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Lucian of Samosata

(c. 120 - c. 190 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Lucian of Samosata

Lucian of Samosata was born in Samosata in the Commagene on the Euphrates around 120 CE. He was Roman rhetoric and satirist, writing in Greek; sophist. He is considered the creator of social satire. His name in Polish is Lucjan.

Youth and education

He came from a poor Syrian family. Initially, he learned the profession of a sculptor, which he quickly abandoned to study rhetoric and philosophy, although he did not become a philosopher. Thanks to hard work, he mastered the perfect Greek language and became one of the most outstanding representatives of the so-called second sophistry.

Following the example of the Sophists, he travelled extensively in Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and Gaul, giving spectacle speeches in all major centres of contemporary rhetoric, such as Athens, Rome, Antioch, Ephesus and Smyrna. He stayed the longest in Massalia (today’s Marseille), where he gained great fame and fortune. Księga Suda adds that for some time he was a court spokesman, so close to the bar. Others believe that he did in fact act as legal counsel but dropped the bar. About 160 CE he returned briefly to the East, then settled in Athens, where he abandoned rhetoric and began studying philosophy. This is also where Lucian’s best pieces were composed. He met and admired the philosopher Demonax, he became close to the Academy and to the student of the philosopher Epictetus, Arrian. He was especially interested in cynicism. The conflicting views of the philosophical schools made him discouraged from all dogmatism, sceptical restraint and criticism.

He spent the last years of his life in Egypt, where he was the head of the chancellery at the Roman governor, given to him by Emperor Commodus.

Approach to Christianity

In several of his works, Lucian mentions Christians directly or indirectly. Among them, he sees extraordinary solidarity in caring for his fellow believers. He is generally oriented in the functioning of the Christian community. The Christians themselves are not, however, the object of his direct attacks, Lucian does not repeat slanderous rumours about them, but finds their teachings bizarre and describes them as possessed. Christians, on the other hand, responded by spreading rumours that Lucian had been torn to pieces by dogs, and the Book of Suda stated that he and Satan would be the heir of the eternal fire.

In the text On Death, Peregrina states that in Palestine he came into contact with the teachings of Christians and mentions Jesus who was killed there, describing him as a sophist, a wizard (a trickster). In another work (Alexander, or the False Prophet), Lucian lists the wicked, Christians and epicureans, as enemies of the cult of the serpent-god Glykon. In yet another work (Niedowiarek, or Friend of Nonsense), Lucian probably alludes to the person of Jesus. It describes quite accurately the activities of a certain Syrian from Palestine who cast out evil spirits from people.


Under his name, 79 prose pieces, 2 tragic parodies and 53 epigrams(not all authentic) have been preserved. The earliest are rhetorical writings on mythological and historical topics, sometimes in the form of fictional court speeches. As a “barbarian” he mastered Greek and Greek literature very well. Because of this, he had a sense of cultural superiority over the Romans. He knew Latin very little, he ignored Roman literature, he did not mention a single Latin author.

His most mature and distinctive work is dialogues, especially satirical dialogues, most of which originated in Athens. The passion for this form was taken over by, among others from the practice of professional rhetoricians who teach to deliver “for” and “against” speeches in fictitious lawsuits. More than 35 of his works are in the form of a dialogue or similar. He learned the art of building a dialogue from Plato. He also took titles from him sometimes. He also took over from the cynical diatribe. He was greatly influenced by Menippus of Gadara. He often introduced him as an interlocutor to his dialogues, and from his satyr, he drew some motives, e.g. the motive of going down to Hades. The scenery of his dialogues is very varied: the action takes place in the street, in a banquet hall, in heaven, underground, in the air and in water. The gallery of interlocutors is very rich: there are gods, people, animals, personifications of abstract concepts, the dead, the living, historical, imaginary and allegorical figures.

He was characterized by an extraordinary panache and vivid imagination. He was well-read and made use of the rich traditions of Greek literature with great ease. He mocked new beliefs, religious superstitions and superstitions. He was surprised with the inexhaustible wealth of motives, sharp wit and keen observation. He amused the reader with amusing scenes, exposed charlatans, and sketched satirical figures with mastery. He sharply criticized the life and people of the time, stigmatized the pursuit of wealth, class inequalities, and mocked philosophers, anthropomorphic deities and superstitions. He was a consummate stylist. He wrote in the Attic dialect. For humorous purposes, he enriched his language with cancer, and sometimes he gave new meanings to some words. But natural in style. Some critics and scholars recognize him as the most brilliant stylist of all time. He was one of the greatest and most widely read writers of the empire.

Literary output

His literary output included:

  • Scriptures in prose
    • True Story (Alethes Historia, Latin Vera Historia, CE 165-175) – a short satire, sometimes a parody of Homer and other authors who wrote incredible stories, such as Jambulos, Antony Diogenes, and Ctesias. At the same time, the first known example of science fiction.
    • Lucius or the Donkey (Lukios e Onos) – better known from the Latin, extended version of Apuleius, it is an abbreviation of the original work that has not survived, Greek author, Lucian’s authorship is disputed.
    • Saturnalia (Saturnalia) – triptych consisting of three parts: Conversation with Kronos, Kronosolon (named after Solon) and Correspondence with Kronos. Dialogue with a predominance of stories about the holiday of Cronus (Roman Saturnalia). First part: Complaining about injustice towards the poor. Part Two: Announcement of New Rights. Part three: the correspondence of the rich with Kronos. Lucian takes an opportunistic attitude towards the rich, he is a spokesman for the poor, but also a critic of them. The thread is continued by Lucian in another extremely humorous work – Sen, or Rooster (Gallus), where the author went even further and proves that the life and fate of the poor is better than the rich man who is tormented by care and anxiety for his property.
  • Dialogues
    • Symposium (Symposion) – a humorous imitation of the “Feast” by Plato and Xenophon, and at the same time a scathing satire on speculative philosophy and on philosophers themselves.
    • Hermotimos, or On the Schools of Philosophy (Hermotimus) – is the longest work, Socratic dialogue, modelled on Platonic Protagoras. He criticizes all philosophical schools and warns young people against them.
    • Nigrinos, or On the character of a philosopher (Nigrinus) – a piece based on the Platonic Feast. The author warns young men against recklessly embracing philosophy. At the end of the piece, the protagonist decides to avoid philosophers like rabid and biting dogs.
    • Menippos (Menippos), Tymon (Timon), Rybak (Halieus) – dialogues with echoes of Attic comedy.
    • Ikaromenippos or the Overhead Journey (Ikaromenippos) – a fantasy dialogue, a certain philosopher who absolutely wants to prove that the Earth is round, flies to the moon taking one wing from a vulture and the other from an eagle.
    • Conversations of the Dead (Nekrikoi Dialogoi) – dialogue imbued with Cynic philosophy, which also includes elements of Attic comedy.
    • Conversation with Hesiod (Dissertatio cum Hesiodo) – a very short dialogue in which Lucian argues with Hesiod about the alleged knowledge of the future of Beotsky poet.
    • Conversations of the Gods (Theon Dialogoi) – the parody concerns various loves, whose heroes are, among others, Zeus, Hera, Selene, Heracles, Apollo and their descendants.
    • Conversations of the Sea Deities (Enalioi Dialogoi) – one of Lucian’s most famous dialogues, full of humour but without too much religious criticism. The dialogue presents a series of mythical-legendary events. Lucian referred to Alexandrian poetry and pantomime scenarios.
    • Conversations Heter (Hetairikoi Dialogoi) – a dialogue clearly referring to the new Attic comedy. The topic revolves around heterosexual complaints about their lovers, their marriage, breaking up with a poor lover, competitors, or their teachers’ dissuading young lovers from affection. The dialogue even touches tribadism. The last conversation is pornographic.
    • The Ship, or Wishes (Navigium seu vota) – a cynical critique of the perversity of human dreams and wishes.
    • Zeus confused (Iupiter confutatus) – cynic’s dialogue with Zeus. Can Zeus Escape Destiny (Mores)? If not, what is the point of sacrificing the gods to change their destiny? Why does Zeus’ lightning strike innocent trees and spare the villains? The clash between cynics and epicureans. A parodic presentation of the question of destiny, the existence and worship of gods and providence.
  • Literary criticisms of different genres of prose
    • Rhetoron Teacher (Rhetoron Didaskalos) – ironic, sarcastic teaching on how with insolence and ignorance you can become an influential rhetorician.
    • How history should be written (Pos dei Historian Syngraphein) – a funny critique of contemporary historians, for Lucianthe ideal of a historian may be the one who combines the charm of Herodotus with the objectivity of Thucydides.
  • Works of rhetoric
    • Phalaris (Phalaris) – about the cruel Sicilian tyrant of Phalaris of the 6th century BCE, who offered Apollo a bronze bull, a tool of execution.
    • Twice Disinherited (Apokeryttomenos) – fictional speech defending a son threatened with unjust disinheritance.
    • Tyrankiller (Tyrannoktonos) – about a fame-hungry daredevil who kills his son instead of a tyrant and demands a reward.
  • Anti-religious works
    • Alexander, or the False Prophet (Alexandros e Pseudomantis) – about the trickster Alexander assuming the oracle and creating the cult of the new god Glykon. In this piece, Lucian mentions Christians.
    • About Peregrin’s Death (Peri tes Peregrinu Teleutes) – about a wandering tramp and charlatan. In this work, Lucian quite extensively refers to Christians, among whom the title character was to spend some time.
    • Nieowiarek, or Friend of bredni (Philopseudes sive Incredulus) – a rich man suffering from gout is visited by friends, philosophers (Platonist, peripatetic, Stoic and Pythagorean). They tell him stories of ghosts and fears, and the whole thing can be considered an exceptional slander of faith in an immortal soul.
    • About the victims (De Sacrificiis) – a diatribe criticizing the behaviour of a stupid crowd in temples, with particular emphasis on the cult of Ethiopians and Egyptians.
    • About mourning (de luctu) – a short diatribe. The deceased son receives a leave from Pluto and, having been resurrected, returns to his father to show him the futility of grief and sacrifice for the dead.
  • Chants of praise, diatribes, descriptions, speeches
    • Praise of the Flies (Myias Enkomion) – paradoxically, the least worthy of praise topic, almost making an elephant out of a fly. He hyperbolically points out to Plato that he omitted the fly as “evidence” in his considerations on the immortal soul.
    • Vowel Court (Dike Phoneenton) – a grammatical tragedy where individual vowels – at the request of the letters Sigma – lead the court against the letter Tau. Lucian’s playful little work led to a “grammar war” among contemporary educators of the 19th century.
    • Defense of images (pro imaginibus) – dialogue based on Panthea’s fictitious protest to being depicted in a painting and comparing her to the gods. Referring to poets and philosophers, the author justifies the depiction of a man who, after all, is the image of god. Panthein’s protest only shows how modest she is.
    • About not believing slander easily (de columnia) – the content of the declamation closely resembles the work of Plutarch (On distinguishing flatterers from a friend). Condemnation of slander based on numerous examples from the court of, among others, Alexander the Great and Ptolemy.
  • Works on language matters
    • Pseudosophist or Solecist (Pseudosophistes) – a short joke of pseudo atticism. Although the interlocutor avoids solecisms, he is unable to define them.
    • Leksiphanes (Leksiphanes) – a critique of using Attic idioms. Lexiphanes wrote The Feast only to use the Attic names of food and drink in it… He made a public lecture and for this reason, Lucian felt sick and decided to cure Leksufanes of hypercriticism.
  • Autobiographical works
    • Dream or Lucian’s career (Peri tu Enypniu)
    • Life of Demonaktos (Demonaktos Bios) – a piece not entirely traditionally biographical. It is like a collection of anecdotes related to the person of Demonax, but it can also be associated with Socrates or Krates. A piece was written with the intention of giving young people a contemporary example to follow, without having to reach into the distant past.


He probably died in Athens around 190 CE. The prevailing opinion was that he certainly died after 180 CE, but some people postpone his death to 200 CE.

  • Lukian, Dialogi t. 1-3, tł. Władysław Madyda, Konstanty Boguski, 1960, 1962, 1966
  • Sinko Tadeusz, Literatura grecka, Kraków 1951
  • Sinko Tadeusz, Zarys historii literatury greckiej, tom II, Warszawa 1959
  • Świderkówna Anna (red.), Słownik pisarzy antycznych, Warszawa 1982

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