Born: Samosata, Syria (now Samsat, Turkey), c. ad 120. Probably not Greek. Family: Married; one son. Career: Apprenticed to a sculptor; then received an education in rhetoric, and became a pleader, then a travelling lecturer, practising sophistic rhetoric in Gaul; moved to Athens about age 40; may have accompanied the Emperor Verus to Antioch in 162; chief court usher (archistator) with the Roman administration in Alexandria in early 170s. Died: After ad 180.
[Works], edited by M.D. MacLeod. 4 vols., 1972-87; also edited by John Dryden, various translators, 4 vols., 1711, and J. Sommerbrodt, 5 vols., 1886-99; translated by F. Spence, 5 vols., 1684-85; also translated by Thomas Francklin, 2 vols., 1780; William Tooke, 1820; H.W. and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols., 1905; A.M. Harmon (vols. 1-5), K. Kilburn (vol. 6), and M.D. MacLeod (vols. 7 and 8), 8 vols. [Loeb Edition], 1913-67; selections edited and translated by Emily James Smith, 1892; B.P. Reardon, 1965; Keith C. Sidwell, 1985; M.D. MacLeod (with commentary), 1990.
Charon, Vita and Timon, translated by D.S. Smith. 1865.
Dialogues, translated by Jasper Mayne. 1638; also translated by John Dryden, 1739; William Maginn, 1856; H. Williams, 1888; R. Mongan and J.A. Prout, with Somnium, 1890; William Tooke, 1930; selection translated by ”J.P.P.,” 1845; Six Dialogues, translated by S.T. Irwin, 1894; Dialogues and Stories, translated by W.D. Sheldon, 1901; Seventy Dialogues, edited by H.L. Levy, 1977.
Somnium, with The Dialogues, translated by R. Mongan and J.A. Prout. 1890; also translated by William Armour, 1895. Tragodopodagra, as The Trago-Podagra, or Gout Tragedy, translated by Rev. Symeon T. Bartlett. 1871.
Vera Historia [True Story], translated by Francis Hickes. 1634, reprinted 1925; also translated by Emily James Smith, 1892; J.A. Prout, 1901; selection as Trips to Wonderland, translated by Francis Hickes, 1905; as Lucian GoesA-Voyaging, translated and adapted by Agnes Carr Vaughan, 1930.
Cyprian Masques, translated by Ruby Melvill. 1929.
Satirical Sketches, translated by Paul Turner. 1961.
Selected Satires, edited by Lionel Casson. 1962.
Lucian, Satirist and Artist by F.G. Allinson, 1926; The Translations of Lucian by Erasmus and Thomas More by C.R. Thompson, 1940; Literary Quotation and Allusion in Lucian by F.W. Householder, 1941; The Sophists in the Roman Empire by Glen W. Bowersock, 1969; Studies in Lucian by Barry Baldwin, 1973; Studies in Lucian’s Comic Fiction by Graham Anderson, 1976; Ben Jonson and the Lucianic Tradition by Douglas Duncan, 1979; Lucian and His Influence in Europe by Christopher Robinson, 1979; Prolegomena to a New Text of Lucian’s Vitarum Auctio and Piscator by Joel B. Itzkowitz, 1986; Culture and Society in Lucian by C.P. Jones, 1986; Unruly Eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions by R. Bracht Branham, 1989; Lucian of Samosata in the Two Hesperias: An Essay in Literary and Cultural Translation by Michael O. Zappala, 1990; Lucian and the Latins: Humor and Humanism in the Early Renaissance by David Marsh, 1998.
Literal-minded Byzantines saw Lucian as an anti-Christ; Lord Macaulay dubbed him the Voltaire of antiquity. He deserves neither title. Lucian is best regarded as a journalist-cum-intellectual, unscrupulously versatile.
Least popular now are his occasional pieces on various rhetorical themes. One or two deserve attention, notably his essay on Slander which describes a Greek painting that inspired Botticelli’s La Calunnia. Lucian is one of a relatively small number of ancient writers on art, which should commend him to modern counterparts.
As is ever the case with intellectuals, Lucian was frequently embroiled in controversies; several pamphlets commemorate these in vicious terms. Their contemporary bite has naturally staled, but two stand out. The Peregrinus lambasts its eponymous villain who, after flirting with Christianity and cynicism, immolates himself at the Olympic Games. Some mild comments on Christian credulity earned Lucian a place on the Catholic index of Forbidden Books. But Christians get a better press in his Alexander where, along with the Epicureans and Lucian himself, they oppose a trendy religious charlatan.
Lucian was also capable of appreciation, and wrote some admiring obituaries, notably the Demonax, commemorating a witty philosopher and preserving a large collection of his jokes. He also tried his hand at verse. Fifty or so epigrams attributed to him in the Greek Anthology are unremarkable. But his Tragodopodagra (Gout Tragedy) is a delicious parody of Greek drama, comparable to Housman’s immortal Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.
Perhaps most congenial is the prose Vera Historia [True Story], at one level a parody of travellers’ tall tales, but also enjoyable as early science fiction with monsters and adventures worthy of 20th-century inventions.
However, Lucian himself prized his satirical dialogues, a genre he revived and perfected. Some pass social comments on wealth and poverty that might endear him to the modern left, but which were politically safe in his own relatively enlightened age—Lucian was no martyr. His main targets are the absurdities of mythology, as well as the illogical and often hypocritical representatives of the philosophical schools. Typical pieces include Descent into Hell, Dialogues of the Dead, Philosophies for Sale—all much imitated in later times.
Lucian was no deep thinker, and had no obvious influence on his own times. His fame was in the future. He was a professional entertainer in a crowded and competitive field, and it is probably fair to suppose that his works survived because they were superior in elegance and wit to those that did not.