Syrian perspectives: Lucian self-identifies as “barbarian” and “Assyrian” (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Syrian perspectives: Lucian self-identifies as “barbarian” and “Assyrian” (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 27, 2024,

Ancient author: Lucian of Samosata, The Scythian, or the Consul 9 (link to post with full translation [coming soon]); Two Charges 14, 25-35 (ca. 165 CE); The Syrian Goddess 1, 60 (link to post with full translation).

Comments: At several points in his surviving writings, Lucian of Samosata in ancient Syria (modern Samsat, Turkey) self-identifies both as a “barbarian” and as an “Assyrian” or (interchangeably) “Syrian.” The passages gathered below (with some italics added at key points) illustrate some of the satirical ways in which Lucian engaged these identifications. They suggest that he was in some ways both proud of his Syrian identification and self-conscious about the ways in which others might perceive this as a detraction from his Greek cultural credibility.

Not unlike Cornelius Fronto (link) and Apuleius (link), in the first passage below Lucian pulls in Anacharsis – the ideal wise barbarian for some –  for comparison. The most sustained emphasis on Lucian being a Syrian comes in his humorous dialogue in which Lucian as the character “the Syrian” is put on trial for two charges: neglecting Rhetoric (personified as a woman) and mistreating philosophical Dialogue (also personified, but as a man). Finally, there is the more serious, ethnographic description of the rites of the Syrian goddess that is likely by Lucian, in which the author mentions not only that he is Assyrian but also that he participated in the rites he explains.


The Scythian, or the Consul

9 Would you like me to finish my story so that it does not walk around headless? It’s the right time to find out what Anacharsis and Toxaris from Scythia are still doing here at this point in Macedonia [where Lucian is presenting his speech] bringing old Solon with them from Athens. Now I say that my own experience is like that of Anacharsis. In the name of the Graces, please do not resent my comparing myself to a royal man [Anacharsis was thought to be a descendent of Scythian kings]. For Anacharsis was also a barbarian, and no one could say that we Syrians are inferior to Scythians.

It isn’t on the issue of royalty that I compare my experience with his, but rather because we are both barbarians. For when I first came to live in your city, I was utterly terrified as soon as I saw its size, its beauty, its high population, its power and its complete brilliance. For a long time I was amazed at these things and could not take in the spectacle, just like when the young man [Telemachos in Homer, Odyssey 4.71] from the islands came to the house of Menelaos. How could I help feeling like this when I saw the city at such a peak of excellence and, as the poet says, “Blossoming with all good things by which a city flourishes.” In this situation I was already contemplating what I should do next. I had some time since decided to demonstrate my speeches. For who else would deserve it if I had passed by such a city in silence? To tell you the truth, I inquired into who the leading citizens were and who might be approached and brought together as patrons and general supporters. My case was better than that of Anacharsis. He had only one patron, Toxaris, and that one a barbarian. I, on the other hand, have many. . .


Two Charges

[Cases of Rhetoric versus the Syrian and Philosophical Dialogue versus the Syrian]

(14) . . . Hermes: Rhetoric [i.e. oratory] versus the Syrian: charge of neglect. Philosophical Dialogue versus the same: charge of mistreatment.

Justice: Who is this man? His name is not recorded. Hermes: Empanel a jury for him, for the public speaker (rhetor), the Syrian. There is nothing to hinder doing this anonymously. Justice: Look here, are we really supposed to try cases in Athens on the Areopagos when the cases come from over the border? They should have been tried on the other side of the Euphrates river [because Lucian is Syrian / Assyrian]. However, draw eleven jurors, the same to sit for both cases.

Hermes: You are right, Justice, to avoid spending too much in jury-fees. . . . [omitted the (humorous) cases of Plato’s Academy versus Drunkenness; Stoic Philosophy versus Epicurus’ Pleasure; and Virtue versus Luxury].

(25) . . . Justice: . . . Now call the speech-writer, the Syrian [i.e. Lucian]. After all, it was only recently that the papers were submitted against him, and there was no pressing need to have tried the cases now. However, since that point has been decided, introduce the suit of Rhetoric first. Wow, what a crowd has come together for the hearing!

Hermes: Naturally, Justice. The case is not stale, but new and unfamiliar, having been entered only yesterday, as you said, and they hope to hear Rhetoric and Dialogue [i.e. Philosophical Dialogue] bringing charges in turn and the Syrian defending himself against both. This has brought crowds to court. But do begin your speech, Rhetoric.

Rhetoric: In the first place, men of Athens, I pray to each and every one of the gods and goddesses that my ongoing good will toward the city and toward all of you may be shown in this case. Secondly, I pray that the gods may move you to do what is above all the just thing to do: to require my opponent [Lucian, the Syrian] hold his tongue and to let me make the complaint in the way that I have preferred and chosen. I cannot come to the same conclusion when I contemplate my own experiences and the speeches that I hear. For the speeches that he will make to you will be very similar to mine, but his actions, as you will see, have gone so far that measures must be taken to prevent my experiencing worse injury at his hands!

But not to prolong my introduction when the water in the clock has been running freely this long time, I will begin my complaint. When this man was a mere boy, jurors, still speaking with a foreign accent and I might almost say wearing an Assyrian style kaftan [robe], I found him still wandering around in Ionia, not knowing what to do with himself. So I took him in hand and gave him an education. As it seemed to me that he was an apt pupil and paid strict attention to me (for he was subservient to me in those days and paid court to me and admired no one but me), I turned my back upon all the others who were seeking to marry me, although they were rich, good looking and from noble ancestry, and betrothed myself to this ungrateful man who was poor, insignificant and young, bringing him a considerable dowry consisting in many amazing speeches. Then, after we were married, I got him irregularly registered among my own tribe [i.e. likely a reference to him being a foreigner] and made him a citizen, so that those who had failed to secure my hand in marriage choked with envy. When he decided to go travelling in order to show how happily married he was, I did not desert him even then, but trailed up and down after him everywhere and made him famous and renowned by giving him finery and dressing him out. I would not lay as much emphasis on our travels in Greece and in Ionia, but when he wanted to go to Italy, I crossed the Adriatic with him, and I journeyed with him a long way as far as Gaul, where I made him rich.

For a long time the Syrian took my advice in everything and lived with me constantly, never spending a single night away from home. But when he had gained plenty verbal skills and thought that he was well off for reputation, he became vain and began to think highly about himself and neglected me. Rather, he left me completely. After falling in love with the bearded man in the mantle, Dialogue, who is said to be the son of Philosophy and is older than he is, he lives with him. Showing no sense of shame, he has curtailed the freedom and the range of my speeches and has confined himself to brief, disjointed questions. Instead of saying whatever he wishes in a powerful voice, he fits together and spells out short paragraphs, for which he cannot get hearty praise or great applause from his hearers, but only a smile, or a restrained gesture of the hand, an inclination of the head, or a sigh to point his periods. That is the sort of thing this fine fellow fell in love with, despising me! They also say that he does not get along with his new lover, either, but insults him in the same way.

Isn’t he ungrateful and deserving of punishment under the laws that concern desertion, since he so disgracefully abandoned his lawful wife, from whom he received so much and through whom he is famous, and sought a new arrangement, now of all times, when I alone am admired and claimed as patroness by everyone? For my part I hold out against all those who want me, and when they knock at my door and shout my name at the top of their lungs, I have no desire either to open or to reply, for I see that they bring with them nothing but their voices. But this man even then does not come back to me. No, he keeps his eyes upon his favourite, Dialogue. You gods, what good does he expect to get from him, knowing that he has nothing but his short cloak? I have finished, jurors. But I beg you, if he wishes to make his defence in my style of speaking, do not permit that, for it would be unkind to turn my own weapon [i.e. rhetorical skill] against me. Let him defend himself, if he can, in the style of his favourite, Dialogue.

Hermes: That is unreasonable. It is not possible, Rhetoric, for him to make his defence after Dialogue’s manner all by himself. Let him make a speech as you did.

(30) Syrian: Jurors, as my opponent was indignant at the thought of my using a long speech when I acquired my power of speaking from her, I will not say much to you, but will simply answer the main points of her complaint and then leave it to you to weigh the whole question. She told the truth in everything she said about me. She gave me an education and went abroad with me and made me into a Greek. On this account, at least, I am grateful to her for marrying me.

Why I left her and took to my friend here, Dialogue, listen, jurors, and you will hear. Do not imagine that I am telling any lies for the sake of advantage. Seeing that she was no longer modest and did not continue to dress in the respectable way that she did back when Demosthenes took her as a wife. Instead, because she put on makeup, did her hair like a courtesan, put on rouge, and darkened her eyes underneath, I became immediately suspicious and secretly watched where she directed her glances. I pass over everything else, but every night our street was filled with drunken lovers coming to serenade her, knocking at the door, and sometimes even trying to chaotically force their way. She herself laughed and enjoyed these performances, and generally, when she heard them singing love-songs in a hoarse voice, she either peeped over the edge of the roof or else even slyly opened the windows, thinking that I would not notice it. Then she was lewd with them and committed adultery with them.

I could not stand this, and as I did not think it best to bring an action for divorce against her on the ground of adultery, I went to Dialogue, who lived near by, and requested him to take me in. That is the great injustice that I have done to Rhetoric. After all, even if she had not acted as she did, it would have been proper for me – a man who is already about forty years old – to leave her stormy scenes and lawsuits, to let the jurors rest in peace while refraining from condemning tyrants and praising princes, and to go to the Academy or the Lyceum to walk around with this excellent person Dialogue while we converse quietly without feeling any need of praise and applause. Though I have much to say, I will stop now. Cast your vote in accordance with your oath.

(The votes are counted.)

Justice: Who is the winner? Hermes: The Syrian, with every vote but one. Justice: Very likely it was a public speaker (rhetor) who cast the vote against him. Let Dialogue speak before the same jury. (To the the jurors:) Wait, and you will get double pay for the two cases.

Dialogue: For my part, jurors, I do not prefer to deliver a long speech, but to discuss the matter a little at a time, as is my custom. Nevertheless I will make my complaint in the way that is customary in courts of law, although I am completely uninformed and inexperienced in such matters. Please. consider this my introduction. The wrongs done against me and the insults directed at me by this man are these: I was formerly dignified and pondered about the gods and nature and the cycle of the universe. I was treading the air high up above the clouds where great Zeus in heaven driving his winged car sweeps on. But the Syrian dragged me down when I was already soaring above the zenith and mounting on heaven’s back. He broke my wings, putting me on the same level as the common herd. Moreover, he took away from me the respectable tragic mask that I had, and put a comic, satyr-like, and almost ridiculous mask on me. Then he unceremoniously penned me up with terrible men – Joke, Satire, Cynicism, Eupolis [Athenian poet in the Old Comedy style], and Aristophanes [comedy writer] – for mocking all that is holy and scoffing at all that is right. At last he even dug up and sent Menippos [i.e. the Cynic satirist] after me, a prehistoric dog with a very loud bark, it seems, and sharp fangs. This is a really dreadful dog who bites by surprise because he grins when he bites. Have I not been terribly mistreated when I no longer occupy my proper role but play the comedian and the buffoon and act out extraordinary plots for him? What is most monstrous of all, I have been turned into a surprising blend as I am neither on foot nor on horseback, neither prose nor verse, but seem to my hearers a strange phenomenon made up of a combination of elements, like a Centaur.

Hermes: What are you going to say to this, Master Syrian?

Syrian: Jurors, the suit that I am contesting now before you is unexpected. In fact, I would have expected anything else in the world before I would think that Dialogue should say such things about me. When I took him in hand, he was still overly serious, as most people thought, and had been reduced to a skeleton through continual questions. In that guise he seemed awe-inspiring, to be sure, but not in any way attractive or agreeable to the public. So first of all I got him into the way of walking on the ground like a human being. Then, by washing off all his accumulated grime and forcing him to smile, I afterwards made him more agreeable to those who saw him. On top of all that, I paired him with Comedy, and in this way too procured him great favour from his hearers, who formerly feared his prickles and avoided taking hold of him as if he were a sea-urchin.

I know, however, what hurts him most. It is that I do not sit and quibble with him about those obscure, subtle themes of his, like “whether the soul is immortal,” and “when God made the world, how many pints of pure, changeless substance he poured into the vessel in which he concocted the universe,” and “whether rhetoric is a phantom of the civic domain, the fourth form of parasitic occupation.” Somehow he is delighted by dissecting such problems, just as people like to scratch where it itches. Reflection is sweet to him, and he sets great store by himself if they say that not everyone can grasp his penetrating speculations about “ideas.” That is what he expects of me, naturally. He also demands those wings of his and gazes on high without seeing what lies at his feet. As far as the rest of it goes, Dialogue cannot complain, I am sure, that I have stripped him of Greek clothes and put barbarian clothes on him, even though I myself am considered a barbarian. In fact, I should be doing wrong to transgress in that way against him and to steal away his ancestral clothing. I have made the best defence that I can. Please cast the same ballot as before.

(The votes are counted.)

(35) Hermes: Well, well! You win by all of ten votes! The same one who voted against you before will not vote as the rest even now. Without doubt it is a habit, and the man always casts the ballot that has a hole in it. I hope he will keep on envying men of standing. Well, go your ways, and good luck to you. Tomorrow we will try the rest of the cases.


The Syrian Goddess (introduction and conclusion only; for full work go to this link)

[Lucian, the likely author, self-identifies as Assyrian]

1 In Syria, there is a city not far from the river Euphrates [ancient Hierapolis, modern Manbij, about 80 km northeast of Aleppo]. It is called “Sacred”, and is sacred to the Assyrian Hera [i.e. Atargatis]. As far as I can tell, this name was not conferred upon the city when it was first settled, but originally it bore another name. In course of time the great sacrifices were held there, and then this title was bestowed upon it. I will speak about this city, and of what it contains. I will also speak about the laws which govern its holy rites, about its popular assemblies and about the sacrifices offered by its citizens. I will also speak about all the traditions attaching to the founders of this holy place, and about how the temple was founded. I write as an Assyrian who has witnessed with my own eyes some of the facts which I am about to narrate. Some others I learned from the priests: these events occurred before my time, but I narrate them as they were told to me. . .

[Lucian clarifies his participation in the Syrian temple as a youth in the conclusion]

. . . 60 They have another curious custom, in which they agree with the Troizenians alone of the Greeks. I will explain this too: The Troizenians have made a law for their young women and young men alike never to marry till they have dedicated their locks to Hippolytos, and this is what they do. It is the same at Hierapolis. The young men dedicate the first growth on their chin, then they let down the locks of the young women, which have been sacred from their birth. They then cut these off in the temple and place them in vessels, some in silver vessels and others in gold. After placing these in the temple and inscribing the name on the vessel, they depart. I performed this act myself when a young man, and my hair remains still in the temple, with my name on the vessel.


Source of the translation: A. M. Harmon, Lucian, volumes 1-5, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913-1936), public domain (passed away in 1950); and, H.A. Strong, The Syrian Goddess (London: Constable and Company Ltd, 1913) (Syrian Goddess), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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