Episode 88: Ancient Greek Sci-fi

In roughly the 160s CE, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote A True Story, one of history’s earliest surviving novels, with strong tinges of what we’d call science fiction.

To download the episode, click the three dot icon on the right of the player, and then click Download.

Lucian of Samosata’s True Story

Episode Sponsors

Gold Sponsors
Andy Olson
Jeremy Hanks
John David Giese
ML Cohen
Silver Sponsors
Chad Nicholson
Francisco Vazquez
John Weretka
Lauris van Rijn
Patrick Radowick
Steve Baldwin
Mike Swanson
Aaron Burda
Alejandro Cathey-Cevallos
Alysoun Hodges
Amy Carlo
Angela Rebrec
Ariela Kilinsky
Benjamin Bartemes
Brian Conn
Caroline Winther Tørring
Chloé Faulkner
Chris Brademeyer
Chris Guest
Chris Tanzola
Daniel Serotsky
David Macher
D. Broward
Earl Killian
Henry Bakker
Joshua Edson
Kyle Pustola
Laura Ormsby
Laurent Callot
Leonie Hume
Lisa Pazer
Mark Griggs
Murilo César Ramos
Natasha Worle
Oli Pate
Riley Bahre
Rob Sims
Robert Baumgardner
Rod Sieg
De Sulis Minerva
Sebastiaan De Jonge
Sonya Andrews
Steven Laden
Sue Nichols
Susan Angles
Tom Wilson
Tray Davis
Verónica Ruiz Badía

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 88: Ancient Greek Sci-Fi. In this episode we will read one of the world’s oldest surviving novels – Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, written in Greek some time in or a little after the 160s CE.1 The title of this novel is sometimes translated as the True Tales, or True Histories, but most commonly in English today it’s known as the True Story, which is what we’ll call it in this program. In the previous episode, we met Lucian of Samosata, an erudite and irreverent writer from the distant eastern Roman province of Syria, and we learned about his shorter works. We heard Lucian’s polite but patronizing take on Christianity, and his somewhat less courteous criticisms of the disciplines of philosophy and theology more generally. Put briefly, Lucian felt that the very multiplicity of philosophies and religions out there was substantial evidence that they were just made up, and that to boot, the internal absurdities of various philosophical works and tales of gods and goddesses were good for a laugh, but beyond that, the works not deserve to be taken seriously. Finally, we learned that Lucian was interested in the subject of history. While he wrote a lot of satire, Lucian also had sober and serious opinions on what history ought to do, and we closed our previous episode on Lucian of Samosata with his famous essay How to Write History.

The novel that we’re about to read in this episode is a wild and entertaining chunk of prose, and an exuberant mockery of what Lucian holds to be poor history writing. And so before we open Lucian’s novel, we should get a couple of things related to works of ancient history fresh in our minds. Because while the novel we’re about to read together is a zany and fun adventure story, it also has a serious agenda. At the heart of this agenda is criticizing history as it existed in the second century. History, in the mid-100s CE, when Lucian was hunched over his desk, writing his works, was not like modern, academically peer-reviewed history. The historians who come up in Lucian’s works – ancient Greek figures like Thucydides and Xenophon and especially Herodotus – these writers, to varying extents, took artistic license when they wrote their books, leavening the facts available to them with fiction to alternately fill in gaps and to make things more engrossing and exciting for their readers. To put it simply, Lucian’s problem with history as a discipline was that it erred too far on the side of exaggerations and outright fabrications. As he wrote in his essay How to Write History – and this is the Oxford C.D.N. Costa translation – on the subject of history writing, Lucian tells us that:
The single task of the historian is to tell of things as they happened. . . if you are going to write history you must sacrifice to truth alone, ignoring everything else. In short, your one clear rule and yardstick is to keep your eye not on your present audience, but on those who will come to your work in the future.2

People ultimately read works of history, Lucian asserts, not because they want to see an aspiring historian’s poetic verve, or even because they want to see how much a work of history meshes with the trends of its contemporary milieu. To Lucian, history’s attraction on the long time scale was that it offered records of events that had taken place.

These don’t sound like revolutionary ideas to us today. When we open a work of history about, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, we don’t anticipate that it will have dragons or laser guns, and, more relevant to ancient writers like Herodotus and Plutarch, we wouldn’t expect a modern biography of Napoleon Bonaparte to have soliloquies and dramatic dialogues that the biographer just makes up. We wouldn’t expect a modern biography of Napoleon Bonaparte to tell us that at the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington’s forces lost four million soldiers, while Napoleon’s only lost four, or that at this battle, the gods of England bested the gods of France. And while I’m giving outlandish examples for effect here, these were the sorts of things that Lucian objected to in the ancient historical works of his time and before. He didn’t like elements of ancient Mediterranean myths bobbing up in works purporting to be history and geography. He didn’t like long dramatic monologues and dialogues in which authors of history tried to moonlight as dramatists. And he didn’t appreciate the sorts of numerical exaggerations that were more or less expected in works of classical history. He tells us in his essay How to Write History, from which we heard a quote a moment ago, that there were just too many historians writing about the recent Roman-Parthian War – one which took place between 161 and 166 CE. These historians committed all sorts of transgressions – especially writing works that valorized this or that Roman general and oversimplified the enemies as unwashed barbarians. And the casualty statistics, for Lucian and I think for us today, were a special sticking point. Certainly, underdog victories and small armies overcoming vastly larger forces make for an entertaining narrative, but reading casualty numbers like those in, for instance, Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Plataea, we often get the sense that ancient historians let exaggeration get the best of them.

Herodotus-bust-noBG lucian context

Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) is one of Lucian’s satirical targets in A True History. The ancient historian’s occasional fabrications are called out throughout Lucian’s novel.

Connected to the fictionalizing tendencies of antiquity’s historians, in Lucian’s mind, were the outright fables of a different sort of author – the ancient world’s travel writers. Lucian’s preface to the novel we’re about to read tells us that his crosshairs are set not only on irresponsible works of history, but also on those authors who wrote accounts of their journeys to distant lands, and described, for instance, life in Sub-Saharan Africa, or India, or territories farther away still. Today, in the twenty-first century, I could not get away with telling you that people on the Hawaiian Islands have gills, or that two-headed flamingos live there. In Lucian’s day, though, while we have no idea how popular travel narratives, or spurious travel narratives actually were, authors seemed perfectly comfortable assuming that the shapes, sizes, and cultural patterns of humanity were entirely different across the globe, and slinging together stories about life beyond the Mediterranean that had no basis in fact. The beloved historian Herodotus, as we’ll see toward the end this program, had reported that snakes with wings lived on the Arabian Peninsula, that headless creatures dwelt in Libya, that ants larger than foxes lived in India, and that a man had once ridden a dolphin across the Ionian Sea, and Herodotus’ part-time relationship with the truth had already influenced five centuries of authors by the time Lucian came along.

So that’s all a bit of background on what ancient history was like when Lucian set down his novel A True Story some time in or a little after the 160s CE. It’s important at the outset here that we understand this novel overall as a pushback against the sometimes fictitious nature of history and travel writing that Lucian saw during his day. As we’ll see a little later on, Lucian likely didn’t have quite the same sense of what history is and what it should do that we have today. And of course, the ancient historians Lucian takes to task, flawed as they sometimes are, were nonetheless giving rise to an entirely new discipline – one which hadn’t yet fully disentangled itself from mythology, political propaganda, and poetry in the time when Lucian lived and worked.

Now that we’ve talked a bit about the history behind Lucian’s True Story, let me just say a few words about this book before we crack open the front cover together. The True Story is an action-packed short novel, and at its core, an adventure narrative. It’s the story of an unnamed first person protagonist – we’ll just call him “Lucian” for convenience – and his journey with a tough and gritty, though also unnamed crew of mariners into the unknown blue saltwater of the Atlantic. Like Homer’s Odyssey and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, it’s an episodic narrative – in other words, we stopped here, and this happened; then we stopped here, and this other thing happened, and so on. And while quite a few stop offs unfold in Lucian’s True Story, the main thread of the narrative is a long journey – one that starts as a nautical voyage, but very soon reaches places far beyond the ocean. Let’s get started with this novel, then – unless otherwise noted, quotes in this program will come from the Keith Sidwell translation, published by Penguin in 2004. [music]

The True Story: Book 1

The Prologue

Lucian’s Prologue to the True Story presents the work as a piece of light entertainment for serious writers looking for a break, or a diversion from their more studious ventures. The novel is, in Lucian’s own words, “a plethora of diverse falsehoods [presented] with convincing verisimilitude” (1.2).3 He tells us that there are all sorts of allusions to former authors woven through the tale he’s about to tell, and that the targets of his satire will be obvious.

Offering us a bit more context on his objectives in the novel, Lucian explains that many, many writers have presented works of obvious fiction as earnest records of their adventures and travels abroad. The example he uses of a traveler telling tall tales is one familiar to just about all of us. Lucian writes, in the A.M. Harmon translation, that of all of those who make up stories and fob them off as the truth,
The. . .guide and instructor of this sort of charlatanry is Homer’s Odysseus, who tells Alcinous and his court about winds in bondage, one-eyed men, cannibals and savages; also about animals with many heads, and transformations of his comrades wrought with drugs. This stuff, and much more like it, is what our friend humbugged the illiterate Phaeacians with! (1.3)4

In other words, Lucian says, Homer’s Odysseus, in that section of the Odyssey between Books 9-12, is just feeding the Phaeacians a bunch of malarkey, and the epic’s most famous sections – the Cyclops, Sirens, Circe – it’s all a tale within a tale that Odysseus just makes up. This interpretation of that section of the Odyssey wasn’t new to Lucian – we’ve heard it before in Juvenal’s Satires (XV.13-23) – but it is an awfully irreverent take on the Homeric poem.

Lucian presents Homer’s Odysseus as a fairly typical example of how writers and storytellers get away with all sorts of falsehoods, and further, Lucian tells us he will introduce something fresh to the tradition – that he’ll make no pretensions that what he’s saying is true. Lucian tells us, again in the A.M. Harmon translation,

Well, on reading all these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy. I did wonder, though, that they thought that they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity, that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic licence, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar. (1.4)

And that is the close of Lucian’s explanatory preface at the beginning of the novel A True Story. Storytellers and philosophers, he says, are liars, being worst in that they don’t admit that they’re lying. He himself, however, will be quite open and be perfectly frank about one thing – that everything you are about to hear is completely untrue. [music]

The Crew’s Departure, and the Wine Island

Lucian’s imaginary voyage began at a famous location – one in antiquity called the Pillars of Heracles, which we now call the Strait of Gibraltar. It would be a formidable journey, Lucian knew, and it was motivated by intellectual inquisitiveness and a desire to know just how far westward the Atlantic Ocean stretched, and whether maybe, some unknown world lay on the other side. Appropriately, then his ship was well stocked – with food and water, with armaments, and with a crew of fifty seafaring men. He’d hired a talented navigator, and even the ship itself had been strengthened and reinforced for whatever lay ahead.

lucian beardsley vine women

Lucian’s men become entangled with the vine women in an 1894 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

The very beginning of the journey – the first day and night – seemed placid enough. The ship kept land in sight. But on the second day of the voyage, swift winds came with the sunrise, and the sea began to heave, and for an astonishing 79 days, the ship and crew gave themselves up to the storm. When they had been out to sea for 80 days, they saw a forested island jutting out of the ocean ahead, and beached the ship there. Lucian and a small party of ten mariners then ventured inland to see what sort of a place they’d come to.

They were not, they discovered, the first to ever reach the island. A bronze plaque within the forest announced that Heracles and Dionysus had reached the same point, and examining the area further, Lucian and his companions discovered two footprints – one of them a hundred feet in length, and the other somewhat smaller, concluding that the larger footprint must have been that of Heracles. This passage, by the way, is in all likelihood meant to disparage a description in the historian Herodotus. Herodotus mentions “a footmark of Hercules, impressed on a rock, in the shape like the print of a man’s foot, but [three feet] in length” (4.82).5 I guess Lucian figured that if you were going to make things up, you might as well go for it and really lay on the hyperbole.

Anyway, after the adventurers paid their respects to the giant footprints, they continued onward, finding a river of wine. Trekking upstream a bit, Lucian discovered the source of the wine stream – a profusion of vines, laden with grapes, oozed wine out of their roots, and within the upstream pool, fish made of wine swam in the shallows. Lucian and company ate the wine-fish, and became drunk, later finding some freshwater fish to mix with the wine fish, thus, like any good ancient Greeks, mixing their wine with water.

After their weird meal, Lucian and company passed over the wine river and came upon a strange discovery. Vines grew out of the ground and concentrated into the shapes of women at thigh height. The women were friendly, and the tips of their fingers and extremities of their hair were all leaves and grapes. When they kissed Lucian and his adventurers, the effect was immediate inebriation. Some of the grapevine women had sex with Lucian’s comrades, and when this happened the men’s genitals turned into vines and they became permanently attached to their sexual partners, an act which Lucian describes as, in Greek, ampelomixia, or as Keith Sidwell translates it, “vinosexual intercourse” (1.9). Following their odd sexual encounter and the loss of two mariners, Lucian and his remaining companions returned to their boat, where they discussed their adventures on the forested island and thereafter set back out to sea at sunrise the next day. [music]

The Journey to the Moon

At noon the following day, once they’d fully lost sight of the wooded island, Lucian’s ship was abruptly caught up in a cyclone. It swept the adventurers high up in the air – very, very high, in fact – Lucian tells us 300 stades up into the air. A stade being 600 feet in length, this means that Lucian and his men were swept 34 miles up into the atmosphere. The adventurers then, for seven days and seven nights, were swept around on their ship, and on the eighth day, they observed a spherical tract of land floating up in the air. It appeared populated, and they could see evidence of agriculture there, so Lucian and the others made their way over to the celestial body and they disembarked. When night fell, looking around, the travelers were able to see other spherical bodies of various sizes and colors and degrees of brightness, and far below, they saw the green and blue mass that they guessed was the Earth.

The adventurers began to explore the sphere they’d come to, but it wasn’t long before they were captured by a vulture cavalry. As Lucian explains, “This Vulture Cavalry consists of men riding on large vultures and employing the birds like horses” (1.11). The vultures in question were naturally quite large, and they all had three heads and absolutely enormous wings. The vulture cavalry’s job was to find trespassers and foreigners who’d strayed onto that particular celestial body, and to report their presence to the king of the land. And thus, Lucian and company were brought to the ruler of the land in the sky.

Intuiting that the strangers spoke Greek, the king spoke to them in their own language, telling them that his name was Endymion. Endymion, as Lucian’s original readers would have known, was in Greek mythology known as a mortal with whom Selene, the goddess of the moon, had fallen in love. Lucian’s character Endymion doesn’t mention a romance with the moon goddess – he merely says he was kidnapped and set up to rule on the moon. At any rate, whoever exactly King Endymion was, and however he’d come to be there, the facts of the situation were becoming clear. Lucian and his companions were on the moon!

Things up on the moon weren’t going so well, though. King Endymion said that at that moment, they were at war with the sun – specifically, with Phaethon, the ruler of the sun. King Endymion said that the moon people had set out to colonize the uninhabited Morning Star, but the sun people had intercepted them with a giant army of men mounted on ants, and they’d been at war ever since – the vulture-riding moon people, and the ant-riding sun people. King Endymion told Lucian and his companions that if the earthlings joined them in the celestial war, Lucian and company would be able to live on the moon in great comfort and luxury. The mariners, evidently, enlisted.

The War in Space

lucian beardsley space battle

Giant spiders prepare the battleground for the galactic battle in an 1894 illustration by William Strang.

So the following day, Lucian and company joined an army, 100,000 strong, of moon troops. Eighty thousand of these troops were mounted on vultures. And the other 20,000 were riding on what Lucian deems “Vegetableplumes” (1.13) – giant birds covered with vegetables, with feathers made of lettuce. And the army of the moon was joined with allies – allies Lucian describes as “Millet-throwers” and “Garlic Warriors.” From the constellation of Ursa Major came other types of soldiers – Flea Archers, for instance – bowmen mounted on giant fleas twelve times the size of elephants, and men with billowing tunics who could float overhead and fling javelins at their opponents. There were also supposed to be even more lunar allies – fighters somehow associated with Sparrows and Cranes, but these never actually showed up.

The armaments of this moon army were also formidable. Their helmets were made of beans. Their breastplates were made out of lupines. As the moon and sun armies prepared for battle, an infantry of giant spiders dashed out into the space between the sun, the moon, and morning star and webbed together a substratum that the armies would be able to stand on as they battled. And while the moon army was vast and valiant, so, too was the sun army.

The opposing army consisted of fifty thousand warriors mounted on giant ants, the ants themselves being powerful combatants. There were also archers straddled on enormous gnats, in addition to light infantrymen that could float through the air and flung radishes at their enemies. Ten thousand foot soldiers joined these, bearing shields of mushrooms and spears fashioned of asparagus stalks. Along with the sun army’s ant cavalry, mounted gnat archers, radish catapulters, and vegetable hoplites there were also warriors with the faces of dogs who rode around on flying acorns.

When the battle began, Lucian fought with the moon army’s vulture cavalry. There was little contest. The moon army showed strength and valiance from the start, and the sun army began to retreat, alternately being captured and dying on the battlefield, their blood staining the clouds beneath them, such that Lucian imagined the sky down on earth turning the premature hue of a sunset. But this was not the end of the battle. The army of the sun, again led by King Phaethon, had summoned an army of celestial centaurs, hundreds of feet in height and breadth. Lucian tells us, in an aside, “I haven’t written down the number of them, for fear that its magnitude might appear incredible to people” (18.1). The celestial centaurs, fighting on behalf of the sun army, struck back hard, taking much of the battlefield, and the Lucian and two of his fellow travelers were captured and tied up with ropes made of cobwebs. [music]

The War’s Aftermath and Life on the Moon

And so the army of the sun, unexpectedly, was victorious after all. But the forces of Phaethon didn’t advance forward to destroy the moon. Instead, in between the sun and moon, the forces of the sun erected a giant barrier of clouds, so that no sunlight could reach the moon. Thus, in the negotiations that necessarily followed, the King of the Sun had the advantage over the King of the Moon. It was eventually decided that the cloud barrier would be removed, provided that the lunar kingdom paid the solar kingdom 1,000 jars full of dew every year, and surrendered ten thousand hostages to the sun kingdom. The moon kingdom could also regain its lost prisoners for a fee, as well. Part of the peace treaty was that the moon would give up its colonial efforts, and that the sun and moon would support one another if and when outside forces invaded from the stars. The description that Lucian makes of the peace negotiations is fairly long, by the way, and it has some close parallels to Thucydides’ narration of the close of the Peloponnesian War.6

Anyway, in the aftermath of the great battle, ransoms were paid and the prisoners from the lunar forces were returned to the moon. Lucian met with a crestfallen moon king Endymion, who wanted Lucian to stay there. Lucian and his men were regaled with a seven day feast. As Lucian tells it, King Endymion “promised me his own son in marriage. I must explain that there are no women there” (1.21). Seeming to realize that he’s told us little about what life on the moon is actually like – the war began quite quickly upon their arrival there, after all – Lucian then pauses his narrative to tell us a little bit about the customs and the society of the moon.

Since everyone on the moon was male, Lucian explains, men acted as women up until the age of 25, after which they acted as men. Men became pregnant from other men, carrying babies in their calves – their lower leg muscles. When the gestation period was complete, then, babies were cut out of young men’s legs, always dead, and then brought back to life by men breathing on them. There was also a subspecies of men on the moon called treemen. These were created deliberately – a man’s right testicle was cut off and planted in the earth. Thereafter it sprung up into a tree made of flesh, like a giant penis, which dropped acorns all over, the acorns becoming the aforementioned treemen. These tree men had prosthetic penises and scrotums, which the inhabitants of the moon used to have sex with male courtesans.

At this point, Lucian’s A True Story begins to feel a bit like what would happen if Monty Python and Isaac Asmiov made a homoerotic sci-fi film and you watched it while stoned. Now, humans on the moon, Lucian says, never died – they simply disintegrated and floated away. And all of them ate exactly the same thing. The moon was absolutely teeming with frogs – in the air, as it turns out. The moon men would cook frogs over a fire and breathe in the smoke for their nutriment, and for their drink, they would wring out a fistful of air and drink the liquid that resulted. They neither pooped nor peed, and in fact, their anatomy was different than the anatomy of earthlings. If you ever needed to have sex with a moon boy, Lucian advised, it was best to remember that the appropriate orifice was on the back of his leg.

On the moon, Lucian says, it was sexiest to be bald. People had beards right above their kneecaps, and on their feet. They only had one toe but no toenails. On their rear ends, each moon man had a special cabbage – one whose freshness persisted in spite of stumbles and tumbles. Their snot was made of strong honey, and their sweat was milk, which, along with their snot-honey, they used to make cheese. The moon was rich with oily onions and aquatic vines whose leaves were pieces of hail, and this, Lucian tells us, is where hail down on earth comes from. All moon men had marsupial-like pouches, and they had no intestines or guts – just empty cavities filled with hair. They wore clothing made of copper or glass, depending on their social class.

Lucian’s narrative of the moon people continues with another tongue-in-cheek warning, which I’ll quote from the A.M. Harmon translation.
I am reluctant to tell you what sort of eyes they have, for fear that you may think me lying on account of the incredibility of the story, but I will tell you, notwithstanding. The eyes that they have are removable, and whenever they wish they take them out and put them away until they want to see: then they put them in and look. Many, on losing their own, borrow other people’s to see with, and the rich folk keep a quantity stored up. (1.25)

It’s no more extravagant than the rest of the novel, but by prefacing this little detail with the admission that it indeed sounds farfetched, Lucian gives us a glimpse behind the absurd tapestry he’s weaving, reminding us that more idiotic things than this have been embraced as true. Anyway, Lucian’s details about the lunar people continue further still – they had leaves instead of ears, except for those who grew from the penis trees – these had wooden ears.

Within the palace of the moon king Endymion, there was something as astonishing as all of this. A magic mirror hung over a well. And through this mirror, a lunar observer could see any and every human being on the earth – anyone that one wanted to see was visible there, and Lucian tells us he saw his family and his homeland. Piling on the sense of absurdity a little further, he assures his reader, “Anyone who does not believe that this is the way things are will know that I am telling the truth if he ever gets there himself” (1.26). In other words, to confirm the veracity of my narrative, all you need to do is travel to the moon.

Having finished his ethnography of the moon people, Lucian explains that the time had finally come for him and his companions to wrap up the first leg of their journey. The adventurers took their leave of the moon, escorted part of the way by the lunar vulture cavalry. They sailed through the stars, passing the sun and various constellations. They came to an area of space between the Pleiades and Hyades clusters, and stopped in a place Lucian calls Lamptown, where lamps, rather than people, lived. The next day, they came upon the city of Cloudcuckooland, a city ruled by birds and made famous in Aristophanes’ play The Birds, and Lucian marveled that Aristophanes had been right all along about the existence of this avian society. Four days after going past Cloudcuckooland, after a great deal of time up in the skies, then, the sailors finally made it back down to earth, settling their keel in an especially tranquil section of ocean, and diving in to go swimming in order to celebrate their return to the world that they knew. Their serenity, however, did not last very long. [music]

In the Belly of the Leviathan

After two days of rest from their harrowing adventures, Lucian and his men were confronted with new perils. The ocean began to swarm with giant fish – one of them a leviathan nearly 1,500 stades, or 175 miles, in length. This behemoth surged up to Lucian’s vessel, and Lucian and his men assumed that this would be the end of them. But when the creature opened its maw to consume them, rather than being crushed, they were simply gulped down into its belly.

The adventurers sloshed down the leviathan’s digestive tract and down into its stomach. The sea monster’s innards were vast, containing not only numberless carcasses of fish, broken ships and stray cargoes and human skeletons, but also, incredibly, an island nearly 30 miles in circumference – made, Lucian tells us, from all the mud that the leviathan had engulfed over the years. This island had trees and vegetables on it – birds flew overhead. And while the men were grateful to be alive, they nonetheless wept at the severity of their situation that evening. When the mariners’ grief subsided, they foraged, finding plenty of fish lying around to eat. A strange routine settled in for a little while – the men watched when the leviathan opened its mouth – they would catch glimpses of various lands as the creature traversed the ocean. Soon, Lucian took a party of seven and went to explore the island. They discovered a Temple of Poseidon, and nearby, a number of graves.

lucian clark sea monster

The mariners try to prop the sea monster’s mouth open in an 1894 illustration by J.B. Clark.

Further still, they heard a dog barking and saw smoke rising from chimneys. They soon found the house of a courteous and hospitable pair of strangers – an old man and his son, and the old timer explained how they’d come to be there. The stranger said he was from Cyprus, and had been en route to Italy with a cargo of goods. They’d blown off course and been eaten, and had been in the sea creature ever since, living as decent a life as could be expected, considering the circumstances, foraging and raising vegetables, sometimes even making wine. They’d been there, the old man said, for twenty-seven years. And they were, the old man revealed, not the only ones living on the island.

As it turned out, there were many different kinds of hybrid human and sea-creature types – there were men with eel eyes and the faces of crayfish; there were men with swordfish tails rather than legs; there were men with the hands of crabs and the heads of tunafish; there were men with the feet of turbots, and it was to these, the old man explained, that he paid a tribute for the right to dwell safe and unmolested where he did. Hearing of all of these various fish-man hybrids, and also that they were predominantly unarmed, Lucian said that they should go into battle with the turbot-footed men, to whom the old man had to pay his tributes. Everyone agreed that this was the right course of action, and so Lucian, his men, the old man and his son all armed themselves and attacked. They lost just one man to their aquatic adversaries’ 170, and thus it was an unqualified victory against the first population of foes within the belly of the giant leviathan.

Soon enough, Lucian’s forces matched up against the tuna headed men, and the men who were swordfish from the waist down, and it wasn’t long before the little population of humans had entirely conquered the island within the fish’s belly. With immediate crises averted, Lucian and company could settle in a bit more. They foraged and hunted. They cultivated wines and picked fruits, and they sustained themselves in such a fashion for twenty months. Then, one day, Lucian and some of his companions had ventured up toward the mouth of the Leviathan, where they intuited that some commotion was occurring. When the monster opened its giant mouth, through its teeth they caught sight of a strange land – a land of giants. The giants were 300 feet tall and had hair made all of fire, and they sat in boats that were actually elongated islands, powered by the wind pushing the trees that grew on them. The men were engaged in a sea battle with one another, swinging giant octopi around on ropes rather than grappling hooks to get close to one another’s islands, and then clobbering each other with enormous oysters. The giants were righting a war, Lucian confirmed, because one of the groups of men had driven the other group’s herds of dolphins away. The wronged party ended up being victorious, and Lucian describes how they chased their adversaries for a while before regrouping and celebrating their triumph. This, by the way, is where Book 1 of Lucian’s A True Story ends, and Book 2 – the final book – begins.

The True Story: Book 2

Adventures After the Leviathan

It was after watching the giants battle beyond the mouth of the leviathan, Lucian tells us, that he finally decided he needed to escape the belly of the sea monster. They initially attempted an escape by trying to cut through the side of the creature. After chopping through 3,000 feet, though, they didn’t feel like they’d made any progress, and so they returned to the island. Lucian and his companions then decided to set their entire island on fire. It took a week for the blaze to have any effect on the creature, but before long, they realized it was dying. On the thirteenth day, the adventurers narrowly escaped, having managed to prop the monster’s mouth open the day before, taking with them some provisions and having the old man from the island take up the position of the ship’s helmsman. They sailed out of its mouth after their long captivity, and then climbed onto its gigantic back, making sacrifices to Poseidon out of gratitude for their escape.

lucian strang owls and flowers

Lucian and company sail through strange territories following their escape from the leviathan’s maw in this 1894 illustration by William Strang.

If the travelers expected better fortunes following their escape, however, they were soon disappointed. A harsh wind blew in from the north and froze the sea. Lucian and his crewmates first sought solace by digging a cave into the ice and sheltering there for a month, living off of frozen fish they found around them. Then, slim on provisions, they emerged from their ice cave, chipped the ship out, and glided across the ice using the frigid wind in their sails.

They sailed to an island where strange bulls lived with eyes above their horns, and then, they came to an ocean of milk with an island made of cheese in its center, the cheese island covered in grapevines with grapes all filled with milk. After a nearly a week there, they left the sea of milk and returned to the familiar dark saltwater of the ocean, but soon following this, they were greeted with another odd sight. A population of men dashed over the waves and greeted them in Greek – the men’s feet were made of cork! Lucian and company soon passed the home island of these cork-footed men, which indeed was itself made all of cork, along with another series of five tall islands rising out of the ocean, burning bright with fire. More promising, however, was a sixth island – this one with fewer jagged promontories, from which the mariners could smell countless sweet fragrances.

When Lucian and company beached there, they found it a beautiful land. Freshwater rivers flowed into the sea, and the boughs of the forests rose and fell with soft breezes. Somewhere in the distance, they could hear the noise of a party – a murmur boisterous conversation and wind instruments and clapping hands. And after Lucian formed an exploration party and traveled some distance inland, he and his companions were captured by the denizens of the island, and bound with rose wreathes to be transported to the island’s leader.

They had arrived, they soon discovered, at a place called the Island of the Blessed. Lucian expects his readers to be familiar with this legendary location – supposedly in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere, the Isle of the Blessed or sometimes Isles of the Blessed were a paradise where heroes and the especially righteous people resided. In Lucian’s novel A True Story, these islands were ruled by Rhadamanthus, a legendary ruler of the island of Crete who was also allegedly to be the judge of the dead.

Lucian and company watched Rhadamanthus judging over the cases of some of Greek mythology’s more morally checkered heroes – Ajax the Great, whohad gone insane tried to attack his own army, and Theseus, who’d kidnapped Helen when she was just a child were the first two. Rhadamanthus, then addressing Lucian and company, wanted to know why they were there – they were still alive! Lucian related the tale of their adventures, and Rhadamanthus conceded that the adventurers could stay on the Island of the Blessed for a little while before they had to leave. Lucian then took the opportunity to explore, and see what sort of a place it was. [music]

The Island of the Blessed

The city on the island, he found, had seven gates. Its buildings were made of gold, and its walls of emerald. Temples were constructed of beryl, with amethyst altars, and beyond the city walls was a river of myrrh. The inhabitants of the island dressed in purple silk. They were immortal – frozen in the age at which they reached the island, and in their world it was never day nor night, nor spring nor fall, but always the gray twilight of a spring dawn. Crops bore fruit every month – some more than one per month. I’ll pause for a moment here and say that this description of the Island of the Blessed sounds strikingly like the one in the important Christian apocryphal book the Apocalypse of Paul, which scholars think was produced some time in the century after Lucian lived. The timeframe of the Apocalypse of Paul is uncertain, and I certainly wouldn’t want to assert that Lucian’s novel influenced this popular Christian text on heaven – but it’s safe to say that when people wrote about the smiley-face side of the afterlife in Greek during the 100s and 200cs CE, often they talked about gem-encrusted cities made of gold, rivers of milk and myrrh and wine, and eternal spring and mild weather.

lucian clark isle of the blessed

Socrates’ garden in the Isle of the Blessed in an 1894 illustration by J.B. Clark.

To return to the plot of Lucian’s novel, the Isle of the Blessed had boisterous symposiums. Glasses of wine filled up automatically when set down. Homer and Odysseus themselves were present, singing songs, and choruses of youths were followed by choruses of birds. Lucian gives a catalog of all the celebrities there in the afterlife, noting that Socrates especially enjoyed the company of good looking men and that he irritated the ruler of the Island of the Blessed enough to nearly get in trouble there from time to time. On this heavenly island, Lucian tells us, people had sex out in the open with each other all the time, being unfamiliar with the notion of monogamy. No one was jealous of anyone, Lucian says, and boys would have sex with anyone who desired them.

Lucian had been on the Island of the Blessed for a few days when he finally struck up a conversation with Homer. Lucian asked some questions of the famous epic poet and learned all sorts of unexpected things about Homer. Lucian discovered that Homer was actually Babylonian, and Homer wasn’t blind at all, and that indeed Homer had written the Iliad prior to the Odyssey. Lucian wanted to know why Homer had started the Iliad with the word “rage.” Why, Homer explained, it had just popped into his head. Homer wasn’t the only famous luminary Lucian met on the Island of the Blessed. Lucian also met the Presocratic philosopher Pythagoras, and discovered that in fact Pythagoras was made partially of gold. As time passed, Lucian met other prominent intellectuals and heroes, and observed some Olympic competitions held there on the island.

Everything seemed to be going as it normally did on the Island of the Blessed, only soon a tumult erupted. In Lucian’s geography of the afterlife, adjacent to the Island of the Blessed somewhere deep in the Atlantic were the islands of the impious – these were the five blazing land masses he’d glimpsed on the way to disembarking on the Island of the Blessed. Some of the sinners of these nearby islands had broken loose, and they had made it to the Island of the Blessed and tried to enter. They were rebuffed by a formidable contingent of heavenly heroes led by Achilles, Theseus, and Ajax, and that was the end of the affair, about which Homer quickly jotted down another epic poem.

Half a year passed. The next crisis that unfolded was that Helen, as in Helen of Troy, decided to have another affair. This affair, as it happened, was with one of Lucian’s party – the son of the old man whom they’d met while living in the belly of the Leviathan. This young man insinuated himself into Helen’s good graces, and soon they escaped the island, setting sail for the island of cheese that Lucian had passed on the way there. Helen was intercepted and recovered near the cheese island. Her lover was tied by the genitals and whipped, and then sent to the nearby island of the impious. As for Lucian and his remaining crew, they were exiled – one of them, after all, had certainly disturbed the peace.

Lucian was crestfallen, and though he remonstrated and asked to stay, the king Rhadamanthus told him he needed to go, and would eventually make it home, after passing a number of other lands, including – first on the list – the Island of Calypso. Rhadamanthus also gave Lucian some advice for how to make it back to the Island of the Blessed in the afterlife. There were three pieces of advice for self conduct – don’t stir a fire’s logs with the blade of a sword, don’t eat lupines, and don’t have sex with men unless they’re under the age of eighteen. With these baselines for moral conduct, Lucian and his companions were sent off. As they departed, Lucian tells us, Odysseus got away from his wife Penelope long enough to sneak Lucian a letter intended for Odysseus’ one-time lover Calypso. [music]

The Island of the Cursed and Calypso

lucian beardsley island of dreams

The Island of Dreams in an 1894 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

And so Lucian and company set out from the Island of the Blessed, and their first stop was a place completely different – they beached the ship at the nearby island of the cursed. Lucian’s description of this dark place has standard fixtures of other works produced in the same timeframe in which we see the Christian hell emerging onto the written record. The island of the cursed was bleak, craggy, and stenchful, and smelled like burning bodies. Rivers encircled it – of mud, blood, and fire. Sinners were punished according to their crimes – an adulterer was hung by his genitals, and liars were treated particularly severely – including, Lucian is careful to point out, the historian Herodotus. Lucian’s account of what we might call hell is quite short, but it was written in the same timeframe as another influential work of Christian apocryphal literature – the Apocalypse of Peter, suggesting that in the Greek-speaking world of the second century, hell was beginning to be imagined as a place in which gory punishments met the crimes that warranted them – salvation and damnation are mentioned in the Bible, but not as events that happen in geographically specific places with hierarchies of reward and retribution, as we see in Lucian and apocryphal Christian revelations of the second and third centuries.

Anyway, let’s stick with Lucian. Lucian understandably didn’t want to remain on the island of the cursed for very long, and so he and his party set out, venturing to a place called the island of dreams. The island of dreams was filled with tall flowers the height of trees, which had canopies that teemed with bats. There was a city on the island, and around it was a wall shaped like a rainbow. Drifting into slumber, Lucian and company stayed at the island of dreams long enough to become acquainted with various visions and fantasies there, until a thunderstorm woke them up, and they ventured onward.

Their next stop was the Island of Calypso, the sea nymph who had held Odysseus captive for seven years during the events of the Odyssey, and whose offer of immortality Odysseus had rejected. Lucian, in fact, still had that letter from Odysseus to Calypso, and admits to us that he read it. The letter explained to Calypso what happened after Odysseus had left her island. Once he had taken back his palace from the suitors, Odysseus told Calypso, he’d been killed by his illegitimate son Telegonus, and had since rather regretted rejecting Calypso’s offer of immortality. Odysseus said that given the chance, he was going to try to escape the Island of the Blessed and make a go at living with Calypso once more. When the travelers reached Calypso’s island, Lucian gave Calypso Odysseus’ letter, and she read it sadly. Calypso hosted the travelers generously, and the next day the adventurers set out once more.

More Strange Events at Sea

lucian strang giant birds

Lucian and his crew encounter a gigantic sea bird in one of the final episodes of A True History in this 1894 illustration by William Strang.

Out on the windy ocean again, they travelled for three days before encountering raiders whom Lucian calls the “Pumpkin Pirates” (2.37). These marauders had ships made out of giant pumpkins! They’d hollow out the pumpkins and use pumpkin leaves as sails, and their munitions were none other than pumpkin seeds.7 These Pumpkin Pirates attacked Lucian’s ship, and the adventurers fought back. The battle was proceeding on more or less even terms until a third party showed up – a group called the Nut Sailors. These Nut Sailors, presumably having vessels made from halves of giant nuts, were the Pumpkin Pirates’ avowed enemies, and so when the Pumpkin Pirates and Nut Sailors engaged with one another, Lucian and company took the opportunity to flee.

As they made their way to safety, incredibly a fourth party appeared on the scene – marauders riding dolphins who flung dehydrated octopi and the eyeballs of crabs at their adversaries. Lucian’s crew was able to fight these latest bandits off, and the rest of the day was uneventful. Late that night, though, the prow of their ship came into contact with the floating nest of a giant seabird – the nest, Lucian says, was around seven miles in diameter. It contained five hundred eggs, and once the seabird flew off – nearly capsizing the ship with the force of its beating wings – Lucian and his men cut open one of the bird’s giant eggs with an ax, an enormous chick emerging from the broken shell.

As they continued onward, strange things happened on their ship – the sculpture at their bow, a goose, came to life and honked, and the ship’s mast suddenly grew vines and grapes. The crew continued on, though, soon finding themselves on the fringes of a water forest – trees that grew up through the ocean’s surface from the seabed. Assessing the situation, Lucian decided that indeed they needed to somehow press through the thickly clustered trunks of the trees. But rather than trying to weave through them, the crew winched the ship up into the treetops, and sailed through the leaves.

They were able to get their ship down to safety on the other side, and they pressed on until they came to a large chasm cut into the ocean – broad and no less than 120 miles deep. But a bridge of moving water crossed the rift in the ocean, and Lucian and the others were able to paddle their way over the depths using this strange causeway. Following this perilous crossing, they came to more tranquil waters, and a small island. This island was home to ox-headed men. In a weird parallel to the Homeric story of the Oxen of the Sun (in which Homer’s men eat some forbidden quadrupeds), Lucian and his crew had some violent run-ins with the ox-headed men, the end result of which was that the ox-men gave them a ransom for some captured prisoners. And as Lucian and his men finally begin to draw closer to lands that looked somewhat less perilous, a couple more distinctly strange encounters were still yet to take place. [music]

Waterlust and the Closing of the True History

lucian strang asslegs women

Lucian and his fellow sailors get comfortable on the Island of Waterlust with the Asslegs, whose donkey parts are concealed. Illustration by William Strang (1894).

Birds and fish were buzzing all around as Lucian continued onward, and he saw a population of men sailing in a very unusual fashion. These men didn’t, in fact, have actual ships. What they would do was float on their backs, with the mainsails attached to their abnormally large and stiff penises, and the end of the sail clutched in their hands. And coming along behind these well-endowed boats slash men were other men, sitting on flotillas of corks, using dolphins to pull themselves along like charioteers with horses.

The next adventure Lucian and his crew had has parallels to Odysseus’ adventures on the island of Circe, and the Argonauts’ adventures on the island of Lemnos. In all three, male adventurers arrive on an island, are offered sexual gratification from women, but the sexual gratification comes with the price tag of mortal peril. In Lucian’s version of this story, the crew was excited when they arrived a city that’s called “Waterlust” in the Keith Sidwell translation. A population of beautiful and carefully manicured women all paired off with a man from Lucian’s crew. But, like Odysseus on the island of Circe, Lucian was suspicious about arriving somewhere and immediately being offered sex. In fact, he noticed that there were heaps of skulls and human bones here and there. And much more disturbingly, when Lucian took a longer look at the woman who had chosen to pair off with him, he saw that she had the legs and hooves of a donkey. When Lucian confronted his hostess about her anatomy, she was forced to confess everything. Her species, she said, were called “Asslegs” (2.48). Their mode of survival was seducing men, getting them drunk, and then murdering them in their sleep.

Learning all of this, Lucian cried out to his companions, and they were able to form up and make their escape. Lucian’s would-be-lover turned into water to escape, but he stabbed the water and it turned red with blood. Disembarking from the city of Waterlust, home of the Asslegs, Lucian and the crew thought that they could glimpse, in the near distance, their homeland. They were filled with sudden optimism, but just as Odysseus’ hopes of reaching Ithaca were once dashed when he was swept away the first time he reached the island, Lucian and his men were distraught when a sudden storm came up and broke their ship to pieces on the shore. And abruptly, the narrative of Lucian’s A True Story breaks off here, with a two sentence epilogue that I’ll quote in full from the Harmon translation.
Thus far I have told you what happened to me until I reached the other world, first at sea, then during my voyage among the islands in the air, then in the whale, and after we left it, among the heroes and the dreams, and finally among the Bullheads and Asslegs. What happened in the other world I shall tell you in the succeeding books. (2.47)

As to whether there were any more parts to Lucian’s True Story, the answer is probably not. A surviving manuscript of the novel has a single, irritated marginal note adjacent to Lucian’s last sentence, which reads, “The biggest lie of all.”8 [music]

Lucian’s Style

lucian clark water forest

The sailors glide through a water forest in one of the novel’s extravagant episodes. Illustration by J.B. Clark.

So that brings us to the end of Lucian’s most famous work, the True Story, which among many other things, often gets the credit for being the first science fiction and space travel novel. When we read this book today, in English and airlifted from all of the allusions that it makes, it’s still quite a fun story to read. You don’t have to hold any stake in the intellectual currents of the second century to understand that episodes in which pirates ride pumpkins or travelers clamber onto islands made of cheese are funny and exuberantly imagined things. Like later works that Lucian’s True Story inspired during the Enlightenment, and like many great sci-fi and fantasy books today, Lucian’s novel is appreciable to younger readers as an entertaining adventure story, and yet at the same time offers older readers a more critical and intellectual subtext.

When we read it in English, we certainly miss out on some of the subtleties of Lucian’s style, a style which, like Oscar Wilde’s or Lewis Carroll’s, is endlessly clever and playful with language. From creating new words for comic effect, to using highfalutin poetic language in less than appropriate situations, to overall being palpably aware of literary history, Lucian’s diction and phraseology in Greek were major reasons why he was preserved during antiquity. It’s important to remember, as we learned last time, that Lucian was part of a movement that classical scholars call the Second Sophistic – a revival of the literary culture of Classical Athens that had come five hundred years before them. Lucian’s works dribble with allusions to Aristophanes, sideways jabs at Plato, and they assume the reader will have an easy familiarity with Ancient Greek literary history that crescendoed around 400 BCE. And while a dense thicket of allusions connect Lucian’s novel to the distant high noon of Classical Athens, some of what he does in the True Story might simply be termed linguistic horseplay for comic effect.

Everywhere, Lucian turns out compound nouns – hippogypoi, for “vulture cavalry,” and hippomyrmekes for “ant cavalry.” When Lucian and his men eat alcoholic fish on one of their early stops, he calls the act oinophagia, or “wine eating.” In the sultry scene in which two of his men have sex with women made of grape plants, he terms the act ampelomixia, or “sexual intercourse with vines.” Toward the end of the novel Lucian is still going strong, terming his pumpkin sailors kolokynthopeiratai and his nut voyagers karyonautai.9 While these little linguistic jokes were probably never showstoppers in terms of eliciting laughter, embedded as they are in the narrative, they heighten the sense of absurdity in many of the episodes, as though having sex with grape vines or riding vultures are common enough things to warrant the nouns that Lucian slings together to describe them. And while a spirit of frivolity and goofiness drives some of Lucian’s jokes, and a learned antiquarianism inspires his overall style, the heart of the True Story, was, as Lucian writes in his preface, a desire to tell a story that was honest about its wholesale falsehoods, and by extension, to draw attention to those authors who blended fact and fiction without being upfront about it.

Lucian’s Main Satirical Targets

So now that we’ve heard the tale Lucian tells in his novel, and talked just a little bit about his unique style, let’s learn a bit more about the targets of his satire. At a number of junctures while I summarized the novel, I passed over this and that moment in the text at which Penguin and Oxford editors offer footnotes on the targets of Lucian’s satire. Let’s discuss some of those targets – the writers whom Lucian singles out in the True Story as repeat offenders in the way that they don’t try to distinguish fact from fiction.

Lucian’s Preface in A True Story mentions two authors as especially culpable of misrepresenting reality in works that are not explicitly fiction. Lucian tells us, at the beginning of his novel in the Harmon translation,
everything in my story is a more or less comical parody of one or another of the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables. I would cite them by name, were it not that you will recognize them from your reading. One of them is Ctesias. . .who wrote a great deal about India and its characteristics that he had never seen himself nor heard from anyone else with a reputation for truthfulness. Iambulus also wrote much that was strange about the countries in the great sea: he made up a falsehood that is patent to everybody, but wrote a story that is not uninteresting for all that.10

While Lucian of Samosata is today not a household name, the two authors whom he mentions there – Ctesias and Iambulus – definitely aren’t household names. They may, however, at one point, have been relatively well-known authors in antiquity, authors who wrote about distant lands, and who compensated for factual accuracy with entertainment value. Ctesias, specifically, comes up later in Lucian’s novel – he is being punished on the island of the damned alongside Herodotus, in the layer of perdition reserved for liars.

So let’s hear the details about these three authors, then – Iambulus, Ctesias, and Herodotus. They were, in Lucian’s mind, repeat offenders against the truth, united in their willingness to dress up fables as facts. And while ancient Greek historiography might not sound like a blockbuster subject at first, the background behind Lucian’s True Story is a really fascinating one. Because what was at stake for Lucian was nothing less than the simple assertion that at least one form of writing ought to exist that wasn’t just made up. [music]

Iambulus’ Account of the Indian Ocean

Maybe the obscurest of Lucian’s satirical targets in his novel is the author Iambulus. Iambulus, according to the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca historica, was the educated son of a merchant, who left behind extensive records of his travels in the east. Diodorus Siculus, summarizing Iambulus’ account of his adventures, tells us that Iambulus and his companions were kidnapped on the Arabian Peninsula, and later brought to Ethiopia. There, Iambulus was compelled to partake in a very important local ritual. Every six hundred years, the Ethiopians would take a boat, stock it with provisions, and then send two men off on the boat to the far south. If the men completed their journey, they would arrive at a happy island, where dignified, morally upright people lived. If the disembarked men failed on their journey, they would bring terrible calamities back Ethiopia. For whatever reason, Iambulus, a foreigner, was chosen as one of the Ethiopians’ emissaries on the southbound voyage to the blessed island.

Iambulus’ account described how after four months’ voyage, he did reach the blessed island to the south – somewhere deep in the Indian Ocean, where everyone was over six feet in height and people could bend their limbs in strange directions, because their bones were flexible. They were beautiful, as well, growing hair exclusively on their heads and nowhere else. They could open and close the valves of their ears, and their tongues were subdivided into different parts so as to help them reproduce all sorts of sound – they could indeed carry on two conversations at once.

There, on the blessed island, day was the same length as night all year around, and fruits were ripe and fresh throughout the year. The inhabitants there lived in tribes of about four hundred, and they baked bread made from reeds. They lived until the age of one hundred and fifty, and had very consistent death rites – if anyone had any debilitating injuries, or had reached the age of 150 years, they laid down on a special plant which would take their lives in a painless fashion. The people on the island had communitarian rules in regards to sex and child rearing – there were no marriages and kids were raised by the collective.

On the island there lived striped tortoises with four mouths each, and their blood could make people’s limbs grow back. The constellations visible there were not the same ones that could be seen in Europe and North Africa. Though there were plenty of natural resources there, the island’s inhabitants ate sparingly, setting their dead in the balmy waters along the beaches, where the ebb tide would take them out to sea. But after seven years, Iambulus and his companions were exiled for committing some unspecified crime, and next they wound up in India, where the Iambulus’ original narrative would have continued.11

So,that is our most famous source on Iambulus, who lived some time before the first century BCE, as this was roughly when the author who wrote about him lived. Obviously, we can see some parallels between that summary of Iambulus and Lucian’s True Story – we have exotic islanders with strange morphologies, outlandish social customs, and even exile from a paradisal land similar to Lucian’s own, and so it’s pretty clear that Lucian had the work of Iambulus on his bookshelves while he was writing A True Story.

And while clearly, a lot of Iambulus’ work was hogwash, Lucian didn’t seem to detest Iambulus. Lucian wrote, as we heard a moment ago, that Iambulus “made up a falsehood that is patent to everybody, but wrote a story that is not uninteresting for all that.” That statement of Lucian exonerates Iambulus from the slightly more serious charges Lucian levels against the writers Ctesias and Herodotus – maybe because Iambulus never pretended to be writing history. As for Ctesias and Herodotus, however, whom Lucian sets in the lower pits of his Dantean Island-Hell, these authors had committed more serious infractions in Lucian’s mind. [music]

Cestias’ Persika and Indika

So, we’ve just covered Iambulus, who some time before the first century BCE wrote a wacky narrative about an Ethiopian journey, and whom Lucian pokes fun at. Let’s meet Ctesias, again another ancient historian, and one whom Lucian holds in lower esteem than Iambulus. Ctesias, from what we can tell, was an ancient Greek physician who worked in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes II, who ruled from 404 until 358. The Achaemenid Persian Empire was at that point the largest the world had yet known, connecting Europe with South and East Asia, and so Ctesias’ position in the court there theoretically could have put him in touch with people from as far away as India. Ctesias left behind two writings that we might call geography or ethnography – the Persika, and the Indika, books that scholar Andrew Nichols calls “popular and highly influential. . .in antiquity.”12 These books were lost, although a famous ninth-century Byzantine scholar summarized Ctesias’ work, and so we do have a sense of what it once contained. So let’s hear some passages from the ninth-century Byzantine scholar Photius on what Ctesias wrote about India around perhaps 400 or 390 BCE – and buckle up for some craziness, by the way.

The sense that Ctesias evidently communicated about India was that it was the edge of the world – that India was the Indus River valley and its environs, never mind the greater subcontinent. According to our main source on Ctesias, “[Ctesias] states that there are no men who live beyond the Indians, and that no rain falls in India, but that the country is watered by its river.”13 From the outset, then, it’s pretty clear that Ctesias never went to India – he is imagining a place more akin to Egypt or Mesopotamia, where water comes predominantly from rivers rather than seasonal rainfall. The first error heralds the elaborate fabrications that are soon to come. Ctesias – again according to a later chronicler – wrote of giant roosters in India, of a fountain that spewed pure gold, filling a hundred talent sized pitchers every year – or almost three tons of pure gold annually.14 Another fountain in India, according to Ctesias, flowed with cheese, and those who ate from it instantly confessed anything that they’d done wrong. Dogs in India grew to the size of lions, and the sun was ten times as bright there as it was in Greece. Giant reeds grew along the Indus River, and a creature called the Manticore lurked there – a poisonous creature the size of a lion with a human’s face and scorpion’s tale.

The boys' and girls' Herodotus; being parts of the history of Herodotus (1884) (14778805534) lucian context

An illustration from an 1884 edition of Herodotus designed for kids. The Giza plateau was within the general ancient Greek area of firsthand experience, but when it came to territories further afield – ones like India and the Arabian Peninsula, ancient historians were liberal with their conjectures and fanciful accounts of life in the distant east.

Ctesias evidently claimed that pygmies lived in the center of India – three foot tall humans with beards and hair that grew down to their knees so that they didn’t need clothing, whose penises were so disproportionately thick and large that they dangled down to their ankles. The pygmies hunted while riding all sorts of creatures, including vultures (16). In the interior of India there was a lake over 90 miles in circumference which had a special oil that ran over its surface. Palm trees grew dates three times the size of Mediterranean dates, and one of the rivers in the country flowed with honey. As in Iambulus’ account of his imaginary land in the Indian Ocean, Ctesias discussed Indians living up to 150 years old – and some as long as 200.

The mountains of India, Ctesias once wrote, were home to dog headed men whom the author purportedly called kynokephaloi, or “dog heads,” and Ctesias was careful to note that the dog-people had sex only in the doggy-style position (25). Continuing on with the more intimate details of the various populations of India, Ctesias noted that another group had no anuses, and voided their bowels through a thick fluid that emerged from their genitals. Yet another group beyond the Indus River were people who had eight fingers on each hand, and had ears that hung down to their elbows and touched back behind their shoulder blades. Maybe the most famous yarn in Ctesias’ work was not captured by the ninth-century chronicler Photius, but instead the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who summarized a section of Ctesias’ book about India in which Ctesias was clearly pretty far removed from reality. Pliny tells us that Ctesias
Mentions. . .a race of men called monoskeleis (one-legged), who, though they had but a single leg, could hop upon it with wonderful agility, and that they were also called skiopodes, because that when they lay on their back in very hot weather, they shaded themselves from the sun with their feet. They lived not very far from the Troglodytes (cave dwellers). To the west of these, [Ctesias] adds, lived men without a neck, and who had their eyes placed in their shoulders.15

Well, that’s probably enough Ctesias for now. The parallels between what we know about Ctesias’ work and Lucian’s True Story are broad and extensive. Just from hearing a summary of a summary of Ctesias just now, we’ve found some links – both writers talk of naturally occurring cheese, of men with dogs’ faces, people riding vultures, of supersized trees, strange and wonderful reed plants, and humans with all sorts of strange shapes – eyes in odd places, anuses and genitals moved around, hair growing in nonstandard ways, and on and on and on, down to the compound nouns both writers invent to describe the oddities that exist abroad.

Considering the similarities between the two works, it is curious that Lucian dumps Ctesias into the pits of suffering late in the True Story. After all, he knew Ctesias’ work, as so many others seemed to, and to some extent, Lucian shared an enthusiasm for fabricating details about the flora and fauna and civilizations of faraway places. Why, then, did Lucian take such an objection to his fellow fabulist Ctesias? We’ll likely never be certain, but one decent answer is available to us in that ninth-century summary of Ctesias’ lost geography of India. According to the Byzantine chronicler Photius, wrapping up his long summary of Ctesias’ popular book about India,
Ktêsias thus writing and romancing professes that his narrative is all perfect truth, and, to assure us of this, asseverates that he has recorded nothing but what he either saw with his own eyes, or learned from the testimony of credible eye-witnesses. He adds moreover that he has left unnoticed many things far more marvelous than any he has related, lest any one who had not a previous knowledge of the facts might look upon him as an arrant story-teller. (33-4)

If this part of the summary of Ctesias is true, then, around 400 BCE, Ctesias really did try to pass off everything you just heard as the truth. And just as problematically for Lucian, perhaps, Ctesias’ false advertising of fiction as fact had been successful. Ctesias, as we learned a moment ago, was popular – references to his work survive not only in Photius’ ninth century summary and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History from 77 CE, but also in the pages of Aristotle, Strabo, Pausanias, Aulus Gellius, and many more. While, as we’ll see, Ctesias wasn’t actually being embraced as fact by everyone five hundred years after he dashed out his weird fables about India, we can still see why Lucian sets Ctesias in the circle the afterlife reserved for “those who had told lies. . .or had written down things which were not true” (2.31). [music]

Herodorus and the World of Ancient Historiography

So now we’ve covered two of the three historians who are Lucian’s central targets in his novel A True Story – these being Iambulus, whom Lucian lets off pretty easily, and then Ctesias, whom Lucian dumps into an island hell. Now, let’s move onto the third major historian whom Lucian takes to task in his famous novel. Adjacent to the historian Ctesias, in Lucian’s imaginary realm of punishment, is the more well-known and respected historian Herodotus, whom we should now talk about for a moment. How much of Herodotus is fact, and how much of Herodotus is fiction is a complicated subject. Let’s start by saying that in terms of academic respectability, Herodotus has stood the test of time far better than Ctesias, whose works haven’t survived at all. Herodotus gets called the father of history in the same approximating way that Socrates gets called the father of western philosophy. Both of these descriptions aren’t quite accurate – Herodotus still shovels in all sorts of things that would more properly belong in a myth or a historical novel. The real Socrates could have been a sociable contrarian drunkard, for all we know, and Plato himself is at least as much of a theologian and self-styled prophet as he is a philosopher, and his theology, with all its talk of souls and reincarnation, as we’ve discussed in past episodes, may well have come from the Ancient Mediterranean’s Achaemenid connections with Indian ideology, which collectively suggests that the Platonic Socrates was neither philosophy, nor western, nor Socrates. Anyway, we need to put our stakes in the ground somewhere, and Classical Athens is normally a place where stakes get set down, and in Athens, in the 400s BCE and a little later, things that had begun to resemble modern philosophy and history reached a level of circulation and influence such that they were able to be preserved and tumble down to the modern period. So let’s talk about how historical the father of history is, as Lucian of Samosata, five hundred years after Herodotus lived, cast the famous graybeard into hell for telling lies.

First of all, Herodotus and Ctesias were both alive to experience the crescendo of Classical Greek civilization in the mid to late 400s BCE, Ctesias being perhaps a generation younger than Herodotus.16 And if we compare the works of these two historians pertinent to this program – Herodotus’ Histories and then Ctesias’ Indika, we can perhaps most simply say that Ctesias is far more often liable to introduce absurd little anecdotes and pass them off as fact than his more famous contemporary.

This is not to say that Herodotus wasn’t a creature of his times, though. Because in the pages of the historian Herodotus we find some of the very same mythological flotsam and jetsam we find in Ctesias. Herodotus wrote “[I]n [the Indian] desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. . .Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold.”17 Herodotus tells us that in the rugged western reaches of Libya, “this is the tract in which the huge serpents are found, and the lions, the elephants, the bears, the aspicks, and the horned asses. Here too are the dog-faced creatures, and the creatures without heads, whom the Libyans declare to have their eyes in their breasts.”18 Lucian’s True Story (2.5) makes fun of a passage in Herodotus in which the older historian writes, “Concerning the spices of Arabia let no more be said. The whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odour marvelously sweet” (3.113). Arabia seemed to make Herodotus especially comfortable in using sketchy sources or dabbling in fiction, as Herodotus explains at one point, “Now with respect to the vipers and the winged snakes of Arabia, if they increased as fast as their nature would allow, impossible were it for man to maintain himself upon the earth. Accordingly it is found that when the male and female come together, at the very moment of impregnation, the female seizes the male by the neck, and having once fastened, cannot be brought to leave go till she has bit the neck entirely through” (3.110). Now, scholars have tried to explain some of these oddities in Herodotus – perhaps the ants were actually north Asian marmots, or this or that fable was actually a way of explaining this other thing. But, obviously, in the 400s BCE there were no giant ants, or dog-faced men, or winged snakes, and when you’re in a boat off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the air smells the same as it does everywhere else.

Still, an overall desire to establish causal relations between events governs Herodotus’ Histories, and though historians since antiquity have dissected Herodotus’ biases and omissions, he’s hardly guilty of the excesses that Ctesias seems to have been. Their works – Herodotus’ Histories and Ctesias’ Indika – are to some extent apples and oranges – Herodotus was writing a work that contemporaries might evaluate with factual accuracy in mind, whereas with Ctesias’ genre – the travel narrative or ancient geography, a certain degree of mythmaking may have simply been the norm. But in any case, for Lucian of Samosata, five centuries after these two writers lived, they were one and the same – counterfeiters who had passed off fibs as genuine history. During the giant battle on the moon, Lucian rides a vulture into battle against warriors riding ants, metaphorically sitting astride one of Ctesias’ lies and going to war with one of Herodotus’ lies in space, far, far away from the palpable realities of human life on earth.

We have to ask, here, at the end of this two program sequence on Lucian, what it was that this vulture-riding debunker of falsities actually believed. It’s tempting, considering Lucian’s positive reception by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to pin Lucian as a secular humanist, critical of the dogmas of his age, and an obdurate skeptic in one of the most religiously decisive centuries humanity ever knew. Lucian is rarely earnest and expository in his writings – the best example we’ve seen in our programs on him has been his statements toward the end of the essay How to Write History – that history ought to be a catalog of facts based on evidence, and that it was a long game, played not for the approbation of current fads, but for the ultimate utility of posterity. But Lucian is more idiosyncratic and premodern than some of us probably would like him to be. As you may remember from last time, one of the many statements Lucian makes about history is that it’s okay to invent monologues and dialogues for historical personages – the language should be appropriate to the speaker, but otherwise you can do such things. Lucian had moved on, then, from giant ants and flying snakes, but like all of us, Lucian was also a product of his times.

However, considering the new dogmas exploding through the second century Mediterranean – Gnostic doctrines, for instance; Apocalyptic writings that introduced the recognizably Christian versions of heaven and hell for the very first time, and patristic disputations of what constituted heresy and what constituted orthodoxy that would never end, and the Neoplatonist circus coming to town, we still may be able to identify a single, remarkable quality evident in Lucian’s thinking – one that is rather hard to find among texts from antiquity leading up to him. And to introduce this quality, I want to turn to a text we visited ages ago – one called The History of Animals, by Aristotle. [music]

Aristotle’s Assessment of Ctesias


Aristotle in Raphael’s School of Athens (1509-11), pointing downward, in a gesture traditionally interpreted as signifying his devotion to the empirical facts of physical reality.

Aristotle’s book, The History of Animals is the world’s pioneering work on zoology, an empirical tour-de-force in which the philosopher amasses mountains of details – feathers, gills, fur, digestive systems, teeth, reproduction and gestation, blood circulation – with no detail too small to be noted, before moving on to discuss causes of some of the phenomena that he has observed. In the book, Aristotle writes that he will establish a large catalog of details prior to thinking about causality, beginning with what, and then moving on to why. As Aristotle writes, “to [discuss causality] when the investigation of the details is complete is the proper and natural method, and that whereby the subjects and the premises of our argument will afterwards be rendered plain.”19 In other words, we will spend a good deal of time reviewing the material details of the situation before formulating general theories about our observations – we will not start with theories and then crunch our findings into boxes that support those theories.

Empiricism, in a word, means starting with a review of non-theoretical information prior to generating explanatory theories. Aristotle’s works, in my mind, are something like the Iliad of philosophy – something so vastly, categorically more advanced, organized, and elegant than anything we know of that came them before that he may as well have fallen from space. And interestingly, we actually have some assessments Aristotle left behind on Ctesias – that fifth-century BCE chronicler of life in India who wrote about pygmies with giant penises. Aristotle, reading Ctesias’ book about ancient India – specifically, a section about elephant semen, makes this measured observation: “What Ktêsias has said regarding the seed of the elephant is plainly false, for he asserts that when dry it turns hard so as to become like amber; and this it does not.”20 Elephant sperm, Aristotle says, does not transform into amber after ejaculation. Many pages later, recounting another of Ctesias’ tall tales, Aristotle dismisses him as “no very good authority.”21

So much, then, for Ctesias. Lucian may have placed Ctesias in an infernal realm, but somehow Aristotle’s calm and measured dismissal is far more damning. But what about Herodotus? How does Herodotus’ more restrained admixture of fact and fiction compare with Lucian and Aristotle’s calls for more empirical standards of writing? In places – especially the outset of Herodotus’ book, where neither he nor anyone else had a lot of hard facts to go on, Herodotus spackles myths and legends over the unknown prehistory of the Mediterranean, the book beginning with the mythological abductions of Io, Europa, and Medea, then the Trojan War, later detailing, in various grottos of the narrative, how Helen and Paris stayed in Egypt, the populations that Greeks imagined lived in the distant north of the Black Sea, including the all-female Amazons, the confluence of legends slowly giving way in Book 5 to a more grounded story about the earlier histories of Athens and Sparta.

The Historical Roots of Ancient Prose Fiction

Herodotus, of course, isn’t perfect, and he has never been understood as such, and the fact that we’re still reading his old battle-scarred book and that it helped inspire a whole discipline collectively mean that it’s not going anywhere. And in fact, the parts of Herodotus that are fiction needn’t be regarded as regrettable deviations from an otherwise honorable work. Lucian, as we’ve learned in the second half of this episode, certainly has strong words against those writers who try to pass fiction off as non-fiction. But obviously, without the liberties taken by Herodotus, Iambulus, and Ctesias, Lucian’s novel wouldn’t have been written. Aristotle can dismiss Ctesias’ work as unscientific swill in a sentence or two. But as people interested in literary history, you and I cannot so easily dismiss the fictitious excursions of Herodotus and other nominally serious ancient authors as unfortunate accidents.

Within the mythological portions of Herodotus, the fairytales and thought experiments of Plato, and the vulture riders and dog-headed men of ancient Mediterranean travelogues – somewhere in this slurry of mythmaking – is nothing less than the roots of prose fiction, and the earliest novels. Fiction, in the Greco-Roman world, was traditionally done in verse. Prose was for history, for oratory, for philosophical and scientific works. But somewhere along the line, over the course of the 300s, and 200s and 100s, and likely in no small part due to the portions of Herodotus and Plato that were just made up, and a mostly lost history of travel writing and fanciful geographies, writers began to use prose for fiction. While there’s little certainty on the matter, historians of the earliest novels often theorize that the genre began to emerge during the Hellenistic period, with experimental work coming together over the 300s, 200s and 100s BCE.22 Early ancient Jewish prose works – stories and novellas – survive from this period in the form of the books Ruth, Tobit, Judith, and the full version of Esther, works that also emerge from a confluence of history and fiction. But for Greek and Latin novels, we have nothing until after the Christian period. The first examples that we have of them occur in the first two centuries CE. In our show, we’ve read Petronius’ Satyricon and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, these Latin texts, along with Lucian’s own True Story in Greek being the most famous early novels to have emerged from antiquity. But Lucian, writing prose fiction in the 160s or 170s CE, was no lone wolf, and there were many more like him. The current flagship anthology of Ancient Greek prose fiction – this is editor B.P. Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels, contains the surviving remnants of nineteen Ancient Greek novels in over 950 pages, almost all of them done before 300 CE.

One of these is the book that we’ve just read together in this episode. On the whole, Lucian’s novel is certainly a successful satire of the ridiculous excesses of some works that falsely advertised themselves as historically accurate. With an expansive knowledge Herodotus and Ctesias, not to mention a host of bombastic philosophers who cited fables to prove their points, Lucian was in a good position to disparage those who commingled fact and fiction without admitting it. Ironically, though Lucian’s main influence was the very thing that he was chastising, and he probably inspired more fanciful adventure narratives than he did responsible historiography. Either way, his novel was a great gift to posterity. He created a comic version of the Odyssey in prose that simultaneously outdid Homer in imaginative scope and had a deeply respectable intellectual agenda behind it – a call for a clearer differentiation between fact and fiction. Lucian’s novel teaches us that the Herodotuses and Platos and Ctesiases of intellectual history were to some extent swindlers, who veered into legend and fabrication without admitting it, and Lucian’s book is earnest in its call for more accurate history writing. And while Lucian’s explicit statements in his works remind us that we will always need facts, set out as such, in at least one genre of writing, the whimsical extravagance of the True Story also reminds us that we’ll always need things like pumpkin pirates, interstellar journeys, well-hung pygmies, and islands made of cheese, for those junctures at which we’d like to step away from reality for an hour or two. [music]

Lucian’s Long Term Legacy

To wrap things up on the subject of this wonderful Greco-Syrian satirist, let’s talk about Lucian’s legacy. Tracing Lucian’s immediate historical influence is challenging. A Greek author named Alciphron, either a contemporary of Lucian or someone who lived slightly later, was in all likelihood influenced by Lucian. Several hundred years later, another author named Aristaenetus reveals equally clear ties to Lucian’s writings. By the 900s, surviving Byzantine writings begin to show elements of Lucian – epigrams from the early tenth century, a Greek dialogue from the middle part of the 1000s, and gradually among the rarefied literary circles of the Byzantine empire, Lucian seems to have come into vogue over the course of the Middle Ages, over the next century becoming popular in Byzantine schools as a figure to practice imitating.23 Beyond the educated Byzantine world in the east, Classical Greek began reemerging into Europe in the west through the work of the Italian scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, who began teaching it on the Italian peninsula for the first time in 700 years in about 1390 – Chrysoloras had brought a manuscript of Lucian with him back from Byzantium after travelling there. Nearly a century later, Chrysoloras’ posthumously published book Erotemata, a handbook of Greek grammar, in Latin, was published in 1484. This handbook, along with Chrysoloras’ translations of Homer and Plato, was what unlocked the Ancient Greek world for the European Renaissance. One of its readers was the great humanist Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who, as the 1500s opened, was instrumental in bringing Lucian into the center of European literary history for some time to come. Prior to the 1400s and 1500s, Lucian had had all the potential to be as popular as Ovid and Virgil already were, except for one thing. Lucian’s works only survived in Greek – and not only that – in largely a faux-antique Attic Greek written for a bygone audience that could appreciate its contemporary references and literary filigrees. Fortunately, in 1506, Erasmus and his friend Thomas More published Latin translations of selected works by Lucian, and over the next three centuries, vernacular translations emerged – first in French, then English, then German. Between 1500 and 1700, Lucian’s works found their way into manuscripts and then printings all over Europe.


By the time Voltaire published Candide in 1759, two centuries of European humanists had absorbed and reverberated the works of Lucian of Samosata.

Much of this circulation was due to the humanist Erasmus himself – Erasmus, who read Lucian in the original Greek, recommended the ancient author for the quality of his prose – an encyclopedic and carefully crafted synthesis of many Greek styles Lucian lassoed together for comedic purposes. And while in scholarly circles, Lucian continued to be admired for the texture and variety of his language, over the course of the 1500s and beyond, Lucian’s other innovations were successfully recycled for Renaissance agendas. Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, first printed in 1511, begins with a satirical speech of self-aggrandizement by Folly – Lucian had written a number of satirical praise speeches in this style. Erasmus’ friend Thomas More, in Utopia, published in 1516, used both a fantastic journey and satirical dialogues to introduce and then describe an outlandish ideal society, and this book would not have ever been written without the influence of Lucian. In 1532, the French humorist François Rabelais began a multivolume set called Gargantua and Pantagruel, a flamboyant series about a pair of giants that shows the fantastic elements and linguistic exuberance of Lucian. Over two centuries later, in 1726, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was also set down with clear knowledge of Lucian, as was Voltaire’s Candide in 1759, and a later dialogue Voltaire wrote in which Lucian was one of the speakers.24 By the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then, Lucian’s contributions had been broadly absorbed into European intellectual history.

What Renaissance and Enlightenment readers found in Lucian was thrilling. They found a prose style that was electric in its energy. They were antiquarians who discovered an ancient antiquarian, and saw in Lucian a style that reached backward to resurrect archaic words and forms of speech and forward to generate neologisms and reference contemporary historical trends. They discovered in Lucian’s works an ideology that could shred religious traditions and philosophical inheritances, and had little patience for custom and consensus. Catholic proscriptions attempted to ban all of Lucian’s works in 1559 and then later in 1590, and they were unsuccessful. Coming into circulation in Europe at the same time as Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Lucian’s writings were an important ingredient to the religious reformations of the Early Modern period, and more generally, secularism and Renaissance humanism. Because Lucian, like some of literature’s other great comedians, showed that while the various balloons of human ideologies and the gasbags who inflate them can be punctured with a few satirical barbs, there is still something essentially timeless, holy, and human in satire itself. [music]

Moving on to Heliodorus

Today, Lucian has fared a bit better than some of Late Antiquity’s other popular authors. Many of his shorter works require at least some fluidity in the intellectual history of the ancient Mediterranean. But pieces like “The Parliament of the Gods,” or “Zeus Catechized” or of course today’s text, the True Story, can easily be enjoyed by a non-specialist and read outside of their second-century context. In contrast, though, the other pagan authors we will consider in our next few programs – writers active during the 200s, 300s, and 400s CE, are second-string figures even within the discipline of Classics itself. Heliodorus and the other Ancient Greek novelists, along with Ausonius, Rutilius Namatianus, and Nonnus, athough they were prolific authors who lived through the various earthquakes of the later Roman Empire, sit inconveniently between Classics and Medieval Studies departments, their very existence and the vitality of their works contradicting any notion that Christianity quickly eclipsed pagan thought and traditions after the Apostolic generation. And so as we leave Lucian of Samosata behind us, we begin to enter the unfamiliar realm of Late Antiquity proper, an era of European History that’s neither Christian nor pagan, but something in between.

In the next episode, we’re going to read another novel – the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. The Aethiopica, today, is the lengthiest novel to survive from pagan antiquity, a rousing and sensational adventure story about a hero and a heroine whose romance and perilous adventures fill hundreds of pages in modern editions. As it happens, Heliodorus was also from the province of Syria, though he lived a century or two after Lucian of Samosata. There were many Ancient Greek novels at some point, and I wanted to begin our season on Late Antiquity with them to give you a sense of the continuing evolution of classical traditions in the 100s, 200s, and 300s and beyond. Christianity was certainly flowering in the Roman Empire during this period, but so, too, were artistic traditions that had begun a thousand years before. As we open the pages of the Aethiopica next time, we’ll see that the adventure romance, which appears on the written record with a small set of plays by Euripides written in the 410s BCE, continues with the works of Menander in the 310s, persists with Plautus a little after the 210s, and animates the pages of many of antiquity’s surviving novels – that the romantic adventure story was flourishing during the central centuries of the Roman Empire. So thanks for listening to Literature and History. Join me next time for Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, a novel that anyone interested in literature ought to know about, and that virtually no one interested in literature actually does. There’s a quiz on this episode in your podcast episode description in whatever app you’re using to listen, along with, as usual, a link to the full episode transcription, bonus content and Patreon pages. Speaking of Patreon, by popular demand, this time around I’ve recorded T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with a bit of music and sound design – it has absolutely nothing to do with Lucian or satire, but it’s a classic that many of us grew up reading, so why not? For everyone, I have a song coming up – as always check it out if you want, and if not, I’ll see you soon.

Still here listening? Well, I got to thinking about Iambulus, Ctesias, Herodotus, and everything that used to pass for history back in the day. And I decided I would write a historical song about Canada, only in the style of ancient Greek history, because I love Canada, and am proud to share a 5,500 mile-long border with it. So this one is called “The History of Canada,” and it is again written in the ancient historical vein of Iambulus and Ctesias, in which facts are entirely optional. Nonetheless, just as with Lucian’s novel we read today, everything in the song that you are about to hear is absolutely, undeviatingly true.

[“The History of Canada” song]


1.^ Keith Sidwell, citing techniques from Old Comedy, loosely places the book as having come from after Lucian’s fortieth year. See Sidwell, Keith. “Preface.” In Lucian: Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches. Penguin Books, 2004, p. 305.

2.^ Lucian. “How to Write History” (37, 38). Printed in Lucian: Selected Dialogues. Translated by C.D.N. Costa. Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 195, 196.

3.^ Lucian. True Histories. Printed in Lucian: Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches. Penguin Books, 2004, p. 309. Further quotes from this edition will be noted in the transcription with section numbers.

4.^ Lucian. Lucian. Translated by A.M. Harmon. William Heinemann, 1913.

5.^ Herodotus. Histories (1.23). Printed in Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by George Rawlinson. Digireads.com Publishing, 2016. The Rawlinson translation reads “two cubits” where I have bracketed three feet.

6.^ The passages in question are Thucdides 3.36-49 and 5.18.1-19.2. See Sidwell (2004), p. 435.

7.^ The Greek word is not “pumpkin” but kolokunthis. The former is a New World plant unknown to the Greek world, though it creates a nice alliteration in English. The actual Greek word described a type of melon native to the Levant and popular throughout the ancient Mediterranean.

8.^ Printed in Lucian. Lucian. Translated by A.M. Harmon. William Heinemann, 1913, p. 357n.

9.^ The tradition of these compound words was probably influenced by Ctesias, who describes kynokephaloi (dog-headed men) living in India. See Watson, John. Ancient India as Described by Ktêsias the Knidian. Trübner and Company, 1882, p. 7.

10.^ Harmon (1913), pp. 249,51. Sidwell (2004, p. 433n) is skeptical that the references to Ctesias and Iambulus were originally written in Lucian’s preface.

11.^ The story is in Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, (1.55.1 – 1.60.2).

12.^ Nichols, Andrew. Ctseias on India. Bloomsbury, 2011.

13.^ McCrindle, John Watson. Ancient India as Described by Ktêsias the Knidian. Trübner and Company, 1882, p. 7. Further references to this text will be noted with page numbers in this episode transcription.

14.^ Considering the Attic talent’s weight of about 57 pounds.

15.^ Pliny Natural History (VII, 2). Printed in McKrindle (1882), p. 61.

16.^ See Nichols, Andrew. “Life of Ctesias.” Printed in Ctseias on India. Bloomsbury, 2011.

17.^ Herodotus. Histories (3.102). Printed in Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by George Rawlinson. Digireads.com Publishing, 2016.

18.^ Herodotus. Histories (4.191). Printed in Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by George Rawlinson. Digireads.com Publishing, 2016. Further references noted parenthetically with section numbers in this transcription.

19.^ Aristotle. The History of Animals (1.6, 491a7-14). Printed in Aristotle. The History of Animals. Waxkeep Publishing, pp. 12-13.

20.^ Printed in McCrindle (1882), p. 36.

21.^ Aristotle. The History of Animals (8.28). Printed in Aristotle. The History of Animals. Waxkeep Publishing, p. 291.

22.^ See Reardon, B.P. “General Introduction.” Printed in Collected Ancient Greek Novels. University of California Press, 2019, p. 5.

23.^ See Sidwell (2004), p. xix.

24.^ This is the Conversation de Lucien, Erasme et Rabelais dans les Champs Elysées (1765).