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The satirist Lucian was a fearless critic of the rich

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about Lucian originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 113 published on 14 March 1964.

Lucian, picture, image, illustration

Lucian the rhetorician and satirist by James E McConnell

Space travel, a war of the worlds, an invisible man: they sound like subjects for modern science fiction. And yet these same subjects appeared in books the Greek author Lucian wrote 1,800 years ago.

In his True History, Lucian tells how he sets sail in a ship which is snatched up by a whirlwind and carried upwards for seven days and nights.

As he and his comrades approach the moon, some enormous birds called horse vultures carry them down on to its surface. There they watch a battle between moon-men and the inhabitants of the sun. After this they journey on through the universe before eventually landing back in the sea on earth again.

Another book tells how a poor cobbler named Micyllus makes himself invisible and tours the homes of rich men. When he sees their vices and miseries he is cured of his envy for their wealth.

But Lucian warned his readers: “I write of things which I have neither seen nor suffered nor learned from another, things which are not and never could have been, and therefore my readers should by no means believe them.”

What he did want them to believe in, however, was the rapier criticism of the gods, great men and great principles, and of society in general that studded like fine jewels the lurid, comic and tawdry settings of his stories. For Lucian was “modern” in another way. He was above all a satirist; one of the world’s first, yet far sharper and more fearless – and therefore more effective – than those we permit to slash at society today.

But before we glance at his massive output of 79 prose works, let us see who Lucian was.

He was born at Samosata in Syria in about A.D. 120.

His parents were not well off and he received only a very basic education. When he was fourteen, he tells us in one of his books, he was apprenticed to his uncle to learn to be a sculptor. But his very first attempt at this was a disaster. He was set to polish a marble tablet, but in doing so, he leaned on it too heavily and broke it. Uncle thrashed him, and young Lucian at once ran home to his mother.

“Why did your uncle beat you?” she asked.

“Because, mother, he feared that I should excel him in his own trade,” lied the boy, betraying a hint of the malice and humour that were one day to make him a great and hated satirist.

Probably Lucian’s parents did not give up trying to make him a respectable tradesman, but it was not long before the boy had chosen his own course – the study of literature and speech-making.

He became a wandering scholar, and quickly learned the intricacies of the Greek language. He must have been good at speaking in public, for soon we find him employed as an advocate in legal disputes at Antioch. Later he wrote speeches for others.

When he had saved a little, he set out on travels throughout Greece, Italy and Gaul, making speeches to crowds in the market places, and collecting money from those he entertained or instructed, like a street musician.

Most enjoyed by the public were his vitriolic attacks on local rulers and well-known tyrants. Money poured in from delighted audiences who admired his nerve in verbally trampling so-called heroes in the dust.

He spent a great deal of time in Athens and in Rome, and when, in his fortieth year, he returned home briefly to Syria, he was completely involved in the culture of his day. His wit was now razor sharp, and he knew exactly where he wished to flash it, and whom he wished to cut down. His main targets were the gods of the ancient world, and the philosophers.

Back in Athens, where he settled, he began his fantastic writings. But sometimes he put his views into practice, too. In A.D. 170 he visited a prophet in Paphlagonia, and set out to prove that his wisdom and predictions were rubbish.

After a personal interview, at which we can be sure he gave the prophet a very rough time indeed, the old man put out his hand for the usual respectful kiss. But instead of kissing the hand, Lucian seized the prophet’s thumb in his teeth and bit it half off.

This piece of near-sacrilege was duly reported to the ruler, Alexander, who was furious that his famous prophet had been ill-used. He became even more annoyed when he learned that Lucian had talked a suitor out of marrying his daughter.

Alexander would have murdered the satirist on the spot, but for the presence of a bodyguard of two soldiers provided for just such a contingency by the governor of Cappadocia. Alexander swallowed his anger for the moment, sent Lucian on his way with gifts, and provided him with a ship.

When they were well out at sea, Lucian noticed the captain pleading with the crew, with tears in his eyes, and learned that the crew were specially-chosen cut-throats employed by Alexander to kill him. Fortunately, under the captain’s protection, Lucian was transferred to another ship and eventually arrived safely home.

From then until old age, we have no sure knowledge about Lucian’s life. He probably married and had a son. But we know that in his declining years he was given a well-paid official job as procurator to a region of Egypt, where he served mainly as a judge.

His death in A.D. 190 has been ascribed to gout, and to a savage attack by a pack of dogs.

But Lucian’s writing won him hundreds of deadly enemies, and they may have invented such nasty deaths as a piece of wishful thinking.

His most important satire is in the form of dialogues. In these he fully justifies his claim to genius. An attack on Zeus (Jupiter, the supreme god of the ancients) shows him lacking any real power over gods or men. An attack on the philosophers shows them being auctioned off for money; needless to say most of them fetch less than a good house-dog.

Lucian followed up this attack with a piece in which all the great philosophers of old – including Socrates and Pythagoras – are allowed back on earth for one day to take vengeance upon him. Lucian is placed on trial – and, of course, defeats the lot of them.

The satirist continued his war against philosophers, living and dead, throughout his life. He also attacked the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful rulers and the humble people who followed them.

The simple style of his writing, his pungent wit, and his breadth of intellect, make Lucian one of the most entertaining and easy to understand authors of classical times.

Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire, Shaw, and many more of the greatest of European writers, owe much to Lucian.

And if the painful re-growth of satire in Britain is not to end with the death of “That Was The Week That Was,” we should do well to take a new look at the neglected works of Lucian, the first man to concoct science fiction stories to sugar the bitter but health-giving pill of satire.

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