Lucian is not mentioned in any contemporary texts or inscriptions written by others and he is not included in Philostratus's Lives of the Sophists. As a result of this, everything that is known about Lucian comes exclusively from his own writings. A variety of characters with names very similar to Lucian, including "Lukinos," "Lukianos," "Lucius," and "The Syrian" appear throughout Lucian's writings. These have been frequently interpreted by scholars and biographers as "masks", "alter-egos", or "mouthpieces" of the author. Daniel S. Richter criticizes the frequent tendency to interpret such "Lucian-like figures" as self-inserts by the author and argues that they are, in fact, merely fictional characters Lucian uses to "think with" when satirizing conventional distinctions between Greeks and Syrians. He suggests that they are primarily a literary trope used by Lucian to deflect accusations that he as the Syrian author "has somehow outraged the purity of Greek idiom or genre" through his invention of the comic dialogue. British classicist Donald Russell states, "A good deal of what Lucian says about himself is no more to be trusted than the voyage to the moon that he recounts so persuasively in the first person in True Stories" and warns that "it is foolish to treat [the information he gives about himself in his writings] as autobiography."
Background and upbringing
Map of Asia Minor
showing locations associated with Lucian
Lucian was born in the town of Samosata, located on the banks of the Euphrates river on the far eastern outskirts of the Roman Empire. Samosata had been the capital of Commagene until 72 AD when it was annexed by Vespasian and became part of the Roman province of Syria. The population of the town was mostly Syrian and Lucian's native tongue was probably Syriac, a form of Aramaic.
During the time when Lucian lived, traditional Greco-Roman religion was in decline and its role in society had become largely ceremonial. As a substitute for traditional religion, many 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 Stoicism, Platonism, Peripateticism, and 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 classical scholar Lionel Casson states 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.
Although The Dream has long been treated by scholars as a truthful autobiography of Lucian, its historical accuracy is questionable at best. Classicist Simon Swain calls it "a fine but rather apocryphal version of [Lucian's] education" and Karin Schlapbach calls it "ironical". Richter argues that it is not autobiographical at all, but rather a prolalia, or playful literary work, and a "complicated meditation on a young man's acquisition of paideia" [i.e. education]. Russell dismisses The Dream as entirely fictional, noting, "We recall that Socrates too started as sculptor, and Ovid's vision of Elegy and Tragedy (Amores 3.1) is all too similar to Lucian's."
Education and career
Speculative portrayal of Lucian taken from a seventeenth-century engraving by William Faithorne
In Lucian's Double Indictment, the personification of Rhetoric delivers a speech in which she describes the unnamed defendant, who is described as a "Syrian" author of transgressive dialogues, at the time she found him, as a young man wandering in Ionia in Asia Minor "with no idea what he ought to do with himself." She describes "the Syrian" at this stage in his career as "still speaking in a barbarous manner and all but wearing a caftan [kandys] in the Assyrian fashion". Rhetoric states that she "took him in hand and... gave him paideia." Scholars have long interpreted the "Syrian" in this work as Lucian himself and taken this speech to mean that Lucian ran away to Ionia, where he pursued his education. Richter, however, argues that the "Syrian" is not Lucian himself, but rather a literary device Lucian uses to subvert literary and ethnic norms.
Ionia was the center of rhetorical learning at the time The most prestigious universities of rhetoric were in Ephesus and 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 around 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 may have been 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.