Apuleius  The Golden Ass
In his influential work The Rise of the Novel, scholar Ian Watt
links the emergence of this new style of narrative with the
socioeconomic changes of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries.  Here the rise of the middle class, the increasing
pervasiveness of capitalism, and an unprecedented emphasis on
individualism required a concomitant shift in the manner of story
telling.  The novel, with its colorful individual protagonists
making their way in the world, would emerge as a narrative
style perfectly adapted to the needs of the time.

The premise is persuasive and appealing.  But what are we to
do with novels such as
The Tale of Genji or The Golden Ass, which
seem to have achieved this same end result long before Daniel
Defoe and Samuel Richardson were born?  Genji and Lucius, the
main protagonists in these books, come across as essentially
modern characters, whose interests, drives and motivations can
be as easily understood today as when the stories were first

The Golden Ass by Apuleius is an especially fascinating work.  It
is the only Latin novel from ancient times that has survived in its
entirety.   Its picaresque flavor makes it an important precedent
for Rabelais,
Cervantes, Boccaccio and other writers who
captured a similar tone and temperament a dozen centuries
later.   In Apuleius we have all the key characteristics of these
later authors -- a fascination with the lower classes, a frank and
sometimes bawdy tone, a loose and easy prose style, a plot
that turns on the hopes and dreams of its hero and the
obstacles and challenges put in his way.  

The book is valuable reading for students who want to broaden
their perspective on ancient literature, and is a corrective to the
typical pedagogical approach that paints the classical period in
cold, stately tones.  But
The Golden Ass also stands on its own
merits, and will amuse and delight for the sheer exuberance of
its story telling.  

Look no farther than the
Robert Graves
translation of Apuleius.  
Graves is the perfect
guide through this work,
given his erudition in the
classical world and his
stylish prose.