Born ca. A.D. 120
Greek writer and lecturer
Lucian was a Greek writer and performer renowned for his skill in combining well-known rhetorical and literary techniques to create new literary forms. He was a popular artistic figure in his own time, and his works had a major influence on European writers from the early A.D. 1300s to the late 1700s. Lucian wrote mainly satire*, and his works consistently poked fun at the vanity, self-importance, and folly of human beings. However, his main goal was not social criticism; rather it was to entertain his audience by using familiar literary devices in unique ways to produce a comic or satiric effect.
Life and Education. Little is known for certain about Lucian’s life. He was born in the city of Samosata in the kingdom of Commagene, a mountainous area north of the Roman province* of Syria. (Today, this area is part of southern Turkey.) His native tongue was Aramaic, and he learned Greek as a second language. From his writings, it is clear that he received a good Greek education in rhetoric*, philosophy*, art, and literature. Much of his success rested on his ability to use his knowledge in these areas. Lucian traveled widely, performing throughout the Roman empire.
Understanding Lucian's Works. Lucian combined four techniques that were normally used as exercises by students of rhetoric: the narrative (story); formal description; comparison; and the encomium (praise). He combined these techniques into a single work, and in doing so created a new literary form.
By examining Lucian’s Herodotus, one can see his techniques at work. Lucian apparently wrote the work for a tour of Macedonia, the birthplace of the famous general and ruler Alexander the Great. It tells the story of how the early Greek writer Herodotus gained fame and fortune by reading his histories aloud at the Olympic Games. First, Lucian sets up a comparison between himself and the famous historian. He then inserts a description of a painting by Aetion, who like Herodotus, displayed his work in Olympia. Lucian recalls Macedonia’s glorious past as embodied in the figure of Alexander the Great, and he brings these themes together in enthusiastic praise of the Macedonian audience he was addressing. The audience is favorably compared to the audience that heard Herodotus, and Lucian is portrayed as an athlete waiting to be appraised by his critical listeners.
Herodotus was one of 11 pieces by Lucian called introductions, designed to establish a relaxed relationship with the audience at the beginning of a performance. Lucian’s longer works, one or more of which would have followed the introduction, use the same techniques of combining conventional material in new ways. Some 70 works have been attributed to Lucian, including Dialogues of the Gods, Dialogues of the Dead, A True Story, The Ass, and Banquet.
* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
Lucian freely took ideas from handbooks of rhetoric and philosophical teachings, as well as from other writers and literary traditions. In creating his own parodies*, he often reworked quotations, dialogues, or scenes from the well-known works of others. Lucian’s highly educated audiences would have been familiar with these sources, and much of their enjoyment probably came from recognizing Lucian’s clever combinations and references to these other works. His literary techniques were copied by satirists and comic writers for five centuries—from the early A.D. 1300s in Italy to the end of the 1700s in France, Germany, and England. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Literature, Greek.)
* parody work that imitates another for comic effect or ridicule