Title page of a 1619 Latin translation of Lucian's complete works
Title page of a 1619 Latin translation of Lucian's complete works
Bornc. 125 AD
Samosata, Roman Empire (modern-day Turkey)
DiedAfter 180 AD
probably Egypt
OccupationNovelist, satirist, rhetorician
Notable worksTrue History,
Dialogues of the Dead,
The Lover of Lies,
Dialogues of the Gods,
Dialogues of the Courtesans,
Alexander the False Prophet,
Philosophies for Sale,

Lucian of Samosata[a] (c. 125 AD – after 180 AD) was a Syrian satirist and rhetorician[1] who is best known for his characteristic tongue-in-cheek style, with which he frequently ridiculed superstition, religious practices, and belief in the paranormal. Although his native language was probably Syriac, all of his extant works are written entirely in ancient Greek (mostly in the Atticized dialect popular during the Second Sophistic).

Everything that is known about Lucian's life comes from his own writings, which are often difficult to interpret because of his extensive use of sarcasm. According to his oration The Dream, he was the son of a lower middle class family from the village of Samosata along the banks of the Euphrates in the remote Roman province of Syria. As a young man, he was apprenticed to his uncle to become a sculptor, but, after a failed attempt at sculpting, he ran away to pursue an education in Ionia. He may have become a travelling lecturer and visited universities throughout the Roman Empire. After acquiring fame and wealth through his teaching, Lucian finally settled down in Athens for a decade, during which he wrote most of his extant works. In his old age, he may have been appointed as a highly-paid government official in Egypt, after which point he disappears from the historical record.

Lucian's works were wildly popular in antiquity and more than eighty writings attributed to him have survived to the present day, a considerably higher quantity than for most other classical writers. His most famous work is A True Story, a tongue-in-cheek satire against authors who tell incredible tales, which is regarded by some as the earliest known work of science fiction. Lucian invented the genre of the comic dialogue, a parody of the traditional Platonic dialogue. His dialogue The Lover of Lies makes fun of people who believe in the supernatural and contains the oldest known version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Lucian wrote numerous satires making fun of traditional stories about the gods including The Dialogues of the Gods, Icaromenippus, Zeus Rants, Zeus Catechized, and The Parliament of the Gods. His Dialogues of the Dead focuses on the Cynic philosophers Diogenes and Menippus. Philosophies for Sale and The Banquet or Lapiths make fun of various philosophical schools, and The Fisherman or the Dead Come to Life is a defense of this mockery.

Lucian often ridicules public figures, such as the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus in his letter The Passing of Peregrinus and the fraudulent oracle Alexander of Abonoteichus in his treatise Alexander the False Prophet. Lucian's treatise On the Syrian Goddess satirizes cultural distinctions between Greeks and Syrians and is the main source of information about the cult of Atargatis. Lucian had an enormous, wide-ranging impact on western literature and works inspired by his writings include Sir Thomas More's Utopia, William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.


Biographical sources

Lucian is not mentioned in any contemporary texts or inscriptions written by others[2] and he is not included in Philostratus's Lives of the Sophists.[2] As a result of this, everything that is known about Lucian comes exclusively from his own writings.[3][4][2] A variety of characters with names very similar to Lucian, including "Lukinos," "Lukianos," "Lucius," and "The Syrian" appear throughout Lucian's writings.[2] These have been frequently interpreted by scholars and biographers as "masks", "alter-egos", or "mouthpieces" of the author.[2] Daniel S. Richter criticizes the frequent tendency to interpret such "Lucian-like figures" as self-inserts by the author[2] and argues that they are, in fact, merely fictional characters Lucian uses to "think with" when satirizing conventional distinctions between Greeks and Syrians.[2] 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.[5] 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"[6] and warns that "it is foolish to treat [the information he gives about himself in his writings] as autobiography."[6]

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.[7][4][8][9] 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.[10][9] The population of the town was mostly Syrian[7] and Lucian's native tongue was probably Syriac, a form of Aramaic.[7][11][12][9]

During the time when Lucian lived, traditional Greco-Roman religion was in decline and its role in society had become largely ceremonial.[13] 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.[14] Superstition had always been common throughout ancient society,[14] but it was especially prevalent during the second century.[14][15] Most educated people of Lucian's time adhered to one of the various Hellenistic philosophies,[14] of which the major ones were Stoicism, Platonism, Peripateticism, and Epicureanism.[14] Every major town had its own university[14] and these universities often employed professional travelling lecturers,[14] who were frequently paid high sums of money to lecture about various philosophical teachings.[16] The most prestigious center of learning was the city of Athens in Greece, which had a long intellectual history.[16]

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,[3] Lucian's parents were lower middle class and his uncles owned a local statue-making shop.[7] Lucian's parents could not afford to give him a higher education,[3] so, after he completed his elementary schooling, Lucian's uncle took him on as an apprentice and began teaching him how to sculpt.[3] Lucian, however, soon proved to be poor at sculpting and ruined the statue he had been working on.[3] His uncle beat him, causing him to run off.[3] Lucian fell asleep and experienced a dream in which he was being fought over by the personifications of Statuary and of Culture.[3][17] He decided to listen to Culture and thus sought out an education.[3][18]

Although The Dream has long been treated by scholars as a truthful autobiography of Lucian,[3][19] its historical accuracy is questionable at best.[20][19][6] Classicist Simon Swain calls it "a fine but rather apocryphal version of [Lucian's] education"[20] and Karin Schlapbach calls it "ironical".[17] 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].[19] 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."[6]

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."[21][7][11] 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".[11][21] Rhetoric states that she "took him in hand and... gave him paideia."[11][21] Scholars have long interpreted the "Syrian" in this work as Lucian himself[11][7] and taken this speech to mean that Lucian ran away to Ionia, where he pursued his education.[7] Richter, however, argues that the "Syrian" is not Lucian himself, but rather a literary device Lucian uses to subvert literary and ethnic norms.[22]

Ionia was the center of rhetorical learning at the time[7] The most prestigious universities of rhetoric were in Ephesus and Smyrna,[7] but it is unlikely that Lucian could have afforded to pay the tuition at either of these schools.[7] It is not known how Lucian obtained his education,[7] but somehow he managed to acquire an extensive knowledge of rhetoric as well as classical literature and philosophy.[7][11] Lucian mentions in his dialogue The Fisherman that he had initially attempted to apply his knowledge of rhetoric and become a lawyer,[23] but that he had become disillusioned by the deceitfulness of the trade and resolved to become a philosopher instead.[24] Lucian travelled across the Empire, lecturing throughout Greece, Italy, and Gaul.[25] In Gaul, Lucian may have held a position as a highly-paid government professor.[26]

In around 160, Lucian returned to Ionia as a wealthy celebrity.[26] He visited Samosata[26] and stayed in the east for several years.[26] He is recorded as having been in Antioch in either 162 or 163.[26][4] In around 165, he bought a house in Athens and invited his parents to come live with him in the city.[26] Lucian must have married at some point during his travels, because in one of his writings he mentions having a son at this point.[26] Lucian lived in Athens for around a decade, during which time he gave up lecturing and instead devoted his attention to writing.[26] It was during this decade that Lucian composed nearly all his most famous works.[26] Lucian wrote exclusively in Ancient Greek,[8][27][12] 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.[27] For unknown reasons, Lucian stopped writing around 175 and began travelling and lecturing again.[26] During the reign of Emperor Commodus (180 – 192 AD), the aging Lucian may have been appointed to a lucrative government position in Egypt.[26][4][12] After this point, he disappears from the historical record entirely,[26] and nothing is known about his death.[26]

Other Languages
Alemannisch: Lukian von Samosata
azərbaycanca: Lukian
تۆرکجه: لوثین
беларуская: Лукіян з Самасаты
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Люкіян з Самасаты
brezhoneg: Lukian Samosata
català: Llucià
čeština: Lúkianos
dansk: Lukian
eesti: Lukianos
Ελληνικά: Λουκιανός
Esperanto: Lukiano
فارسی: لوثین
한국어: 루키아노스
հայերեն: Լուկիանոս
हिन्दी: लुसियन
hrvatski: Lukijan
Bahasa Indonesia: Lukianos
íslenska: Lúkíanos
қазақша: Лукиан
lietuvių: Lukianas
Limburgs: Lucianus
magyar: Lukianosz
مازِرونی: لوکیان
日本語: ルキアノス
norsk: Lukian
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Lukian
Scots: Lucian
shqip: Lukiani
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Lukijan
suomi: Lukianos
svenska: Lukianos
українська: Лукіан
Tiếng Việt: Lukianos của Samosata
中文: 琉善