For classical languages major Paul Brucia Breitenfeld ’19 (they/them), the thesis project was many things: an homage to their love for all things strange and exuberant; an anti-imperialist intervention into a racist, overdetermined history of classical studies; a rich foray into the many cultures that ring the Mediterranean sea; and an opportunity to consider what it means for a narrator to be turned into a literal ass—that’s a donkey, to be clear.
Breitenfeld spent their senior year studying the dense world of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, scouring it for cultural and textual references as a way of reparatively constructing a cultural history.
“I was really drawn to this text because it is a fairly strange Latin work: it is an ancient novel written in the second century CE by a North African author, full of adventure, witches, fairytales, cult ceremonies, and the sort of narrative games which are rarely seen in literature before the modern era,” said Breitenfeld. “What is more, the novel’s main character and narrator, Lucius, spends most of the novel in the form of an ass, having transformed himself in a magic accident.”
Believe it or not, this transmogrification is not what Breitenfeld wound up emphasizing in their reading. Rather, they found Metamorphoses to be a fruitful site for identifying and studying anti-imperialist narratives because of the singular cultural position it occupies in the Roman empire.
“As a classicist, I have spent most of my academic career reading literature written in Rome for Romans, but Apuleius’ novel is neither of these things: it was written in Africa for a largely African audience,” said the classical culture and society minor. “Its narrative travels as well, taking readers on a journey from eastern Greece to Rome itself.”
This travel was poignant for Breitenfeld when they were first encountering the novel during their study abroad experience as part of the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome. “For me,” they said, “these aspects of the novel were particularly interesting since I was myself in Rome at the time, learning about the dynamics of imperialism and effects of Rome’s empire on Rome and on the places it subjugated.”
These dynamics became the basis for the reading of Metamorphoses that Breitenfeld would go on to produce. By tracking which cultural and textual allusions would have resonated with different audiences, they were able to identify how different tendrils of Roman imperialism shaped lives around the region.
“I wanted to understand how people might have understood this text differently based on their social standing in the Roman Empire at the time the novel was written,” they said. “So I decided to focus on the novel’s portrayal of the empire, using the interpretations of literary allusions––a key part of all Latin literature, but particularly of Apuleius’ works––as my main source of textual evidence.”
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
Given that classics has had a long history of promoting racism and imperialism, it was really important to me that I challenge the preexisting assumptions of the discipline with my research and lens of analysis. I set out to amplify voices which classics routinely seeks to silence, particularly those in the ancient world who opposed and actively resisted Roman imperialism and notions of Roman cultural supremacy. I think my biggest takeaway is that it is the responsibility of researchers in my discipline to correct and challenge the lies our discipline helped to create and propagate. I think looking into social history and attempting to understand the experiences of those affected by imperialism is one of the best ways to undermine the fictitious visions of the ancient world that classics promoted.
What are your plans for the future and did your thesis have anything to do helping to guide your future career path?
I’ve been accepted to Boston University’s Ph.D. program for classical studies, and I’ll begin in September. My thesis was one of my first experiences with long-term research in classics and the topic was something that continues to interest me. I applied to graduate school with the goal of continuing my research on Apuleius and imperialism.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.