The Roman Satirist, Lucian, Abandoned A Family Business Of Sculpting To Become A Man Of Letters

Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180+) was an orator, a teacher, and a literary figure known for comedy and satire. Yet, before devoting himself to speaking, teaching and writing literature, he had allegedly been set up by his family for a very different occupation. He was born in the region of Samosata, in provincial Roman Syria, and Aramaic was likely his first language instead of Rome’s Latin or the scholarly Greek used by writers from the eastern Mediterranean. His family life was complicated, for his immediate household was apparently not well off. Lucian was able to receive a proper education, but other than that, as he told himself in his own satire, “you are now poor and the son of a nobody…” (Lucian, The Dream / Lucian’s Career, section 11).

While Lucian may have rudely thought that his father was a nobody, his mother—or at least her side of the family—was far from the same. His mother came from a family of respected artisans of stone craft. They seemed best known and renowned for sculpting and statuary work, but they also evidently provided basic masonry services, perhaps doing this between commissions of their statues. In his work, The Dream, otherwise known as Lucian’s Career, the satirist described a personified goddess of Sculpture saying to him in a dream, “I am the craft of Sculpture, dear boy, which yesterday you began to learn, having close ties with you on your mother’s side. For your grandfather (naming my mother’s father) was a sculptor, as are both your uncles, who enjoy much fame thanks to me” (Lucian, The Dream / Lucian’s Career, section 7). Lucian was exposed to his mother’s family’s business at an early age, and he emulated some of his kinsmen’s artistic ability in his youthful free time. Through his school, Lucian was given access to a supply of wax, which he used to shape his own hand-crafted models. The young boy’s phase of wax creations posed an annoyance to the teaching staff, but it also piqued the interest of the maternal family artisans. Lucian wrote, “[W]hen school was over, I would scrape the wax off my tablets and mould it into cattle or horses or indeed people, and he [referring to a professional sculptor uncle] thought they were lifelike. I got caned by my teachers for this, but now I was praised for having natural talent, and that modelling gave them good hopes that I would quickly learn the craft” (The Dream / Lucian’s Career, section 2). Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for literature, a subsequent sculpting apprenticeship for Lucian did not go as easily as everyone had predicted.

As told by Lucian, the young student began to study under the guidance of one of his uncles. Despite the first good impressions with wax, Lucian quickly learned that transferring his artistic abilities from the soft medium of waxes to the hard and unforgiving substance of stone would be a long and frustrating ordeal. Lucian evidently had too heavy of a hand in his stone shaping, and he ended up breaking the stone that he was working on more often than not, which, in turn, caused an angry outburst from his kinsmen co-workers. As Lucian put it:

“So as soon as it seemed suitable to begin my training, I was handed over to my uncle and the arrangement seemed pretty good to me: in fact I thought it a delightful pastime and a way of impressing my comrades, if I were seen to be carving gods and creating little statues for myself and my special friends. Then I experienced what usually happens to beginners. My uncle handed me a chisel and told me to give a light tap to the stone tablet lying before us, quoting the proverb, ‘Well begun is half done.’ But being inexperienced I hit it too hard, the tablet broke, and in a rage he grabbed a nearby stick and gave me an initiation which was neither gentle nor encouraging: thus my apprenticeship began with tears” (Lucian, The Dream / Lucian’s Career, section 3).

After that introduction to stone working, Lucian decided that he did not want to wait for the proper technique to be beat into him by his stick-wielding uncle. Instead, Lucian chose to pursue a career path in the realm of culture, or, more specifically, literature and its many avenues—fiction and nonfiction, oration and writing. Lucian would go on to become a wide-traveling orator, teacher and writer who traveled from Samosata to Greece, Gaul and Egypt. The chronological timeline of Lucian’s career path is unfortunately vague, but it is believed that he began his own writings (dominated by comedy and satire) when he was in his forties, after having spent the previous decades consuming philosophy—which he later relentlessly criticized in his satirical works—as well as teaching rhetoric, and serving as a professional orator. Not just an imitator, Lucian repurposed the ancient dialogue structure used by Greek philosophers, such as Plato, and repurposed it for a new genre of comedic dialogue.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Pygmalion series artwork, by Emmanuel Jean Nepomucene de Ghendt, Charles Joseph Dominique Eisen, Thomas-Charles Naudet, and A. Liamet between 1748 – 1815, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).




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