This month will see the release of my new edition of The Golden Ass, a novel I had not even read seven years ago and knew little about. It was one of those many books with titles that are vaguely familiar, but if you had asked me who wrote it, when it was written or what it is about, I would not have been able to tell you.
It all began when I received an email from the novelist Richard Zimler in which he mentioned that he had been reading The Golden Ass and enjoying not only its literary qualities but also the manner in which its author had created a work of fiction ‘that places the idea of animal rights in the reader’s head and heart in a very appealing and strong way’. That got my attention. I looked up the work and found that Apuleius, its author, was born during the reign of Hadrian in what is now Algeria but was then part of the Roman Empire. This was a twofold surprise. I hadn’t known that the Greeks or Romans wrote novels, let alone that any had survived. If this was the oldest surviving novel, or even just one of the earliest, why didn’t I know about it? Why, and this is even more extraordinary, didn’t Google know about it? (You don’t believe me? Then put ‘What is the earliest novel?’ into Google. I always get the 11th-century The Tale of Genji.)
The second surprise was that a Roman novel should raise the idea of animal rights – or, if that is too great an anachronism, at least present an animal’s perspective on the way we treat animals. When we turn our minds to the Romans and animals, we will most likely think of the crowds in the Colosseum cheering as exotic animals, brought in from the distant provinces of the empire, fought it out with gladiators or other animals. There were kinder figures in Roman