Although Lucian was but one of many satirists who attacked the excesses of the Roman empire in the second century, he has the distinction of being one of the most influential of all practitioners of the genre. His works often seem motivated by personal animosity and inspired by self-serving principles, but he rises above invective to achieve a vision of humanity that inspired countless writers who have followed him. Best known for his development of the satiric dialogue, in which characters reveal their own deficiencies as they defend themselves, Lucian managed to make from the many foibles and hypocrisies of his own day material for timeless analysis of humankind’s greatest follies.
Condemned by Christian writers (and ultimately by the Catholic Church) as an atheist for his scathing portrait of the deities in Dialogues of the Gods, he fell into disrepute in the West for more than a millennium; however, with the rediscovery of classical writings in the Renaissance, Lucian’s reputation grew rapidly, and by the sixteenth century he was one of the most widely read and influential satirists of all time.
The list of literary figures indebted to Lucian is long and contains the names of some of the most distinguished writers in the European tradition. Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More fell under his spell. The rhetoricians and the dramatists of Renaissance England found his works compelling subjects for study. His satires, especially his work about Timon the misanthrope, inspired a number of works during this period, including plays by Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. William Shakespeare borrowed from Lucian not only for Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623) but also for the famous graveyard scene in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). John Dryden found him a useful mentor and wrote a brief biography for an edition of Lucian produced at the end of the seventeenth century. Lucian’s True History is the model for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the greatest of all English satires. In France, both François Rabelais in the sixteenth century and Voltaire two centuries later found inspiration in his writings. Prolific and caustic, Lucian fulfills admirably the role of the satirist, using humor and invective to promote social change.
The satires of Lucian are directed not so much against social customs and manners as against the ideological attitudes of men in the Roman empire. Of a conservative spirit, Lucian wanted to recall people to old ethical standards and values by exposing the shams and affectations of religion, philosophy, pedantry, and superstition. So vehement does he become in his attacks, it often seems that he is condemning not only the abuse of the thing but also the thing itself, particularly in the satires on philosophy.
The Dialogues of the Gods is composed of twenty-six conversations among the Olympian deities. Their own words condemn them, for in their bickering, gossip, complaints, and flatteries they show themselves to be as prideful and ignorant as human beings, and as much enslaved by their ignoble passions, so that they are not at all worthy of the awe and reverence that the mortals on earth accord them. Hera nags at Zeus because of his myriad love affairs; Asclepius and Herakles argue over precedence in seating at the dinner table; Hermes whines over all his work as messenger to the gods; Zeus scolds Helius for giving the sun-chariot to Phaeton; Apollo and Hermes chat about the similarity of the twins Castor and Pollux; Ares whispers sedition behind Zeus’s back; the Judgment of Paris is enacted. Each vignette develops its own little drama, and through them Olympus is lowered to the level of the common marketplace.
The Dialogues of the Sea Gods follows the same pattern. Poseidon comforts his son Cyclops after Odysseus dupes and blinds him; the river Alpheus rehearses his protestations of love for the river Arethusa; the metamorphoses of Proteus are marveled at by his friends as if he were a circus magician; nymphs and Nereids talk about their lovers and gossip about one another.
The satire in the Dialogues of the Dead is more penetrating and mordant. The residents of the Underworld, newly dead and long-dead, live together in uneasy fellowship. They still dispute over the petty things that concerned them when they were alive. Men who on earth were highly honored, fabulously wealthy, physically beautiful, are leveled to dry and uniform bones, but still they squabble over reputation, appearances, precedence. Cynics argue with epicureans, the once-poor taunt the once-rich, and Charon prays for war or plague on earth so he may collect more fares on his ferry. Achilles learns there is no glory on the far side of the Styx, but Alexander the Great tries unsuccessfully to impress his magnificence on his fellow shades. Menippus, the Cynic philosopher, thrives in Hades because all his earthly activities are directed against the vanities that people lose at death. Socrates and Diogenes appear, also Agamemnon, Ajax, Tiresias, Menelaus, Paris—soldiers, courtiers, kings, and...
(The entire section is 2120 words.)