|Opera [Works] of Apuleius. Rome: Petri de Maximo, 1469 (edition princeps). The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Incun469a.|
|The beginning of the Apologia. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Incun 469a.|
Why does this ancient Roman courtroom defense qualify as a fiasco? Because a key ingredient in any good fiasco is ridiculousness, and Apuleius found the proceedings against him to be utterly ludicrous, so he decided to fight fire with fire. His defense is a bitingly sarcastic, disdainful, and hilarious dismantling of his opponent's charges word for word. Nothing escaped Apuleius’s scorn, not even the brief remark in the opening arguments that he was a “handsome philosopher.” Apuleius rebutted that he isn’t really that handsome: “This hair, which they, with falsehood so manifest, affirmed that I had allowed to grow to such a length, in order to add to the allurements of my beauty—you see how far it is from being handsome and neatly arranged—all clogged and matted together, like the rope of a twisted tow, shaggy and uneven… . The charge, then, as to my hair, which they have made as it were a capital count in the indictment, has, I fancy, been sufficiently refuted." (I'm quoting from a 1878 English edition by an anonymous translator printed in London by George Bell & Sons).
His opponents tried to use Apuleius's own poetry against him, pointing out verses that they felt had lascivious or shameful connotations. They didn't pick particularly damning poems, however. One of them had to do with dentifrices--tooth powder! Apuleius seizes on this to deliver a mocking oration on oral hygiene, which reportedly sent the crowd of spectators into hysterics and which he ended with, "If, indeed, a person, like yourself Aemilianus, will hardly ever open his mouth except to utter calumnies and revilings, I am clearly of the opinion that he ought to bestow no attention whatever on his mouth, nor to clean his teeth with powders brought from abroad, when he might much more appropriately rub them with charcoal snatched from the funeral pile."
Apuleius spun outrageous comedy out of the most absurd assumptions of his accusers, discoursing on such topics as mirrors, fish, napkins, and whatever other subjects he could use to insult his accusers and expose their ridiculous charges. In this way, Apuleius's defense was his best offense, essentially prosecuting his accusers for slander, stupidity, illiteracy, and bad taste. The crowd loved it and the Roman proconsul who acted as judge in the trial duly acquitted Apuleius of being a nefarious magician. For Aemilianus and his scheming family, the trial was truly a fiasco; for us, it's some of the most entertaining courtroom drama you could ask for!
Patrick Rodgers is Curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.