The Greek satirical writer Lucian (ca. 120 A.D.-ca. 200 A.D.) is noted for his mastery of Greek prose and satirical dialogue. He was an unrelenting but delightful critic of mythological and philosophical doctrines.
Most of what we know about Lucian comes from his own works. He was born at Samosata in Syria, and his native language was probably Syriac, though he thoroughly mastered Greek. He practiced the profession of a sophistic rhetorician in Greece, Italy, and Gaul. About 165 A.D. he settled in Athens but later, apparently in desperate need of funds in his old age, accepted a governmental position in Roman Egypt. Never a philosopher in the technical sense, he knew the schools of the Academics, Skeptics, and Cynics and seemed to have leanings toward the Epicureans.
Lucian wrote about 80 works, which are principally in dialogue form. They can be divided into five periods and categories: rhetorical, literary, philosophical, satirical, and miscellaneous.
The rhetorical output of Lucian includes two speeches: in Phalaris I the tyrant Phalaris of Akragas sends his famous bull as an offering to Delphi; in Phalaris II one of the Delphians suggests accepting the offering. The Tyrannicide and the Disowned Son also belong in this category. Later in date are the Apology for a Wrong Greeting and some other works.
Lucian's literary work varies in significance and length. Lexiphanes and Trial before the Vowels make fun of extreme Atticizing; How to Write History contains advice on historiography that is still valuable; and The True History is a hilarious account of man's trip to the moon, which is remarkably modern in tone.
The philosophical category owes much to the satirist Menippus, who appears in a number of the works. Lucian himself also appears, thinly disguised. The most impressive work is probably the Hermotimus, a critique of stoicism, but Cock, Sale of Lives, Icaromenippus, Demonax, Charon, Fisher, Zeus Cross-examined, and Voyage to the Lower World are worthy of note.
In his satirical writings, Lucian attacks the philosophers. Common life (Dialogues of Courtesans) and contemporary life (Against an Ignorant Bookbuyer and Concerning Hired Companions) are described, but most notable are the attacks on religious movements (Dialogues of the Gods and the biographies of Alexandros of Abonuteichos and Peregrinos).
Miscellaneous writings by Lucian include Tragopodagra (Tragic Gout) and Ocypus (Swift Foot), mock tragedies in poetic form. The novel Lucius; or The Ass is often assigned to him.
Lucian was a versatile writer with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous. He sensed what often seems the futility of human life, but he also showed real sympathy for the poor and down-and-out. He subjected the institutions of his day to a scrutiny they deserve but cannot always survive. The classical scholar Gilbert Murray (The Literature of Ancient Greece, 3d ed. 1956) well describes Lucian's significance: "He is an important figure, both as representing a view of life which has a certain permanent value for all ages, and also a sign of the independent vigour of Eastern Hellenism when it escaped from its state patronage or rebelled against its educational duties."
Francis G. Allinson, ed., Lucian: Selected Writings (1905), includes some information about Lucian. A study of his life, works, and beliefs is Allinson's Lucian: Satirist-Artist (1926). See also Basil L. Gildersleeve's "Lucian" in Richard C. Jebb, Essays and Studies (1907), and John Jay Chapman, Lucian, Plato and Greek Morals (1931).