Libyan perspectives: Apuleius self-identifies as a barbarian and Numidian / Gaetulian (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyan perspectives: Apuleius self-identifies as a barbarian and Numidian / Gaetulian (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024,

Ancient author: Apuleius, Apology 24-25 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: In this section of his legal defence (in Sabratha) against the charge of Magian activity (magia), Apuleius (author of the Metamorphoses, active in the mid-second century CE) self-identifies as a “barbarian” in describing himself as partially Numidian and partially Gaetulian. This is an interesting strategy in the context of being accused of engaging in foreign (Magian) practices (in connection with his relations with a wealthy widow). Despite this very rare case of (non-Roman) self-identification with specificity, Apuleius was, of course, culturally very Roman in his Latin literary skills and interests and had been educated at Athens and active in Rome itself. The case of the Roman citizen Cornelius Fronto from Cirta in North Africa – who was among the teachers of Marcus Aurelius – supplies an interesting comparison (link). Lucian of Samosata in Syria likewise openly self-identifies as both “barbarian” and Assyrian in his writings as well (link).

For more on Libyans and Gaetulians, see Sallust’s ethnographic digression on Africa (link).


[Apuleius on his origins in Madaura in Numidia]

(24) As to my birthplace, you assert that my writings prove it to lie right on the marches 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 for being of mixed descent, half Mede, 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 he set out to live his 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 they sprang, 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 [i.e. an allusion to the climate in relation to the four humours in humans].

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 stupider and some wiser than others? The Scythians are the stupidest people, 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 [those in Madaurus in Numidia, now M’Daourouch in Algeria] 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 leaders (duumvir) and became the foremost citizen of the place, after filling all the civic offices of honour. I myself, immediately after my first entry into the civic senate, succeeded to my father’s position in the community. I hope I am in no way a degenerate successor, but receive like honour and esteem for my maintenance of the dignity of my position. Why do I mention this? That you, Aemilianus [Sicinius Aemilianus who brought the accusation of engaging in Magian activities], 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.

[Aemilianus’ accusations against Apuleius of engaging in Magian activities]

(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 slumber and remember that you are speaking before Claudius Maximus [proconsul of Africa and therefore judge here in 158 CE], a man of stern character, burdened with the business of the whole province. I say to stop bringing forward these empty slanders [addressing Aemilianus, the accuser]. Prove your indictment, prove that I am guilty of ghastly crimes, forbidden offences, and unmentionable skills? Why is it that the strength of your speech lies in mere noise, while it is weak and flabby in point of facts?

I will now deal with the actual charge of “Magian activities” (magiae) [from which we derive the English word “magic”]. You [Aemilianus] spared no violence in fanning the flame of hatred against me. But you have disappointed all men’s expectations by your old wives’ tales, and the fire kindled by your accusations has burned itself away. I ask you, Maximus [the proconsul], 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 a wrack 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 a wrack of calumny behind. The whole of Aemilianus’ calumnious accusation was centred in the charge of Magian activity [magus]. I should therefore like to ask his most learned advocates how, precisely, they would define Magian activity.

If what I read in a large number of authors is true, namely, that Magian (magus) is the Persian word for “priest,” what is there criminal in being a priest and having due knowledge, rites, and skill in all ceremonial law, sacrificial duties, and a sense of obligation (religio) [i.e. the Roman elites sense of obligatory ancestral customs]. At least this is true if Magian activities consist 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 philosopher. Let me recall them to your memory, Maximus:

[in Greek] When the boy has reached the age of fourteen he is handed over to the care of men known as the Royal Masters. They are four in number, and are chosen as being the best of the elders of Persia, one the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, a fourth the bravest. And one of these teaches the boy the magic of Zoroaster the son of Oromazes [alternate transliteration of Ahura Mazda, the main Persian or Zoroastrian deity]. And this magian activity (mageia) is none other than the worship of the gods. He also teaches him the arts of kingship [Plato or pseudo-Plato, First Alkibiades, link].


Source of the translation: H.E. Butler, The Apologia and Florida of Apuleius of Madaura (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), public domain, slightly adapted by Harland.

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