Pagan Reaction to Early Christian Women in the 2nd Century Part 3: Lucius Apuleius (Margaret Y. MacDonald, 1996)

NOTE: This article is taken from Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman, pp. 67-73.


From about the middle of the second century comes an account which may reflect the charge that Christianity led to the immorality of women. Lucius Apuleius (123—?), the well-known poet, philosopher, and rhetorician from North Africa, was educated in such important ancient centres as Carthage, Athens, and Rome. He wrote a work which reveals a hostile pagan reaction to the activities of a woman who may well be a Christian. In his Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass) he tells the colourful tale of one Lucius, who was transformed by magic into an ass for a time. As part of his adventures when he is in animal form, Lucius finds himself sold to a baker. Here he finds himself in an opportune position to observe what might otherwise have remained strictly between husband and wife:

The baker who purchased me was otherwise a good and very modest man but his wife was the wickedest of all women and he suffered extreme miseries to his bed and his house so that I myself, by Hercules, often in secret felt pity for him. There was not one single vice which that woman lacked, but all crimes flowed together into her heart like into a filthy latrine; cruel, perverse, man-crazy, drunken, stubborn, obstinate, avaricious in petty theft, wasteful in sumptuous expenses, an enemy to faith, and chastity, she also despised the gods and instead of a certain religion she claimed to worship a god whom she called ‘only’. In his honour she practiced empty rites and ceremonies and she deceived all men and her miserable husband, drinking unmixed wine early in the morning and giving her body to continual whoring.

Asinus aureus
Asinus aureus

The reference to the worship of ‘a god called only’ means that Apuleius’ description of the wicked woman could refer to either a Jewish proselyte or a Christian woman. It calls to mind for example, Juvenal’s satirical description (offered in the midst of an attack on the religious corruption of Roman women) of an old Jewish beggar woman who is paid to interpret dreams and is called can interpreter of the laws of Jerusalem, high priestess with a tree as temple, a trusty go-between of high-heaven’. However, the possible reference to the Eucharist (‘unmixed wine’) suggests a Christian context.

The fact that the unfortunate baker suffered ‘miseries to his bed’ leads us to question whether what lies behind Apuleius’ description is the refusal of sexual favours, inspired either by asceticism or by an unwillingness to be intimate with someone who is not a Christian. Although the picture painted is overwhelmingly one of sexual immorality, we will find that Apuleius likely is drawing upon a series of stereotypical vices which are associated with too frequent absence from the home. The depiction of a woman as a whore in fact might be due to the woman’s behaviour that is ascetic, not promiscuous. As I will discuss in detail in Part 3, in his ‘Second Apology’, Justin tells of a Christian woman from Rome who was married to a pagan and was repulsed by the thought of intercourse with one who belonged to the unbelieving world.

Lucius Apuleius

However we understand her actions, the woman’s problematic sexual behaviour in Apuleius’ account is depicted as extending beyond the walls of the household. The accusation of sexual immorality of the woman (she is man-crazy, an enemy to chastity, and a whore) is in keeping with Fronto’s comments about Christian women being involved in immoral acts. However, Apuleius’ text is far more specific about the nature of female vice and about female culpability. While in Fronto’s polemic the attraction of women to early Christian rites is the result of their inherent credulity, in Apuleius’ description the woman is depicted as bold, uncontrollable, and capable of deception. She is completely lacking in shame, the very basis of her husband’s honour.

Apuleius’ description, which might represent a popular assessment of a husband who was unlucky enough to find himself sharing his house with a Christian wife, is similar to a later text which speaks in general about the consequences of the illegitimate religious activities of women. Here damage to husband, bed, and house are also in view. The early fourth-century CE author known as Pseudo-Lucian spoke of wives who ‘leave the house immediately and visit every god that plagues married men, though the wretched husbands do not even know the very names of some of these . . .’ Their return is not characterized by the resumption of normal wifely duties. Rather, the moment they arrive, wives choose to have ‘long baths, and by heavens, sumptuous meals accompanied by much coyness towards the men’. As in Apuleius’ account we find here a description of the illegitimate religious activities of the woman, coupled with disdain towards the husband. One of the most interesting features of Pseudo-Lucian’s text is that it makes explicit what is often implied in other writings: the suspicious comings and goings of women for dubious religious reasons are an assault on the social order which separated the female or private sphere from the male or public sphere and, ultimately, a threat to the core values of honour and shame.


When read in relation to the text from Pseudo-Lucian, Apuleius’ description of the woman who worships ‘the god called only’ offers valuable insight into the nature of public opinion concerning marriages between pagan husbands and early Christian women. I will examine these marriages in detail in Part 3. It is important at this point to consider the kind of women’s behaviour which would elicit criticism, including a barrage of accusations of having stereotypical vices. Given that early Christian women lived in a world which believed that women were inclined towards religious fanaticism and which accused unauthorized cults of leading women to behave immorally, we would expect that pagan members of a household and neighbours of a Christian woman would be sensitive to even the subtlest signs of illicit behaviour. In fact, the texts we have been considering do alert us to some of these signs. Scruples about food or curious feasting, suspected extravagance or laziness with respect to household duties, a lack of interest in relations with one’s husband or in family matters generally might lead to questions. One early Christian text reminds us that something as simple as a sudden preference for plainer, more modest clothing could be noted by outsiders as significant. When Tertullian exhorted Christian women on the importance of avoiding luxurious clothes, he recorded the objection made by some women that the Christian name should not be blasphemed on account of a derogatory change in their former style of dress.

The most obvious and suspicious signs of Christian activities which are alluded to both in pagan critique and in early Christian literature are intrusion within the house by mysterious visitors, and/or frequent absences from the home. The departure of a woman to attend an early morning rite could lead quickly to an eruption of rumours about her adulterous behaviour, however innocent her intent. One fascinating early Christian text from the fourth century CE illustrates that early Christians were aware of the possibility of dangerous shifts in public opinion. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles tells of the special ministry which the deaconess has to women who are part of unbelieving households: ‘sometimes thou canst not send a Deacon, who is a man, to the women in certain houses, on account of the unbelievers. Thou shall therefore send a woman, a Deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad.’

Psyche in the grove of Cupid, 1345 illustration of the Metamorphoses, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Psyche in the grove of Cupid, 1345 illustration of the Metamorphoses, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

It appears that rumours of sexual promiscuity were hovering over relationships between believing men and the daughters and wives of non-believers. In light of the possibility of scandal, it would be prudent to send out a woman minister, whose entry into the non-believing household would be less likely to be noticed. One of the most fascinating aspects of this text is that it admits the need for discretion, even secrecy, in Christian groups. In fact, the Christian woman in view here seems bound to remain in the house and requires discreet visitations. Such precautions are hardly surprising when one considers that a woman’s marital infidelity (implicit in her decision to join the church without her husband) could have life-threatening repercussions. Early Christian sources indicate that marriages between believing women and pagan men could lead to persecution.

Apuleius’ description of the woman who worships ‘the god called only’, the text from Pseudo-Lucian on the suspicious religious activities of women, and the instructions concerning the duties of the deaconess in the Constitutions all reflect a phenomenon that has been observed by anthropologists of Mediterranean societies: intrusions into the house and/or frequent absences from the house can be potent signs of a woman’s infidelity and general unsuitability as a wife. The remarks of anthropologist Juliet du Boulay about modern Greek village life seem equally applicable to ancient society: absence from the home or irregularities in customary activities which cannot be minutely and indisputably accounted for in society, will almost inevitably be taken as evidence of surreptitious liaisons . . . since, according to the conception of feminine nature, a woman’s shame is the seat of her virtue, lack of virtue in aspects of life completely unrelated to sexuality may, if occasion arises, be referred back to a woman’s basic moral nature.


If we allow Du Boulay’s remarks to inform our understanding of the consequences of public censure for the life of marriages between pagan men and early Christian women we arrive at the following picture: a woman’s mysterious comings and goings for religious purposes, and/or her entertainment of secret visitors were a sign of her lack of restraint, probably promiscuity, and they ultimately meant that the woman was shameless and immoral. Such actions could have serious repercussions. Harsh laws would punish the Roman woman if rumours of her behaviour became actual charges of adultery, although if her husband was unfaithful he incurred no legal punishment unless the other woman was married. It was the wife’s sexual purity which determined the household’s reputation and legal standing in the community.

With the help of cultural anthropology, we see how easy it was for women who joined new religious groups to be depicted in the contemptuous fashion of Apuleius’ description of the baker’s wife. Moreover, we realize that the role of women in the speculative world of impression, rumour, and stereotype could have had serious consequences for their lives. Suspicions about vices of various shapes and sizes quickly become charges of sexual infidelity and immorality. In both Apuleius’ account and the similar text from Pseudo-Lucian, husbands are portrayed as objects of pity and wives are accused of deceit. But there is another side to these negative portraits. If we recall the remarks in the Introduction to this book about the tendency to attribute the quality of cunning or deviousness to women in modern Greek society, we will be able to consider how such negative presentations actually may function as cultural acknowledgments of the ability of women to ‘get their own way’. Thus, when ancient women are said to be sneaking out of their homes to attend mysterious early morning rites or to worship strange gods about whom their husbands have never even heard, we are, in a sense, reading an acknowledgment of their power, even if it is clearly illegitimate power according to those who are in positions of authority. As we consider the early Christian material in subsequent chapters we will probe the shape of that power. In fact, the next text may already provide us with some understanding of such power. The remarks of the following author return us once again to the particulars of history and prevent us from concluding too quickly that pagans only thought they saw a women’s religion.