Authority and Subjectivity in the Apology
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Authority and Subjectivity in the Apology book
Apuleius’ Apology, the text of a courtroom speech purportedly delivered in Sabratha, in the province of Africa Proconsularis, in the late 150s CE , is a long and meandering speech of self-defense on the charge of having employed magic-a capital crime in Roman law-to bewitch, seduce, and marry a wealthy widow, Pudentilla. 1 In the fi rst half of the speech, as is well known, Apuleius discourses at length on a series of literary, scientifi c, and philosophical topics only tangentially related to the case, while the formal charges against him are not addressed until the second half. Nevertheless, the whole defense is so convincing, in terms of both the argument and the evidence, that it is generally assumed that Apuleius was acquitted of the charge. 2
As the only example of Latin forensic oratory to have survived from the Roman Empire, produced in connection with a sensational case, the Apology has always attracted critical attention. Over the last twenty years or so, something like a consensus view on how best to interpret this text has emerged. In general, according to the new communis opinio, the Apology should be read as a characteristic product of the so-called Second Sophistic, and Apuleius himself classifi ed as a Latin sophist. As a consequence of this view, the speech is routinely seen as more epideictic than forensic in nature, an opportunity for Apuleius to showcase his learning and eloquence in an entertaining and indeed lighthearted romp. Above all, and very much in sync with the continuing fi xation in cultural studies on the subject of identity, the text is now read primarily as a literary masterpiece of cultural selffashioning. 3 Given this set of concerns, it is no surprise that recent work on the Apology has focused overwhelmingly on the fi rst half of the speech, with its dazzling displays of scientifi c knowledge, literary citation, and cultural identifi cation, while the second half of the speech, given over to the more tedious details of the actual case against Apuleius, has been left to historians desperate for evidence of lived experience in the Roman provinces. No scholar has done more to advance our understanding of the social and historical contexts of the Apology than Keith Bradley, whose studies of the speech have shown that it was not merely a playful rhetorical exercise and
also that it can illuminate many aspects of “life on the ground” in North Africa in the middle imperial period. 4
In this chapter, partly inspired by Bradley’s approach to Apuleius, I would like to offer a new reading of the Apology that focuses on the problem of authority. On the basis of this reading, I then want to push back, with Bradley, against some of the prevailing trends in the interpretation of the Apology. In brief, to anticipate my conclusions, I will argue that we must give due consideration to the Latin, Western, and legal contexts of the speech; that the speech may employ humor but is framed within a legal context that is deadly serious; and, fi nally, that while the Apology can be read as an expression of local or cultural identity, it can also be treated as a case study in the making of a specifi cally imperial subjectivity that necessarily transcended, and was surely as important as, the complex local and regional sources of identity that are expressed in the text.