Lucian Essay - Critical Essays



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.

*Principal Works

Apokeruttomenos [Abdicatus, Disowned] (speech) 145-60

Musias enkomion [Muscae encomium, The Fly] (speech) 145-60

[Nigrinus] (dialogue) 145-60

**Patridos enkomion [Patriae encomium, In Praise of My Country] (speech) 145-60

Peri ton dipsadon [The Dipsads] (speech) 145-60

Peri tou elektrou e ton kuknon [Electrum, Amber] (speech) 145-60

[Phalaris I and II] (speeches) 145-60

Turannoktonos [Tyrannicida, The Tyrannicide] (speech) 145-60

Peri tou enupniou etoi bios Loukianou [Somnium sive vita, The Dream or Lucian's Career] (speech) 160-64

Alethon diegematon [Vera historia, True History] (novel) 165-75

Anabiountes e halieus [Piscator, The Fisherman or The Dead come to Life] (dialogue) 165-75

Bion prasis [Vitarum auctio, Philosophers for Sale] (dialogue) 165-75

Charon e episkopountes [Charon] (dialogue) 165-75

Dis Kategoroumenos [Bis accusatus, The Double Indictment] (dialogue) 165-75

Drapetai [Fugitivi, The Runaways] (dialogue) 165-75

Enalioi dialogoi [Dialogi marini, Dialogues of the Sea-Gods] (dialogues) 165-75

[Harmonides] (speech)...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Principal English Translations

The Works of Lucian of Samosata. 4 vols. [edited by H. W. Fowller and F.G. Fowler] 1905

Lucian: With an English Translation. 8 vols. [edited by A. M. Harmon, K. Kilburn, and M. D. Macleod] 1913-17


Elizabeth Hazelton Haight (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "Lucian and His Satiric Romances: The True History and Lucias or Ass" in Essays on the Greek Romances, Kennikat Press, 1965, pp. 144-85.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1943, Haight discusses Lucian's style and use of parody in his True History.]

… Gildersleeve was probably right in calling the True History "a comic sequel to a brilliant essay entitled 'How to write History.'"29 The traditional manuscript order which places the True History after How History Should Be Written seems so aptly prompted by Lucianic irony. For this romance in two books is not history at all and has nothing...

(The entire section is 2663 words.)

Barry Baldwin (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Six Gods and Men" in Studies in Lucian, A. M. Hakkert, Ltd., 1973, pp. 97-118.

[In the following excerpt, Baldwin discusses Lucian's connection to religious developments and social unrest during his lifetime.]

…Apart from Christians and Jews, Lucian took stock of the major religious phenomena of his age. The Dialogues of the Gods clearly can have their literary antecedents traced back beyond Plato and Xenophanes to Homer. These, and the Menippus pieces, make obvious mock of the anthropomorphic approach to religion. The theme was not new; and not exhausted.24 The Dialogues of the Dead were a handy vehicle for timely jests on...

(The entire section is 4888 words.)

Graham Anderson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Characterisation" in Lucian: Theme and Variation in the Second Sophistic, E. J. Brill, 1976, pp. 67-84.

[In the following excerpt, Anderson discusses Lucian's tendency to reuse character descriptions, plot situations, and other material.]

Lucian manipulates his characters as easily as he contrives his stories or plots; here again he is content to play a facile game with a few basic types. He may use the same character under several different names, so that there is often little distinction between Cyniscus, Diogenes and Menippus,1 between Diogenes and Socrates,2 or between Croesus and Megapenthes.3 Nor does he always present...

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Graham Anderson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Toxaris and Philopseudes," "The Onos: The Greek Frame-Story" in Studies in Lucian's Comic Fiction, E. J. Brill, 1976, pp. 12-49.

[In the first section of the following excerpt, Anderson discusses the sources and structure of Lucian 's True History and Toxaris. In the second section, he discusses the themes, techniques, and authorship of Lucius, or The Ass.]

… Among Lucian's narratives the Toxaris has been almost wholly neglected. It is too late to offer much information for the history of the Greek novella; and scholars have been deterred from looking too far afield for sources,2 when Lucian himself claims...

(The entire section is 7014 words.)

Douglas Duncan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Lucian," in Ben Jonson and the Lucianic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 9-25.

[In the following excerpt, Duncan discusses the playfully detached viewpoint Lucian adopts throughout his works.]

From the late fifteenth century until well into the nineteenth, Lucian held his place among the most widely translated and imitated of Greek authors. He later came to be banished from the pantheon of nineteenth-century Hellenism, partly because he was a 'silver' Greek—or rather not a Greek at all but a Syrian of the second century A.D. who had copied the styles of an earlier age—but mainly because of his ambiguous attitude toward the nobler ideals of...

(The entire section is 6895 words.)

Christopher Robinson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "I: Lucian: the Man and the Work—Ingenuity and Humour" in Lucian and His Influence in Europe, The University of North Carolina Press, 1979, pp. 20-45.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson discusses Lucian's use of such literary forms as parody, pastiche, and satire, as well as his handling of invective, burlesque, and irony.]

… If there is one relatively clear-cut division between the works, it is quite simply between those whose principal effect is humour, and those whose principal effect is ingenuity. The second category contains the eleven prolaliai and the pieces which can be assigned to one rhetorical genre, Disowned, The Tyrannicide, Phalaris...

(The entire section is 11012 words.)

F. Anne Payne (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Lucian as Menippean Satirist" in Chaucer and Menippean Satire, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981, pp. 38-54.

[In the following excerpt, Payne surveys Lucian's Menippean satires, focusing on their exuberant mockery of philosophy, religion, and life in general.]

Lucian's works provide a focal point for assessing the traits of Menippean satire, not only because numbers of complete dialogues, labeled Menippean, survive, but also because his interest in philosophy and philosophers and the problems and abuses of both makes his works an obvious parallel to and possible source of Boethius' Consolation.1 Which of Lucian's individual works are...

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R. Bracht Branham (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Laughter" in Uruly Eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 11-37.

[In the following excerpt, Branham discusses the seriocomic nature of Lucian's works.]

Few men, I believe, do more admire works of those great Masters who have sent their Satire (if I may use the Expression) laughing into the World. Such are that great Triumvirate, Lucian, Cervantes, and 5wift. These authors I shall ever hold in the highest Degree of Esteem; not indeed for that Wit and Humour alone which they all so eminently possess, but because they all endeavored, with the utmost Force of their Wit and Humour to...

(The entire section is 8883 words.)

Further Reading

Anderson, Graham. "Lucian: A Sophist's Sophist." In Yale Classical Studies, vol. 27 (Later Greek Literature), edited by John J. Winkler and Gordon Williams, pp. 61-92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Discusses Lucian's techniques and themes, and classifies him as part of both the Second Sophistic school of rhetoricians and the Greek satirical tradition.

Craig, Hardin. "Dryden's Lucian." Classical Philology 16, No. 2 (April 1921): 141-63.

Provides information on early translations of Lucian in England.

Hall, Jennifer. Lucian's Satire. New York: Arno, 1981.

Discusses Lucian's sources and...

(The entire section is 222 words.)