Lucian Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

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Article abstract: Roman orator{$I[g]Roman Empire;Lucian} Lucian turned the philosophical dialogue into a form for satirizing ideas and manners. Lucianic satire became a mainstay of European literature in the Renaissance.

Early Life

Almost nothing is recorded about the life of Lucian (LEW-shuhn), outside his own works. Because most of these are satires, full of topical allusions and semiautobiographical asides, readers must be cautious before accepting the claims he makes. By his own account, Lucian was born in Samosata (modern Samsat) on the Euphrates River. It was a strategic point in the Roman province of Syria but far from the centers of culture. His father was a middle-class citizen, poor enough to suffer the tedium of life at the edge of the Roman Empire but wealthy enough to send his son to school.

Lucian left school for a while to apprentice with his uncle, a successful stonecutter and sculptor. His master beat him, however, and Lucian thought again about the value of education. He was good at Greek, the language of learning and commerce in the eastern part of the Roman world, and he developed an elegant prose style. In conversation, he may have had a provincial accent—he may have spoken a Semitic language at home—but in writing, he showed exceptional purity.

Lucian’s training qualified him to work as a public speaker—also called a rhetor (the Greek word) or an orator (the Latin word). Citizens who took a case to the law courts, or who had to defend themselves, would hire an orator who knew the finer points of law and who could argue their cases in memorable language with a voice that would carry in a large public gathering. As his reputation grew, Lucian began to give public performances of his oratorical skills, which included the ability to improvise on a theme, to speak eloquently, and to entertain large, paying crowds. He says he was a great success, but he made his appearances on the fringes of the Roman Empire—in Ionia (modern Turkey) and Gaul (modern France) rather than Athens or Alexandria—and no other orators referred to him. Several of his early orations survive, including a speech in praise of a fly and two seriocomic defenses of a tyrant named Phalaris and the officials at the oracle of Delphi who accepted the tyrant’s bribe. When Lucian was approximately forty, he stopped traveling and began a new career as a writer of satires.

Life’s Work

Having made his fortune as an orator, Lucian retired to Athens and enrolled in the school of the Stoic philosopher Demonax. He studied philosophy during a great revival of interest in ancient Greek thought known as the Second Sophistic. He became acquainted with the leading ideas of all the philosophical schools, including the Cynics and the Epicureans. He may have called himself a philosopher, but the main thing he learned was the dialogue form developed by Plato (427-347 b.c.e.). In such works as the Symposion (c. 388-368 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701), Plato used dialogue and other dramatic devices to voice philosophical ideas—and to challenge them. In Lucian’s Symposion (The Carousal, 1684), the ideas are used for comic effect. Lucian always goes for the laugh.

Lucian was not the first to adapt the philosophical dialogue for satiric purposes. A Cynic named Menippus developed the satiric dialogue a century after Plato’s death. Menippus called himself a dog, for he wrote biting satires, and Lucian used him as his alter ego or persona. The Nekrikoi dialogoi (Dialogues of the Dead, 1684) followed Menippus into the underworld and recorded the questions he put to the gods of the dead and the heroes of old. There were conversations between the Greek and Trojan heroes Ajax and Agamemnon; between Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great; among Alexander and the general Hannibal and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes; and between Diogenes and the comic dramatist Crates.

Lucian’s dialogues have survived in several collections. Much as he satirized popular views of heroes and heroism in the Dialogues of the Dead, he satirized religious beliefs and practices in the Theōn dialogoi (Dialogues of the Gods, 1684), calling attention to the artifices of a state-sponsored revival of the Olympian religion. Greek philosophers back to Socrates (c. 470-399 b.c.e.) had questioned the morality of the Olympian gods. Lucian did not raise serious objections, though; he was too busy having fun, and he was prepared to challenge the sobersided philosophers.

One of Lucian’s longest dialogues, Bion Prasis (Philosophies for Sale, 1684), put the famous philosophers of Greece in the marketplace, where each one hawked his wares. Philosophers are supposed to be above all that, but in fact they competed fiercely for private students as well as for positions in the best towns and schools. If anything, the competition grew fiercer during the Second Sophistic. Lucian knew how to expose their rivalries. His philosophers in the dialogue, like the pedants in comedies, are their own worst enemies. They...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Branham, R. Bracht. Unruly Eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Discusses Lucian’s relation to Epicurean philosophy and to comic traditions. Emphasizes the role of laughter in a successful life.

Branham, R. Bracht, and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, eds. The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Collection of essays examines the ethical, social, and cultural practices inspired by the Cynics. Includes introduction, appendices, index, and annotated bibliography.

Gay, Peter. The Bridge of Criticism: Dialogues Among Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire on the Enlightenment. New York: Harper, 1970. Written by an influential historian, this book shows how the satiric tradition has contributed to the freedom of thought.

Georgiadou, A., and D. H. J. Larmour. Lucian’s Science Fiction Novel: True Histories. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1998.

Highet, Gilbert. The Anatomy of Satire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. A history of satire, written by a great classicist. Offers a good introduction to the Menippian satire written by Lucian.

Jones, C. P. Culture and Society in Lucian. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A careful study of social satire in Lucian’s dialogues. Discusses his historical context and his comments on the writing of history.

Mcleod, M. D., ed. Lucian: A Selection. Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1991. Includes critical comment on selected works.

Marsh, David. Lucian and the Latins: Humor and Humanism in the Early Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. A study of Lucian’s influence on later writers.

Payne, F. Anne. Chaucer and Menippean Satire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. Provides background on Lucian’s tradition in satire and his influence on the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

Relihan, Joel C. Ancient Menippean Satire. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Discusses the early development of the sixteenth century literary genre Menippean satire, including its continuity from early classical roots. Covers Menippus, Seneca, Lucian, and other writers. Includes bibliography and index.

Robinson, Christopher. Lucian and His Influence in Europe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. A study of Lucian’s times and works, with attention to his influence on the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Includes chapters on Erasmus and Fielding.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Outstanding among second century Greek satirists under the Roman Empire was the wit and Sophist Lucian (LEW-shuhn), or Lucianus. Among his eighty writings, mostly in masterful Attic prose, are rhetorical, critical, and biographical works. Two mock tragedies about bad government and fifty-three epigrams are also attributed to him.

Lucian, born at Samosata, Syria, about 120, began as an apprentice to his uncle, a sculptor, then turned to the study of rhetoric. He practiced law unsuccessfully in Antioch before finding his forte in writing discourses. He also traveled widely in Macedonia, Asia Minor, Italy, and Gaul, where he lectured and wrote a satirical two-volume history that influenced François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift—he told of space ships and battles between moon men and sun dwellers. His fame, however, rests on attacks on fraud in vigorous satirical dialogues, often imitated, that formed his most mature writing. He was an intellectual mocker.

In 165 Lucian settled in Athens to remain for many years; then, in spite of his expressed scorn for people who sell their opinions to the government, he accepted an official appointment to Egypt. Suidas, who calls him “the Blasphemer,” since “he alleged the stories told of the gods are absurd,” hands out poetic justice by declaring that Lucian died in Egypt about 200, torn to pieces by dogs. Most modern scholars, however, believe it more likely that he died in Athens sometime after 180.