A (Fake) True Story: Lucian and the Birth of Modern Sci Fi

“To put yourself in another man’s shoes and say what he would of said was a regular exercise of the schools, but to laugh in your sleeve as you said it was not the way of the ordinary rhetorician.” – A.M. Harmon (introduction to Phalaris)

[A battle scene from A True Story (William Strang, 1894)]

Okay, as promised, we’re going to talk about Lucian (c. 125-after 180 CE) this week. We’ve actually already mentioned him once by the by in my entry about ghosts, where we identified him as the earliest author of the story we know as ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ but if you’re not familiar with him, you may not realize that Lucian is also perhaps the father of what we’d recognize as modern science fiction through his most famous surviving work, A True Story (sometimes translated as A True History). The title alone might also clue you in that we’re dealing with one of the ancient world’s premier satirists, and while sci fi can be one of the most achingly sincere genres, Lucian shows that irony and social commentary have always been at its heart.

Like many ancient authors, almost everything we know about Lucian comes from his own stylus—and with him, that means we must always leave open the possibility that he’s putting one over on us. However, if we take him at his word, Lucian was born in Samosata, a city on the Euphrates River at the eastern end of the Turkish peninsula. Before 72 CE, Samosata was the capital of the Roman client kingdom of Commagene, but by Lucian’s time, it was just another town in Roman Syria, and he identifies himself as ethnically Syrian (Double Indictment). In his piece The Dream, Lucian describes his family as artisans, which, if true, would make him almost shockingly lower class than most men of letters of his time. Unable to afford anything beyond a rudimentary education, Lucian was apprenticed to his uncle, a sculptor, but says he was so hopeless at the art that he abandoned it and Samosata to find his calling. However, many scholars are quick to point out a literary tradition that Socrates started out as a sculptor—not to mention that the eponymous dream Lucian supposedly has, where he is pulled between personifications of Art (sculpture) and Culture (higher learning), smacks heavily of Ovid’s interpretation of Elegy and Tragedy in the Amores (3.1). So again, we might be dealing with a common rhetorical technique.

[In his Letter to Nigrinus, Lucian recounts a Greek proverb: “An owl to Athens!”—which is an ancient equivalent to the British idiom “carry coals to Newcastle,” i.e., do something unnecessary.]

Because rhetoric is the trade where Lucian will eventually end up. We have no idea how Lucian obtained his sought-after education, but Double Indictment describes him as wandering all over Ionia (the west coast of the Turkish peninsula) at loose ends with himself. At the time, Ionia—and Ephesus and Smyrna in particular—were known for their excellent schools of rhetoric, so even if Lucian was indeed too poor to afford to attend them formally, he might have benefitted from effectively bumming around in a university town and engaging with those who could. Either way, based on his later writing, he seems to have obtained a remarkably thorough grounding in rhetoric, philosophy, and literature—the hallmarks of a classically-trained man of the second century. Like most men of the time with any grasp of rhetoric, Lucian says that he first tried to make a name for himself in the courts as a lawyer. But like me, he quickly decided that the profession was not for him (The Fisherman). Unlike me, he then decided to devote himself to “philosophy.”

As anyone today with a philosophy degree can attest, earning a living as a professional philosopher can be a challenge, but in Lucian’s time of limited public entertainment, being a freelance orator was a potential viability. So Lucian appears to have spent his late twenties and early thirties crisscrossing the empire, living by his quick wits and even quicker mouth. Rhetoricians debating one another for an audience was common, but Lucian’s command of high satire was likely less so. A good example of his style is the oration referenced in my flavor text, about the eponymous tyrant of Sicily, known for his cruelty, epitomized by his role as the supposed commissioner of the equally infamous Brazen (Sicilian) Bull. The Bull was (allegedly) a hollow metal bovine-shaped torture device in which a person would be enclosed while a fire was lit beneath the Bull’s stomach. The victim would essentially be roasted alive while their screams would be piped out of the Bull through “trumpet” tubes within, making the device “bellow” like a real cow. The only known people to have actually been tortured in this manner was the Bull’s creator, Perilaus, at Phalaris’ command, and the tyrant himself after his overthrow, but antiquity was full of lurid, apocryphal stories about the Bull turning its many victims’ bones into glittering remains that Phalaris would make into bracelets.


Anyway, Lucian turns this gross vibe into something completely ridiculous by performing a dialogue between a group of Sicilian elders who have been sent by Phalaris to offer the Bull as an offering to Apollo at Delphi, and the oracular priests of the god trying to decide if it’s okay to accept such a macabre votive. Lucian sock puppets Phalaris’ wheedling defense of himself (“People have been slandering my good name! I would never use such a terrible device on anyone! I only threw Perilaus in there because I was appalled that he would invent such a thing!”) so well that for several centuries serious historians started to reevaluate their position on Phalaris’ reign… until everyone collectively remembered that Lucian was a satirist…

By his mid-thirties, Lucian briefly returned to Samosata as a wealthy and celebrated man before moving to Athens, where he would spend the next decade writing most of his extent oeuvre. Perhaps growing bored of the settled life, or maybe out of money, by the 170s, he was back to lecturing across the empire. There is some evidence that the emperor Commodus (r. 180-192 CE) may have appointed him to a nominal government position in Egypt, but after 180, Lucian drops out of even the speculative historical record and the date of his death is unknown.

[Imagined portrait of Lucian by William Faithorne the Elder (17th century)]

Okay, so what’s the deal with A True Story then? Much like the source of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ The Lover of Lies (The Doubter), which was meant to ridicule credulous belief in ghosts and folk magic, A True Story is meant to parody the classical adventure genre, be it from the verse of Homer or the “histories” of Herodotus. “[E]verything 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.” (Book 1, ii). This will account for much of the novella’s B-movie matinee plot, as you’ll soon see. Unlike killjoy Plato, Lucian isn’t suggesting we throw over these stories—as translator A.M. Harmon notes in his introduction, “Lucian is interested in entertainment, not moral or social reform” (viii)—he’s merely suggesting that we should take their veracity with as much faith as his audience should give his own tale (i.e., none). As with The Lover of Lies, where the characters’ reports of the supernatural grow increasingly ludicrous as the story progresses, in A True Story, Lucian makes himself and his crew endure increasingly fantastical adventures until even the most gullible members of his audience couldn’t possibly be expected to believe him.

Lucian and his shipmates begin their magical mystery tour by sailing past the Pillars of Hercules (the rock formations on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar), the archetypal ancient shorthand for “sailing off the map.” They get blown off course and find an island the Greek hero must have discovered with Dionysus, because all the rivers on the island can get you drunk. Another inebriating feature of the island are its trees, which are women from the torso up whose kisses are intoxicating—but the men caught up in their embrace also turn into trees.

[Lucian specifically describes the tree women as looking like “our pictures of Daphne turning into a tree” (Book 1, viii). I, being post-Renaissance, immediately thought of Bernini…]

After those of the crew not taking up photosynthesis escape the island, their ship is caught in a storm so violent that the boat is swept out of the sea and into the air, making it perhaps the first airplane on record. They end up flying their ship through the air for eight days until they arrive on the moon, where they meet Western literature’s first Moon Men, led by their king, who is fittingly Endymion, the mythological mortal lover of Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon. Endymion explains that the moon kingdom is in a territorial war with the kingdom of the sun—which is led by its equally fitting king, Phaëthon, the mythological son of Helios, the Greek god of the sun. Both kingdoms are trying to colonize “the morning star” (Venus), and our intrepid travelers eagerly join the moon kingdom in a grand series of space battles to decide the outcome of the dispute. But rather than spaceships, the combatants fight one another mounted on fantastical cavalry such as vultures, cranes, and giant fleas for the moon folk, and flying ants for the sun people. In addition to these forces, there are various mercenaries from neighboring heavenly bodies, such as soldiers from Sirius with the faces of dogs (because Sirius is the Dog Star, heh). The Moon army is about to claim victory when a late surge from the Sun forces turns the tide and they are overrun. Our Greeks are captured, but eventually ransomed by Endymion during the peace negotiations, which are largely benign for his people aside from a monetary tribute he will owe Phaëthon. The Greeks gratefully return to their new friends on the moon, and Endymion offers Lucian his son in marriage as a mark of his esteem.

[Wait, what now?]

Lucian, after politely declining the hand of the young moon prince, launches into a long but creatively captivating digression into Moon culture and how it differs from life on Earth—arguably the greatest divergence being the absence of moon women. All the people of the moon are biologically men, but Lucian paints a fascinating picture of a culture that might understand gender-as-social-construct better than our own. Until the age of twenty-five, moon men are described as the “wives” of an older man, and after that age become “husbands,” suggesting a certain level of cultural polyamory as well as the pederasty the Greeks would have been more familiar with. I can say with some firmness that Lucian envisioned the moon people as all being biologically male because he says that children are carried to term in the calf of a wife, as opposed to the young men having uteruses, and babies are Caesarian-sectioned out when they are ready to be born (likely a nod to Zeus carrying Dionysus to term in his leg). The moon children are born dead and must have life breathed into them, which is probably a nod to an ancient/medieval belief about certain animals like lions.

[The male lion was thought to have to breathe life into the cubs after they were born. Medieval bestiaries used this as an allegory for the Resurrection and Christ’s power to raise His followers from the dead.]

Speaking of death, the moon people were not immortal; when they died, their bodies simply dissolved into the air. Lucian spends a great deal of ink describing these unusual bodies, saying that the moon people are bald and hairless, except for beards that grow above the knee (this is clearly because the moon looks like a bald head as he also describes comet people as having long hair, like the tail of a comet…). They have a lettuce leaf “tail,” and can open and close their abdomens at will—which seems to be like a kangaroo pouch, seeing that their stomachs are lined with fur on the inside. Their eyes are removable and, of course, rich people have many pairs.

After taking leave of the moon kingdom, Lucian and his ship return to the ocean—only to be swallowed by a prodigiously large whale. I was picturing Monstro from Disney’s Pinocchio (fun fact: in the original Italian story, Monstro is called Il Terribile Pescecane, the “Terrible Dogfish”). But Monstro is supposedly only a kilometer long (sans tail), while the Moby Dick that swallows Lucian is 320 km (~200 mi) long. Lucian’s whale is so big that he and his shipmates find whole forests and an aquatic kingdom within it, along with a very unfortunate Cretan and his son. The Cretans are friendly, but most of the whale inhabitants are various unfriendly fish men that sound like they look like Davy Jones’ crew from Pirates of the Caribbean with crab claws for hands, cod heads, etc (Book 1, xxxvi). Lucian is trapped inside the whale for a year and eight months, and they eventually Pinocchio their way out by burning the forest inside the whale until it dies.

[Il Terribile Pescecane (Enrico Mazzanti)]

Free of the whale, Lucian sails through a sea of milk and another of cheese until his ship reaches the fabled Isle of the Blessed, the closest thing the Greeks had to a concept of heaven. The island is presided over by Rhadamanthus, one of the sons of Zeus and Europa, and one the traditional judges of souls in the underworld along with his brothers Minos and Sarpedon. Rhadamanthus is a little miffed at the Greeks, being not dead, for showing up unannounced, and tells them that they will be permitted to stay up to seven months, but that they will be tried by his court after death “for being inquisitive and not staying home as we should” (Book 2, x).

After settling in, Lucian gleefully lists off all of the famous figures from history and mythology he meets as he investigates the island, and a lot of his descriptions are really funny. For example, Rhadamanthus keeps threatening to banish Socrates “if he kept up his nonsense and would not quit his irony and be merry” (Book 2, xviii). Famous curmudgeonly philosopher Diogenes has “changed his ways” and married the courtesan Lais (ibid). Lucian finds Homer and asks him where he’s really from to settle all the ancient disputes. The poet surprisingly answers Babylon, where his name was Tigranes (“Homer” comes from homeros (hostage) when he is later captured). But the Greeks’ idyll in the Isle of the Blessed is abruptly interrupted when Helen is almost abducted again—this time by Cinyas, the legendary king of Crete and the father of Adonis through his daughter Myrrha. The abduction is foiled, but Rhadamanthus is done with shenanigans and kicks the Greeks out, even though they had nothing to do with the affair (Book 2, xxv-xxvii). On their way out, Odysseus secretly (and hilariously) gives Lucian a letter for Calypso behind Penelope’s back to give to the sea nymph on their way past her island, in which he laments leaving her.

[Calypso’s ‘I told you so’ moment…]

At this point, Lucian rapid-fires through a number of strange islands—the Isle of the Wicked (where Helen and Cinyas are sent for their stunt), the Isle of Dreams, Calypso’s island (where they successfully deliver Odysseus’ letter), and the Island of Minotaurs. The Greeks narrowly avoid pirates piloting pumpkin vessels and the man-eating Ass-legs women (who are exactly what they sound like). Our travelers sail around a chasm in the ocean and find another strange continent that they decide to explore, but the narrative abruptly cuts off here, with a promise from Lucian that “[w]hat happened in the other world, I shall tell you on the succeeding books” (Book 2, xlvii). But this will end up being Lucian’s biggest and best joke of all, as an annoyed scholiast will write in the margins of his copy later that the promise of a sequel is “the biggest lie of all” (Loeb vol. 1, p. 357 (n. 1)). It’s hard to write a better punchline for your satire, if you ask me.

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