Lucian of Samosata (/ˈluːʃən, ˈluːsiən/; Ancient Greek: Λουκιανὸς ὁ Σαμοσατεύς, Latin: Lucianus Samosatensis; about 125 AD – after 180 AD) was a satirist and rhetorician who wrote exclusively in the Greek language during the Second Sophistic. Most of his works are written in the Attic dialect, but On the Syrian Goddess, which is attributed to him, is written in a faux-Ionic dialect.
Noted for his witty and scoffing nature, Lucian frequently poked fun at superstition, religious practices, and belief in the paranormal. He admired the philosophers Democritus and Epicurus, both of whom advocated naturalistic worldviews. His works were wildly popular in antiquity and more than eighty works attributed to him have survived to the present day, a considerably higher quantity than for most other classical writers. His reception among modern scholars has been overwhelmingly positive.
His most famous work is A True Story, a tongue-in-cheek satire against authors who tell incredible tales, which is regarded by some as the earliest known work of science fiction. His framing story The Lover of Lies makes fun of people who believe in the supernatural and contains the oldest known version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Lucian often ridicules public figures, such as the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus in his letter The Passing of Peregrinus and the fraudulent oracle Alexander of Abonoteichus in his treatise Alexander the False Prophet.
Lucian wrote numerous satires making fun of traditional stories about the gods including The Dialogues of the Gods, Zeus Rants, Zeus Catechized, and The Parliament of the Gods. His Dialogues of the Dead focuses on the Cynic philosophers Diogenes and Menippus. Lucian had an enormous, wide-ranging impact on western literature and works inspired by his writings include Sir Thomas More's Utopia, William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
A fictionalized portrait of Lucian taken from a seventeenth century engraving by William Faithorne
|Born||About 125 AD
Samosata, Roman Empire (modern-day Turkey)
|Died||After 180 AD
|Notable works||True History,
Dialogues of the Dead, Dialogues of the Gods,
Dialogues of the Courtesans,
Alexander the False Prophet,
Sale of Creeds,
The Lover of Lies
Few details of Lucian's life can be verified with any degree of accuracy, though clues can be found in writings attributed to him. In several works he claims to have been born in Samosata, in the former kingdom of Commagene, which had been absorbed by the Roman Empire and made part of the province of Syria.
Almost everything that is known about Lucian comes from his own writings. The most important source is Lucian's narrative The Vision, which was probably delivered as an address when Lucian returned to his hometown of Samosata at the age of thirty-five or forty after having already made a name for himself as a great orator. In it, Lucian tells how, as a young man, his family lacked the money and resources to afford him an education, so his uncle took him on as an apprentice and began teaching him how to sculpt. Lucian, however, soon proved to be poor at sculpting and ruined the statue he had been working on. His uncle beat him, causing him to run off. Lucian fell asleep and experienced a dream in which he was being fought over by the personifications of Statuary and of Culture. He decided to listen to Culture and thus became a rhetorician.
In On the Syrian Goddess, which may or may not have been written by Lucian, the anonymous author claims to be a native Assyrian. Throughout the same work, the author uses the words "Assyrian" and "Syrian" interchangeably. In the final paragraph of the work, he describes a ritual in which initiates would dedicate a lock of their hair to Hippolytus as part of a pre-marital coming-of-age ritual. The narrator comments, "I performed this act myself when a youth, and my hair remains still in the temple, with my name on the vessel."
In the dialogue Double Indictment, Lucian claims to be a native speaker of a "barbarian tongue", which has been suggested to refer to Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. A more likely interpretation is that he is referring to speaking an unpolished variety of Greek, considering that there is no evidence Aramaic was spoken in Samosata or Commagene in general. It has been suggested that in referring to himself as a "barbarian", Lucian meant that "he was from the Semitic and not the imported Greek population" of Samosata.
Lucian wrote exclusively in Ancient Greek, mainly in the Atticized dialect popular during the Second Sophistic, but On the Syrian Goddess, which is attributed to Lucian, is written in a highly successful imitation of Herodotus's Ionic dialect, leading some scholars to believe that Lucian may not be the real author.
There are eighty-two surviving works attributed to him (though several are doubtful): declamations, essays both laudatory and sarcastic, satiric epigrams, and comic dialogues and symposia with a satirical cast, studded with quotations in alarming contexts and allusions set in an unusual light, designed to be surprising and provocative. His name added lustre to any entertaining and sarcastic essay: more than 150 surviving manuscripts attest to his continued popularity.
During the Renaissance, western scholars rediscovered Lucian's writings, which almost instantly became wildly popular, especially amongst the Renaissance Humanists. By 1440, there were just as many Latin translations of Lucian's writings as there were for the writings of authors such as Plato and Plutarch. The first printed edition of a selection of his works was issued at Florence in 1499.
Lucian was trained as a rhetorician, a vocation whose practitioners pleaded in court, composed pleas for others, and taught the art of pleading. Lucian's practice was to travel about, giving amusing discourses and witty lectures improvised on the spot, somewhat as a rhapsode had done in declaiming poetry at an earlier period. In this way Lucian travelled through Ionia and mainland Greece, to Italy and even to Gaul, and won much wealth and fame.
What blessings that book creates for its readers and what peace, tranquillity, and freedom it engenders in them, liberating them as it does from terrors and apparitions and portents, from vain hopes and extravagant cravings, developing in them intelligence and truth, and truly purifying their understanding, not with torches and squills [i. e. sea onions] and that sort of foolery, but with straight thinking, truthfulness and frankness.
Lucian was also one of the earliest novelists in Western civilization. In A True Story (Ἀληθῶν Διηγημάτων), a fictional narrative work written in prose, he parodies some of the fantastic tales told by Homer in the Odyssey and also the not-so-fantastic tales from the historian Thucydides. He anticipated "modern" science fiction themes including voyages to the moon and Venus, extraterrestrial life, interplanetary warfare, and artificial life, nearly two millennia before Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The novel is widely regarded as the earliest known work of science fiction.
His dialogue Philopseudes (Φιλοψευδὴς ἤ Ἀπιστῶν, The Lover of Lies) is a frame story satirizing belief in the supernatural. The work is particularly notable because it includes the oldest known version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," along with several of the oldest known ghost stories.
Lucian also wrote a satirical letter entitled The Passing of Peregrinus, in which the central figure, Peregrinus Proteus, takes advantage of the generosity of Christians. The letter contains one of the earliest surviving pagan perceptions of Christianity as well as one of the earliest non-Christian allusions to Jesus Christ.
Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead (Νεκρικοὶ Διάλογοι) is a satirical work centering around the Cynic philosophers Diogenes of Sinope and his pupil Menippus, who lived modestly while they were alive and are now living comfortably in the abysmal conditions of the Underworld, while those who had lived lives of luxury are in torment when faced by the same conditions. Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods (Θεῶν Διάλογοι), meanwhile, ridicules traditional Greek stories about the gods. Lucian also wrote several other works in a similar vein, including Zeus Catechized, Zeus Rants, and The Parliament of the Gods.
Lucian's On Dance (Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως) contains one of very few literary discussions of dance - specifically pantomime - that treats Roman dance in detail. His Symposium (Συμπόσιον) stands in stark contrast with Plato's discourse; instead of discussing philosophy, the diners get drunk, tell smutty tales, and behave badly.
There is debate over the authorship of some works transmitted under Lucian's name, such as the Amores and the Ass. These are usually not considered genuine works of Lucian and are normally cited under the name of "Pseudo-Lucian". The Ass (Λούκιος ἢ ῎Oνος) is probably a summarized version of a story by Lucian, and contains largely the same basic plot elements as The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses) of Apuleius, but with fewer inset tales and a different ending.
The Macrobii (Μακρόβιοι, "long-livers"), which is devoted to longevity, has been attributed to Lucian, although it is generally agreed that he was not the author. It gives some mythical examples like that of Nestor who lived three generations or Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes, who lived six generations. It tells about the Seres (Chinese) "who are said to live 300 years" or the people of Athos, "who are also said to live 130 years". Most of the examples of "real" men lived between 80 and 100 years, but ten cases of alleged centenarians are given. It also gives some advice concerning food intake and moderation in general.
Lucian's writings had a profound influence on later writers. Lucian's True Story inspired both Sir Thomas More's Utopia and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Sandro Botticelli's paintings The Calumny of Apelles and Pallas and the Centaur are both based off descriptions of paintings found in Lucian's works. Lucian's prose narrative Timon the Misanthrope was the inspiration for William Shakespeare's tragedy Timon of Athens and the scene from Hamlet with the gravediggers echoes several scenes from Dialogues of the Dead. Christopher Marlowe's famous verse "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" is a paraphrase of a quote from Lucian.
Henry Fielding, the author of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, owned a complete set of Lucian's writings in nine volumes. He deliberately imitated Lucian in his Journey from This World and into the Next and, in The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great, he described Lucian as "almost... like the true father of humour" and listed him alongside Cervantes and Jonathan Swift as true master of satire. In The Convent Garden Journal, Fielding directly stated in regard to Lucian that he had modeled his style "upon that very author".
The German satirist Christoph Martin Wieland was the first person to translate the complete works of Lucian into German and he spent his entire career adapting the ideas behind Lucian's writings for a contemporary German audience. Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, François Fénelon, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and Voltaire all wrote adaptations of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead. Denis Diderot drew inspiration from the writings of Lucian in his Socrates Gone Mad; or, the Dialogues of Diogenes of Sinope (1770) and his Conversations in Elysium (1780). Lucian appears as one of two speakers in Diderot's dialogue Peregrinus Proteus (1791), which was based on The Passing of Peregrinus. Lucian's True Story inspired Cyrano de Bergerac, whose writings later served as inspiration for Jules Verne.
David Hume read Lucian's Kataplous or Downward Journey when he was on his deathbed and the same work also served as the source for Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch or Overman. Nietzsche's declaration of a "new and super-human way of laughing - at the expense of everything serious!" echoes the exact wording of Tiresias's final advice to the eponymous hero of Lucian's dialogue Menippus: "Laugh a great deal and take nothing seriously."
Lucian of Samosata…says (par. 1): "I who write (this) am Assyrian."