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How does Lucian portray contemporary society in his description and the events at the Isles of the Blest?
Lucian of Samosata was born in the province of Syria between AD 115 and 125, and died in AD 200 (Jones 1986: 6, Turner 1974: vii). The True Histories or VeraeHistoriaehas an unknown publication date due to its lack of any reference to any particular date or event within the text (Jones 1986: 167-8). Lucian is considered a writer of satire, but many modern authors consider him to be an author of parody (Turner 1974: vii). The main attitude thought to have been considered while producing the True Histories is the idea that Lucian refused to be accepting of nonsense within others' writings and appears to have attempted to get as much enjoyment out of these errors as possible (Turner 1976: ix). This essay will focus on the isles of the Blest within the True Histories and will endeavour to discuss any parody or contemporary discussion that relate to the period in which the work was created.
The first point to be discussed is that of the main characters' discussion with Homer and its possible relation towards Lucians' contemporary world (Luc. V.H. 2.20, Jones 1986: 54). The first question, relating to Homers' birthplace is known to have been discussed within social circles during the second century AD (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 200). This section of the passage therefore appears to be openly insulting certain cities attempts at creating a link to the poet, particularly that of Smyrna as during this period coinage mentioning the city as the legendary birthplace were in circulation (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 200-2). In addition to this the naming of Babylon as the birthplace by Homer in The True History suggests a particular interest in astrology and myth, rather than being another insult towards the Eastern Empire and their attempts at invoking popular history.
The remainder of the questions asked of Homer were also being discussed in contemporary society by mainly Alexandrian grammarians (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 200), particularly as Lucian mentions two authors; Zenodotusand Aristarchus (Luc. V.H. 2.20) indicating that they were widely known during this period. This also suggests that Lucians' use of cosmology was not designed to promote or insult religious beliefs, but was rather utilised to effectively mask contemporary discussion within a religious area.
The description of the isle of the Blest itself also appears to relate to contemporary discussions in relation to the idea of the Utopia in both histories and philosophical works (Gabba 1981: 58-60). The island of the Blest itself takes the idea of a Utopian society and enhances it to create a parody; this is particularly shown in the beginning of book two (Luc. V.H 2.11. 13-14), where much evidence of the island providing all the requirements for the inhabitants is given. This is typical in Utopian ideology where nature provides all the requirements for living with little human input other than harvesting the resources (Gabba 1981: 58). Lucian however then takes this a step further by suggesting that nature serves the food and drink itself (Luc. V.H. 2.14); this infers that Lucian believes that Utopian societies do not occur within contemporary society and therefore should not occur in histories. Diodorus Siculus for example mentions the Hyperboreans as a Utopian type society, living on a large island near Gaul(Dio. Sic. Hist.2.47, Aelian. Nat. Anim. 2.1), suggesting that they were considered a ‘true' society (Gabba 1981: 59). Plutarch also mentions the Isle of the Blest within his life of Sertorius; where sailors actually describe the isle to the general, suggesting it to be a much discussed subject throughout the Roman period (Gabba 1981: 59, Plut. Sert. 7).
The second component of a Utopian society was that of a social organisation achieving perfection through reason, and often having a lack of contact with other, more corrupt communities or groups (Gabba 1981: 58). The True Histories once again parodies this through its use of the crew as an ‘alien' group who fall into a problem started by Helen and Cinyras (Luc. V.H. 2.25-27). This event leads to the expulsion of the alien community regardless of individual involvement; suggesting contemporary views on foreign communities and the idea of the ‘othering' communities who are different. The problem also infers that Lucian had the opinion that issues still exist with any community, even one of mythological people; as the problem was not actually started by the crew but came to the fore due to the lack of a relationship to the ideas of the community.
The governing body itself should also be mentioned in relation to the idea of a Utopia. Lucian portrays the leadership on the Isle of the Blest as a combination of the major civic types in Greek and Roman literature; monarchy, oligarchy and democracy (Luc. V.H. 2.6, 10, 24). This again appears to suggest contemporary discussions as other writings of the period such as Aristotle also address civic governorship, inferring that this topic was important within high society. Contemporary governments appear to relate specifically to this discussion within Lucians' lifetime; the Roman Empire for example was ruled through a complex mixture of the three elements, suggesting that some contemporaries may have disagreed with the current leadership style. Lucian however appears to parody the idea through the application of democracy to everyone permitted to live on the Isle of the Blest rather than using a group of selected citizens as occurred during the Roman period (Goodman 1999: 136).
Contemporary discussion can also be interpreted from the attempted conquest or rebellion of the Isle of the Damned over that of the Blest (Luc. V.H. 2.23-25), as those ringleaders mentioned were known as tyrants, portraying them as a model of wickedness (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 206). This is also a key concept mentioned within Plato's literature (Pl. Rep. 615D-616A, Pl. Grg. 525D); inferring that Plato's models of government were still of particular interest to Lucians' contemporary society.
This rebellion of sorts could also be related to events which occurred during Lucians' life; the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt which took place from AD132-136 for example (Sartre 2005: 128). The Jewish people may therefore have been viewed as tyrannical in nature due to their belief in a Messiah as a singular leader and a singular deity. The leader of the revolt, Simon bar Kokhba became a tyrant or Nasiof the independent state of Israel until his defeat (Schoenberg: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary. org/jsource/Judaism/revolt1.html). The Roman people however had opposing ideas, inferring that the Roman people were represented by the isle of the Blest whilst the Jewish revolutionaries are represented by the Isle of the damned.
A number of philosophical groups are also mentioned within the True Histories(Luc. V.H. 2.18); these groups are however mentioned specifically for their lack of existence at the Isle of the Blest due to various ideals associated within their groups (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 198). The Stoics for example are referred to as climbing the “steep hill of virtue” (Luc. V.H. 2.18), this makes it sound as if their philosophical journey is unending and pointless (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 198). The Stoic group is particularly targeted by Lucian in a number of works (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 198, Luc. Symp. 6,9,23,30-3,Luc. Vict. Auct. 20-25) suggesting that he was in opposition to their philosophical beliefs due to his possible involvement with the second Sophistic during his early life (Jones 1986: 10).
Pythagoras however is also mentioned, but within the context of the Isle of the Blest as he is admitted in 2.21; suggesting that Lucian felt Pythagoras' views were of note, although his views of transmigration are parodied in other works (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 203-4, Luc. Gall.). The arrival at the Isle of the Blest has however still taken a number of transmigrations compared to those who arrived on their deaths. This infers that Lucian may have written utilising popularity in terms of philosophers suggesting that the view of particular philosophers changed over short time periods.
Pythagoras is later mentioned again in reference to his lack of attendance at the victory feast (Luc. V.H. 2.24), supposedly sue to the nature of the food (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998: 208). This seems to be linked to the teachings of the philosopher, as various authors have inferred its relationship to the winds and its resemblance to male reproductive organs (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998 citing Delatte 1930, Brumbaugh & Schwartz 1920 ). Lucian shows this as a much discussed issue through its mentioning out of any particularly philosophical context. The statement also appears to portray certain contemporary ideas as ridiculous, once again illustrating the nature if the True Histories, particularly in terms of rumours associated with famous heroes of the past.
To conclude Lucian portrays a great deal of contemporary social issues throughout his description of the Isle of the Blest and the particular characters mentioned on the island. The author also gives information on the knowledge of the literature that the upper classes were expected to have, particularly in relation to philosophical groups, and historical figures and their associations with one another.