showing locations associated with Lucian
Almost everything that is known about Lucian comes from his own writings. Lucian was born in the town of
Samosata, the capital of the Roman province of
Commagene, located on the banks of the
Euphrates river on the far eastern outskirts of the
Roman Empire. The population of the town was almost exclusively
Syrian and Lucian's native tongue was probably
Syriac. During the time when Lucian lived, traditional
Greco-Roman religion was in decline and its role in society was almost exclusively ceremonial. As a substitute for traditional religion, most people in the Hellenistic world joined
Mystery Cults, such as the
Mysteries of Isis,
Mithraism, the cult of
Cybele, and the
Eleusinian Mysteries. Superstition had always been common throughout ancient society, but it was especially prevalent during the second century. Most educated people of Lucian's time adhered to one of the various Hellenistic philosophies, of which the major ones were
Epicureanism. Every major town had its own university and these universities often employed professional travelling lecturers, who were frequently paid high sums of money to lecture about various philosophical teachings. The most prestigious center of learning was the city of
Athens in Greece, which had a long intellectual history.
According to Lucian's oration The Dream, which he probably delivered as an address upon returning to Samosata at the age of thirty-five or forty after establishing his reputation as a great orator, Lucian's parents were
lower middle class and his uncles owned a local statue-making shop. Lucian's parents could not afford to give him a higher education, so, after he completed his elementary schooling, Lucian's uncle took him on as an apprentice and began teaching him how to sculpt. Lucian, however, soon proved to be poor at sculpting and ruined the statue he had been working on. His uncle beat him, causing him to run off. Lucian fell asleep and experienced a dream in which he was being fought over by the personifications of Statuary and of Culture. He decided to listen to Culture and thus sought out an education.
Lucian fled to
Asia Minor, which was the center of rhetorical learning at the time. The most prestigious universities of rhetoric were in
Smyrna, but it is unlikely that Lucian could have afforded to pay the tuition at either of these schools. It is not known how Lucian obtained his education, but somehow he managed to acquire an extensive knowledge of rhetoric as well as classical literature and philosophy. Lucian mentions in his dialogue The Fisherman that he had initially attempted to apply his knowledge of rhetoric and become a lawyer, but that he had become disillusioned by the deceitfulness of the trade and resolved to become a philosopher instead. Lucian travelled across the Empire, lecturing throughout Greece, Italy, and
Gaul. In Gaul, Lucian may have held a position as a highly-paid government professor.
In around 160, Lucian returned to Ionia as a wealthy celebrity. He visited Samosata and stayed in the east for several years. He is recorded as having been in
Antioch in either 162 or 163. In 165, he bought a house in Athens and invited his parents to come live with him in the city. Lucian must have married at some point during his travels, because in one of his writings he mentions having a son at this point. Lucian lived in Athens for around a decade, during which time he gave up lecturing and instead devoted his attention to writing. It was during this decade that Lucian composed nearly all his most famous works. Lucian wrote exclusively in
Ancient Greek, mainly in the
Atticized dialect popular during the
Second Sophistic, but On the Syrian Goddess, which is attributed to Lucian, is written in a highly successful imitation of Herodotus's
Ionic dialect, leading some scholars to believe that Lucian may not be the real author.
 For unknown reasons, Lucian stopped writing around 175 and began travelling and lecturing again. During the reign of Emperor
Commodus (180 – 192 AD), the aging Lucian was appointed to a lucrative government position in Egypt. After this point, he disappears from the historical record entirely, and nothing is known about his death.