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Lucianus, a Famous Satirist
Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Lucianus (8), a famous satirist, the wittiest, except Aristophanes, of all the extant writers of antiquity. Born (probably c. 120) at Samosata on the Euphrates, the son of poor parents, he gradually betook himself to the composing and reciting of rhetorical exercises, which he did with continually increasing success as he journeyed westwards, visiting Greece, Italy, and Gaul, where his success reached the highest pitch. As in course of time his rhetorical vein exhausted itself, he betook himself, when about 40 years old, to that style of writing-dialogue on which his permanent fame has rested. About the same time he returned eastwards through Athens, and was at Olympia in a.d. 165, when he saw the extraordinary self-immolation by fire of the sophist Peregrinus. A little later he visited Paphlagonia, where he vehemently attacked, and made a bitter enemy of, the impostor Alexander of Abonoteichos. Of the extraordinary success of this man in deluding the weak and credulous minds of the rude people of those parts, and even the cultivated senators of Rome, Lucian has left us an animated account in the False Prophet ( ψευδόμαντις ). Lucian once had an interview with him, and stooping down, instead of kissing his hand, as was the custom, bit it severely. Luckily he had a guard of two soldiers with him, sent by his friend the governor of Cappadocia (a proof of Lucian's importance at this time), or he would have fared badly at the hands of the attendants of Alexander. The latter pretended reconciliation, and subsequently lent Lucian a ship to return home in, but gave secret instructions to the crew to throw him overboard on the voyage. The master of the ship, however, repented, and Lucian was landed at Aegialos, and thence conveyed to Amastris in a ship belonging to the ambassadors of king Eupator. He endeavoured to get Alexander punished for this piece of treachery, but the latter's influence was too strong. Of his later years we know but little; he was, however, appointed by the emperor (probably Commodus) to a post of honour and emolument in Egypt.
We do not know the cause, manner, or time of his death. His writings, with all their brilliancy, do not convey the impression of a warm-hearted man; the Peregrinus is especially noticeable for the hard unconcern with which he describes both the self-sacrificing love of the Christians and the tragic self-sought death of the sophist. For cool common sense and determination to see everything in its naked reality, apart from the disturbing influences of hope, fear, enthusiasm, or superstition, he has never in any age been surpassed. His most essential characteristic could not be better described than in his own words, in the dialogue entitled Ἁλιεύς , or the Fisherman : "I am a hater of imposture, jugglery, lies, and ostentation, and in short of all that rascally sort of men; and there are very many of them" (Â§ 20). Shortly after he says very candidly that there was some danger of his losing his power of esteem and love, for want of opportunities of exercising it; whereas opportunities in the contrary direction were ample and frequent.
For a complete analysis of his works see D. of G. and R. Biogr., s.v. Here it must suffice to indicate his relations to the religious influence of his time, and, above all, to Christianity.
The progress of experience, the leisure of research, had in his time shattered all real belief in the gods of ancient Greece and Rome in the minds of cultured men. But the vast crowd of deities, which the conflux of so many nations under the protecting shadow of Rome had gathered together, received, collectively and separately, a certain respect from the most incredulous. To the statesman, the gods of Rome were the highest symbol of the power of the imperial city; as such, he required for them external homage, to refuse which might be construed as rebellion against the state. Philosophers feared lest, if the particular acts of special deities were too rudely criticized, the reverence due to the gods in their remote and abstract sanctity might decay. Hence both classes favoured the sway of religious beliefs to which they had themselves ceased to adhere. The multitude was tossed about from religion to religion, from ceremony to ceremony, from rite to rite, in the vain hope that among so many supernatural powers some might lead men rightly to safety and happiness. The urgent need felt for guidance and the actual deficiency of sound guidance formed a combination favourable to the designs of greedy impostors. The Stoic philosophers, it is true, had formed a moral system capable of impressing on intellectual minds a remarkable self-restraint and large elements of virtue. But in hopefulness, the living sap which gives virtue its vitality, the Stoic was grievously deficient; and hence his philosophy was powerless with the multitude, and apt to degenerate into a hypocritical semblance even with its learned professors. There probably was never a time when so great a variety of hypocrisies and false beliefs prevailed among men. Such a world Lucian, with a cold, penetrating intellect, described with an audacity seldom paralleled. The ordinary method of his satire on the mythology of Greece and Rome consists in simply exhibiting the current legends as he finds them, stripped of the halo of awe and splendour with which they had habitually been surrounded, to the amused and critical reader. Sometimes his attack is more directâ€”as in the Ζεὺς Τραγῳδός , Jupiter the Tragedian, where the plain insinuation is that the general profession of belief in the gods was simply occasioned by the odium and alarm which a contrary assertion would excite. Not so sweeping in extent, but still more unreserved in exposing the doings of the heathen deities, is the treatise περὶ θυσιῶν , on Sacrifices. The Ζεὺς Τραγῳδός shews Lucian's disbelief in any divine governance of the world; the treatise περὶ πένθους , on Mourning, his disbelief in immortality.
But what was Lucian's attitude towards Christianity, which in his age was beginning to be known as no inconsiderable power in all parts of the Roman world? Two dialogues have to be considered in answering this questionâ€”Ἀλέξανδρος ἢ Ψσευδόμαντις , Alexander, or the False Prophet; and περὶ τῆς Περεγρίνου τελευτῆς , Concerning the death of Peregrinus; for the Philopatris may be dismissed at once as pretty certainly no genuine work of its reputed author.
The most sympathetic allusion to the Christians by the genuine Lucian is in the "Alexander," where the Christians are joined with the Epicureans (whom Lucian much admired) as persistent and indomitable opponents of that fine specimen of rascality. A much fuller and more interesting account of the Christians is contained in the other work named. This (together with the Philopatris) was placed on the Index Expurgatorius, and hence does not appear in the first and second Aldine editions of Lucian (Venice, 1503 and 1522). Yet all that it says about the early Christians is very highly to their credit, except in attributing to them a too great εὐήθεια , a simplicity and guilelessness which rendered them liable to be deceived by worthless pretenders to sanctity. The passage contains one or two statementsâ€”that about the new Socrates, and the eating forbidden foodâ€”which it is difficult to think strictly accurate. Peregrinus Proteus was a cynic philosopher who flourished in the reign of the Antonines, and who, after a life of singularly perverted ambition, burnt himself publicly at the Olympian games, a.d. 165. We quote the passage from Francklin's translation:
"About this time it was that he learned the wonderful wisdom of the Christians, being intimately acquainted with many of their priests and scribes. In a very short time he convinced them that they were all boys to him; became their prophet, their leader, grand president, and, in short, all in all to them. He explained and interpreted several of their books, and wrote some himself, insomuch that they looked upon him as their legislator and high priest, nay, almost worshipped him as a god. Their leader, whom they yet adore, was crucified in Palestine for introducing this new sect. Proteus was on this account cast into prison, and this very circumstance was the foundation of all the consequence and reputation which he afterwards gained, and of that glory for which he had always been so ambitious; for when he was in bonds the Christians, considering it as a calamity affecting the common cause, did everything in their power to release him, which when they found impracticable, they paid him all possible deference and respect; old women, widows, and orphans were continually crowding to him; some of the most principal of them even slept with him in the prison, having bribed the keepers for that purpose; there were costly suppers brought in to them; they read their sacred books together, and the noble Peregrinus (for so he was then called) was dignified by them with the title of the New Socrates. Several of the Christian deputies from the cities of Asia came to assist, to plead for, and comfort him. It is incredible with what alacrity these people support and defend the public causeâ€”they spare nothing, in short, to promote it. Peregrinus being made a prisoner on their account, they collected money for him, and he made a very pretty revenue of it. These poor men, it seems, had persuaded themselves that they should be immortal, and live for ever. They despised death, therefore, and offered up their lives a voluntary sacrifice, being taught by their lawgiver that they were all brethren, and that, quitting our Grecian gods, they must worship their own sophist, who was crucified, and live in obedience to his laws. In compliance with them they looked with contempt on all worldly treasures, and held everything in commonâ€”a maxim which they had adopted without any reason or foundation. If any cunning impostor, therefore, who knew how to manage matters came amongst them, he soon grew rich by imposing on the credulity of these weak and foolish men. Peregrinus, however, was set at liberty by the governor of Syria, a man of learning and a lover of philosophy, who withal well knew the folly of the man, and that he would willingly have suffered death for the sake of that glory and reputation which he would have acquired by it. Thinking him, however, not worthy of so honourable an exit, he let him go. . . . Once more, however, he was obliged to fly his country. The Christians were again his resource, and, having entered into their service, he wanted for nothing. Thus he subsisted for some time; but at length, having done something contrary to their laws (I believe it was eating food forbidden amongst them), he was reduced to want, and forced to retract his donation to the city, and to ask for his estate again, and issued a process in the name of the emperor to recover it; but the city sent messages to him commanding him to remain where he was, and be satisfied."
It would seem from the above that community of goods, in some degree or other, was practised among the early Christians to a later date than is generally supposed. Lucian confirms the general opinion as to the continual liability to persecution of the Christians of those ages. Moreover, though considering them weak and deluded people, he charges them with no imposture or falsehood, though he was very prone to bring such charges. In fact, did we know nothing of the early Christians but what he here records, his account would raise our interest in them in a very high degree; even their too great simplicity is not an unlovable trait.
There is an excellent trans. of Lucian by Wieland into German (Leipz. 1788â€“1789, 6 vols. 8vo), and one of great merit into Eng. by Dr. Francklin in 2 vols. 4to (Lond. 1780) and 4 vols. 8vo (Lond. 1781). For other edd. and trans. see D. of G. and R. Biogr.
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Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Lucianus, a Famous Satirist'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​l/lucianus-a-famous-satirist.html. 1911.