A Unique View of the Roman World

I was reading about the gladiatorial spectacles held in Rome, and I was wondering if children were allowed to watch them. Of course they were! I found out by reading “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius — in a great translation by Robert Graves.

At some point someone is wearing a hat of some kind and a little girl says, “He looks like a gladiator.”

This book has lots of insights into the Roman World, although it takes place largely in Thessaly. The Romans built cities all over the world and each was a microcosm of Rome with its baths and temples and stadiums (stadia, actually).

Apuleius was born in a Roman colony in Morocco in the second century AD, studied at a university in Carthage and ended up in Greece where he apparently blew all his money on liquor and loose women. That’s probably why he can give us a great view of life in the underclasses of Roman society as well as life for the upper crust.

A goodly portion of the book is taken up with funny stories, many of them involving clever wives cuckolding their husbands. There is also a hilarious story about a guy who gets drunk and has a swordfight with a band of robbers and then passes out and when he wakes up finds he has actually been battling some wineskins.

The book also reminds us that the cities of the Roman world were walled for a reason. They closed the gates at night, and outside it was no man’s land. We meet all kinds of robbers and cutthroats who live in caves in the mountains.

Graves’ introduction also gives some explanations of Roman morals. While we hold up the Good Samaritan as a model, the Romans held that bad luck was contagious and it was best to keep your distance from unfortunate people, even if they were once your friends.

Apuleius doesn’t think much of the new religion of the Christians. He has one character who is a Christian, and she only likes it because she goes in for free love in a big way.

This book has everything, even that pinnacle of Roman humor: women copulating with donkeys in the arena.