Lukianos holds the mirror

1 Mask scene

Roman literature of the first century was like ours: it included a lot of entertaining junk. What survived the Dark Ages was diligently sorted and copied by earnest medieval clergymen looking for elevated matter of philosophy, to which was added pious commentary about the truth of revealed religion. The entertaining stuff was discarded and has vanished. This was a pity, and all the more valuable is what by chance survives: Petronius, Catullus, Aristophanes, Apuleius and Lucian.

We’re lucky to have Lucian, for he was considered an anti Christian writer, on the strength of two statements he made about the early Church. Both are rather complimentary, but the copyist didn’t like Lucian’s facetious approach. It is this lack of moral earnestness that today makes him so attractive.

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus”.

So thought Edward Gibbon in 1788, in summing up his great History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The period he refers to was 96 AD to 180 AD, when the Empire reached its greatest extent, and was ruled by its most gifted Emperors, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. The last named king spent most of his life trying in vain to hold back barbarian tribes invading from the north, and died in the attempt. In the period mentioned though, peace and stability prevailed, and a citizen could travel between Spain and India (avoiding Persia, which was ‘unstable’), Britain and the Congo, and hear Latin spoken, and see Roman administrative systems in force each step of the way.

In the later part of this period lived a travelling speaker, or rhetorician, named Lukianos of Samosata, known to posterity as Lucian. Samosata was in the Province of Syria (now in Turkey just north of the Syrian border), on the upper reaches of the Euphrates river. We know nothing of Lucian’s life, origins, even about the exact period of his life (somewhere between 120-190 AD). Some of his writings contain autobiographical references, but Lucian used irony habitually, and so what he says of himself may be true, the opposite of the truth, or exaggerated to a greater or lesser degree. When he calls himself a “barbarian” for instance we don’t know if he is alluding to his considerable learning in a humorous way, or referring to his racial origin, perhaps as an Assyrian.

We have extant still about 80 short essays by Lucian, about 60 of which were really written by him, the rest either epitomes of lost writings, or anonymous works thought by ancient critics to have possibly been written by Lucian. These essays are among the most popular survivals from antiquity, and have been read and loved for over 2,000 years. It is probable Lucian was equally popular in his own life time.

Portrait of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Fresco from Po

Lucian was, in modern terms, an essayist. He also wrote short novels, and most famously, dialogues. Although we see them as essays, Lucian’s contemporaries would have recognised his work as declamations, or, in our terms, performances. In other words Lucian was really a rhetorician. A word of explanation for that term is needed.

The world of ancient Greece and Rome was an oral culture. There were books, and reading, of course, but the great mass of the people, aside from businessmen and government administrators, heard, rather than read. They lived in a very noisy world, densely populated. Even isolated farms would have worked in unison with other families, and households there would have included many children, as well as slaves. In the cities merchants, officials, soldiers, slaves, crowds of idlers, shoppers bargaining, entertainments and entertainers would all have added to the babble. One of the most important skills of life was to be able to speak, and speak well. Even authors declaimed their works. Training in this skill, rhetoric, began early and was an essential part of everyone’s education.

Rhetoric was the art, nominally, of speaking in court, a skill of barristers, who strove to sway citizens to an emotionally favourable vote. Successful pleaders might then undertake a career in government administration, requiring great skill in diplomacy and based still on a mastery of words. Not so successful pleaders might carve a career as trainers of barristers and administrators. There are indications in Lucian’s surviving works, which include some typical exercises in court speeches, this is what Lucian did at the start of his career. From the time of Plato travelling philosophers, whom he calls Sophists, earned their living by speaking in the city agora, teaching what might be called ‘life skills’. So there were plenty of examples of those who earned a living from ‘public speaking’.

Lucian tells us that as a boy he refused to follow his uncle’s profession of sculptor and in so doing displeased his father, and perhaps had to run away, or was disinherited. He was a man entirely of Greek culture, unread in Latin literature, to which he makes no reference, though he would have had to know basic Latin. He seems to have been self taught in the study of rhetoric and studied the ancient Greek rhetoricians, or lawyers, such as Lycias, who wrote in the fourth century BC, and knew the works of Plato. His Greek is a perfect imitation of the classic Attic dialect, translators tell us, and he could also write in the Ionic dialect of Herodotos. His models were Aristophanes, Menander and Menippos.

3 Wall fragment

For unknown reasons Lucian travelled westward throughout his life, first to the coast of Ionia, crossed the Aegean to the mainland of Greece, then went to Rome and Gaul, and finally ended his days in Egypt, or perhaps went back to Athens. He earned his living on these journeys as a speaker in the agora, but instead of philosophy, as the Sophists understood it, Lucian sought to entertain with witty and paradoxical declamations. He must have found this the best way to gain attention in the agora.

Climbing the podium in a crowded agora might be possible, but gaining people’s attention and making them stop and listen was not so easy. We can imagine Lucian had a powerful voice to make himself heard above the din. He had to first make his audience stop and listen, which would have taken all his skills as a rhetorician. Then, as he was after all earning his living, he had to persuade them to part with some money. The solution he found was to make them laugh. This in fact was an innovation. We don’t know of many others who worked in this way. Lucian was perhaps one of a kind, obviously a gifted humorist, as anyone who has stood in front of a crowd and tried to make a joke will appreciate.

Lucian, like Shakespeare, doesn’t strive to be original. He tries, instead, to refer back as much as possible to earlier writers, and wants his listeners/readers to appreciate those references. His works are full of quotation and allusion, many of which we don’t get today because the originals have not survived. A sign of his mastery of this for Lucian ancient language is his success in being funny in it, using many devices of humour, such as parody, irony, fantasy, and satire.

Lucian tried to be entertaining. He meant nothing at all in his writings but to amuse his listeners, and we should not take him too seriously as a satirist or philosopher. What he said, and what he satirised, were commonplace attitudes of his day. He was a rhetorician, so it was the way he expressed himself in which lay his art. If that amused the listeners, he was successful. Perhaps a bit like PG Wodehouse.

Although popular and influential throughout the period of his lifetime and up to ours, Lucian has come to have a reputation as a cynic and a scoffer. It is well to remember this was a judgment made by medieval religious writers for whom sermons and the bible were the only proper reading, and plays and other secular literature sinful.

4 Pompeii fresco

The works of Lucian were not collected and published by him. His writings as we have them are in random order, and many spurious works are interpolated. How he developed as a writer is not known, nor what he intended to achieve. To read him intelligently we need to put aside his early speeches as a trainer in rhetoric, those many works considered by scholars as spurious, and organise what is left. We have a number of short pieces (declamations to ancient audiences, essays to us). These include short satirical narratives similar to Gulliver’s Travels; dialogues mocking the preoccupations of various groups whose speech they purport to reproduce, such as prostitutes, or the gods of Olympos; and essays proper in which Lucian makes fun of human foibles such as gullibility and greed. His target is often the ubiquitous travelling philosophers of the time.

Perhaps Lucian wouldn’t have written at all were it not for the example he had of two earlier writers. Aristophanes and Menippos.

The first of these writers we know because some of his work has survived. It is a vivid blend of lyric poetry, satire, fantasy and ritual obscenity. Lucian learned from him how to add fantasy to satire, and produced such works as The True History for instance, imitated by Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift (in Gulliver’s Travels) and even perhaps Jules Verne and HG Wells.

The second writer, Menippos, has not survived, but was widely regarded as one of the most original writers in antiquity, perhaps a bit like James Joyce. He blended verse and prose, which was considered a major innovation, and satirised hypocrisy and deception. Lucian liked to think he was writing Menippean satire. He even introduces a character called Menippos into some of his dialogues.

Personally Lucian is a pragmatist, a realist, and against movements and institutions, both the refuge of intolerant people. He hated prejudice. He will accept people, but rejects schools. When he sees a slogan, his first question is to ask who is making money from it. His point throughout his work is how people constantly delude themselves, and he strives to puncture this self delusion with humour. It helps in reading Lucian if you can laugh at yourself. All this is in contrast with his skill in language, which was the highly artificial arrangement of words to play on listeners’ emotions. The contrast is perhaps the source of Lucian’s charm.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Lucian is to look first at some Monty Python sketches. Satirical, absurd humor often based on verbal gymnastics, characters exaggerated to the point of ridicule, and situations that are surreal are common to both Python and Lucian. You would have to imagine Lucian playing all the parts, but leaving out the physical humour, for his art was purely verbal.

Earlier works and writers influenced by Lucian include Rabelais, Cervantes, the Voltaire of Candide, the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Shakespeare’s Timon. Other writers in the Lucian tradition are Jonathon Swift, Henry Fielding and the HG Wells of the scientific romances. Lucian is sometimes seen as a pioneer SF writer, which I don’t think is true, but he seems to have been an influence on The First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man, with their humorous and satirical treatment.

Other writers who wouldn’t have written the way they did but for Lucian are Montaigne, and Laurence Sterne.

5 Three graces

In the Zeuxis, a sketch about a famous painter, Lucian tells the audience how he was praised by an earlier one for his originality, and then explains how horrified he was at this kind of estimation. He wants, he explains, to be praised for his skill with language, not his subject matter. Then he launches into a description of a famous painting, itself a conventional and usual theme for declamation, and tells an anecdote about its painter, Zeuxis, who apparently felt just the same about his craftsmanship.

The dialogues rely for their humour on a combination of Homer and Menander, the stories about the gods told in stately Homeric language retold in the language of Middle Comedy, with the contrast in tone that mixture implies. Zeus trying to explain to Ganymede just why he has abducted him, while all Ganymede can think of is the fate of his goats. Or the difficulties Zeus experiences giving birth to Athena.

The Hesiod is an interview with the early Greek poet made by a modern writer. Unfortunately Hesiod can’t quite grasp what the modern is talking about and the conversation proceeds at cross purposes.

6 War galley

Another sketch has the title A True History, and is a fantastic voyage in which everything reported is false. The Greeks had a genre of traveller’s tale, and many stories of fantastic voyages. Lucian outdoes them all in this story, which throws in a trip to the moon.

Another ‘novel’ is The Ass, which survives only in epitome and is considered the main source for Lucian’s contemporary Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass.

The attraction of Lucian’s sketches, then and now, is not in his matter, but in his manner. He is irreverent, facile, superficial, funny. Somehow it is a performance of great charm, even some delicacy.

Like a Chaplin film found in the ruins of World War III, like a folk song found by a collector that steals your heart away, these little pieces of entertainment tell us more about their contemporary world than much weightier matter. We know about the struggle of Marcus Aurelius against the German tribes, we can read about his refuge in Stoicism in his Meditations. Just for a minute the clouds disperse, Lucian holds a mirror, and we see the crowded agora, a man on the podium gesturing and grimacing amusingly, the crowd shuffling about, the smell and the dust and the heat, and the sweaty, dusty audience breaking into grins and guffaws, their day lightened by just a few minutes. It’s as much as anyone can do.

Lucian’s tone really does remind me of PG Wodehouse. How lucky we are that he has survived the ages of fundamentalism and the ages of romance and adventure. So trivial, so slight, so civilised.

There is an edition of Lucian freely available from the University of Adelaide which can be read online or downloaded. It’s the Fowler and Fowler translation of 1905, a little dated perhaps. My edition was a selection made and translated by Paul Turner for Penguin Classics in 1961. I laughed my way through this years ago. Now it’s not so funny, but still enjoyable. There are four or five more recent translations available eg from Amazon.

A major resource on Lucian is here:

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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