Target Practice

Tim Whitmarsh

  • Lucian: A Selection edited by Neil Hopkinson
    Cambridge, 239 pp, £19.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 84200 6

Lucian of Samosata, nicknamed ‘blasphemer’ or ‘slanderer’ – better, in fact, to call him ‘atheist’, because in his dialogues he went so far as to ridicule religious beliefs … The story goes that he was killed by dogs, because of his rabid attacks on the truth, for in his Life of Peregrinus he inveighed against Christianity, and (accursed man!) blasphemed against Christ himself. For that reason he paid the penalty due for his rabidity in this world, and in the life to come he will share the eternal fire with Satan.

The massive encyclopedia of classical learning known as the Suda, produced in Constantinople in the tenth century, is not a work of great subtlety. It preserves invaluable biographical data, fragments, titles and names from classical antiquity, intercut with a distinctively Byzantine mix of zealotry and paranoia. Suda means ‘fortress’: this enormous monument to learning was built for warfare. Lucian, the second-century author of Greek satires, parodies, polemics and racy fantasies, was definitely outside the battlements. And that is, no doubt, where he would have wanted to be.

Lucian has always polarised opinion. His reputation as Satan’s eternal room-mate was enhanced in the 16th century, when he won a place on the Inquisition’s Index of Prohibited Books. At the same time, he was being lionised elsewhere in Europe by the new Protestant champions of Greek philology. Sir Thomas More and Erasmus (also honoured with an appearance in the Index) were both keen translators and literary imitators of Lucian. His supporters saw him as a clear-thinking and free-speaking opponent of flummery, as well as a brilliant stylist and outstanding wit.

Neil Hopkinson’s new commentary on seven selections from Lucian’s huge corpus is testament to the victory, at least for now, of the northern Europeans. Hopkinson’s focus is on Lucian as littérateur, cynical debunker, author of bijou mash-ups of literary history. His sharp introduction tells us about Lucian’s educational background, his cultural context, his language and style, and his relationship to literary models. This is Lucian the bookish intellectual, not the blaspheming ridiculer of religions.

Included here are The Dream, an allegorical reverie predicting the author’s fame as a writer and performer; You’re a Literary Prometheus, a literary manifesto for genre-bastardising; The Ignorant Book-Collector, a squib attacking a bibliophile poseur; The Court of the Vowels, a mock prosecution of the Greek letter tau by the letter sigma; Timon, a dialogue featuring the Athenian misanthrope (perhaps an indirect influence on Shakespeare’s play); and the Dialogues of the Sea Gods, wittily bathetic dramatisations of divine squabbling. Most of these works are, directly or indirectly, about language, literature and literary allusion – topics that appeal to modern classicists.

Lucian’s own classicism comes to the fore in The Court of the Vowels, both a pastiche of classical legal rhetoric and a commentary on the second-century fad for writing in the ‘Attic’ dialect of democratic Athens (fourth and fifth centuries BC), which used tt in place of the more regular ss (spelling the word for ‘sea’ thalatta rather than thalassa, for example). It’s inventive, donnish humour. Sigma invokes case law: remember, he fulminates, when gnapheion became knapheion (alternative ways of spelling the word for ‘a fuller’s shop’)? Then he turns to scaremongering about a future in which tau anarchically appropriates other letters’ positions at will. Even the legendary Persian conqueror Cyrus (Kuros) would be at risk, he warns, of turning into cheese (turos).

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