Episode 87: Lucian of Samosata

The satirist Lucian (c. 125-180) was popular in his own time and during the Renaissance, among other things probably being the first author of science fiction.

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The Life and Short Works of Lucian of Samosata

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 87: Lucian of Samosata. Lucian of Samosata, who lived from roughly the 120s to the 180s CE, was a satirist from the province of Syria – at that point the far eastern end of the Roman Empire. The previous season of our podcast on the New Testament and its theological milieu might lead one to believe that in the first few centuries CE, people all around the Mediterranean were converting to Christianity, and not much else was going on. But now, it’s time for something completely different. Reading the 80 or so surviving works that have come down to us from Lucian of Samosata, we find that while cult religions and various philosophies involving salvation and personal ethics were indeed becoming increasingly popular all over the Roman Empire and beyond, satire, secularism, and irreverence were nonetheless proceeding with business as usual in certain circles. For Lucian of Samosata, both religion and philosophy are a continuum of the same scam – a scam to provide gullible people with specious answers, and to elevate unscrupulous charlatans to positions of authority. Over the course of Lucian’s vast collection of extant works, nothing is safe from Lucian’s wide-ranging mockeries of philosophers and his burlesques of religions.

Lucian of Samosata, today, is probably most famous for four things – let’s go over them quickly at the outset of this episode. First, many of the satirical writings that Lucian left behind are written in a form that he pioneered, if not invented – this form is the comic dialogue. The comic dialogue is a farcical version of the Platonic dialogue – rather than using philosophical dialogues to explore great truths, like Plato and Cicero do, Lucian’s comic dialogues are deployed to make fun of the contradictions and the hubris of various ideologies. The second thing that Lucian is well known for is that around 165 CE, he recorded his impressions of Christianity, and he lampooned what seemed to him ridiculous and unoriginal about the new religion. The third thing that Lucian is famous for today is that he wrote what is often considered the first science fiction novel – a prose work called A True History, which involves space travel, aliens, and various gods and goddesses, all written with the aim of deriding the farfetched fables which, however bizarre Lucian found them to be, were commonly accepted as fact in the time in which he lived. The fourth, and final thing Lucian is known for is this. When ancient Greek works began to be translated into Latin at the beginning of the 1500s, and then later into European vernacular languages, Lucian’s writings ended up on the desks of a veritable who’s-who of European Renaissance and Enlightenment writers, influencing all of them – Erasmus, Thomas More, François Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, and more. Both the imaginative scope of Lucian’s writings, then, and the hardheaded skepticism he tends to convey in his writings were ultimately important parts of the rebirth of classical learning in Europe, and rise of secular humanism in the Early Modern period. Those four things, then – the comic dialogue, the satire of Christianity, the prototypical science fiction novel, and the far-reaching Renaissance influence are what you’d learn about Lucian of Samosata in a brief reader’s encyclopedia entry.

We’re going to read A True History, Lucian’s science fiction novel, in its entirety in the next episode. In the present program, we’ll concentrate on an overview of Lucian’s shorter works, exploring a few of his comic dialogues, and taking a close look at Lucian’s famous caricature of Christianity. By the end of this show, I’d hope to have offered you an overview of Lucian’s short works, generally grouping them into theological and then philosophical satires, and introducing a couple of other pieces that are well-known for various reasons. An extremely erudite writer who wrote in Greek, and with expansive knowledge of Ancient Mediterranean literary history, Lucian is an entertaining, but not always immediately accessible author. For that reason, rather than offering granular summaries of individual works, my goal will be to synthesize quotes from many different works to give you an idea of Lucian’s overall iconoclastic outlook. A provincial outsider to the traditional heartlands of Ancient Greece and Rome, Lucian ultimately saw religious and philosophical systems as overlapping products of the cultures that produced them – a series of garish circus tents designed to distract their inhabitants from an otherwise unknowable sky. So, to get to know Lucian of Samosata a little better, I think we should begin by talking about the author himself- what we know about him, where he was from, and a little more about the period of ancient literary history into which he came of age in the mid-100s CE.

Samosata and Lucian’s Origins

To start things off simply, let’s talk about Samosata – Lucian’s hometown – where this was, and what was going on there when he was born. Samosata was located in the south-southeastern part of modern day Turkey. While dams have altered the shape of river there, Samosata, in Lucian’s day, was a town on the north bank of the Upper Euphrates, situated in the hill country just south of where the Euphrates comes down through the southeastern mountains of Anatolia and onto the flatlands of the Mesopotamian desert. It had once been the capital of a small kingdom called Commagene, a borderland between Rome’s eastern provinces, the Parthian Empire, and the perennially powerful kingdom of Armenia. In 72 CE, about 50 years before Lucian was born, the area was annexed by Rome during the early years of the Flavian Dynasty. By the 120s – again the decade in which Lucian was probably born, Samosata was part of the easternmost reaches of the Roman Empire, and Roman rulers managed to hold on to the region, with some lumps and bumps, until Muslim conquests in 637. During its tenure as a Roman province, Syria – later subdivided into a quartet of provinces and overseen from Constantinople, had an outsized influence on the history of early Christianity, with a sizable body of surviving Syriac manuscripts and church leaders from the region showing the extent to which the new religion had taken root there.

Map Byzantine Empire 1025-it

This is a map of the Byzantine Empire nearly a thousand years after Lucian lived, but it does show Samosata’s location – on the lower right, on the upper Euphrates north of Edessa. Lucian’s origins from this eastern borderland surely gave him an outsider’s perspective on Greco-Roman culture. Map by Cplakidas.

Lucian of Samosata, then, would have grown up in a Roman colony that still had living memory of regional autonomy. Samosata, like so many of the territories of the eastern Mediterranean, had weathered various colonial regimes – after about 300 BCE these were Greek-speaking Seleucid Kings. Samosata had exerted its independence after the 160s BCE, and a number of generations later, during the lives of Lucian’s grandparents and great-grandparents, under the Roman emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius, Samosata went back and forth between having and not having indigenous leadership. But by the time Lucian came along, Samosata had just settled into what it would be for some time to come – a marchland Roman province where Syriac, Greek, Parthian, Latin, and many other languages and cultures all came together.

As is the case with so many ancient authors, what we can infer about Lucian’s biography comes from a rag bag of references in his own writings – references which may or may not have any degree of historical reliability. We can be quite secure in assuming that Lucian had a strong literary and rhetorical education, whatever his background was. In a dialogue called The Dream, he writes that sculpting or statuary was the family practice, and that his father was lowborn and poor.1 He tells us that sculpting would have provided him a strong back and stable income at the expense of a rather stationary and transient life.2 The study of rhetoric and literary history, however, he tells us, promised something far more luminous – access to the world of antiquity, history, theology, and beyond that travel, fame, and literary immortality.3 And beyond this essential dichotomy, Lucian describes being apprenticed to his uncle and being clobbered on his very first day of work for spoiling a good piece of marble, an event which ultimately steered him toward intellectual pursuits, rather than falling into the family trade as an artisan. We have no idea if anything about this is true – the sculptor turned philosopher figure was also associated with Socrates. But that’s just about all we have to go on in terms of Lucian of Samosata’s early life – a romantic, stylized, up-by-the-bootstraps yarn about how he left manual labor behind to begin a more intellectual vocation.

We have no reason to doubt that he was from Samosata. He calls himself “a Syrian from the Euphrates” and a “barbarian. . .by blood” in one of his dialogues.4 Another of Lucian’s works takes issue with the fictitious elements of traditional Greco-Roman history – its penchant for inventing various details and speeches for entertainment value. In this treatise, called How to Write History, Lucian takes issue with the historian Xenophon’s spotty knowledge of Samosata’s geography – Xenophon had mistakenly written that Samosata was nestled tightly by the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, whereas the city, as we heard earlier, was actually high up on the upper Euphrates, a hundred miles from the upper Tigris. Another piece of evidence that Lucian was a Syrian from Samosata is that Lucian wrote a detail-rich account of a cult to the goddess Atargatis – a fertility and guardian goddess of northern Syria – and Lucian’s account of her cult is our most substantive written account of this ancient religion. While Lucian might have had an impetus to offer a familial biography as an up-by-the-bootstraps story, he would have had little incentive for inventing a provincial background out in of the furthest reaches of the Greco-Roman world.

Passages from Lucian’s surviving works attest that he travelled as a lecturer and rhetorician in Anatolia, Italy, and Gaul, and that he settled in Athens for a time.5 In one work, he describes his excellent financial success as a professional public orator while employed in Gaul, and we can assume that Lucian travelled widely during his adulthood and was employed by more than one aristocratic household.6 Various references to datable historical events in his work give us an overall idea of where he was at certain times, as well as some other travels – to southern Black Sea, and to Macedonia. Scholars think that late in Lucian’s life, he was in Egypt, working for a Roman prefect. There’s some evidence that he became a Roman citizen, and was comfortable speaking Latin in his adulthood.7 And Lucian passed away some time after the year 180, as one of his surviving works mentions Marcus Aurelius having died – the emperor died in March of 180 CE. And those tidbits of information are about all we know about Lucian – scholars of various periods have inferred other details about his life from his writings, but I think what you just heard is enough to get us started. So, now that we’ve covered what Lucian of Samosata is most famous for, and learned a little about his life, let’s for a moment about the language and style in which his works were written.

Lucian of Samosata and the Second Sophistic Movement

Lucian’s works survive in Greek, although his native language was in all likelihood Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. While Greek was the lingua franca of that region of the world in the 100s CE, Lucian not only wrote in Greek – he wrote in a very specific, and literary form of Greek. This literary form of Greek usually gets called Attic Greek – named after Attica, the region around Athens, and the time period that Lucian and his generation believed was the apex of all Greek writing – the 400s and 300s BCE. A love for antique literary Greek was a hallmark of Lucian’s era. Lucian and a number of his other contemporaries are frequently described as the Second Sophistic. Their love for the prose styles of writers like Plato, Thucydides, and Demosthenes led them to imitate writers popular five hundred years before them, which, to use an obvious example, would be like you or I writing a play with the diction and syntax of William Shakespeare, or poems in the style of Philip Sydney, if, ‘ere we proceed, thou canst imagine a feat so chimerical as that.8 The purpose of such faux-antique language wasn’t simply to parrot bygone styles of writing – especially in Lucian’s case, it allowed writers to show off their literary knowledge with panache while at the same time overlaying archaic words and verbal constructions onto contemporary themes, creating various kinds of anachronistic effects. Part of the Second Sophistic movement, which lasted from the 60s until the 230s CE, was also a renewed interest in oratory. Orators capable of imitating the classical Attic Greek of Plato, including Lucian, found positions as aristocratic secretaries and educators, some of them becoming famous in genteel circles.

It’s important to understand that the Second Sophistic – again that faux-antique Greek literary movement of which Lucian was a part – that the Second Sophistic wasn’t merely about using fancy words and making showy displays of learning. Sometimes, an art form can be the unique property of a disenfranchised class – one which allows this subaltern class a degree of power and self expression not available to them in other art forms. This may have been the case with Second Sophistic authors like Lucian himself – figures not born into established Italian families who enjoyed privilege from birth, but instead cultural drifters of various sorts who shared a love for Greek language and literature. On the subject of the Second Sophistic movement more generally, scholar J.R. Morgan writes,
Essentially, highly educated Greeks turned to the past to construct a cultural identity that allowed them at some level to reverse the relationships of power with their political over-lords. They struggled to master the Greek language of the fifth century B.C., which was very different from that spoken in the streets of their own period, and devoted their literary and rhetorical skills to the re-creation of the past, generally with a playful awareness of their own ‘secondariness.’9

This may very well have been the attraction of the Second Sophistic for authors like Lucian. It gave them the capacity to be part of an in-crowd not based on ethnicity or nationality, but instead, based on literary and oratorical talent – an in-crowd whose Greek language games allowed them some degree of sovereignty over their Latin-speaking employers.

Waterhouse-Diogenes lucian of samosata

John William Waterhouse’s Diogenes (1882). As a Second Sophistic scholar knowledgeable about the Classical Greek world, Lucian of Samosata had nuanced opinions on the ancient schools like Diogenes’ trademark Cynicism – Lucian could make fun of an ideology’s excesses while at the same time appreciating its strengths.

The writers and orators of the Second Sophistic movement all delved into the language and syntax of older, Classical Greek with varying degrees of talent and for various reasons. During this period the Greek word pepaideumenos is often found – the word means “trained individual,” and it’s used to describe the sort of acculturated audience who might appreciate writers like Lucian – writers who knew both contemporary Koine Greek, but also the 500-year-old Attic Greek of authors of the earlier Classical period. The pepaideumenos would have been trained in Herodotus, Plato, Homer, and the Greek authors of the 300s BCE and before. The subtleties of Lucian’s language would not have been lost on such initiated contemporaries the way they are on us, but we are reasonably well equipped to understand some of Lucian’s formal contributions to comedic writing.

While Lucian imitated various aspects of Classical Attic Greek and oratory, he also gets recognized for popularizing the comic dialogue, as I mentioned earlier. Lucian’s comic dialogues are diverse, but generally, they take the traditional dramatic form of a philosophical dialogue, in which speakers personify perspectives, and varnish over it with the absurdism and even slapstick of Aristophanes and Plautus. The traditional philosophical dialogue of the Ancient Mediterranean, while it has the unique advantage of letting the author step back and allow ideas to develop in a dialectic fashion, can nonetheless be heavy-handed and drearily predictable, with the Platonic Socrates blathering interminably at various human stumps who don’t call him out on even his most execrable leaps in logic. In revising the philosophical dialogue for humorous purposes, Lucian did what the Roman satirist Lucilius had done two and a half centuries earlier when Lucilius wrote Latin satire using dactylic hexameter – the traditional meter of high epics like Homer’s Iliad. In both cases, a lofty form not normally associated with humor is filled with unexpectedly irreverent and comedic content.

Lucian did not like pomposity, or ideologies based on faith in unseen things. He was similarly opposed to works of history or geography that, for entertainment value or due the force of custom, mixed factual information with fables. Scholar Lionel Cassing describes Lucian’s way of thinking as “undeviating rationalism plus its counterpart, hardheaded skepticism.”10 Lucian’s comedy has nuance and consideration – he can take a sect like the Christians and deride them on one hand, but, on the other, express respect and appreciation for what he considers their good qualities. Pervasively, Lucian satirizes through imitating ideological schools and intellectual figures, letting them speak for themselves. As scholar C.D.N. Costa puts it, “earlier Greek literature provided [Lucian] with a quarry of subject matter for his own exercises in mimesis; but the Graeco-Roman society he lived in also offered him a rich field of targets for his satire: silly or hidebound philosophers, charlatans of all kinds, pseudo-historians.”11 A skeptic, then, and a relativist and empiricist, Lucian’s iconoclastic writings offer a rich contrast from many other second century Roman texts, teaching us that while Christianity and other salvific cult religions were blossoming all around the empire, in some circles, secularism and empiricism were growing, as well. So, now that we’ve had a decent overview of who Lucian was, and what he was generally about, let’s open up an anthology of some of his works and take a look at what’s inside.

I want to begin with an overview Lucian’s writings on religion. When we think of the Mediterranean in the second century CE, largely due to what has survived from this place and time, we’re inclined to think about the New Testament and early church history, or of philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius basically doing the same thing – creating ideological systems that encouraged adherents to exchange worldly joys and comforts for some combination of personal tranquility and posthumous exaltation. Lucian, in stark contrast to most of what’s tumbled down to us from the second century CE, was not a person in search of such answers. In the religions around him, he saw a jumble of defective systems, the plurality and internal contradictions of which exposed them as human creations. So let’s begin by looking at a full work from Lucian, incidentally a work that’s both a philosophical as well as a theological satire, and happens to be the same work in which he briefly engages with Christianity and gives his two cents on it. Pound for pound, the work we’re about to open – it’s called The Passing of Peregrinus – is a fantastic and representative introduction to Lucian of Samosata, so let’s spend ten minutes going through the whole thing. [music]

A Summary of The Passing of Peregrinus

The Passing of Peregrinus is one of Lucian’s more famous works. In a sentence, it is about the life of a Greek philosopher named Peregrinus Proteus, born just before 100 CE, who, after an ignominious childhood spent up near the Hellespont, came down from the northeastern Aegean, converted to Christianity in Palestine, later left Christianity to join the philosophical school of the Cynics, became an outspoken critic of Roman culture, and eventually burned himself alive at the Olympic Games in 165 CE, around the age of 70. We have other ancient historical accounts of the life of Peregrinus, written in admiration of a man who stuck to his principles until the bitter end.12 But in Lucian’s account, which is by far the longest to have survived, this philosopher Peregrinus is far less appealing – a charlatan who uses religion and philosophy for selfish ends, and who eventually becomes so heated with his own immoderate idealism and desperate need for public adulation that he literally burns himself alive. As I said a moment ago, Lucian’s The Passing of Peregrinus has had an outsized popularity because it offer us a very early pagan perspective on early Christianity, and it’s also an excellent introduction into Lucian’s perspective on the cultish nature of both philosophy and religion, and the sometimes credulous nature of their adherents. And just for a quick review, remember that Cynic philosophy – the titular Peregrinus was a real person and Cynic philosopher – Cynicism was a frequently popular Ancient Mediterranean philosophy that prized minimalism – even extreme poverty, for the sake of pursuing virtue. Its name comes from the Greek word kynikos, or doglike, in reference to the itinerant and barebones lifestyles of its practitioners. So let’s spend a couple of minutes taking a look at Lucian’s The Passing of Peregrinus – a representative piece of his philosophical and theological satire.

Carl Bloch’s Sermon on the Mount (1877). Lucian writes of Christians as credulous and generous in a not-particularly-flattering section of The Passing of Peregrinus. While the passage led to papal proscriptions centuries later, it’s important to remember that Lucian is much harsher on pagan philosophers whom he also understands as cult leaders, promoting belief on extrasensory phenomena.

The Passing of Peregrinus is written as a letter to an acquaintance, and in it, Lucian wastes no time describing Peregrinus’ self-immolation as stupid and self-importantly theatrical. The real Lucian may have actually witnessed the real Peregrinus’ suicide – we don’t know – but the speaker of Lucian’s letter purports to have been there, and to have joined a segment of the audience in laughing uproariously at the old philosopher’s suicide. Lucian says he arrived on the scene to hear “the loud, unlovely accents of some Cynic bawling out the usual street-corner nonsense about virtue and reviling all and sundry.”13 Lucian listened to one of Peregrinus’ disciples, a man soaked with sweat and tears, talking about how Peregrinus was about to ascend into the celestial realm – the devotee said Peregrinus was comparable to Socrates and even Zeus himself. While Peregrinus’ disciple certainly had positive things to say about Peregrinus, soon, a more critical figure took the stage. This critical figure is probably a stand-in for Lucian himself, by the way, and this figure began to paint a considerably less flattering portrait of the suicidal cynic philosopher. The account that this new speaker offers of Peregrinus’ biography is lengthy and takes up most of the text of The Passing of Peregrinus, ranging from bawdy and gross to intellectually rigorous. The first sentence of Lucian’s biography of Peregrinus sets the tone for what’s to come.

Lucian tells us “[Peregrinus,] this bright product of Nature’s design and craftsmanship, as soon as it arrived at man’s estate, was caught in the act of committing adultery somewhere in Armenia, was given a thorough beating, and only got away by jumping off the roof and taking to his heels in spite of the radish up his anus” (367). The radish, by the way, was allegedly a form of punishment inflicted on male adulterers by the husbands of jealous wives – perhaps a radishing to punish a ravishing, if you will – and the subject comes up in Aristophanes, so it’s a literary allusion as well as a crude joke.14 Next, according to Lucian’s biography, Peregrinus seduced a young boy, and then paid off the boy’s parents. Peregrinus’ next achievement was murdering his own father by strangling him – the volatile Peregrinus was anxious for his inheritance. The parricide, however, resulted in a trial, and thereafter Peregrinus was banished for the murder of his father.

In his banishment, Peregrinus went to Palestine. There, Lucian tells us, Peregrinus quickly made inroads with Christians – “in no time at all, he had them looking like babies and had become their prophet, leader. . .and what not, all by himself” (368). Being an outspoken Christian, Peregrinus was arrested and imprisoned. This, however, was hardly a setback to his leadership position in the Christian church. His Christian followers did everything they could to get him freed. They bribed his jailors to spend time with him, brought him lavish dinners, and more still. Let’s hear a long quote in which Lucian tells us about how the Christians treated the imprisoned Peregrinus, and more broadly, one of antiquity’s earliest assessments of Christianity set down by a non-Christian person. Lucian writes,
The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrinus, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. You see, these misguided creatures[, the Christians,] start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them. . .The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day, – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.15

That quote is one of the most famous passages in Lucian’s writing, underscoring the credulity and misguided doctrines of Christianity while revealing some degree of respect for the cult’s communalism and collective capacity to get things done as a group.

To return to Lucian’s biography of Peregrinus, he tells us that eventually, because the governor of Syria thought that killing Peregrinus wouldn’t achieve anything, Peregrinus was freed. When Peregrinus went back home back to the Hellespont, Peregrinus discovered that the ownership of his father’s estate was in legal jeopardy. By this point, perhaps due to his experiences with the Christians, Peregrinus had become adept at appearing sagacious and wise before an audience, and so, dressed in a beggar’s garb with long hair, he announced that he was giving away all of his father’s lands, which may or may not have even been his to give away. This quieted the murder charges from earlier, and soon Peregrinus was off once more.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Diogenes (1860). The philosopher is appropriately depicted next to dogs, as the Greek word kynikos, or “doglike,” is the word from which we derive “Cynicism.” Lucian makes fun of Diogenes the Cynic and the latter-day Cynic Peregrinus, but is much easier on the Cynic Menippus, showing his complex attitude toward the ideology.

In his travels, Peregrinus made use of his connections with the Christians, staying with them until he committed some offense – Lucian says perhaps eating something forbidden to Christians. Afterward, Peregrinus’ primary support mechanism removed, returned to his hometown and attempted to get his familial property back, but was unsuccessful. He left home a third time, and was soon down in Egypt, apprenticed to a Cynic philosopher there. His tutelage in Cynic philosophy involved “shaving half his head bare, smearing his face with mud, masturbating in front of crowds of spectators to demonstrate ‘stoic indifference,’ flogging and getting flogged on the buttocks with canes, plus lots of other violent hocus-pocus” (370). The details here are as crude as they are funny, but perhaps the smuttiest of them – public masturbation, was actually associated with the founder of Cynic philosophy, Diogenes, who had lived five hundred years before Peregrinus did.

Once he converted to Cynicism, Peregrinus continued making a nuisance of himself. He travelled to Rome and he spoke out against the Emperor Antoninus Pius, who put up with the critiques until the Praetorian Prefect exiled Peregrinus. The exile only added to Peregrinus’ reputation, though, and he went to Greece and spoke out against Roman rule there, criticizing a well-liked local man who had helped make fresh water available at the Olympic Games in Elis. These criticisms were deemed wildly off base to the public, and so Peregrinus was compelled to run and hide. He stewed about it for the next four years, and at the next Olympic Games, Peregrinus reappeared and backpedalled, telling all present that the munificent aristocrat he had critiqued four years earlier was quite a great man after all. By this point, though, everyone saw Peregrinus for what he was – an ardent sycophant always willing to use any resources he had and to debase himself in any way available in various attempts at fame and notoriety. And failing to impress anyone at the second Olympics he attended, Peregrinus resolved that at the next Olympics, he would burn himself alive.

The self-immolation, as far as Lucian was concerned, was a transparently narcissistic publicity effort. If Peregrinus really lived in detachment from the world and all of its fame and pleasure, then he would have taken his own life somewhere obscure, and not in such a theatrical fashion. Lucian records some of Peregrinus’ self-important remarks prior to his suicide – it seems that Peregrinus expected that the crowd would broadly attempt to dissuade him, but at least one voice bellowed that he ought to go through with it. When the time came for the immolation at the end of the Olympic Games, Lucian couldn’t help but laugh at the spectacle of the old man seeking fame through suicide. Lucian even reprimanded Peregrinus’ followers for wanting to watch before taking his leave. Later, Lucian said, he had lied to a small crowd of Peregrinus’ followers who hadn’t seen the suicide, telling them that he had seen a vulture rise up and take flight after the immolation, and later still, Lucian found, incredibly, that the story he had made up had caught on and other Cynic wannabes were telling it.

And in a final flourish to the recipient of his letter – remember that Lucian’s The Passing of Peregrinus is a letter, Lucian adds one last detail about something that had happened when he knew Peregrinus. They had been on a journey from Anatolia to Greece – Lucian and Peregrinus. Peregrinus had been enjoying the company of a young male lover, and when an Aegean storm threatened to capsize the ship, Peregrinus had begun blubbering and weeping in fear. He had thereafter become sick, and when the ship’s doctor had suggested that Peregrinus could simply let death take its toll – Peregrinus was talking about being unafraid of death all the time after all – when the ship’s doctor said this, Peregrinus had said that wouldn’t work – he wanted his death to be more public and glorious. And with these words, Lucian ends his prolonged and decidedly unsympathetic portrait of the ancient Cynic philosopher Peregrinus, a portrait which may or may not have had any basis in fact.

Lucian of Samosata’s Theological Satire

The Passing of Peregrinus is a representative, if rather harsh example of Lucian depicting some of the self-serving impulses of those who lead religious and philosophical movements. In terms of philosophy, Lucian has little patience for writers like Plato and Seneca, whose pretensions of understanding an unseen reality and worship of stoic bravery reveal a mixture of arrogance and hypocrisy out of step with the common experiences of the everyday person. The champions of stoic philosophy and its ideological ancestors, in Lucian’s estimation, when they are not aristocrats leading plush lives, are a clownish assortment of misfits and beggars turned demagogues, just like Peregrinus. But let’s bracket Lucian’s philosophical satire for a moment, and spend the next portion of this program talking about his theological satire.

Even from what you’ve heard so far, it should be quite clear that Lucian was not a religious person. In a different translation than the one I quoted earlier, Lucian calls Jesus “the crucified sophist,” the implication being, obviously, that Christ was a compelling rhetorician whose oratory drew gullible audiences under his spell.16 This perspective on Jesus and Christianity led to papal proscriptions against Lucian’s works in 1559 and 1590, and earlier, drew the wrath of a 10th-century Christian author, who predicted that Lucian was probably “adequately punished in this world, and in the next he will inherit eternal fire with Satan.”17 To Christian critics of various generations, the paragraph or so I read you earlier, in which Lucian offers as a brisk assessment of Christianity, was enough to warrant his eternal damnation. Lucian’s take on Christianity, however, is not an especially severe one, in terms of the full gamut of the works he offered on the subject of theology. In a text in which he accuses a prominent Cynic philosopher of being anally penetrated by a radish and masturbating in public, he merely says Christians are a little bit gullible and unsophisticated as a collective, but the story that he tells about them also highlights their generosity and openness as a community. While he lets Christianity off pretty easily, then, Lucian’s writings about other religions of the Ancient Mediterranean are a multi-pronged attack that make fun of nearly every aspect of the theological activity he saw around him – the silliness of the Olympian pantheon, the contradictions between what various authors said about the Greek gods, the senselessness of declaring belief in anything unseen and all forms of superstition in general, the fraudulent and vainglorious nature of religious leaders, the dangerousness of the idea of heresy, and more still. So now that we’ve had a good long look at The Passing of Peregrinus, let’s get a dozen of Lucian’s writings on theology on our desk and see what sorts of generalizations we can observe about them.

Lucian of Samosata Derides the Olympians

Ancient Greek writers, from what we can tell, never had a dogmatic and unconditional reverence for the Olympian pantheon. From the Homeric stories about Venus cuckolding Hephaestus, and Hera distracting Zeus with sex, and on and on down from the 700s BCE, the Olympians were certainly always worshipped and regarded with real reverence, but they were also a readymade cast of characters that could be slung together in all sorts of combinations for the sake of a good story, and recombined with new gods and religious tales as the Greek world slowly grew. Lucian, like so many writers before him, spent no small portion of his theological satires undertaking the centuries-old work of making fun of Zeus and his family, and more broadly an outdated anthropomorphic cast of gods whose worship was everywhere being superseded by new cult religions like Christianity.

One of Lucian’s works, The Dialogues of the Gods, is simply a series of imaginary conversations between Olympian deities that imagine them living their daily lives. In The Dialogues of the Gods, Lucian envisions all of the duties the messenger god Hermes has, according to the various things written about him, and Lucian’s Hermes complains to his mother about having to perpetually work double shifts. Lucian’s Zeus complains to Eros, the god of desire, that Eros never helps him have sex – Zeus has to use his own magic to transform into various creatures, and Eros tells Zeus that Zeus ought to take better care of himself and pay more attention to his personal appearance. Lucian, in this same work – The Dialogues of the Gods – writes of Zeus kidnapping his lover Ganymede who, being brought to heaven to serve as Zeus’ sex slave, is actually under the impression that Pan is the highest deity, and not Zeus. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods we hear of Poseidon trying to track Zeus down to talk to him, only to discover that Zeus is giving birth out of his head to Athena – a familiar story from the mythological archive, but one that Lucian retells with fresh attention to its silliness. The numerous campy dialogues Lucian wrote about the Olympians show what Greek polytheism had become by the second century CE – a dented framework of old tales on which so many additions and renovations had been built that it was hard to even write simple narratives about them anymore without eliciting laughter.

Or, when the Olympians are not simply punchlines in Lucian’s works, they are anachronisms – horse drawn buggies in a theological age of motorways and air travel. Another comic dialogue Lucian wrote is called Zeus Catechized or sometimes Zeus Cross-Examined. In it, a philosopher asks Zeus a number of stumper questions on the nature of Zeus’ power – specifically, how Zeus can wield any power at all when it’s really the Fates who determine everything ahead of time. The Fates – the three arch-goddesses Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – are from time to time in Ancient Greek literature assigned powers far greater than those of the Olympians, and Lucian was fascinated by the trio. In the dialogue Zeus Cross-Examined, the philosopher character rather quickly intuits that Zeus has no meaningful power – in an unflattering metaphor, the philosopher compares Zeus to a minnow dangling from the thread of the spindle of the Fates. All of the Gods, the philosopher concludes, have little power at all, but suffer from various maladies and lusts, and can’t even defend their temples down on earth, which are frequently robbed.

The philosopher in this dialogue accordingly proposes that people ought to sacrifice to the Fates, not the Gods, since the Fates are in charge. Zeus lamely remonstrates – the Gods could at least offer prophecies about what the fates had in store. But the philosopher counters back – the prophecies of gods are murky and useless gibberish. This, finally, pushes Zeus over the edge. Zeus growls in no uncertain terms that he still has his thunderbolt. But the philosopher is unfazed – he says that if the Fates want him struck down with lightning, then neither he nor Zeus can do a thing about it.

The conversation then moves on to the subject of ethics. The philosopher has heard that Minos, the judge in the underworld, sends wicked people to be punished, and good people to be rewarded. The philosopher asks Zeus whether people who have accidentally done bad things deserve to be punished, or, whether people who have involuntarily done good things ought to be rewarded, and Zeus answers no to both cases. The philosopher then concludes that no human should ever be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, since they are just being arbitrarily driven along by the Fates. The fates, the philosopher resolves confidently, are the ones that are actually in charge. Hearing this, Zeus huffs irresolutely, and says, “I am not going to speak to you any more. You are an unscrupulous man; a sophist. I shall go away and leave you to yourself.”18

The dialogue I’ve just summarized – again Zeus Cross-Examined – is an excellent example of Lucian’s theological satire, beginning as it does by asking questions about whether the bumbling and anthropomorphic Olympians are really in charge of anything at all, but then launching ahead and asking whether a people who have no free will in a divinely engineered providence deserve anything like heaven and hell due to decisions that were never in their control in the first place. Elsewhere, Lucian engages with the enduring theological question of the Problem of Evil, introducing it offhandedly in a dialogue called Zeus Rants, as though it’s such an obvious issue that even the gods know that the pervasiveness of evil and suffering on earth have long led people to desert their temples. When Lucian writes about theology, he does so with the sharp perceptiveness and attention to logical contradictions of his Christian contemporaries Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. Only, unlike these church fathers, Lucian isn’t trying to set up a new religion in place old, defunct ones – he seems to simply have been trying to set religion aside.

To Lucian, the very coexistence of so many religions (and philosophies, for that matter), is perhaps the greatest piece of evidence that none stands head and shoulders above the others. A speaker from another of Lucian’s dialogues, before going to heaven to see for himself what’s up there, remarks on the annoying plurality of religions he sees around him. Lucian’s speaker grumbles,
Why indeed talk about the gods at all, when we find that to some god was a number, while others swore by geese and dogs and plane-trees? Then, too, some banished all the other gods and assigned the rule of the universe to one only, so that it annoyed me somewhat to hear that there was such a dearth of gods. On the other hand, others generously declared that there were many gods, and distinguished between what they called the first god, and others they ranked second and third in divinity. Again, some believed the divine was without body or form, and others supposed it to be body itself. Furthermore, they did not all believe that the gods show an interest in our affairs; but some absolved the gods of any responsibility at all, just as we usually relieve the elderly of public duties. In fact they assign them roles just like extras in comedies. Some, taking the most extreme view, didn’t believe in the gods at all, but left the world to carry on without ruler or guide.19

That’s from the C.D.N. Costa translation of Lucian’s dialogue Icaromenippus, published by Oxford in 2005. And this is a frequent strategy in Lucian’s satirical writing about religion and philosophy, by the way – to simply adduce the noisy disagreements and the strident champions of various ideologies as evidence that one is really about as good as the next. Lucian does something similar in another theological dialogue called The Parliament of the Gods. In it, the Olympians all get together to address a pressing issue – Mount Olympus has, we learn, become increasingly overrun by undesirable deities. There had once been seven Olympians, but their lusts and erratic behavior led to there being more and more half breeds coming up and down the stairs of heaven. And even more strangely, Olympus was also starting to teem with gods from foreign lands. In The Parliament of the Gods, a deity in Olympus remarks, “Well, you must allow me Attis, Corybas, and Sabazius: by what contrivance, now, did they get here? and that Mede there, Mithras, with the candys and tiara?. . .I should just like to ask that Egyptian [deity, Anubis] there – the dog-faced gentleman in the linen suit – who he is, and whether he proposes to establish his divinity by barking?”20 It’s not a flattering portrait of Ancient Egyptian religion, but then, Lucian doesn’t have complimentary things to say about Ancient Greek religion, either.

Lucian of Samosata’s The Lover of Lies: A Call for Empiricism

Beyond formally established religions, though, Lucian’s skepticism and satire extends more broadly to any sort of belief in the supernatural or unseen. A final dialogue we’ll consider, Lover of Lies, tells the story of a skeptic going to a dinner party. At this dinner party, the skeptic sits down with three philosophers and a doctor. And the skeptic discovers that the other four men, in spite of their professional reputations, all believe in all sorts of absurd fables. The dialogue Lover of Lies is sort of like an unsuccessful conversion story – four men earnestly tell a fifth man that he should believe in this and that outlandish superstition, and the skeptic unbudgingly shuts them down.

The first man told of how his father was bitten by a snake while working in a vineyard, and how a powerful Babylonian sorcerer had cured the ailment with magic. The second offered a story of another powerful sorcerer – this one from the far north – who could fly and walk on water and had helped a rich young man sleep with a woman he desired. The third man, who was hosting the dinner party, told a flurry of tales. One of his statues had come to life, he said. He claimed that he’d seen a 300-foot-tall Gorgon whose footsteps had cracked open the underworld, and he’d fallen into the chasm and seen various people in the afterlife. He described how his wife’s ghost had haunted him until he found one of her sandals and burned it – evidently you had to burn your loved ones’ things for them to properly rest in peace. The dinner party host even told the first known version of what’s called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” story – he said he’d been a sorcerer’s pupil, and had tried to magically animate brooms and cleaning supplies to clean their quarters while the sorcerer was away, and all of the brooms and buckets had taken on lives of their own.

The skeptic in this dialogue – Lucian’s Lover of Lies – listening to this river of fancy and superstition, dismisses everything he hears as hogwash. Neither sorcerers, nor Gorgons, nor magic, nor love spells, nor ghosts, nor living statues, nor miracle healings, he said, have a single grain of truth to them. In the face of the skeptic’s continued dubiety, the final storyteller in Lucian’s Lover of Lies went all out. He was a Pythagorean philosopher, we learn, and he went to a famous haunted house in Egypt, and used his knowledge as a Pythagorean to exorcise the spirit that dwelt there. The final tale teller describes a direful confrontation – he went to the dark house with a lamp and soon encountered a hideous spirit that changed its shape again and again. But due to the Pythagorean’s knowledge of spellcraft, he was able to banish the evil spirit. Thereafter, he emerged from the haunted house, to everyone’s surprise, and it was discovered that a dead body had not been given proper burial there. Once the body was exhumed and properly buried, the haunting went away for good. And this final story of a haunted house, needless to say, didn’t convince Lucian’s skeptic character that the supernatural existed, after all.

On the contrary, Lucian’s skeptic character told his own story – a story about the famous Greek atomist Democritus, which concisely refutes the tall tales offered by the previous speakers. According to Lucian, in the Oxford Costa translation,
Democritus of Abdera, who was so convinced that nothing like that can exist that he shut himself up in a tomb outside the gates, and wrote and composed endlessly day and night. Some youths, wanting to scare and make fun of him, dressed up as corpses in black robes and masks that looked like skulls, and surrounded him, dancing around with quick leaps in the air. But he showed no fear at their charade and didn’t even look up at them, but, without stopping writing, simply said, “Stop playing the fool.” So firmly was he convinced that souls no longer exist once they have left their bodies.21

Democritus by Ribera

Jusepe de Ribera’s Democritus (c. 1630). At a pivotal juncture of The Lover of Lies, Lucian of Samosata’s speaker tells a story about the famous atmoic materialist Democritus to debunk a host of superstitious narratives that have been going around a dinner table.

To Lucian, then, even the idea of souls was a piece of bald superstition – one that the ancient world’s most famous scientific materialist Democritus had no patience for. In contrast to the various ghost stories, monster fables, and narratives about wizards and magic spells he hears at dinner in the dialogue Lover of Lies, Lucian’s skeptic says he has a simple rule for things he believes in: “I don’t believe in them [if] I. . .don’t see them. If I did see them, then obviously I would believe in them, as you all do.”22 Empiricism, while it hardly sounds radical by today’s standards, is nonetheless a bit difficult to track down in the second century CE. The New Testament Gospels and various apocryphal Books of Acts tell of walking on water, and just the sorts of miraculous healings and exorcisms the dinner guests do in Lucian’s Lover of Lies, and on the subject of healing miracles, Lucian’s skeptic character grouses, “I’m not such a driveling idiot as to believe that external applications, which have no connection with the internal causes of the disease, and are applied, as you say, along with set formulas and wizardry, have any power to produce a cure.”23 Elsewhere, the same character laments the fact that even though things like the Pegasus, or Chimera, or men sprouting out of the ground from dragon’s teeth are all ridiculously stupid, the force of custom made it blasphemy to even call attention to their fictitious nature.

So that’s an overview of Lucian’s take on religion. Like so many others during the second century, Lucian found the Olympians unconscionably absurd. But equally, Lucian seems to have found it a mistake to believe in anything beyond observable phenomena, from deities and souls down to folksy superstitions and local myths. Religion, according to Lucian’s dialogues, is a messy briar patch largely outdated fiction, and one that has nothing coherent to offer those trying to understand their place in the universe. When Lucian’s works made their way forward onto the bookshelves of European readers from the sixteenth century onward, his unsentimental secularism was part of what made him feel like such a fresh and remarkable voice.

While religion often comes under Lucian’s crosshairs, it’s important to understand that philosophy does as well, and often for identical reasons. In universities today, we divide philosophy and religious studies into different departments, and Plato and Saint Augustine are sold in different areas of the book store. This division, unfortunately, can obscure the extent to which Plato was at least as much a theologian as he was a philosopher, and Augustine the same the other way around. For Lucian, theologians and philosophers are largely engaged in the same practice – both groups advance unfalsifiable theories about extrasensory phenomena, and expect adherents to gather around their lecterns on the basis of their charisma, and the audacity and allure of their spiels. The lot of them, Lucian writes in one of his dialogues, “regard sheer pointless lying as far preferable to the truth, enjoying doing it and spending their time thus for no compelling reason.”24 And while Lucian doesn’t exactly go easy on religion, he subjects philosophy, in a number of surviving tracts, to a thoroughly furious critique.

In the dialogue Icaromenippus, Zeus himself describes philosophers as follows.
There is a certain class of men who became widespread in the world not long ago, lazy, quarrelsome, conceited, quick-tempered, gluttonous, stupid, demented, full of arrogance, and [altogether] a useless burden on the land. . .Well, these men have divided themselves into schools, and invented elaborate and tortuous jargon, calling themselves Stoics, Academics, Epicureans, Peripatetics, and other things much more ridiculous than these. Then, clothing themselves in the impressive title of Virtue, raising their eyebrows, wrinkling their foreheads, growing long beards, they go around hiding disgusting habits under a false appearance.25

It’s not exactly a gentle or appreciative assessment of philosophy. Earlier, we heard Lucian’s satirical take on the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus, who sounds quite like one of the figures you just heard described. What I want to do now is take you through some of Lucian’s satirical writings on philosophy. While he wrote extensively on philosophical, a few of Lucian’s pieces on the subject of philosophy stand out – for their thoroughness and blunt clarity, and because in my opinion they are hilarious and effective mockeries of ancient philosophical schools that by so many accounts took themselves far too seriously. [music]

Lucian of Samosta’s Satire of Philosophy

Lucian wrote a lot of different kinds of comic dialogues. Some, like his popular Dialogues of the Courtesans, use the form of everyday banter in order to introduce the lives and outlooks of various echelons of society not always given extensive treatment in Ancient Greek literature. But when dealing with philosophers and philosophy, Lucian’s comic dialogues often involve the supernatural, the farfetched, and the outrageous. Earlier, I mentioned Lucian’s dialogue Icaromenippus – a piece about the third century BCE Cynic philosopher and satirist Menippus going up to heaven and making observations about what he saw there. This, generally, is the format that Lucian uses to poke and scratch at religion and philosophy – imaginary dialogues between gods, philosophers, and others in faraway places that reveal the superstition and cant of so many of humanity’s creeds.

Unlike many philosophers with whom Lucian deals in his dialogues, he treats Menippus with a fair amount of respect and evenhandedness. Thus, while he derides Peregrinus mercilessly in The Passing of Peregrinus, which we read a moment ago, Menippus is a different story. In the aforementioned dialogue Icaromenippus, Lucian has his favorite hardnosed cynic philosopher ascending into heaven to see how it all works up there. And in a different dialogue, the Dialogues of the Dead, the freethinking philosopher Menippus descends to the underworld to brush shoulders with various prominent thinkers who have died and variously been installed in the afterlife. In the underworld, on the journey across the river Styx, Menippus spends his journey laughing, to the disconcertion of the ferryman Charon. Down in Hades, we learn, the philosopher Diogenes has given up on the craft of philosophy entirely, telling an upward bound deity that when this deity reaches earth, to “tell [philosophers] to cut the nonsense – cut out arguing about the universe. . .stop training the mind to ask such useless questions.”26 Other philosophers in this visit-to-the-underworld dialogue don’t fare quite so well. The philosopher Menippus speaks with Socrates, who wants to know how his reputation has borne out over the past five hundred years or so. Socrates asks, in the Routledge Lionel Casson translation,
SOCRATES: What do people think of me?
MENIPPUS: [and Menippus replies] So far as reputation is concerned, Socrates, you’re a lucky man. Everybody thinks you were a wonder, that you knew everything, even though – let’s face it, it’s the truth – you knew nothing.
SOCRATES: I told them that myself, but they thought it was this business of Socratic irony.
MENIPPUS: Who are your neighbors [down here]?
SOCRATES: Charmides, Phaedrus, and Alcibiades.
MENIPPUS: Nice work, Socrates! Even here you’re up to your old tricks – not passing up the good-looking boys.
SOCRATES: What nicer way to spend time is there?27

Socrates doesn’t come across as entirely negative here, of course – the posthumous conversation reveals that Socrates took himself far less seriously than Lucian’s Neoplatonist contemporaries understood. But either way, the revisionist work is done – Lucian’s version of Socrates is a relaxed sophist, hanging out with attractive men, and not the trumpeter of eternal truths that he had become by Lucian’s generation in academic circles.

Lucian of Samosata’s Philosophies for Sale: A Summary

For the full brunt of Lucian’s satire on philosophy, though, we need to look at a dialogue called Philosophies for Sale. This dialogue takes place at an imaginary auction block – an auction block on which famous philosophers are sold to rich buyers – famous philosophers like Epicurus, Diogenes, Socrates and others have to stand up and explain why people ought to buy them and learn from them. Let’s hear a quick summary of Lucian’s satirical Philosophies for Sale, in which the auctioneers are Hermes and Zeus.

The dialogue Philosophies for Sale begins with the philosopher Pythagoras being introduced and marketed to the audience of auction attendees. Hermes, presumably looking up at the auction block, says, “Hey, Pythagoras! Step down here and let the people look you over. . .For sale, one top-grade philosopher, the most impressive you can find. Any takers? Any of you gentlemen want to be more than a man? Want to know the harmony of the universe? Want your soul to transmigrate?”28 A buyer approached and asked Pythagoras various questions about his philosophy, wanting to know what advantages would come to him through the purchase of Pythagoras. While the buyer wasn’t bowled over by anything in particular, when the buyer asked Pythagoras to strip, he noticed that Pythagoras had a golden thigh (this was one of the apocryphal legends about the philosopher Pythagoras). This won the buyer over, and Pythagoras was the first sale of the auction.

The next philosopher for sale was Diogenes the Cynic, a figure who comes up frequently in Lucian’s works. A notorious proponent of hardscrabble minimalism, Diogenes promised a potential buyer that he would introduce the buyer to hardship, hunger, and detachment, and at the same time superciliousness. The potential buyer was uninterested in Diogenes the Cynic’s offers of grief and discomfort, but said he’d pay a few coins for Diogenes to be his gardener or boatman, and so Diogenes was purchased.

Socrates Address by Belgian artist Louis Joseph Lebrun, 1867 Lucian of Samosata Context

Louis Josesph LeBrun’s Socrates’ Address (1867). Lucian of Samosata satirizes all of the ancient world’s extant schools vigorously in his dialogues, depicting Socrates as a contrarian, sophist, and lover of attractive men, and making the hero of the Platonic Dialogues a human and worldly figure rather than an ascetic champion of virtue.

A third philosopher, Aristippus, associated with an ideology centered on pleasure, was dead drunk at the auction, and no one would buy him. The fourth and fifth philosophers, who were sold as a pair, were the atomist Democritus and the philosopher Heraclitus, the latter associated with the notion of perpetual flux and change. In antiquity, Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher, and Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher, and this is how Lucian introduces them in the dialogue Philosophies for Sale. When a potential buyer asked questions of Democritus and Heraclitus, he found the first to be a gleefully indifferent materialist, and the second intolerably gloomy and depressed, and thus no one ended up wanting to buy Democritus and Heraclitus, either, and they shuffled back up into the waiting area of the auction block.

The next philosopher offered for sale was Socrates. When a prospective buyer asked Socrates about his specialty, Socrates did not hesitate in saying, “I’m a pederast. Very knowledgeable in matters of sex” (322). The buyer was put off – he had a son, after all – and in follow up questions, he learned that Socrates didn’t actually molest the bodies of young men – only their minds, that Socrates lived in a state that he’d made up himself, in which women were public property and attractive young boys were given as prizes to mighty warriors, and that invisible forms existed that only he could see. The buyer was overall impressed by the spiel, and Socrates was purchased for a sizable sum of money.

Next up on the auction block was the philosopher Epicurus, priced considerably lower than Socrates. Introduced as a devotee of pleasure who was also an atheist, Epicurus sold fairly quickly. Following Epicurus was Chrysippus, a famous stoic philosopher, looking grouchy and having closely cropped hair. When purchasers asked about Chrysippus’ ideology, he launched into a rather technical discussion of predicates and technical predicates, and then demonstrated his powers of syllogism, his transparently ridiculous remarks nonetheless impressing auction attendees enough for him to be purchased for a modest price.

Aristotle was walked up to the auction block, then, and marketed as someone who was already rich. After quite a superficial introduction to Aristotle’s philosophy, a wealthy purchaser said he liked what he’d heard, and paid a moderate price for Aristotle. The final philosopher up on the block was Pyrrho, a Skeptic. When asked about what his philosophy promised, Pyrrho the skeptic promised, “Ignorance, deafness, blindness. . .And of judgment and feeling. In short, being exactly like a worm” (331). For whatever reason, this appealed to a final buyer, and Pyrrho the skeptic – though skeptical that any of it was real, followed his new owner off the auction block to his new home.

So on one level, the dialogue that we’ve just heard summarized – again Lucian’s Philosophies for Sale is a funny send-up of the ancient Mediterranean’s most famous schools of philosophy. The format of the slave auction might make us a little squeamish, but still in Philosophies for Sale, storied philosophical systems are reduced to trade goods available the highest bidder. The two famous philosophers least associated with self-care – these are Democritus and Heraclitus – do not prove sellable. But the philosophical systems that award adherents with afterlives, with ethical righteousness, with impressive sounding logic, or most crudely in Pythagoras’ case, a golden thigh – these sell pretty quickly. The dialogue Philosophies for Sale exposes how to an extent, philosophy at a popular level is a mercantile enterprise, attracting adherents due to exciting sound offerings like reincarnation, stoic invulnerability, rectitude and right conduct, or simply formidable sounding ideas that might be parroted to impress others.29 Juvenal’s Satires, written a generation or so prior to Lucian’s, also poke and prod at hypocritical dilettantes who associate themselves with philosophical schools in order to impress others. But where Juvenal posits hardheaded Roman conservatism – where Juvenal indulges in the old and hackneyed nostalgia for an agrarian Italian past so common in ancient Roman literature, Lucian advances something else as a preferable alternative to what he perceived to be the various fictions of religion and philosophy. To understand what that something else is, we need to look at a final work that Lucian wrote – what is in my opinion the finest of his short works, a text called How to Write History. [music]

Lucian’s Thoughts on Historiography: How to Write History

Between 161 and 166, Rome and the Parthian empire fought a protracted war with one another. The war ended when Rome sacked Ctesiphon, a Parthian capital. While Marcus Aurelius’ brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus floundered and ended up delegating responsibilities to competent generals, the military victory was perhaps the final fireworks show at the close of the Pax Romana, which ended, in the later part of the 160s, with the Antonine Plague coming back from the Parthian War, and increasing military incursions in northeastern provinces from barbarian tribes. We can almost definitely date Lucian’s treatise How to Write History to the year 166 – the close of the Parthian War.30

Lucian’s How to Write History has the unique distinction of being the earliest known piece of writing about historiography – the study and theory of historical writing. And the treatise has clearly been prompted by contemporary works about the recent war with Parthia. In it, Lucian tells us, “There does seem to be truth in that saying, ‘War is the father of all things,’ since at one stroke it has produced so many historians” (2).31 Historians, from Herodotus and Thucydides onward, have had an outsized interest in military conflicts, and evidently the events of the 160s in the Roman world inspired a flood of all sorts of historians to set down the Roman-Parthian war for posterity.

Lucian of Samosata, however, had a bone to pick with the way self-styled historians were offering, in particular, military history during his lifetime. To put it briefly, Lucian’s treatise How to Write History laments the fact that so much of what passed for history in his generation was essentially historical fiction built on established conventions, more interested in praising the majesty of this or that usually Greek or Roman historical figure, or showcasing the author’s florid style than clearly setting down events in the sequence that they took place. While Lucian doesn’t have an absolutely modern mindset about how history ought to be written, his general vision of what history should do is vastly more in line with modern academic standards than what we see in the pages of predecessors like Plutarch and Livy. So let’s talk about Lucian’s take on historiography.

Now, from time to time in our podcast we’ve taken a look at works of classical history, and the historical portions of the Bible. If you’re listening to a 90-minute plus podcast episode on Lucian of Samosata, there’s an awfully good chance you’re familiar with the main differences between modern and classical historical writing. Authors like Biblical Deuteronomist, like Herodotus, and five centuries later, Plutarch and Suetonius straddle the line between fact and fiction, leavening their narratives of events with set descriptions and dramatic soliloquies and dialogues. They are wonderful and valuable for what they are, and it would be anachronistic to fault them for what we might call artistic liberties, as what we now consider to be historical writing formed very slowly and unevenly through the centuries of the Classical period and Late Antiquity. And while we often have little alternative to historians like Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus for certain periods, we do read their works with the assumption that much of it is simply made up. The modern historian Mary Beard, noted for her sharp skepticism toward works of Classical Roman history, dismisses much of what Rome wrote about its foundations and early kings, writing, “Despite the style in which [Rome’s early battles against its neighbors] are recounted, as if they were mini-versions of Rome against Hannibal, they were probably something closer, in our terms, to cattle raids.”32

What Lucian of Samosata sets himself against, though, isn’t so much the national foundation myths that we find in so many ancient cultures. Lucian disdains the ethnocentric politicizing of his generation of Roman historians – their tendency to write chronicles of contemporary military conflicts as us versus them, civilization against barbarians, heroic Roman generals with flashing eyes fighting devious and stinking barbarians. Much of what he has to say about what’s wrong with the discipline of history is captured in the following quote – this is the C.D.N. Costa translation, published by Oxford University Press in 2005. Lucian writes,
[M]ost [historians] don’t think they need any advice for their task. . .believing that writing history is perfectly easy and straightforward, and anyone can do it if he can just give expression to what comes into his head. But I am sure you understand. . .that history is not something that can be easily organized or assembled without effort. . .[M]ost [historians] don’t worry about recording events, but spend their time praising rulers and generals, applauding their own side to the skies and denigrating the enemy quite unreasonably. They don’t understand that the line that separates and marks off history from panegyric is no narrow isthmus, but there is a great wall between them. . .History. . .cannot tolerate introducing a lie, even for a moment, any more than doctors say the windpipe can endure anything swallowed into it. . .[I]t is worth saying that if history includes what is totally fictitious, or praise that is notably hostile to one side, the audience derives no pleasure from it, if you think not of all the vulgar rabble, but of those who will listen judiciously, and indeed those who are looking for faults as well.33

Hear hear, we might say. As someone who’s spent a bit of time writing history, I don’t find anything objectionable in the quote we just heard. My generation of scholars, brought up in the late postmodern period, were taught to be cautious about history as an enterprise, since poor historical writing has led humankind down some problematic paths. But still, Lucian’s ground rules seem pretty fundamentally decent there. Don’t make stuff up, he tells us. History takes work. And don’t superimpose a framework in which there are protagonists and antagonists over the largely unknowable material of the past.

Marble bust of Herodotos MET DT11742 Lucian of Samosata context

A second century CE marble bust of the historian Herodotus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Herodotus was the core of the Greek canon of history in Lucian’s time, but Lucian of Samosata knew that the fifth century BCE historian had often played fast and loose with the facts – particularly when it came to writing of far off lands and foreign cultures.

While Lucian has serious convictions about how history ought to be undertaken, as a satirist, he also felt compelled to review some works of history in order to show what not to do. Lucian mocks historians who ask for inspiration from the muses. He says that it stupid to compare contemporary generals to figures in the Trojan War. He lampoons a contemporary philosopher whose self-aggrandizing preface to a work of history claimed that only philosophers could write history. Another historian on the recent war with Parthia, Lucian tells us, had an appetite for minutiae. Lucian describes how much detail this particular historian lavished on ecology, flora, and fauna, and also military ornaments shields and armor and the bits of horses, but then played fast and loose with overall military engagements. According to Lucian, “there were 70,236 of the enemy killed at [the battle], compared with two Romans killed and nine wounded. I don’t think anyone in his right mind would accept that” (19). It’s an especially funny quote to those of us who have waded through actual works of classical history, in which casualty numbers seem to have been pulled out of hats. There are also, Lucian complains, just too many wannabe poets who stumble into writing history, whose overwrought prefaces and set descriptions often distract from poor knowledge of the events that they have ostensibly sat down to chronicle.

We might conjecture that Lucian’s status as a provincial from the far east of the Empire made him a bit more resistant to ethnocentric assumptions in works of Roman history. While Lucian would have identified as a Greek-speaking intellectual most of all, Lucian grew up in a place where Syriac and Parthian were part of the local culture alongside Greek and Latin, and thus the jingoistic Roman historians of his generation – especially those who had never been east of the Aegean, would have rubbed him the wrong way. Lucian tells us about a contemporary historian called Philo, whom Lucian says never set foot out of Corinth. This historian, writing about the Roman-Parthian War of 161-166, claimed to have all sorts of firsthand, eyewitness knowledge of Parthian military craft – this historian even took the liberty of saying that Parthians had gigantic serpents that they tied onto poles and then unleashed during battles, and said that he had seen such things. Lucian, who had grown up in the east, knew that his Parthian friends and neighbors did not have huge battle snakes.

Lucian, in short, tells us all about some of the idiocies and excesses of what passed for historical writing during his lifetime. But more than anything else we’ve covered in this program on Lucian of Samosata, Lucian’s How to Write History also maps out a positive agenda for how things might be done better. I already quoted some of his ground rules for how to best write history above – don’t make things up, he says, don’t hose praise on one side and censure on another, and prepare to work your tail off. But this is only the beginning of Lucian’s advice on How to Write History.

A good historian, Lucian first establishes, should have two things – a strong knowledge of statecraft, and a clear, straightforward writing style (33). All historians need to write with the distant future in mind, not setting things down in such a way to cater to the current political climate or popular culture, but instead organizing information in such a way that it will be useful to posterity (38). Being a self-conscious stylist himself, as we discussed at the outset of this episode, Lucian also had plenty to say about the style in which works of history might optimally be written. A historian’s diction, Lucian says, should be lucid and pleasant, but not esoteric – historical writing needed to be able to be understood by ordinary people, and not just an educated elite (43). The main narrative of a work of history, Lucian tells us, ought to be clear and energetically draw out the connections between events. He notes that historians should feel free to summarize granular material rather quickly if it distracts from their overall presentation of the facts, and historians certainly shouldn’t try to lavish poetic descriptions onto set pieces of mountains or fortifications or burnished armies – this is the work of poets, and not historians. Lucian uses Thucydides as an example of a historian who is overall quite judicious in diction and presentation of material.

Now, we should remember that while Lucian was ahead of his time in describing a methodology for historical writings, he wasn’t ahead of his time in every way. He wrote that in a work of history, “If someone must be brought in to make a speech, it is most important that his language suits his character and his subject, and these also should be made as clear as possible. However, on these occasions you are allowed to act the orator and display your oratorical powers” (57). Needless to say, modern historians do not, under any circumstances, put soliloquies into the mouths of historical figures, and any academic who tried this today would be in deep trouble. But to be fair to the Lucians and Livies and Plutarchs and Deuteronomists, we can guess that in the ancient world, some flexible understanding existed that reconstructed dialogues and imaginative scene painting in historical writings were expected and permissible.

While Lucian seems to have a soft spot for historians who want to make up dramatic monologues, though, he still expects real research and a serious effort at objectivity to be part of writing history. Lucian tells us, “Regarding the actual details of events, [a historian] should not just collect them haphazardly, but only after careful, painstaking, and repeated enquiry. Ideally, he should have witnessed them himself; but failing that, he should rely on the least biased informants and those least likely to suppress or add anything to the facts through favor or ill-will” (46). The presentation of information, Lucian writes – information harvested from as reliable sources as there are available – should itself be undertaken with an earnest attempt at ideological neutrality. To have one more quote from Lucian here on the subject of history – a pretty nice quote, too, I’ll read one last time from the Oxford C.D.N. Costa translation – this is toward the end of Lucian’s essay How to Write History. Here’s the quote.
Well, [a] historian should be like that: fearless, incorruptible, frank, a friend of free speech and the truth, determined, as the comic poet puts it, to call figs figs and a tub a tub, indulging neither hatred nor friendship, sparing nobody, not showing pity or shame or diffidence, an unbiased judge, kindly to everyone up to the point of not allowing one side more than it deserves, a stranger without a state in his writings, independent, serving no king, not taking into account what any man will think, but simply saying what happened. Most important, he must apply his mind like a mirror which is clear, gleaming, and sharply focused, he must display the facts in accordance with the form of them he receives, and with no trace of distortion, false colours, or alteration. (40, 49)

Unlike a poet, then, and unlike a philosopher, in Lucian’s mind the historian is simply a custodian or an arranger of information.

The closing passage of Lucian’s How to Write History is about a single stone in one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, Lucian tells us, was built by an architect called Sostratos. By Lucian’s time, this lighthouse had guided ships into the city harbor for several hundred years, and for its scale and its location in one of the ancient world’s most famous cities, it was no modest achievement. Lucian writes that while the architect Sostratos put King Ptolemy’s name in plaster in a prominent place inside the tower, beneath that plaster he had carved his own name as the actual engineer who had overseen the tower’s construction. And once the plaster fell away, sure enough, the architect’s name survived for posterity as the person who had made the structure that guided so many ships into the harbor at Alexandria. The metaphor is clear. Varnishes and glazes might be applied to the primary materials of history to suit the tastes of specific ages, but beneath the rhetoric and posturing of historical writing were the sturdy materials of hard facts. [music]

Summing Up Lucian’s Shorter Works

We’ve read a fair amount of ancient comedy in our podcast, and generally speaking Lucian read a lot of what we have read. He knew the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and fifth century Athens. He knew the New Comedy of Menander and his successors, from the late fourth century onward. Earlier, when Juvenal’s satires came up, we recalled how nostalgic conservatism was the main propellant of Juvenal’s writings – that a generation before Lucian lived, Juvenal looked into the past and he imagined a purer, more wholesome and simple era in which Romans were manly and stalwart and Italian in origin. Criticizing the excesses of the present by comparing them to the simplicity of the past is a useful tool in any satirist’s toolbox. But unlike Juvenal, Lucian doesn’t imagine some idyllic period of antiquity, and a return to it as the antidote to the decadence of the religions and philosophies we hear Lucian deriding in his works. For Lucian, in a word, attentiveness to observable reality and facts, insofar as they are available to us, are the preferable choice to theological and philosophical speculation, not to mention bad history writing.

This is why, at a climactic moment of Lucian’s dialogue A Lover of Lies, the central speaker, hearing of various tales of ghosts and sorcerers and living statues and giant gorgons and immortal souls, tells the other characters, “I don’t believe in [things if] I. . .don’t see them. If I did see them, then obviously I would believe in them.” As we heard earlier, this same fidelity to observable reality drives Lucian’s basic idea about what history should do – Lucian writes: “if history includes what is totally fictitious, or praise that is notably hostile to one side, the [educated] audience derives no pleasure from it.” We heard these statements earlier, these rare moments in Lucian’s writing in which he offers a modest alternative to the extravagant ideologies we’ve heard him disparage throughout this episode. Lucian believed in style – he himself sometimes wrote in a self-consciously antiquarian Greek for an educated readership. He wrote for a diverse audience familiar with the broad span of the cultural history of the Ancient Mediterranean. Lucian adores writing outlandish fiction – gods and intellectuals and street people all hashing things out in humorous dialogues, and as we’ll see next time, a full novel with that adds space travel and aliens to his usual slurry of deities and humans. And yet behind the carnival of fables he stages in dialogue after dialogue, Lucian appears to have been a hardheaded empiricist.

Latin Poet Ovid Lucian of Samosata context

Ovid shares Lucian of Samosata’s easygoing pluralism and literary versatility, both authors more interested in individual trees than in theories of all forests.

Of all the figures whom we’ve met in the Literature and History podcast up to this point, the writer who came to my mind the most as I read Lucian was – and this surprised me – Ovid. Ovid shares Lucian’s erudition, and his virtuosity and flexibility as a stylist. Each writer can shift registers, and write comedy as well as tragedy. Each has a keen eye for detail, an impressive memory, an outsized vocabulary and familiarity with a bewildering array of creeds and thought systems. But each writer also, when confronted with the idea of a single orthodox explanation or ideology accounting for why things are the way they are, steps back to remind us that indeed a great many doctrines are out there. In the first book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid gives us a narrative about the creation of the world, and then another alternative one, and says there you have it, different people say different things about how the world came to be, and that is definitely true. Lucian’s Parliament of the Gods, and his dialogue Icaromenippus, not to mention many more, introduce a constellation of ideologies and gods and theories of form and matter and knowledge. And while Lucian’s catalogues of these belief systems never enshrine any one as the correct one of the bunch, mixing them into compounds still proves one of the ancient Mediterranean’s great intellectual axioms – that a pleonachos tropos, or a multiplicity of explanations for things exists.

I think the Lucian and Ovid shared something very specific – and in fact, something that many of us may share with them. That something, put simply, was that the search through searches for the truth was the truth – that roving a magnifying glass over different belief systems was their belief system. That sounds a little bit glib, but what I mean is that at a certain point in our lives, when we encounter a novel religion or a novel philosophical system, we understand it not so much on the basis of whether or not it touches our hearts or explains the world to us, but instead we understand it based on the things that we already know to which we can compare it. Speaking personally, I could not stand philosophy as a subject until I began to understand it in its historical context. Reading the “I think therefore I ams,” and the “Religion is the opiate of the masseses,” and the “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chainses” of philosophical history, the entire subject seemed to be a humorless and overconfident sausage party of unfalsifiable propositions, any single paragraph of which a thirteen-year-old could dismantle with a question or counterexample or two. But embedding Descartes, and Marx, and Rousseau in the history that they lived through, and further, tying some threads between their ideologies and what came before and after – this was much more interesting. For all of us, there is something concrete and almost tactile in the work of comparative philosophy and theology that’s unavailable if we simply read primary texts and passively expect one of them outstrip all the others for us. And of course, the same was true for Ovid’s and Lucian’s generations. [music]

Moving on to Lucian of Samosata’s A True History

There is a lot more to say about Lucian of Samosata’s ideology – especially his pointed opposition to the way that historians of his age blended fact and fiction into a slurry and didn’t seem to feel self-conscious about it in the least. And as we move into the next episode, on Lucian’s novel, A True History, we’ll get a much fuller sense of what Lucian thought of literature, and history, and everything in between. But that sounds a little bit dry, considering what’s actually coming up. Because the True History is a riot of a story – something like what would happen if we put Homer’s Odyssey and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica together in a blender with the works of Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Aristophanes, some LSD, and some porn. From alcoholic fish, to sex acts with grape vines, to dildos on the moon, to pirates who sail in giant pumpkins, Lucian’s True History is a fierce and funny attempt to show just how ridiculous it is to leaven fact with fiction, and while it perhaps didn’t have its full effect until a thousand and a half years after Lucian lived, the novel will undoubtedly be one of the strangest and funniest works we cover from the ancient world. So I hope you’ll join Lucian and I next time for this important, unclassifiable oddity from the ancient world. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. I have quiz on this program available at literatureandhistory.com and a link to that quiz in your app’s description of this episode. For you Patreon supporters, in the spirit of history’s great satirists, I’ve recorded Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” – Twain is someone I’ve been reading since childhood and that’s one of the most famous short stories in American literature. That story also takes place pretty close to where I grew up.

I actually had a collaboration planned for a song to end this show, but the individual I was going to collaborate with didn’t quite make the necessary deadline. Thus, rather than delaying the episode in order to write a new comedy tune, I figured Lucian had already given us enough laughs for one day. I also had a birthday this past week, which already made things a bit busier than usual, so in a rare turn of events, I’ll leave you with the podcast’s outro theme, and promise that in two weeks’ time, we’ll be reading our third novel in the Literature and History podcast, Lucian of Samosata’s A True History.


1.^ The Dream (11).

2.^ The Dream (7).

3.^ The Dream (9-12).

4.^ The Fisherman. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Lucian. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 5641.

5.^ Two Charges of Literary Assault (27).

6.^ Apology for the ‘Salaried Posts in Great Houses’ (15).

7.^ See Sidwell, Keith. “Introduction.” In Lucian: Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches. Penguin Books, 2004, p. xv.

8.^ The antique examples (Plato, Thucydides and Demosthenes) are C.D.N. Costa’s. See Costa, C.D.N. Lucian: Selected Dialogues. Oxford University Press, 2005, p. vii.

9.^ Reardon, B.P., Ed. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. University of California Press, 2019, p. xiii.

10.^ Casson, Lionel. “Introduction.” Printed in Selected Satires of Lucian. Routledge, 1962, 2017, p. xiv. In the 1962 introduction Casson depicts Lucian as considerably more nihilistic than he is understood to be by contemporary scholarship.

11.^ Costa (2005), p. xi.

12.^ These are Gellius’ Attic Nights (XII.11) and Amminianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae (XIX.1.38-9).

13.^ Printed in Selected Satires of Lucian. Routledge, 1962, 2017, p. 366. Further references to The Passing of Peregrinus, unless otherwise noted, will be from this text and noted parenthetically with page numbers in this transcription.

14.^ Clouds 1084 – appropriately, a play whose objective is philosophical satire.

15.^ Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Lucian. Translated by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 12949.

16.^ Casson (1962, 2017), p. 369.

17.^ This is a quote from the Suda, printed in Sidwell, Keith. “Introduction.” In Lucian: Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches. Penguin Books, 2004, p. xxi.

18.^ Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Lucian. Translated by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 3082.

19.^ Icaromennipus (8). Printed in Lucian: Selected Dialogues. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by C.D.N. Costa. Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 49.

20.^ The Parliament of the Gods. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Lucian. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 12416.

21.^ Lover of Lies (32). Printed in Costa (2005), p. 176.

22.^ Lover of Lies (29). Printed in Costa (2005), p. 175.

23.^ Ibid (8), p. 166.

24.^ Ibid (1), p. 162.

25.^ Icaromenippus (29). Printed in Costa (2005), p. 59.

26.^ Printed in Selected Satires of Lucian. Routledge, 1962, 2017, p. 208.

27.^ Casson (2017), p. 209.

28.^ Casson (2017), p. 314. Further quotes from Philosophies for Sale will be noted with page numbers in this transcription.

29.^ See Juvenal Satires II.1-13.

30.^ See Costa, C.D.N. Lucian: Selected Dialogues. Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 181.

31.^ Costa, 2005, p. 182. Further quotes from this text will be noted parenthetically with section numbers in this transcription.

32.^ Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 98.

33.^ How to Write History (4, 7, 9). Printed in Lucian: Selected Dialogues. Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 182, 184, 185. Further references to How to Write History will be from this edition and noted with section numbers in this transcription.