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).

This preoccupation with classical diction – the origin of the modern Greek katharevousa or ‘pure’ style – points to a wider obsession in the literature of the time with the canon. Like Cavafy and Kazantzakis many centuries later, Lucian assumes he will be read against the backdrop of literary history. To enjoy the Dialogues of the Sea Gods, for example, you need to know (or find out from Hopkinson) what the deities in question have been up to in Homer, Athenian comedy and the poetry of Hellenistic Alexandria. Homer’s Odyssey portrays the Cyclops Polyphemus as a terrifying cannibal; the Alexandrian poet Theocritus (third century BC) playfully recasts him as a lovesick (pre-Odyssean) youth, pining for the nymph Galatea. Lucian gives us Doris, another nymph, teasing Galatea about her ugly boyfriend, while Galatea loyally sticks up for him. There is some enjoyable literary humour, but my favourite line is a simple play on words. Reworking for the Cyclops what is an amatory cliché in Greek as well as in English, Galatea accuses Doris of jealousy because ‘he had an eye for me alone.’

When we begin to probe the reasons for this classicism, however, things get more difficult. Hopkinson, like most critics, explains Lucian’s literariness by reference to the ‘Second Sophistic’, a perilously vague term that scholars use, variously, to cover the era of Greek social history between 50 and 250 AD, the movement of literary classicism during that era, its preoccupation with rhetoric, and a supposed revival of Greek self-consciousness in the aftermath of absorption into the Roman Empire. Grecophone culture in the early empire was, however, extraordinarily diverse: how could a single formula (however hazily defined) capture such varied figures as the erotic novelist Achilles Tatius, the philosopher Sextus the Empiricist, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria and Lucian? All of them were immensely erudite and rhetorically trained, and all worked within a tradition of classicising Hellenism; but in terms of social standing and literary output they could not be more different.

Although the phrase itself is ancient, the idea of the ‘Second Sophistic’ is a flimsy cover used by modern philologists while they plug away at their own obsessions: with Hellenism, with linguistic precision, with the place of the humanities in a global economy, with ‘the European tradition’. Like most scholarly shibboleths, it works some of the time. There certainly were head-in-the-sand Hellenists who liked to pretend that the classical age had never died: all those orators, for example, who delivered speeches in the persona of Demosthenes or Alexander the Great (although even they, I suspect, were using their subjects as allegories for matters closer to home). But it is misleading to suggest that all the writers of the time were driven by a shared agenda. Even Lucian’s work doesn’t fit into a single category. He was certainly deeply read in the Greek literary canon, and he seems also to have had a career (at least in his earlier years) as an orator; and we can point to classicising works like the Dialogues of the Sea Gods. But he wasn’t an ivory-towered defender of the Classical Tradition.

For one thing, he wasn’t ethnically Greek. He was from Samosata, which was part of Syria in Roman times (it is some 50 miles north of the Turkish border on the modern map). Samosata was the former capital of the Hellenistic kingdom of Commagene, one of the buffer zones between Greece and Persia. Commagene is where the local ruler Antiochus built what is now known as Nemrut Dagi, a mountain-top monument to multiculturalism: one side faces east, the other west, and the relief prominently features Greeks shaking hands with Persians. Samosata may have been an Aramaic-speaking town, even in Lucian’s time. An antagonist in his dialogue Twice Accused claims that when he began his training he was ‘barbarian in speech, and all but wearing a jacket in the Syrian style’. ‘Barbarian speech’ may refer to a different language, or to unrefined Greek. Still, the important point is that here and elsewhere Lucian makes play of his non-Greek origins.

Lucian was an outspoken critic of the world around him. One of his favourite targets is the commercialisation of the literary heritage. The Ignorant Book-Collector is a diatribe against an unnamed rich man from Syria, who buys a fancy edition of the classics (‘with a purple parchment envelope and a gold knob’), and then reads it, ‘barbarising, debasing and distorting it – to the mockery of the educated, although your crowd of flatterers may praise you’. This picks up a theme common in Lucian’s writing: the destructive effects of wealth on traditional values (Timon is another example). This is an ever present theme of satire, from Juvenal to the English Augustans, but in Lucian it has particular bite. There is nothing that explicitly marks the ignoramus as a Roman citizen, but Lucian elsewhere blames the degradation of Greek learning on the fashion for wealthy Roman patrons to engage Greek clients (these may be the crowd of ‘flatterers’). The mini vogue between the 1940s and 1960s for seeing Lucian as a proto-Marxist is now widely derided, but the baby has surely been thrown out with the bathwater: although he has no constructive social theory and is (but of course) inconsistent, he returns time and again to the idea that wealth and hierarchy are the enemies of human values and happiness.

Hopkinson downplays the significance of the social satire. ‘Lucian’s works,’ he says, ‘are hardly the place to look for a balanced view of the relationship between Greek cultural nostalgia and the realities of Roman economic power,’ because the satirical jibes are usually founded on a literary allusion. So exaggeration and literary sophistication are incompatible with social critique? For sure, Lucian doesn’t give a ‘balanced’ view, but then neither does Sacha Baron Cohen or Stephen Colbert. And as with them, it’s risky to try to pin down Lucian’s targets. Is The Ignorant Book-Collector just a jibe at a real individual? Or is it mocking Lucian’s readers and their pretensions to literary sophistication? Or is Lucian deprecating the best-known upstart literary Syrian around – himself? Or is this an attack on the system of Roman patronage, its cronyism and exploitation? Presumably, all of the above, in some measure: as with Borat or Brüno, it is funny precisely because unsettling questions are being asked of us.

It is in his handling of religion, as his Byzantine and Catholic critics testify, that Lucian’s invective is most hard-hitting. Lucian ‘may follow Aristophanes in mocking the traditional Olympian gods,’ Hopkinson writes, ‘but he ignores popular contemporary cults.’ But two works in particular show Lucian fully aware of the religious world around him: Alexander, or the False Prophet (the model for Fielding’s Jonathan Wild) and The Death of Peregrinus. Both Lucian’s targets were real people, attested by other sources. Alexander founded an oracular cult in rural Paphlagonia, centred on the local snake-god, Glycon. Peregrinus was an itinerant philosopher who attached himself to various subcultures, and immolated himself on a bonfire at the Olympic Games in AD 165.

Peregrinus was the work that offended the author of the entry in the Suda and the Inquisition. It contains the earliest reference in (non-Christian) Greek to Christianity, and to Jesus Christ: ‘the human being crucified in Palestine for introducing this new cult to the world … the sophist on the cross’. You can see why Christians might be piqued, but they aren’t Lucian’s prime target: Christianity, not yet the headline act on the stage of Greco-Roman religion, was hardly a worthy adversary at this stage. Christians were just one of a series of gullible sects hungry for spiritual leadership, exploited by a self-seeking, unscrupulous publicist. Rather, Peregrinus and Alexander dramatise the tension in second-century religious culture between two powerful forces: the desire to experiment with new cults, particularly when they promise salvation in the afterlife, and the aloof scepticism of a culture that had been questioning the literal truth of divinities for nearly a millennium.

The modern reader of Alexander and Peregrinus is pitched into an eerily familiar world: a rapidly globalising marketplace for religion, producing traditionalism, agnosticism and fundamentalism in equal proportions. (How many virgins were waiting in heaven for Peregrinus after his suicide?) One of the striking features in both works is the huge geographical canvas. Peregrinus was born in Parion (in the Dardanelles), but pops up in Armenia, Palestine, Egypt, Italy and Greece, where his flamboyant suicide leads Lucian to compare him with the Indian Brahmins. Alexander, by contrast, is not a great traveller; rather, he creates networks of dependents to extend his reach. Lucian tells how the cult spread over ‘Ionia, Cilicia, Paphlagonia and Galatia’, and finally to Italy. This account is confirmed by archaeology: coins, inscriptions and images of Glycon have been found across Turkey, Romania, Albania and Greece.

Lucian, here, is an astute observer of a world shrunk and joined together by Roman pacification and road-building, in which religion was rapidly becoming the coin of power. His picture of canny strategists exploiting this new environment to move from the margins to the hub is invaluable as a sketch of the religious and cultural landscape of the day. In all sorts of ways, the enterprising Alexander and Peregrinus are much better case studies of Greek mentality in the early Roman period than the closeted bibliophiles like Plutarch and Aulus Gellius who hog the limelight in modern scholarship; religious crackpots gave advance warning of the religious upheavals of the Constantinian world. Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that Lucian has a sneaking admiration for his anti-heroes, like him self-made men who started out on the margins of the civilised world.

You can tell a lot about classicists, particularly Hellenists, by the way they deal with religion. On the one hand, there is a desire to see the Greeks as fundamentally secular: sophisticated, rational, liberal, progressive – pretty much the image of their modern avatars. A contrary tendency, however, emphasises absolute difference (or ‘otherness’). From this vantage point, Greek culture exists not on the page, but in the alien world of rituals, sacrifices, scapegoats and goat-songs that lies behind it. But for how much longer will this compartmentalisation of ‘modernising’ and ‘primitivising’ approaches be sustainable? There are strong indications of an adjustment. One is the recent return to favour of one of the most extraordinary Lucianic works, On the Syrian Goddess. (Scholars occasionally deny that it is by Lucian, but only in despair at its extraordinariness.) In it the narrator adopts the dialect and techniques of Herodotus, the fifth-century ‘father of history’, to describe the cult of Atargatis, the Syrian goddess of the title, in Hierapolis (modern Manbij), not too far down the Euphrates from Lucian’s hometown. His Herodotean pose encourages us to see the cult from the outside: this is how a Greek describes ‘otherness’ to fellow Greeks. Yet the narrator is also a Syrian, and (as we learn at the end) an initiate into the cult. Lucian’s experience wasn’t unusual in the ancient world. As Jane Lightfoot’s immense and erudite commentary, published in 2003, makes clear, the evidence suggests that Atargatis was always perceived as a complex, culturally hybrid figure, a blend of Semitic, Anatolian and Greek. No one thought of her as a complete insider. On the Syrian Goddess is hard to fit into the concept of the ‘Second Sophistic’: it may flaunt its erudition, but it certainly isn’t a defence of Greek cultural heritage.

Another sign of the scholarly future came in October 2008, when the University of Adiyaman in Turkey, then only three years old, held its first humanities conference – on Lucian. To an outsider, this might seem an obvious choice, since Adiyaman is the city closest to the now submerged site of Samosata. But the university is primarily vocational, and has no specialists in Greek (which, for obvious reasons, has at best a marginal position in the Turkish educational system). Indeed, there is no complete translation of Lucian into Turkish. It took an enterprising professor in the education department, Mustafa Çevik, to capitalise on the fact that the Adiyaman region had been the home of a literary superstar. What became obvious very quickly during the conference was the huge gulf in approach between the Adiyaman scholars and those from the US and Europe (and indeed from coastal Turkey). The latter were preoccupied with literary technique and historical context; the former were more concerned with theology. What were Lucian’s views on the afterlife? Did he oppose polytheism? How serious was his critique of Christianity?

A timely reminder, then, that secular philology has no monopoly on the kinds of question we can put to an ancient text. Not that the local scholars were simply bypassing the Enlightenment tradition and returning to the religious entrenchment of the Byzantine ‘fortress’. Theirs is an up-to-the-minute Lucian, who opens up fundamental but tricky questions about the relationships between Turkey, Islam and Europe. In the background, moreover, lies the issue of the cultural fit of Kurdish regions such as Adiyaman into Turkey as a whole. There is an emerging movement to reclaim Lucian as ‘one of the greatest Kurdish literati of all times’, whose real name was Roushin (see for example In this version of events, the construction of the Atatürk dam in 1990, which submerged the archaeological site of Samosata, is part of a vast and deliberate attempt to wash the Kurds out of Turkish history.

But the truth about Lucian is buried under more than just water. He was not a proto-Muslim or ethnic Kurd, for the simple reason that these categories made no sense in the second century ad. One of the hard-won and inalienable gains of philology on the northern European model is the acceptance that ancient texts cannot be treated as handmaidens to modern ideologies. Studies like Hopkinson’s emphasise the importance of careful, nuanced interpretation within a tradition quite unlike our own. Philology remains our best hope of hearing the ancient world’s distinctive accent. But philology has its own ideology, reflecting as it does a faith in a secular, rational modernity. The question is how it will adapt to a new world in which that faith has been badly shaken.