gaetulian in a discourse delivered in the presence of that most distinguished citizen Lollianus Avitus. I do not see that I have any more reason to be ashamed of that than had the elder Cyrus [king of Persia] for being of mixed descent, half Mede and half Persian.

A man’s birthplace is of no importance, it is his character that matters. We must consider not in what part of the world, but with what purpose a person sets out to live life. Sellers of wine and cabbages are permitted to enhance the value of their wares by advertising the excellence of the soil from where they spring, as for instance with the wine of Thasos and the cabbages of Phlios. For those products of the soil are wonderfully improved in flavour by the fertility of the district which produces them, the moistness of the climate, the mildness of the winds, the warmth of the sun, and the richness of the soil. But in the case of man, the soul enters the tenement of the body from without. What, then, can such circumstances as these add to or take away from his virtues or his vices? Has there ever been a time or place in which a descent group (gens) has not produced a variety of intellects, although some descent groups seem more stupid and some wiser than others? The Scythians are the most stupid men, and yet the wise Anacharsis was a Scythian. The Athenians are shrewd, and yet the Athenian Meletides was a fool.

I say this not because I am ashamed of my country, since even in the time of Syphax we were a township. When he was conquered we were transferred by the gift of the Roman people to the dominion of king Masinissa, and finally as the result of a settlement of veteran soldiers, our second founders, we have become a colony of the highest distinction. In this same colony my father attained to the post of one of the two main civic magrisrates (duumvir) and became the foremost citizen of the place, after filling all the municipal offices of honour. I myself, immediately after my first entry into the municipal senate, succeeded to my father’s position in the community and, as I hope, am in no ways a degenerate successor, but receive similar honour and respect for my maintenance of the dignity of my position. Why do I mention this? So that you, Aemilianus, may be less angry with me in future and may more readily pardon me for having been negligent enough not to select your “Attic” Zarath for my birthplace.

25 Are you not ashamed to produce such accusations with such violence before such a judge, to bring forward frivolous and self-contradictory accusations, and then in the same breath to blame me on both charges at once? Is it not a sheer contradiction to object to my wallet and staff on the ground of austerity, to my poems and mirror on the ground of undue levity; to accuse me of parsimony for having only one slave, and of extravagance in having three; and, to denounce me for my Greek eloquence and my barbarian birth? Awake from your sleep and remember that you are speaking before Claudius Maximus, a man of stern character, burdened with the business of the whole province. I say to stop bringing forward these empty slanders. Prove your indictment, prove that I am guilty of monstrous offences, forbidden crimes, and impious skills. Why is it that the strength of your speech lies in mere noise, while it is weak and flabby on facts?

[Magian activity: Reality and popular misunderstandings]

I will now deal with the actual charge of Magian activity (crimen magiae). You spared no violence in fanning the flame of hatred against me. But you have disappointed everyone’s expectations by your old wives’ tales, and the fire kindled by your accusations has burned itself away. I ask you, Maximus, have you ever seen fire spring up among the stubble, crackling sharply, blazing wide and spreading fast, but soon exhausting its flimsy fuel, dying fast away, leaving not even a frame behind? So they have kindled their accusation with abuse and fanned it with words, but it lacks the fuel of facts and, your verdict once given, is destined to leave not even a frame of slander behind. The whole of Aemilianus’ slanderous accusation was centred in the charge of engaging in Magian activity. I should therefore like to ask his most learned advocates how, precisely, they would define a Magian (Magus)?

If what I read in a large number of authors is true, namely, that Magian is the Persian word for our “priest” (sacerdos), what is there criminal in being a priest and having appropriate learning, knowledge, and skill in all ceremonial law, sacred duties, and ritual obligation (religio), at least if Magian knowledge (magia, from Greek mageia) consists in what Plato presents in his description of the methods employed by the Persians in the education of their young princes? I remember the very words of that divine man. Let me recall them to your memory, Maximus:

“And when the boy reaches fourteen years he is taken over by the royal tutors, as they call them there. These are four men chosen as the most highly esteemed among the Persians of mature age, namely, the most wise one, the most just one, the most self-controlled one, (122a) and the most brave one. The first of these tutors teaches him Magian knowledge (mageia) of Zoroaster son of Ahura Mazda (Oromazes), the principal Zoroastrian deity], and that is the worship of the gods. He teaches him also what pertains to a king.” [Pseudo-Plato, First Alkibiades 120-124 – link].

26 Do you hear, you who so rashly accuse the Magian skill itself? It is a skill acceptable to the immortal gods, full of all knowledge of worship and of prayer, full of piety and wisdom in things divine, full of honour and glory since the day when Zoroaster and Ahura Mazda established it high-priestess of the powers of heaven. No, it is one of the first elements of princely instruction, nor do they lightly admit any chance person to be a Magian, any more than they would admit him to be a king. Plato – if I may quote him again – in another passage dealing with a certain Zalmoxis, a Thracian by descent and also a master of this skill, has written that “enchantments (epōdai in Greek) are merely beautiful words” [Plato, Charmides 157A]. If that is so, why should I be forbidden to learn the fair words of Zalmoxis or the priestly knowledge of Zoroaster?

But if these accusers of mine, after the fashion of the common herd, define a Magian as one who by communion of speech with the immortal gods has power to do all the amazing things that he wants to through a strange power of incantation, I really wonder that they are not afraid to attack one whom they acknowledge to be so powerful. For it is impossible to guard against such a mysterious and divine power. Against other dangers we may take adequate precautions. Someone who summons a murderer before the judge comes into court with an escort of friends. Someone who denounces a poisoner is unusually careful as to what he eats. Someone who accuses a thief sets a guard over his possessions. But for the man who exposes a Magian, credited with such awful powers, to the danger of a capital sentence, how can escort or precaution or watchmen save him from unforeseen and inevitable disaster? Nothing can save him, and therefore the man who believes in the truth of such a charge as this is certainly the last person in the world who should bring such an accusation.

[Comparison with ignorant charges against philosophers]

27 But it is a common and general error of the uninitiated to bring the following accusations against philosophers. Some of them think that those who explore the origins and elements of material things disregard ritual obligation, and assert that philosophers deny the existence of the gods. Take, for instance, the cases of Anaxagoras, Leukippos, Demokritos, and Epicurus, and other natural philosophers. Others call those Magians who give unusual care to the investigation of the workings of providence and unusual devotion on their worship of the gods, as though, in fact, they knew how to perform everything that they know actually to be performed. So Epimenides, Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Ostanes were regarded as Magians, while a similar suspicion attached to the “purifications” of Empedokles, the “lower spirit (daimōn)” of Socrates and “the Good” of Plato. I congratulate myself therefore on being admitted to such distinguished company.

[Specific accusation of using fish in Magian activities in order to gain the love of Pudentilla]

I fear, however, Maximus, that you may regard the empty, ridiculous and childish fictions which my opponents have advanced in support of their case as serious charges merely because they have been put forward. “Why,” says my accuser, “have you tried to get particular kinds of fish?” Why should a philosopher not be permitted to do for the satisfaction of his desire for knowledge what the over-eater is permitted to do for the satisfaction of his gluttony? “What,” he asks, “induced a free woman [Pudentilla] to marry you after thirteen years of widowhood [previously married to the accuser’s brother]?” As if it were not more remarkable that she should have remained a widow so long. “Why, before she married you, did she express certain opinions in a letter?” As if anyone should give the reasons for another person’s private opinions. “But,” he goes on, “although she was your senior in years, she did not despise your youth.” Surely this simply serves to show that there was no need of Magian skill to induce a woman to marry a man, or a widow to wed a bachelor some years her junior.

[Accusations of suspicious Magian objects of veneration]

There are more charges equally frivolous. “Apuleius,” he persists, “keeps a mysterious object in his house which he worships with veneration.” As if it were not a worse offence to have nothing to worship at all. “A boy fell to the ground in Apuleius’ presence.” What if a young man or even an old man had fallen in my presence through a sudden stroke of disease or merely owing to the slipperiness of the ground? Do you really think to prove your charge of Magian activity by such arguments as these: the fall of a wretched boy, my marriage to my wife, my purchases of fish?

[Apuleius’ detailed disassembly of the charges]

28 I should run but small risk if I were to content myself with what I have already said and begin my peroration. But since as a result of the length at which my accusers spoke, the water-clock still allows me plenty of time, let us, if there is no objection, consider the charges in detail. I will deny none of them, be they true or false. I will assume their truth, that this great crowd, which has gathered from all directions to hear this case, may clearly understand not only that no true incrimination can be brought against philosophers, but that not even any false charge can be fabricated against them, which — such is their confidence in their innocence – they will not be prepared to admit and to defend, even though it be in their power to deny it.

I will therefore begin by refuting their arguments, and will prove that they have nothing to do with Magian activity. Next I will show that even on the assumption of my being the most consummate Magian, I have never given cause or occasion for conviction of any evil practice. I will also deal with the lies with which they have endeavoured to arouse hostility against me, with their misquotation and misinterpretation of my wife’s letters, and with my marriage with Pudentilla, whom, as I will proceed to prove, I married for love and not for money. This marriage of ours caused frightful annoyance and distress to Aemilianus. That is the source of all the anger, frenzy, and raving madness which he has shown in the conduct of this accusation. . . [omitted details of each of the activities that were twisted into Magian crimes, beginning with the purchase of different types of fish].

[Popular misunderstandings of Magian ways: Uselessness of fish and the example of Pythagoras]

31 You would have made out a far more plausible case by pretending that I made use of such things instead of fish, if only you had possessed the slightest erudition. For the belief in the use of these things is so widespread that you might have been believed. But of what use are fish save to be cooked and eaten at meals? In Magian activity they seem to me to be absolutely useless. I will tell you why I think so.

Many hold Pythagoras to have been a pupil of Zoroaster and, like him, to have been skilled in Magian knowledge. And yet it is recorded that once near Metaponton, on the shores of Italy, his home, which his influence had converted into a second Greece, he noticed certain fishermen draw up their net. He offered to buy whatever it might contain, and after depositing the price ordered all the fish caught in meshes of the net to be released and thrown back into the sea. He would certainly never have allowed them to slip from his possession had he known them to possess any valuable Magian properties. For being a man of peculiar learning, and a great admirer of the men of old, he remembered that Homer, a poet of manifold or, rather I should say, absolute knowledge of all that may be known, spoke of the power of all the drugs that earth produces, but made no mention of the sea, when speaking of a certain female diviner (saga), he wrote the line: “All drugs (pharmaka), that wide earth nourishes, she knew” [Homer, Iliad 11.741]. Similarly in another passage he says: “Earth the grain-giver / yields up to her its store of drugs, whereo / many be healing, mingled in the cup, / and many baneful” [Homer, Odyssey 4.229]. But never in the works of Homer did Proteus anoint his face nor Odysseus (Ulysses) his trench, nor Aiolos his windbags, nor Helen her mixing bowl, nor Circe her cup, nor Venus her girdle, with any charm drawn from the sea or its inhabitants. You alone within the memory of man have been found to sweep as it were by some convulsion of nature all the powers of herbs, roots, young shoots and small pebbles from their hilltops into the sea, and there confine them in the entrails of fish. And so whereas Magians at their rites used to call on Mercury the giver of oracles, Venus that lures the soul, the moon that knows the mystery of the night, and Trivia the mistress of the shades, you will transfer Neptune, with Salacia and Portumnus and all the company of Nereids from the cold tides of the sea to the burning tides of love.

32 I have given my reasons for refusing to believe that Magians and fish have anything to do with one another. But now, if it please you, we will assume with Aemilianus that fish are useful for Magian practices as well as for their usual purposes. But does that prove that whoever acquires fish is by default a Magian? On those lines it might be urged that whoever acquires a sloop is a pirate, whoever acquires a crowbar a burglar, whoever acquires a sword an assassin. . . [omitted material characterizing Aemilianus as uneducated and talking about the medicinal value of natural phenomena apart from Magian practice].

[False accusation of enchanting a boy as part of Magian rites]

42 Since I have sufficiently cleared up this business of the fish, listen to another of their inventions equally stupid, but much more extravagant and far more wicked. They themselves knew that their argument about the fish was futile and bound to fail. They realized, moreover, its strange absurdity (for who ever heard of fish being scaled and boned for Magian harmful actions?), they realized that it would be better for their fictions to deal with things of more common report, which have up till now been believed. And so they devised the following fiction which does at least fall within the limits of popular believability and rumour: They asserted that I had taken a boy apart to a secret location with a small altar and a lantern and only a few accomplices as witnesses, and there performed an incantation so that he fell in the very spot where I pronounced it, and on being awakened was found to be out of his mind. They did not dare to go any further with the lie. To complete their story they should have added that the boy uttered many prophecies.

For this we know is the prize of incantations, namely divination and prophecy. And this miracle in the case of boys is confirmed not only by vulgar opinion but by the authority of learned men. I remember reading various relations of the kind in the philosopher Varro, a writer of the highest learning and erudition, but there was the following story in particular. Inquiry was being made at Tralles by Magian means into the probable issue of the Mithridatic war, and a boy who was gazing at an image of Mercury reflected in a bowl of water foretold the future in a hundred and sixty lines of verse. He records also that Fabius, having lost five hundred denarii, came to consult Nigidius. By means of incantations, Nigidius inspired certain boys so that they were able to indicate to him where a pot containing a certain portion of the money had been hidden in the ground, and how the remainder had been dispersed, one denarius having found its way into the possession of Marcus Cato the philosopher. This coin Cato acknowledged he had received from a certain lackey as a contribution to the treasury of Apollo.

43 I have read this and the similar things concerning boys and Magian things in several authors, but I am in doubt whether to admit the truth of such stories or not. Nonetheless, I believe Plato when he asserts that there are certain divine powers holding a position and possessing a character midway between gods and men, and that all divination and the miracles of Magians are controlled by them. Moreover it is my own personal opinion that the human soul, especially when it is young and unsophisticated, may by the allurement of music or the soothing influence of sweet smells be lulled to sleep and banished into oblivion of its surroundings so that, as all consciousness of the body fades from the memory, it returns and is reduced to its primal nature, which is in truth immortal and divine; and thus, as it were in a kind of slumber, it may predict the future.

But however these things may be, if any faith is to be put in them, the prophetic boy must, as far as I can understand, be fair and unblemished in body, shrewd of wit and ready of speech, so that a worthy and fair shrine may be provided for the divine indwelling power (if indeed such a power does enter into the boy’s body) or that the boy’s mind when wakened may quickly apply itself to its inherent powers of divination, find them ready to its use and reproduce their promptings undulled and unimpaired by any loss of memory. For, as Pythagoras said, not every kind of wood is fit to be carved into the likeness of Mercury.

If that be so, tell me who was that healthy, unblemished, intelligent, handsome boy whom I deemed worthy of initiation into such mysteries by the power of my spells. As a matter of fact, Thallus, whom you nentioned, needs a doctor rather than a Magian. For the poor wretch is such a victim to epilepsy that he frequently has fits two or three times dailywithout the need for any incantations, and exhausts all his limbs with his convulsions. His face is ulcerous, his head bruised in front and behind, his eyes are dull, his nostrils distended, and his feet stumbling. He may claim to be the greatest of Magians in whose presence Thallus has remained for any considerable time upon his feet. For he is continually lying down, either a seizure or mere weariness causing him to collapse. . . [omitted material including reference to fourteen slaves as potential witnesses of the incantation that were not in fact called].

[Accusation of enchanting another woman]

48 You assert also that by promising to heal her I brought to my house a free woman who suffered from the same disease as Thallus; that she, too, fell senseless as a result of my incantations. It appears to me that you are accusing a wrestler, not a Magian, since you say that all who visited me had a fall. And yet Themison, who is a physician and who brought the woman for my inspection, denied, when you asked him, Maximus, that I had done anything to the woman other than ask her whether she heard noises in her ears, and if so, which ear suffered most. He added that she departed immediately after telling me that her right ear was most troubled in that way. . . . [omitted material demonstrating Apuleius’ education in philosophy and medical theory, material about the accuser’s ignorance, and material about the use of a supposed handkerchief].

[Pudentilla’s letter sarcastically referring to Apuleius’ Magian enchantment of her]

78 . . . But I am digressing. Pudentilla, seeing to her astonishment that her son had fallen lower than she could have deemed possible, went into the country and by way of rebuke wrote him the notorious letter, in which, according to my accusers, she confessed that my Magian practices had made her lose her reason and fall in love with me. And yet, Maximus, the day before yesterday at your command I took a copy of the letter in the presence of witnesses and of Pontianus’ secretary. Aemilianus also was there and countersigned the copy. What is the result? In contradiction to my accusers’ assertion everything is found to tell in my favour.

79 And yet, even if she had spoken somewhat strongly and had called me a Magian, it would be a reasonable explanation that she had, in defending her conduct to her son, preferred to allege compulsion on my part rather than her own inclination. Is Phaedra the only woman whom love has driven to write a lying letter? Is it not rather a device common to all women that, when they have begun to feel strong desire for anything of this kind, they should prefer to make themselves out the victims of compulsion? But even supposing she had genuinely regarded me as a Magian, would the mere fact of Pudentilla’s writing to that effect be a reason for actually regarding me as a Magian? You, with all your arguments and your witnesses and your diffuse eloquence, have failed to prove me a Magian. Could she prove it with one word? A formal indictment, written and signed before a judge, is a far more weighty document than what is written in a private letter! Why don’t you prove that I’m a Magian by my own deeds instead of having recourse to the mere words of another? . . . [omitted material].

82 The mother was rebuking her son because, after extolling me to her as a model of all the virtues, he now, at Rufinus’ [father-in-law of Pontianus] instigation, asserted that I was a Magian. The actual words in the letter were as follows: “Apuleius is a Magian and has used Magian skills to make me love him! Come to me, then, while I am still in my senses.” These words, which I have quoted in Greek, have been selected by Rufinus and separated from their context. He has taken them around as a confession on the part of Pudentilla, and, with Pontianus [her son] at his side all dissolved in tears, has shown them through all the market-place, allowing men only to read that portion which I have just cited and suppressing all that comes before and after. His excuse was that the rest of the letter was too disgusting to be shown; it was sufficient that publicity should be given to Pudentilla’s confession as to my sorcery.

What was the result? Everyone thought it was probable enough. That very letter, which was written to clear my character, excited the most violent hatred against me amongst those who did not know the facts. This foul villain went rushing around in the midst of the market-place like any devotee of Bacchus [i.e. the god Dionysos]. Rufinus kept opening the letter and proclaiming, “Apuleius is a Magian! She herself describes her feelings and her sufferings! What more do you demand?” There was no one to take my part and reply, “Give us the whole letter, please! Let me see it all, let me read it from beginning to end. There are many things which, produced apart from their context, may seem open to a slanderous interpretation. Any speech may be attacked, if a passage depending for its sense on what has preceded be robbed of what went before, or if phrases be expunged at will from the place they logically occupy, or if what is written ironically be read out in such a tone as to make it seem a defamatory statement.” With what justice this protest or words to that effect might have been uttered the actual order of the letter will show.

83 Now, Aemilianus, try to remember whether the following were not the words of which, together with myself, you took a copy in the presence of witnesses: “For since I desired to marry for the reasons of which I told you, you persuaded me to choose Apuleius in preference to all others, since you had a great admiration for him and were eager through me to become yet more intimate with him. But now that certain ill-natured persons have brought accusations against us and attempt to dissuade you, Apuleius has suddenly become a Magian and has bewitched me to love him! Come to me, then, while I am still in my senses.” . . . 84 . . . Pudentilla, therefore, not only denied that I was a Magian, but denied the very existence of Magian things. [omitted remainder of letter discussion and subsequent refutation of the notion that Apuleius married an older woman for money].

[Supposed motive, with reference to Apuleius’ knowledge about Magians]

90 . . . I come now to the very heart of the accusation, to the actual motive for the crime. I ask Rufinus and Aemilianus to answer me and tell me – even assuming that I am the most consummate Magian – what I had to gain by persuading Pudentilla to marry me by means of my love potions and my incantations. I am well aware that many persons, when accused of some crime or other, even if it has been shown that there was some real motive for the offence, have amply cleared themselves of guilt by this one line of defence: that the whole record of their lives renders the suspicion of such a crime incredible and that even though there may have been strong temptation to sin, the mere fact of the existence of the temptation should not be counted against them. We have no right to assume that everything that might have been done actually has been done. Circumstances may alter, the one true guide is a man’s character, and the one sure indication that a charge should be rejected or believed is the fact that through all his life the accused has set his face towards vice or virtue as the case may be.

I might with the utmost justice put in such a plea for myself, but I waive my right in your favour, and think that I have made out but a poor case for myself, if I merely clear myself of all your charges, if I merely show that there exists not the slightest ground for suspecting me of Magian activities. Consider what confidence in my innocence and what contempt of you is implied by my conduct. If you can discover one trivial reason that might have led me to seek after Pudentilla for the sake of some personal advantage, if you can prove that I have made the very slightest profit out of my marriage, I am ready to be any Magian you please – the great Carmendas himself or Damigeron [cf. Tertullian, On the Soul 57.1] or Moses, or Jannes [perhaps drawning on Pliny the Elder at this link] or Apollobex or Dardanos himself or any Magian of note from the time of Zoroaster and Ostanes till now.

91 See, Maximus, what a disturbance they have raised, merely because I have mentioned a few Magians by name. What am I to do with men so stupid and uncivilized? Should I proceed to prove to you that I have come across these names and many more in the course of my study of distinguished authors in the public libraries? Or should I argue that the knowledge of the names of Magians is one thing, participation in their skill another, and that it is not tantamount to confessing a crime to have one’s brain well stored with learning and a memory retentive of its erudition? Or shall I take what is far the best course and, relying on your learning, Maximus, and your perfect erudition, disdain to reply to the accusations of these stupid and uncultivated fellows? Yes, that is what I will do. I will not care a straw for what they may think. I will go on with the argument on which I had entered and will show that I had no motive for seducing Pudentilla into marriage by the use of love potions. . . [omitted sections].

[Conclusion of defence]

103 . . . If I have rebutted all their charges, word by word, if I have refuted all their slanders, if I am beyond reproach, not only as regards their accusations but also as regards their vulgar abuse, if I have done nothing to impair the honour of philosophy, which is dearer to me than my own safety, but on the contrary have smitten my adversary hip and thigh and vanquished him at all points, if all my contentions are true, I can await your estimate of my character with the same confidence with which I await the exercise of your power. For I regard it as less serious and less terrible to be condemned by the proconsul than to incur the disapproval of so good and so perfect a man [Maximus].

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