A world-renowned satirist who wrote in Greek in the second-century Roman Empire, he left an indelible mark on the literature of the West. He gave us “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and what many call the first science fiction novel—a tale about a bizarre journey to the Moon. His works influenced countless writers and other artists of subsequent centuries, including Michelangelo, Erasmus, Thomas More, Goethe, Shakespeare, Kepler, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne and more, up to today.
Lucian the Syrian, or Lucian of Samosata, is thought to have written about 70 surviving works, a majority of which are satirical. He used the Platonic dialogue as his principal format for satire, but he also composed satirical narratives that amount to early comedic novels. A True Story
, describing a fantastical voyage of a ship carried by a waterspout to the Moon and back, is one. Another of his best-known works is Philopseudes
(Lover of Lies), a comic dialogue and frame tale that uses
parody to expose hypocrisy in the field of philosophy.
Both writings reflect the long-standing influence Lucian’s works have had on Western thought and popular culture. It was a story in Philopseudes
that helped spawn “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” best remembered as the Mickey Mouse segment in Walt Disney’s 1940 classic animated feature film Fantasia
. That film was built around the stirring “symphonic poem” L’apprenti sorcier
(The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
), composed by France’s Paul Dukas in 1898, which was itself based on Der Zauberlehrling
, a poem written a century earlier by German writer, statesman and Romanticist Johann von Goethe, based on Lucian's story.
In Disney’s version, Mickey, as the apprentice, dons his master’s magic hat while the sorcerer is away and casts a spell to create a walking, two-armed broom to carry buckets of water to help fill a large stone cauldron. But Mickey doesn’t know how to end the spell, and the broom makes repeated trips, overflowing the cauldron. The panicked apprentice takes an axe and chops the broom to splinters, but each sliver becomes a new walking broom, and all the new brooms begin hauling buckets of water, flooding the chamber. It takes the return of the master to break the spell, end the chaos, drain the water and restore order.
A rationalist and humanist, he mocked the pompous by emphasizing the preposterous.
Leopold Stokowski, who conducted Fantasia’s
score, confirmed the animated tale was “a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years” to Lucian’s Philopseudes
, in which the sorcerer is the renowned Greek-Egyptian magician Pancrates. While the use of animated brooms to carry water is mentioned, Lucian’s original apprentice casts his spell on a wooden pestle.
As a satirist, Lucian was a rationalist and humanist. He emphasized the preposterous to mock the powerful and the pompous—especially the philosophers of his day, whom he regarded mostly as fools, hypocrites and frauds. He told a story in a dialogue called The Fisherman
that summed up his view of the contemporary philosophers who mimicked the great minds of antiquity Lucian truly admired—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the like:
There’s a story that a king of Egypt once taught some apes to do a dance. The animals, excellent mimics of men, learned very quickly. Dressed in purple robes and wearing masks, they went through the steps and, for quite a while, put on a very good show. Then some jokester in the audience who had a handful of nuts in his pocket tossed it among them. One look and the apes forgot all about the dance, reverted to what they really were, apes and not ballet dancers, smashed the masks, ripped up the robes and started to scrap with each other over the nuts. The troop fell apart at the seams and the audience hooted. … These people [contemporary philosophers] are like those apes.
Addressing the great philosophers of earlier days, Lucian said sneeringly of his contemporaries: “Just because they have long beards and long faces and claim to be philosophers, must this make them like you? I might have put up with it if they were at least convincing in their role. As things stand, however, a vulture could sooner play a nightingale than any of them a philosopher.”
Though he wrote in flawless classical Greek, the literary language of the day, Lucian was a man of the Middle East. He was of Semitic Assyrian stock and his native tongue was Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Syriac, today largely a literary and liturgical language used by Assyrian Christians, was once spoken throughout Mesopotamia and in Eastern Arabia. Some of the greatest writers of the Roman Empire were not ethnic Italians, and most wrote in Greek rather than imperial Latin. Greek retained its status as the world’s premier literary language for centuries after the decline of the Hellenistic powers and the rise of the Roman Empire. Classicist Lionel Casson, a translator of Lucian, once described him as “the ancient equivalent of Joseph Conrad,” the 19th-century Polish writer who rose to become one of the greatest novelists in English.
“ I have told you my dream, that by it I might persuade our young men to the study of literature.”
Lucian was born in the eastern reaches of the 25 ce
. His hometown of Samosata, on the right bank of the Euphrates, is now the modern city of Samsat in southern Turkey. It was the capital of a small Hellenistic kingdom called Commagene until the Romans conquered it in 72 ce
. Today the old city of Samosata lies submerged at the bottom of Lake Atatürk, flooded in 1989 by the Atatürk Dam project.
What we know of Lucian’s life derives from clues and revelations left in his own writings, notably in The Dream, The Doubly Indicted
, The Fisherman
and The Apology
. At 14 years of age, he began working as an apprentice sculptor in his uncle’s statue shop, but early in his apprenticeship, he broke a piece of marble by striking it too hard with his chisel. His uncle gave him a thrashing, causing the youth to storm out of the shop and wander the streets of the town, thinking hard about what he wanted to do with his life. As Lucian said later in an essay, that night he had a dream in which two women fought over him: one a rough workingwoman covered in stone dust who urged him to labor in the statue shop, the other an elegant lady in a smartly dressed mantle who spoke up for the benefits of a solid classical education. “Lady Education” won.
As Lucian said: “I have told you my dream, that by it I might persuade our young men to the study of literature.”
Lucian left home and traveled to Greek Ionia, on the west coast of present-day Turkey, where he managed to study Greek literature, rhetoric and oratory (public speaking). He was educated during a period called the Second Sophistic, when Greek education had regained its original popularity, and rhetoric was once again a favored course of study.
Eventually, Lucian learned enough about literature, rhetoric and oratory to begin a career as a lawyer. However, the legal profession didn’t suit his temperament or interests. He quoted himself as saying in The Fisherman
, “You see, as soon as I realized the ugly things lawyers had to go in for—tricks, lies, bluster, browbeating, throwing their weight around, and a thousand others—as you’d expect, I made my escape.”
Lucian now had portable skills with which he could make a decent living. He traveled to mainland Greece, spent time soaking up the culture of Athens, and also traveled to Italy and Gaul, earning his keep as a public speaker on what we would call today a lecture circuit. Translator Roger Pease describes Lucian’s career this way:
Echoes of Lucian's voyage to the Moon can be found from Jules Verne's 1865 From the Earth to the Moon to Douglas Adams's 1979 cult classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Theoretically the vocation of a rhetorician was to plead in court, to compose pleas for others and to teach the art of pleading; but in practice his vocation was far less important in his own eyes and those of the public than his avocation, which consisted in going about from place to place and often from country to country displaying his ability as a speaker before the educated classes. In this way Lucian travelled through Ionia and Greece, to Italy and even to Gaul, and won much wealth and fame.
Some of Lucian’s early lectures survive to this day. But it was not long before he began focusing on the written word, particularly satirical dialogues, which he modeled on the Socratic dialogues but laced with sharp wit, comic exchanges and improbable situations.
By about age 40, he had given up the lecture tour and was devoting himself exclusively to writing dialogues, narratives and the like. Late in life, he accepted a salaried governmental post in Roman Egypt, where he worked until his death in about 185 ce
His writings include a memorable exposé called Alexander the Quack Prophet
, which took on Alexander of Abonoteichus, a well-known Paphlagonian priest of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine. Alexander used a talking serpent named Glycon (read: “hand puppet”) to make prophecies for believers. Lucian knew Alexander personally, confronted him publicly and exposed his frauds with devastating humor. Very few of Lucian’s writings can be dated with accuracy, but this particular exposé, written at the urging of a friend, is believed to date from after 180 ce
, near the end of his life and about 10 years after the death of Alexander.
A True Story
, considered to be one of the earliest pieces of science fiction, is the first detailed narrative in the Western tradition about traveling through space to the Moon. In its introduction, the author carefully warns his readers that his subject matter is “what I have neither seen, experienced nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so.” Lucian takes the opportunity to ridicule pseudo-science and superstition, noting in the introduction: “Everything in my story is a more or less comical parody of one or another of the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much
that smacks of miracles and fables.”
In philosophy, Lucian is credited with coining the word hyperanthropos – “more than man” in Greek and today “Superman.”
The narrator and his crew of 50 sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), seeking adventures in new lands. Their ship is lifted up by a powerful waterspout for hundreds of kilometers into the sky and carried for eight days until it reaches the Moon, which is inhabited by Moonmen who look and act very much like Greeks.
The Moonmen are at war with the Sunmen, and their respective armies
are fighting over the planet Venus, “the Morning Star,” uninhabited at the time. Bizarre creatures are marshaled for combat: The warriors ride giant, three-headed vultures mounted like horses, as well as mammoth fleas the size of 12 elephants. Also arrayed for battle are thousands of troops riding salad-wings, or birds with wings of lettuce, plus vast numbers of millet-throwers, garlic-men, flea-archers, wind-coursers, ostrich-slingers and horse-cranes.
The Sunmen are not exactly defenseless—they have battalions of troops riding winged horse-ants, just as many mounted on huge sky-gnats, light infantry known as sky-pirouetters who hurl monstrous radishes, not to mention thousands of stalk-fungi, dog-acorns and cloud-centaurs. We won’t play spoiler by revealing the victor in this cataclysmic confrontation, but suffice to say that a historic treaty is negotiated.
With the rise of Christianity in Europe in the centuries following Lucian’s death, the writings of the pagan Greeks and Romans fell out of favor. Well over a millennium passed before Lucian caught the imagination of European Renaissance writers. An early translator of Lucian was 15th-century Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, who rendered some of Lucian’s best writings from Greek into Latin, then both academic languages of Europe. Erasmus’s contemporary and English friend Sir Thomas More was also a dedicated translator of
Lucian’s tales into Latin, and More’s own imaginary travel classic Utopia
owes a debt to Lucian. Classics scholar R. Bracht Branham observes:
At a time when More’s Utopia
is attentively studied as a masterpiece while Lucian remains largelyan unknown quantity, it is a curious fact that in More’s lifetime he was probably more widely read as the translator of Lucian than the author of Utopia
…. Whether More or Erasmus first conceived the idea of publishing a collection of Latin translations of Lucian, the result of their efforts was to help initiate a fascination with his work that made him one of the most widely read Greek authors in 16th-century Europe.
A reevaluation of Thomas More’s relationship to Lucian appears in Alistair Fox’s Thomas More: History and Providence
(Yale, 1983), a study of the English lawyer-statesman’s intellectual development. Fox argues that More’s “encounter with Lucian was absolutely crucial to the development of his mature vision and its literary and philosophical consequences were long lasting.”
After More was executed for treason in 1535, the writers who came later continued to be fascinated by Lucian the Syrian. Indeed, as Lionel Casson observed, “all the Elizabethans felt his spell.”
So much so that Lucian was a “vogue author” for Cambridge University students in 1580, the year Christopher Marlowe began his studies there, according to Gabriel Harvey, another English writer of the time. Renaissance scholar and historian William R. Elton writes in King Lear and the Gods
(Huntington Library 1966):
More popular yet [than Cicero and Pliny] was Lucian, whose reputation in the sixteenth century was surpassed by that of few other ancient authors…. Notorious for his scoffing tone toward the [Greek and Roman] gods, Lucian, a probable source for Shakespeare, bequeathed his name to Shakespeare’s greatest English predecessor in the drama, Christopher Marlowe. Gabriel Harvey, after Marlowe’s death, called him “a Lucian” or mocker of the gods.
When Marlowe famously refers to Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships” in Doctor Faustus, he is quoting Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead. Likewise, Ben Johnson’s early 17th-century stage comedy Volpone includes many reminiscences from that same work by Lucian; and Shakespeare’s celebrated grave scene in Hamlet echoes episodes from Lucian’s Dialogues. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a play about a wealthy Athenian who turns his back on society after human parasites exploit his generosity, is inspired by Lucian’s satirical dialogue Timon, or the Misanthrope.
Lucian’s lunar excursion also influenced writers from other parts of Europe. French author Cyrano
de Bergerac’s early science-fiction work, L’Autre Monde ou les états et empires de la lune
(The Other World or the States and Empires of the Moon
), published in 1657, was inspired by Lucian’s A True Story
. De Bergerac’s novel, in turn, went on to influence other works, including Jonathan Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels
, which also contains direct borrowings from Lucian. Echoes of Lucian’s voyage to the Moon can also be found in Jules Verne’s 1865 From the Earth to the Moon
and indeed in Douglas Adams’s 1979 cult classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Even Renaissance scientists took note of the Syrian satirist. Johannes Kepler, the eminent German mathematician and astronomer, was inspired by Lucian’s A True Story
. In 1608 Kepler wrote a novel in Latin in the Lucianic style, entitled Somnium
), which among other things describes how the Earth would appear when viewed from the Moon. An early science fiction
novel hailed by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, Somnium
is also regarded as the first serious scientific treatise on lunar astronomy.
Today novelists writing about automatons or other human creations running amok, causing havoc or mounting outright rebellion, are employing what some scholars call “the sorcerer’s apprentice syndrome,” according to Polish classics scholar Damian Kalitan. The ripples of this general theme can be seen throughout Western culture, especially since the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps never more so than in our own century. This theme has appeared in countless books and films, from Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.
(Rossum’s Universal Robots
) in 1920, to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot
anthology in 1950 that in 2004 starred Will Smith in the dystopian sci-fi movie of the same name, to 2015’s Ex Machina
. (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator
movies all fall into this category, too.) “The original concept of Lucian is still vivid in popular culture, e.g., rebelling robots, mutants, genetic engineering victims or viruses—albeit in a much altered form,” says Kalitan.
Another German link with Lucian appeared in 1785, when an English translation of fantastic tales called Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels
and Campaigns in Russia
was published at Oxford. No author’s name was given. Baron von Münchausen, the protagonist of the stories, was an actual living person, but his adventures were total fiction. It was later revealed that the author was Rudolf Erich Raspe (1737-94), a German scientist of dubious reputation who had immigrated to Britain in 1775.
For his book, Raspe had borrowed from various German folktales, but some of his stories came from other sources—including Lucian of Samosata. In Raspe’s version, Münchausen visits the Moon and an island of cheese, both of which echo A True Story,
although Raspe’s Moonmen sport detachable heads and removable eyeballs.
Monte Python’s Terry Gilliam adapted the tales into his 1988 film version of The Adventures of
, piling on such Lucianic borrowings as three-headed birds and asparagus-stalk battle spears.
In philosophy—a field whose second-century practitioners were savaged by Lucian’s wit—the satirist’s writings also had at least one enduring impact. Steven Kotler, in his The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance
(New Harvest, 2014), credits Lucian’s Kataplous
) with the invention of the term hyperanthropos
(“more than man”)—“superman.” Although Lucian used his term to satirize the superficiality of the trappings of wealth and power, 16 centuries later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his 1883 classic Thus Spoke Zarathustra
, used übermensch
(“overman”) as a symbol for his vision of human evolution. Half a century after that, as German National Socialists were taking Nietzsche to political extremes, in 1938 American comics publisher DC Comics launched the clean-cut, crime-fighting hero Superman.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Lucian of Samosata, satirist and enduring influencer of Western culture. If, as Lucian once said, “dreams are great magicians,” then Lucian himself might be considered the original sorcerer’s apprentice.