(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Lucian 115-125?-200?

Greek writer of satirical dialogues, essays, rhetorical exercises, and comic narratives.

Best known for his comic narrative about a trip to the Moon (Alethon diegemeton; True History), Lucian was primarily a writer of satirical dialogues—a form he developed by combining Plato's brand of serious philosophical dialogue with the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and the satire of the Cynic philosopher Menippus. By turning to satire and dialogue, Lucian distinguished himself from the main current of writing in his time (rhetorical exercises based on traditional models), though he also drew extensively on the Greek literary tradition. Lucian also stands out because of his general attitude of exuberant mockery, his wide-ranging irony, and his apparent lack of belief in anything except the importance of not taking anything seriously.

Biographical Information

Little evidence about Lucian's life has survived beyond what he tells us in his works; however, what he says about himself is often presented in ironic or fictional contexts, and may not always be literally true. According to Lucan, he was born in Samosata in Syria, a Hellenized part of the Roman Empire, sometime between 115 and 125. He was apprenticed at an early age to his uncle, a sculptor, but showed no aptitude for the work and, according to his account in Peri ton enuphion etoi bios Loukianon (The Dream), left his uncle after a single day. Rejecting sculpture for education, as he puts it, he then studied traditional Greek literature in order to become an orator. He also had to learn the Greek language, for his first language was Syriac, a form of Aramaic. Until he was 40, Lucian worked as an orator, giving public lectures and perhaps also speaking in the law courts, travelling in Ionia, Greece, Italy, and Gaul. By his own account, he was successful in this career, but modern commentators note that he seems to have been speaking in remote areas rather than in the major centers of the Empire. At 40, according to his work Dis Kategoroumenos (The Double Indictment), Lucian abandoned oratory for dialogue and settled in Athens. Most of his surviving works seem to date from after this time. Little is known of his later life except that he served for a time in a government post in Egypt, a fact he felt it necessary to defend in his Apologia (Apology for The Dependent Scholar).

Major Works

Close to eighty works by Lucian in a variety of genres survive. A few of these (e.g., Turounoktonos; The Tyrannicide, and Patrides enkomion; In Praise of My Country) are traditional rhetorical exercises which probably date from early in Lucian's career, when he was still primarily a practising orator. Most of Lucian's works, however, go beyond the rhetorical exercises being produced by his contemporaries, the Sophists. He introduced a new dialogue form (used by Plato for serious philosophical discussions) with a satirical and comic twist derived from Aristophanes and Menippus. He also wrote letters, pamphlets, and comic narratives, including his True History, a tale of a trip to the Moon which parodies travellers' tales. Parody, pastiche, allusion, and quotation are common features in Lucian's writings; like the Sophists, he drew on the writings of his predecessors, but he went beyond simple imitation to transform his sources in inventive ways, usually for a comic effect. Much of the time Lucian's main aim seems to have been to create a comic effect and to entertain. His only consistent satirical targets were hypocrisy and sham: he repeatedly attacked philosophers for not living according to their teachings (Bion prasis; Philosophers for Sale and Anabiountes e halieus; The Dead Come to Life), and he wrote two pamphlets attacking religious frauds (Alexandros e pseudomantis; Alexander and Peri tes Peregrionou telentes; Peregrinus). But he did not put forward any specific philosophical or religious beliefs, or ideals, of his own, nor did he comment very specifically on the issues of his day. As critics agree, Lucian's main point seems to have been to mock the timeless foibles of humanity—typically by adopting a literally superior position in the sky or on the Moon (Ikaromennipos e hupernephelos; Icaromenippus, True History)—from which vantage point human beings appeared no more significant than ants. Although he resorts to invective at times, the dominant tone in his works is exuberance, as if rather than attacking humans for their shortcomings, he is recommending that they not take life so seriously.

Textual History

Except for a few fragments, the earliest surviving manuscripts of Lucian's works are from the early tenth century. There are seven important manuscripts from the tenth and eleventh centuries, the most substantial being Vaticanus graecus 90, which contains all the surviving works attributed to Lucian. In addition, there are about 200 less substantial manuscripts from the Byzantine period containing one or more of Lucian's works. The first complete printed edition of the Greek text was published in Florence in 1496. Even before that there were translations into Latin of selected works which circulated first in manuscript form, but which were being printed by 1475. There were also some translations into German which began appearing in the 1460s. Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More published some translations into Latin in 1506 which achieved wide circulation. The first English translation was done by Francis Hickes, whose version of some of Lucian's dialogues appeared in 1634. Thomas Haywood published a translation of selections from Lucian's works in 1637. The first translation into English of Lucian's complete works, based on an earlier French translation, was done by Ferrand Spence in 1684. John Dryden wrote a prefatory biography of Lucian for a translation that appeared in 1711.

Critical Reception

Characteristically, Lucian at one point in his works reports that he has a large audience and at another that his audience is select. There is little other commentary on Lucian from his own time or from the immediately succeeding generations, suggesting that he was not regarded highly. Philostratus left him out of his third-century study of the Sophists, leading some later commentators to conclude that Lucian was not part of that movement. Generally, however, he is seen today as being at least a product of the Sophist movement, even though he is rather different from the other Sophists. Lucian's standing rose in the Byzantine era, though at the same time he was denounced in the anonymous biographical compilation known as the Suda as being anti-Christian. This accusation lasted into the Renaissance, when Lucian became generally admired as a moralist. Critics have also pointed out his influence on other writers of the time; for instance, his irony and satire are seen as influencing Erasmus's In Praise of Folly, while the imaginary voyage in his True History is seen as an influence on Thomas More's Utopia. The True History is also viewed as having inspired portions of Swift's Gulliver's Travels; and because the True History contains a voyage to the Moon, Lucian is sometimes seen as an ancestor of modern science fiction. There is disagreement among modern commentators over the extent of Lucian's concern with contemporary issues and over the extent of his imitation of earlier writers. However, the consensus seems to be that Lucian transformed his sources rather than merely imitating them and that he was less a topical satirist than a comic entertainer.