The Problem of Genre. When was the “novel” invented in western literature? This is a topic on which the experts cannot agree. Some would say the first novel was The Princess of Cleves, a French tale written in the seventeenth century. Others would point to English authors of the eighteenth century. But a case can be made that the genre has precursors, if not actual examples, in the ancient prose writings of such authors as Achilles Tatius, Chariton, Heliodorus (in Greek), and Apuleius (in Latin). For
Apuleius, Roman literature, we do not even have a first name. His most famous work is the prose Metamorphoses in eleven books, but he also published a collection of samples of oratory and a good number of Platonist philosophical writings.
Greek Borrowings. The Metamorphoses of Apuleius is the only completely preserved Latin novel. In it, the protagonist Lucius is mistakenly turned into an ass by a sorceress. He keeps his human faculties and lives to tell of all the extraordinary adventures he experiences until he eats the roses that restore him to human form and is initiated in the rites of Isis. Embedded in this tale is the story of Cupid and Psyche told by an old woman. Venus, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, hands her over to a monstrous husband—who turns out to be really her own son, Cupid, who has fallen in love with her. He takes her to a paradise-like place but insists that she must never look at him. She does anyway and is separated from him. She makes up for her lapse by passing many tests, including a descent to Hades. In the end she gets to marry Cupid and becomes a new goddess. The story bears Platonic as well as ritual traits. It can be read as an allegory for the human soul freeing itself from the shackles of this world and finding the divine truth, or it can be read as a story of initiation-myth that connects with Lucius’s final initiation into the Isis cult. Both readings have some truth to them and some drawbacks. The gods seem strangely mundane, even more so than in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. On the other hand, the allegedly philosophical heaven which Psyche finally reaches is also quite worldly, complete with parties. As an author, Apuleius must have been steeped in literature; the effect of his style is that of a mosaic, since he combines archaism with neologisms, epic, and colloquial words, using formulae from previous authors with great ease. The unreal and stylized picture of the world of the novel is made up of small stones drawn from all over Roman literature which, when put together, produce a new and original picture. This description of Apuleius could also be applied to Latin literature as a whole which, to greater or lesser degrees, keeps borrowing from Greek writers of all ages, sometimes from other Roman writers and then, in each case, presents a new and quite original work.
Gian-Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, translated by Joseph B. Solodow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).