Is Roman Humor Funny? Humiliation in Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass”

 Sometimes I struggle to laugh with the Romans.  My favorite poets are sophisticated and witty (Catullus and Ovid), or even broad and slapstick (indignant Juvenal, Martial, and Horace’s satires).  But not all jokes translate equally well, and I am simply unsure whether the translators get it right. There are many philosophies of translation – and I do not agree with all of them

One of my favorite novels, The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, written in Latin by Apuleius in the second century CE, is a picaresque comedy about the transformation of Lucius into an ass after he messes around with a witch’s ointments. In Book III,  Lucius is taking a few days off from his travels, staying at the house of Milo in the town of Hypata.  

At a dinner party, he hears that Milo’s wife, Pamphile, is a witch.  Instead of being scared, he is intrigued (typical Lucius). After getting very drunk, he returns home and thinks he finds a gang of three robbers trying to break into Milo’s house.  He stabs and  kills them.  The next morning he is marched through the town to be tried publicly for murder.  And then the whole thing turns out to be a practical joke. He did not kill men at all;  rather, he stabbed three balloons, or rather, inflated winebags.Is this funny?  Actually, parts are very funny. But, oddly, this particular passage does not strike me as humorous in the Latin. The emphasis is on Lucius’s humiliation, shock, and tears. 

But it is funny – in Robert Graves’s down-to-earth, pared-down translation.  Graves, a classicist, poet, and novelist, certainly doesn’t dwell on Lucius’s emotions. 

He writes,

Then the laughter, which had until now been slyly repressed by the stage-managers of the hoax, burst out uproariously from the whole vast theater.  Part of the audience cheered me exuberantly as a jolly fellow, but many could do no more than press their hands to their stomachs to relieve the ache.  The proceedings ended abruptly, and as the great crowd poured out of the theatre, drowned in floods of mirth, every face was turned back for a last hilarious look at me.

From the moment that I pulled back the shroud, I had been standing there as stiff and cold as stone, exactly as if i had been one of the marble columns that supported the roof; and my soul had not yet floated back from the shadows of death, when my host Milo came up and with gentle insistence drew me away with him.  Then my tears burst out once more, and I could not restrain my convulsive sobbing; however, he took me home by side-streets and narrow passages to spare me the embarrassment of being recognized.  He tried to calm me by cheerful attempts at consolation, but I was now burning with such indignation at having been victimized in this insulting way that he could do nothing with me.

William Adlington, who translated The Golden Ass in 1566, is truer to the text, I think.  He seems more sympathetic to Lucius’s feelings.

Whereat the people laughed exceedingly: some rejoyced marvellously at the remembrance thereof, some held their stomackes that aked with joy, but every man delighted at this passing sport, so passed out of the theatre. But I from the time that I uncovered the bodies stood stil as cold as ice, no otherwise than as the other statues and images there, neither came I into my right senses, until such time as Milo my Host came and tooke mee by the hand, and with civil violence lead me away weeping and sobbing, whether I would or no. And because that I might be seene, he brought me through many blind wayes and lanes to his house, where he went about to comfort me, beeing sad and yet fearfull, with gentle entreaty of talke. But he could in no wise mitigate my impatiency of the injury which I conceived within my minde.

The Hogarth Press edition of William Adlington’s translaation.

 I love Adlington’s take on Lucius’ mind-set, which matches my own reaction to the Latin text.   I am a reader of Latin (meaning I don’t write it down), and am certainly not a translator. But I am posting my literal translation here, so you can compare Graves’ and Adlington’s translations.

And the laughter of some of the crowd, having been restrained strategically for a short time, now burst out freely. Some cackled like jackdaws, others calmed the pain of  their laughing guts by pressing down their hands. And certainly all were deeply imbued with joy as they departed from the theater looking back at me.  When first I grabbed the hem of the shroud from the bodies, I stood frozen, stone, no different from the statues and columns of the theater. But before I emerged from the lower regions of hell,  my host Milo approached me – I was freed from the false charges –  but I struggled, sobbing with tears shining and rapidly falling, and he dragged me along with him clement violence.  And through the bends of a deserted road he led me home, and tried to solace me with various words, as I moaned and trembled. But he could not soothe my shame and injury, which had stuck deeply in my chest.

I simply cannot laugh at Lucius’s reaction to the hoax.  He seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after being accused of murder and faced with instruments of torture. Which might account for his idiotic experimenting in a witch’s workshop.

I do enjoy  Graves’s translation:  it is elegant and enjoyable. I would love to read all of Adlington’s one of these days.

 But who is truest to Apuleius? There are many theories of translation. It’s so complicated, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “Is Roman Humor Funny? Humiliation in Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass””

  1. I don’t know if it’s still used, but the old Loeb edition of Apuleius had Adlington as an opposite page crib. Even if they’ve got rid of it, it should be easy to find second-hand.
    It’s interesting what you say about Adlington’s attitude to Lucius. Orwell thinks the Elizabethans may have been more callous;
    “The fact is that, in spite of the way we actually behave, we cannot any longer feel that the infliction of pain is merely funny. Nietzsche remarks somewhere that the pathos of Don Quixote may well be a modern discovery. Quite likely Cervantes didn’t mean Don Quixote to seem pathetic—perhaps he just meant him to be funny and intended it as a screaming joke when the poor old man has half his teeth knocked out by a sling-stone. However this may be with Don Quixote, I am fairly certain that it is true of Falstaff. Except possibly for the final scene in Henry V, there is nothing to show that Shakespeare sees Falstaff as a pathetic as well as a comic figure. He is just a punching-bag for fortune, a sort of Billy Bunter with a gift for language.”

    I’m no expert, but I think the Elizabethans may have been perfectly capable of feeling sorry for themselves and those they identify with and taking callous glee in the sufferings of others. Thomas Nash’s “The Unfortunate Traveller”, where the hero can play vicious practical jokes on others and lament his own sufferings with equal sincerity is a good example.

    1. Oh, I’ll look for a cheap used Loeb – if there is such a thing! I would like to read Adlington’s entire translation, and my other option would be Project Gutenberg. The free e-books are great, but I’m going through a print period.

      Orwell may be right about the Elizabethans, and certainly the Romans do not seem overly-sensitive. Roman humor is bawdy and very broad. I know that I’m overlaying my own appalled feelings about the consequences of the so-called practical joke – Lucius’s sobbing, shaking – to an extent. But I do think Apuleius shows us real emotions in the few lines here, before snapping to the hilarity of Lucius’ turning into an ass after using the wrong witch’s ointment. Most of the book is very funny!

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