Lucius Apuleius’ 2nd century AD comic novel deals with the adventures of a man transformed into a donkey, and was an influence on the work of Cervantes, Shakespeare and much of the rest of the Western literary canon. But why ‘golden’? Apuleius’ ass is not particularly associated with gold, and in fact the original title was simply Metamorphoses. It became known as The Golden Ass through the intervention of St Augustine, who assured his readers that this was Apuleius’ own name for his book. And it was ‘golden’ almost certainly because of a piece of Latin wordplay: Golden Ass in Latin is De asino aureo or alternatively asinus aureus. To get a similar effect in English we would have to call it The Dinky Donkey or The Cool Mule.
Works of antiquity often have names added to them much later, and these may sometimes be at odds with their content. Aristotle’s Metaphysics was so named as a result of a decision by one Andronicus of Rhodes. Andronicus was responsible for ordering Aristotle’s collected writings, and he put a group of writings dealing with subjects such as ‘being’, ‘potential’, ‘substance’, after the book called the Physics. This new book was therefore called Ta meta ta phusika, or ‘[The book that comes] after the Physics’ – a title that arose purely because of its placement, not its content. Meta phusika gave rise to our current word ‘metaphysics’, which Aristotle himself, of course, did not use: it had not yet been invented.
A similar story obtains with Plato’s Republic. This was originally called Politeia (‘The State’), but when it was translated in Latin it was given the title Respublica, or ‘public affairs’, ‘affairs of state’. Only later, when political entities that derived power from electors rather than unelected bodies began to be known as ‘republics’, did this title look rather odd – because Plato’s book actually recommends a sort of philosophical dictatorship, unsullied by any democracy whatever: a very long way from anything we would understand as ‘republican’ government.
Carver, Robert HF: The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance (2008)
Plato: The Republic (ed. and notes HDP Lee, 1955)
Kim, Jaegwon; Sosa, Ernest: A companion to Metaphysics (1995)