Lucian of Samosata (/ˈluːʃən, ˈluːsiən/; Ancient Greek: Λουκιανὸς ὁ Σαμοσατεύς, Latin: Lucianus Samosatensis; about 125 AD – after 180 AD) was a Hellenized Syrian satirist and rhetorician who is best known for his characteristic tongue-in-cheek style, with which he frequently ridiculed superstition, religious practices, and belief in the paranormal. Although his native language was probably Syriac, all of his extant works are written entirely in ancient Greek (mostly in the Atticized dialect popular during the Second Sophistic).
Lucian was the son of a lower middle class family from the village of Samosata, the capital of the remote Roman province of Commagene. As a young man, he was apprenticed to his uncle to become a sculptor, but, after a failed attempt at sculpting, he ran away to pursue an education in Ionia. He became a travelling lecturer and visited universities throughout the Roman Empire. After acquiring fame and wealth through his teaching, Lucian finally settled down in Athens for a decade, during which he wrote most of his extant works. In his old age, he was appointed as a highly-paid government official in Egypt, after which point he disappears from the historical record.
Lucian's works were wildly popular in antiquity and more than eighty writings attributed to him have survived to the present day, a considerably higher quantity than for most other classical writers. 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. Lucian invented the genre of the comic dialogue, a parody of the traditional Platonic dialogue. His dialogue 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 wrote numerous satires making fun of traditional stories about the gods including The Dialogues of the Gods, Icaromenippus, Zeus Rants, Zeus Catechized, and The Parliament of the Gods. His Dialogues of the Dead focuses on the Cynic philosophers Diogenes and Menippus. Philosophies for Sale and The Banquet or Lapiths make fun of various philosophical schools, and The Fisherman or the Dead Come to Life is a defense of this mockery.
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's treatise On the Syrian Goddess satirizes cultural distinctions between Greeks and Syrians and is the main source of information about the cult of Atargatis. 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.
Imaginative portrayal of Lucian taken from a seventeenth-century engraving by William Faithorne
|Born||c. 125 AD
Samosata, Roman Empire (modern-day Turkey)
|Died||After 180 AD
|Occupation||Novelist, satirist, rhetorician|
|Notable works||True History,
Dialogues of the Dead,
The Lover of Lies,
Dialogues of the Gods,
Dialogues of the Courtesans,
Alexander the False Prophet,
Philosophies for Sale,
Almost everything that is known about Lucian comes from his own writings. Lucian was born in the town of Samosata, the capital of the Roman province of Commagene, located on the banks of the Euphrates river on the far eastern outskirts of the Roman Empire. The population of the town was almost exclusively Syrian and Lucian's native tongue was probably Syriac. During the time when Lucian lived, traditional Greco-Roman religion was in decline and its role in society was almost exclusively ceremonial. As a substitute for traditional religion, most people in the Hellenistic world joined Mystery Cults, such as the Mysteries of Isis, Mithraism, the cult of Cybele, and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Superstition had always been common throughout ancient society, but it was especially prevalent during the second century. Most educated people of Lucian's time adhered to one of the various Hellenistic philosophies, of which the major ones were Stoicism, Platonism, Peripateticism, and Epicureanism. Every major town had its own university and these universities often employed professional travelling lecturers, who were frequently paid high sums of money to lecture about various philosophical teachings. The most prestigious center of learning was the city of Athens in Greece, which had a long intellectual history.
According to Lucian's oration The Dream, which he probably delivered as an address upon returning to Samosata at the age of thirty-five or forty after establishing his reputation as a great orator, Lucian's parents were lower middle class and his uncles owned a local statue-making shop. Lucian's parents could not afford to give him a higher education, so, after he completed his elementary schooling, Lucian's 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 sought out an education.
Lucian fled to Ionia in Asia Minor, which was the center of rhetorical learning at the time. The most prestigious universities of rhetoric were in Ephesus and Smyrna, but it is unlikely that Lucian could have afforded to pay the tuition at either of these schools. It is not known how Lucian obtained his education, but somehow he managed to acquire an extensive knowledge of rhetoric as well as classical literature and philosophy. Lucian mentions in his dialogue The Fisherman that he had initially attempted to apply his knowledge of rhetoric and become a lawyer, but that he had become disillusioned by the deceitfulness of the trade and resolved to become a philosopher instead. Lucian travelled across the Empire, lecturing throughout Greece, Italy, and Gaul. In Gaul, Lucian may have held a position as a highly-paid government professor.
In around 160, Lucian returned to Ionia as a wealthy celebrity. He visited Samosata and stayed in the east for several years. He is recorded as having been in Antioch in either 162 or 163. In 165, he bought a house in Athens and invited his parents to come live with him in the city. Lucian must have married at some point during his travels, because in one of his writings he mentions having son at this point. Lucian lived in Athens for around a decade, during which time he gave up lecturing and instead devoted his attention to writing. It was during this decade that Lucian composed nearly all his most famous works. 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. For unknown reasons, Lucian stopped writing around 175 and began travelling and lecturing again. During the reign of Emperor Commodus (180 - 192 AD), the aging Lucian was appointed to a lucrative government position in Egypt. After this point, he disappears from the historical record entirely, and nothing is known about his death.
Lucian was not a member of any of the major philosophical schools, but he was strongly influenced by the Cynics. The Dream or the Cock, Timon the Misanthrope, Charon or Inspectors, and The Downward Journey or the Tyrant all display Cynic themes. Lucian was particularly indebted to Menippus, a Cynic philosopher and satirist of the third century BC. Lucian wrote an admiring biography of the philosopher Demonax, who was a philosophical eclectic, but whose ideology most closely resembled Cynicism. Demonax's main divergence from the Cynics was that he did not disapprove of ordinary life.
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 skeptical of oracles, though he was by no means the only person of his time to voice such skepticism. Lucian rejected belief in the paranormal, regarding it as superstition. In his dialogue The Lover of Lies, he voices his own opinions through his character Tychiades, who declares that he does not believe in daemones, phantoms, or ghosts because he has never seen such things. Tychiades, however, still professes belief in the gods' existence:
Lucian had a generally negative opinion of Herodotus and his historiography, which he viewed as faulty. The maxim that "Eyes are better witnesses than ears" is echoed repeatedly throughout several of Lucian's dialogues.
Over eighty works attributed to Lucian have survived. These works belong to a diverse variety of styles and genres, and include comic dialogues, rhetorical essays, and prose fiction. Lucian's writings were targeted towards a highly-educated, upper-class Greek audience and make almost constant allusions to Greek cultural history, leading the classical scholar R. Bracht Branham to label Lucian's highly sophisticated style "the comedy of tradition". By the time Lucian's writings were rediscovered during the Renaissance, most of the works of literature referenced in them had been lost or forgotten, making it difficult for readers of later periods to understand his works.
Lucian was 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 often regarded as the earliest known work of science fiction.
The novel begins with an explanation that the story is not at all "true" and that everything in it is, in fact, a complete and utter lie. The narrative begins with Lucian and his fellow travelers journeying out past the Pillars of Heracles. Blown off course by a storm, they come to an island with a river of wine filled with fish and bears, a marker indicating that Heracles and Dionysus have traveled to this point, and trees that look like women. Shortly after leaving the island, they are caught up by a whirlwind and taken to the Moon, where they find themselves embroiled in a full-scale war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over colonization of the Morning Star. Both armies include bizarre hybrid lifeforms. The armies of the Sun win the war by clouding over the Moon and blocking out the Sun's light. Both parties then come to a peace agreement. Lucian then describes life on the Moon and how it is different from life on Earth.
After returning to Earth, the adventurers are swallowed by a 200-mile-long whale, in whose belly they discover a variety of fish people, whom they wage war against and triumph over. They kill the whale by starting a bonfire and escape by propping its mouth open. Next, they encounter a sea of milk, an island of cheese, and the Island of the Blessed. There, Lucian meets the heroes of the Trojan War, other mythical men and animals, as well as Homer and Pythagoras. They find sinners being punished, the worst of them being the ones who had written books with lies and fantasies, including Herodotus and Ctesias. After leaving the Island of the Blessed, they deliver a letter to Calypso given to them by Odysseus explaining that he wishes he had stayed with her so he could have lived eternally. They then discover a chasm in the Ocean, but eventually sail around it, discover a far-off continent and decide to explore it. The book ends abruptly with Lucian stating that their future adventures will be described in the upcoming sequels, a promise which a disappointed scholiast described as "the biggest lie of all".
In his Double Indictment, Lucian declares that his proudest literary achievement is the invention of the "satirical dialogue", which was modeled on the earlier Platonic dialogue, but was comedic in tone rather than philosophical. The prolaliai to his Dialogues of the Courtesans suggests that Lucian acted out his dialogues himself as part of a comedic routine. 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. The dialogue draws on earlier literary precursors, including the nekyia in Book XI of Homer's Odyssey, but also adds new elements not found in them. Homer's nekyia describes transgressors against the gods being punished for their sins, but Lucian embellished this idea by having cruel and greedy persons also be punished.
In his dialogue The Lover of Lies (Φιλοψευδὴς), Lucian satirizes belief in the supernatural and paranormal through a framing story in which the main narrator, a skeptic named Tychiades, goes to visit an elderly friend named Eukrates. At Eukrates's house, he encounters a large group of guests who have recently gathered together due to Eukrates suddenly falling ill. The other guests offer Eukrates a variety of folk remedies to help him recover. When Tychiades objects that such remedies do not work, the others all laugh at him and try to persuade him to believe in the supernatural by telling him stories, which grow increasingly ridiculous as the conversation progresses. One of the last stories they tell is the "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", which the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later adapted into a famous ballad.
Lucian frequently made fun of philosophers and no school was spared from his mockery. In the dialogue Philosophies for Sale, Lucian creates an imaginary slave market in which Zeus puts famous philosophers up for sale, including Pythagoras, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates, Chrysippus, and Pyrrho, each of whom attempts to persuade the customers to buy his philosophy. In The Banquet, or Lapiths, Lucian points out the hypocrisies of representatives from all the major philosophical schools. In The Fisherman, or the Dead Come to Life, Lucian defends his other dialogues by comparing the venerable philosophers of ancient times with their unworthy contemporary followers. Lucian was often particularly critical of people who pretended to be philosophers when they really were not and his dialogue The Runaways portrays an imposter Cynic as the antithesis of true philosophy. In Icaromenippus, the Cynic philosopher Menippus fashions a set of wings for himself in imitation of the mythical Icarus and flies to Heaven, where he receives a guided tour from Zeus himself. The dialogue ends with Zeus announcing his decision to destroy all philosophers, since all they do is bicker, though he agrees to grant them a temporary reprieve until spring.
Lucian wrote numerous dialogues making fun of traditional Greek stories about the gods. His Dialogues of the Gods (Θεῶν Διάλογοι) consists of numerous short vignettes parodying a variety of the scenes from Greek mythology. The dialogues portray the gods as comically weak and prone to all the foibles of human emotion. Zeus in particular is shown to be a "feckless ruler" and a serial adulterer. Lucian also wrote several other works in a similar vein, including Zeus Catechized, Zeus Rants, and The Parliament of the Gods. Throughout all his dialogues, Lucian displays a particular fascination with Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who frequently appears as a major character in the role of an intermediary who travels between worlds. The Dialogues of the Courtesans is a collection of short dialogues involving various courtesans. This collection is unique as one of the only surviving works of Greek literature to mention female homosexuality. It is also unusual for mixing Lucian's characters from other dialogues with stock characters from New Comedy; over half of the men mentioned in Dialogues of the Courtesans are also mentioned in Lucian's other dialogues, but almost all of the courtesans themselves are characters borrowed from the plays of Menander and other comedic playwrights.
Lucian's treatise Alexander the False Prophet describes the rise of Alexander of Abonoteichus, a charlatan who claimed to be the prophet of the serpent-god Glycon. Though the account is satirical in tone, it seems to be a largely accurate report of the Glycon cult and many of Lucian's statements about the cult have been confirmed through archaeological evidence, including coins, statues, and inscriptions. Lucian describes his own meeting with Alexander in which he posed as a friendly philosopher, but, when Alexander invited him to kiss his hand, Lucian bit it instead. Lucian reports that, aside from himself, the only others who dared challenge Alexander's reputation as a true prophet were the Epicureans (whom he lauds as heroes) and the Christians.
Lucian's treatise On the Syrian Goddess is a detailed description of the cult of the Syrian goddess Atargatis at Hierapolis. It is written in a faux-Ionic dialect and imitates the ethnographic methodology of the Greek historian Herodotus, which Lucian elsewhere derides as faulty. In the treatise, Lucian satirizes the arbitrary cultural distinctions between "Greeks" and "Assyrians" by emphasizing the manner in which Syrians have adopted Greek customs and thereby effectively become "Greeks" themselves. The anonymous narrator of the treatise initially seems to be a Greek Sophist, but, as the treatise progresses, he reveals himself to actually be a native Syrian. Scholars dispute whether the treatise is an accurate description of Syrian cultural practices because very little is known about Hierapolis other than what is recorded in On the Syrian Goddess itself. Coins minted in the late fourth century BC, municipal decrees from Seleucid rulers, and a late Hellenistic relief carving have confirmed Lucian's statement that the city's original name was "Manbog" and that the city was closely associated with the cults of Atargatis and Hadad. A Jewish rabbi later listed the temple at Hierapolis as one of the five most important pagan temples in the Near East.
Macrobii ("Long-Livers") is an essay about famous philosophers who lived for many years. It describes how long each of them lived, and gives an account of each of their deaths. In his treatises Teacher of Rhetoric and On Salaried Posts, Lucian criticizes the teachings of master rhetoricians. His treatise On Dancing is a major source of information about Greco-Roman dance. In it, he describes dance as an act of mimesis ("imitation") and rationalizes the myth of Proteus as being nothing more than an account of a highly skilled Egyptian dancer. He also wrote about visual arts in Portraits and On Behalf of Portraits. Lucian's biography of the philosopher Demonax eulogizes him as a great philosopher and portrays him as a hero of parrhesia ("boldness of speech"). In his treatise, How to Write History, Lucian criticizes the historical methodology used by writers such as Herodotus and Ctesias, who wrote vivid and self-indulgent descriptions of events they had never actually seen. Instead, Lucian argues that the historian never embellish his stories and should place his commitment to accuracy above his desire to entertain his audience. He also argues the historian should remain absolutely impartial and tell the events as they really happened, even if they are likely to cause disapproval. Lucian names Thucydides as a specific example of a historian who models these virtues.
In his satirical letter The Passing of Peregrinus (Περὶ τῆς Περεγρίνου Τελευτῆς), Lucian describes the death of the controversial Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus, who had publicly immolated himself on a pyre at the Olympic Games of 165 AD. The letter is historically significant because it preserves one of the earliest pagan evaluations of Christianity. In the letter, Lucian ridicules Christians for their perceived credulity and ignorance, but he also affords them some level of respect on account of their morality. Lucian also refers to Jesus, describing him as a "crucified Sophist" who had lived in Palestine just over a century prior and had taught that his followers would attain immortality. In the letter Against the Ignorant Book Collector, Lucian ridicules the common practice of Near Easterners collecting massive libraries of Greek texts for the sake of appearing "cultured", but without actually reading any of them.
Some of the writings attributed to Lucian, such as the Amores and the Ass, 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.
Lucian's writings were forgotten during the Middle Ages, but they were rediscovered during the Renaissance. They almost immediately became popular with the Renaissance humanists and, by 1400, there were just as many Latin translations of the works of Lucian as there were for the writings of Plato and Plutarch. Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead were especially popular and were widely used for moral instruction. As a result of this popularity, Lucian's writings had a profound influence on writers from the Renaissance and the Early Modern period.
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 on 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 a 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."