Lucian came from the town of Samosata (modern-day Samsat, Turkey) in the Roman province of Syria. Likely of Semitic background, he learned of the Greek language and culture as an outsider. He had a very short apprenticeship as a sculptor under an uncle and then began his education in earnest, becoming skilled in Greek language and rhetoric. He became a successful speaker on the lecture circuit, a more important part of his career than the law courts. He made his way as far
as Gaul (France), and Athens was his home for some time. Around the age of 40 he gave up his vocation as a public speaker to take up philosophy, or rather to write dialogues concerned superficially with philosophical matters but vigorously larded with touches of comedy.
About 80 works have come down to us from his hand, some spuriously. They testify to the education in rhetoric that Lucian had, his wide reading in the literature of the Greek world of prior eras, and his consciousness of being a Greek by acculturation. These works can be divided into a number of genres. Some are rhetorical exercises (for example, In Praise of the Fly, where the rhetorician displays his ability to praise things unworthy of praise); others are short pieces presented to introduce a longer lecture. A large number are dialogues, either actual or reported, wherein he sometimes uses verse. He also wrote essays on a variety of topics, romances of a sort, biographies, and one or two playlets.
Dear to Lucian was the “description,” a subgenre in its own right, and he displays a truly remarkable ability to give the reader a picture of some painting or other object. However, he is perhaps best known for his comic dialogues, a type he considered to be somewhat of a novelty. Lucian uses a variety of characters in these works, including famous people of bygone eras, gods and goddesses often ludicrously portrayed, and, most intriguingly, a person, sometimes named, sometimes not, who is no doubt the persona of the author. From this springboard, among others, Lucian was able to do what he did best—ridicule the minor idiocies of humans and the unique silliness and gullibility of humankind. Attacked by his pen are those he considered to be false prophets, religious charlatans, superstitious folk, and proponents of a certain fanatical interest in the niceties of classical Attic diction. This last group is especially interesting because, as an outsider, Lucian was interested in the proper usage of language, and yet he was able to see the excesses involved in such interest.
Ultimately, Lucian is an amusing skeptic, though not a serious thinker, and extremely difficult to set within a typology of litterateurs; in a way he is sui generis. As a late writer had it, Lucian was “serious—at raising a laugh.” The vigor of his language, his powers of description, and especially his adroitness in poking fun at man’s idiosyncrasies and foibles, made him one of the most influential authors for later Western literature.
- Branham, R. Bracht. Unruly Eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989;
- Jones, C. P. Culture and Society in Lucian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.