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Lucian of Samosata

Author(s) : Kamara Afroditi (3/26/2007)
Translation : Velentzas Georgios

For citation: Kamara Afroditi, "Lucian of Samosata",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=10142>

Λουκιανός Σαμοσάτων (3/15/2007 v.1) Lucian of Samosata (2/21/2006 v.1) 

1. Introduction

Lucian was born circa 120 AD1 in Samosata, the capital of the region of Commagene a part of the province of Syria at the time. Despite the fact that in his works he often refers to facts and figures of his time in a prejudiced way, his contemporary sources hush up when they refer to him. This is possibly due to the fact that Lucian was relatively unknown in his professional field. His little biographical information is provided by his works, particularly by The Dream or Lucian's Career and The Double Indictment.

2. Activity

Lucian must have been born into a relatively humble family of Samosata because, although he managed to take rhetorical lessons, his education and social status prevented him from rapid ascent. The last part of his studies was followed in Ιonia. Then he taught rhetoric, fairly successfully, in Asia Minor and other regions of the empire, such as Galatia, North Italy and Macedonia. It is known that in 163-164 AD he was in Antioch of Syria on the occasion of a rhetorical competition in front of Lucius Verus, although he did not excel. After that, he must have been to the Paphlagonian city Abonuteichos, where he was occupied with the oracle of Glycon and foreteller Alexander of Abonuteichos. His stay there was rather brief because in the summer of 165 he went to Olympia to attend the athletic games and happened to be there when the cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus cremated himself on the flames. Sometime between these journeys he must have stayed in Athens, which he knew well, as indicated by his works. Circa 170 he gave up rhetoric and undertook the clerical post of the imperial secretary (a cognitionibus) in Egypt. This decision probably shows disappointment over his profession and financial uncertainty. His traces are lost after 180 AD. Although there is no relevant information, he must not have had a family, while his death probably came in the 180s or in the early 190s AD.

3. Historical and Social Background

The below analysed work of Lucian was a combination of satire and rhetoric with philosophical implications aiming at criticising anything wrong as well as social trends. Thus, his work should be approached taking into account the characteristics of both the 2nd century and the social environment where Lucian lived and activated.

The 2nd c. AD and, in particular, the Antonine period, characterised by the reigns of Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180), was the golden age of the Roman Empire. Pax Romana was established, while new, safe roads ran through the empire guaranteeing uninhibited commercial transactions. The upper and middle social classes lived in prosperity, thus developing arts and raising the cultural level. Most cities were rebuilt or embellished with new public buildings. However, at the same time social differences became greater and philosophical and religious pursuits to fill the feeling of emptiness created by prosperity became more relentless.

Lucian’s birthplace, Samosata, was a wealthy city and a junction along the road leading from Asia Minor to India. The population consisted of superficially Hellenised Iranians and Semites. As a result, Lucian received a Greek education but never stopped feeling like a Syrian,2 which, along with his mild professional success, never made him feel fully integrated into his time and, particularly, into the spirit of luxury and fineness of the Greco-Roman cities he visited as a teacher.

4. Works

Although his job did not offer him the honours he expected all his life, it gave him the opportunity to travel the world, look about and broaden his horizons. He was eyewitness to important events and developments of his time, which he managed to describe in his works as a deeply conservative person that knows to parody the things he disagrees with. The most significant works-records for his time and mainly for the philosophical circles is the autobiographical The Double Indictment, which presents his relations with the Academy and the Lyceum in Athens, as well as Nigrinus, which describes the instruction of philosophy in Rome by the platonic philosopher Nigrinus, whom Lucian met during his brief stay there.

The complex personality of Lucian made his writings present considerable differences and variations. Lucian, particularly in his early career, was occupied with works of philosophical content in dialogical or rhetorical style. Besides, the treatises he prepared in the same period, known as ‘preambles’, were also in a rhetorical style.3 As it becomes obvious from these works, Lucian could never refrain from his personal tendency towards making acid remarks on reality and, thus, develop an elevated philosophical or rhetorical style, as it happened with other famous sophists of the time, such as Aelius Aristides.

The fact that these works of Lucian did not become particularly famous must have made him turn to satire probably in the mid-150s or shortly later, when he wrote paradoxologies in a rhetorical or narrative style, such as his classic ‘A True Story’, one of the earliest texts of science fiction, similar to the ‘Utopia of Iambulus’ cited by Diodorus Siculus in ‘Library of History’.4 Influenced by the comic writer Menippus, he also wrote a series of dialogues balancing between fiction and reality.

However, after 160 AD he was occupied almost exclusively with satirical dialogues, a literary style he introduced, as well as acid satire on extreme philosophical and spiritual trends of his time. The latter include, among others, the works ‘Alexander or The Oracle-monger (The False Prophet)’, where he comments on Alexander of Abonuteichos,5 and ‘The Passing of Peregrinus’, where he recounts the suicide of a cynical philosopher at the same time ironically describing the feeling of emptiness created by the prosperity of the 2nd century, which led the people to philosophical and religious pursuits.

Lucian dealt mainly with three issues: human weaknesses, philosophy, particularly Cynic, and religion, particularly when it was expressed as pietism and credulity. The recognised student of ancient literature A. Lesky supports that the sarcasm of Lucian against elevated and high matters had its roots in both his own inadequacy in dealing with them and a complex of inferiority he had, mainly because of his casual and superficial relations with the intelligentsia. However, he is so vivid in his descriptions and critical when he chooses to criticise things that his work becomes classic, which rarely happens with inefficient and superficial people.

Several of his works were imitated, while his tendency to use pseudonyms raises questions about the authorship of some of his works. Among those doubtfully attributed to Lucian are: Philopatrism, the Consonants at Law, the Pseudo-Sophist or the Soloikist as well as the Syrian Goddess. Regardless of the writer, the latter is one of the most important literary sources of the cult of Atargatis at the temple in Baetocece.6

5. Evaluation and Opinions

Despite the mild success he had when he was alive, Lucian was one of the writers whose works became widespread later. Strangely enough, Lucian was studied in Byzantium, while he was particularly dear to intellects, such as Patriarch Photios and John Tzetzes. Moreover, he was an informative source, as evidenced by the ‘Gnomologion’ of Ioannes Georgidis (late 9th c.) and ‘Selection (Ekloge) of Attic Names and Words’ of Thomas Magistros (14th c.). His satirical style was so successful that several Byzantine writers, such as Leo the Wise (10th c.), imitated him.7 The fact is that his skepticism as well as his involvement in religious matters and the fact that several of his works are against Christians made other Byzantines, such as Arethas (second half of 9th c.) and the compiler of ‘Suda’ criticise him very bitterly.

In the late Byzantine period, towards the late 14th and the early 15th century, renascent Italy started to come closer to the intellectual circles of educated Byzantium. Several writers ‘travelled’ then to the West in the luggage of Byzantine scholars, who were invited to Italian cities and courts of monarchs. One of them was Lucian. In this period his works were copied by Italian scribes, while his first translations into Latin, such as the translations by Guarino da Verona (1374-1460) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) had appeared until the mid-15th century. Latin translators and scholars appreciated deeply the humour, the trenchant wit and the morality of Lucian, while they were not discouraged by his open anti-Christian attitude, probably because the ecclesiastical power was disputed in the West at the time. Lucian was discovered at the right moment. Imitators here were Maffeo Vegio (1407-1458) with his work De felicitate e miseria or Palinurus and Leon Batista Alberti (1404-1472) with Virtus dea, which was part of his collection Intercoenales. From Italy, towards the late 15th century, Lucian travelled through the Alps and became known in France and Central Europe. He was one of the relatively few ancient writers whose Complete Works were published. They were printed by the printing house of Laurentius de Alopa in 1496, although they must have been edited by Ianos Laskaris.

Lucian became famous thanks to the theatre. His satirical dialogues were often staged, usually adapted for educational reasons, while one of them, Timon The Misanthrope, became classic and was copied and imitated more than twelve times, most famous being that of Shakespeare.

Finally, the imaginative journey of the True Story inspired the imagination of other western writers, such as Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels. In any case, the students of Lucian seem to agree that he had a great impact on the works of two major European thinkers, Erasmus (16th c.) and the English writer and man of letters Henry Fielding (18th c.).

In modern Greece Lucian is a dear playwright, particularly with his ‘Dialogues of the Dead’, which inspired the members of the ‘Free Theatre’ and Manos Hadjidakis in 1980.

Contemporary literary research has been occupied with Lucian at length, though not exhaustively. There are mainly two views, the ‘classicistic’, which considers that Lucian’s works belong to a philological and literary school of his time and, as a result, are the creation of a successful adaptation of established styles with a tendency for innovation,8 and the ‘social’, which believes that Lucian’s satire was a genuinely personal achievement of the writer and had its roots in the social turmoil and intellectual pursuits of the time, in combination with the personality of their creator.9

1. 120 AD is a conventional date. More specifically, researchers believe he was born between 115 and 125 AD.

2. Τhis feeling is better expressed in the work The Syrian Goddess, which is attributed to Lucian, though not positively. See also next footnote.

3. About this literary style, see Mras, K., ‚Die bei den griechischen Schriftstellern’, Wien.Stud.64 (1949), p. 71.

4. About the ‘True Story’, see Anderson, G., 'Lucian, Verae historiae,' in: G. Schmeling (ed.), The Novel in the Ancient World (Leiden 1996), Fauth, W., 'Utopische Inseln in den Wahren Geschichten des Lukian,' Gymnasium 86 (1979) pp. 39-58, Devereux, G., 'An undetected absurdity in Lucian's A True Story 2.26,' Helios 7.1 (1979-80) pp. 63-8 and Georgiadou, A. and D.H.J. Larmour, Lucian's Science Fiction Novel True Histories: Interpretation and Commentary, Mnemosyne Supplement (Leiden 1998).

5. See also the illuminating study Caster, M., Etudes sur Alexandre ou le faux prophète de Lucien (Paris 1938).

6. About the work and the arguments concerning its authorship, see Attridge, H.W., The Syrian Goddess attributed to Lucian (Graeco-Roman religion series; 1. Society of Biblical Literature: Texts and translations; 9, Missoula, Mont. 1976), NPauly v. 4 (1999) p. 675, see entry ‘Kombabos, bei Lukian (de Dea Syria) der Erbauer des Tempels der Atargatis in Hierapolis’ (Graf, F.).

7. Lucian’s preambles were particularly popular and were imitated by Theodore Prodromos (early 12th c.) for example in "Rodanthe and Dosikles" and Ioannes Katrarios in Ermodotos or the unknown writer of the dialogue Philopatris (mid-11th c.). Another popular work was the Dialogues of the Dead, which were also imitated and, as a result, a whole series of Byzantine satirical dialogues referring to the underworld were written, such as Timarion of an unknown writer. About this literary style of the Byzantine period, see Tozer, H., ‘Byzantine satire’, JHS 2 (1881) pp. 233-270.

8. About this trend, see mainly Bompaire, J., Lucien écrivain (Paris 1958), particularly pp. 123-154.

9. See Baldwin, B., ‘Lucian as social satirist’,CQ 55 (1961), pp. 199-208.


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