BMCR 2010.12.10

Lucien de Samosate. Comment écrire l’histoire. La roue à livres

, Lucien de Samosate. Comment écrire l'histoire. La roue à livres. L. Paris: Les belles lettres, 2010. xxii, 129. ISBN 9782251339566 €19.00 (pb).

The literature of the Second Sophistic in general and the works of Lucian in particular have received increasing attention in the scholarship over the past two decades, with the pleasant result of gradually stretching – or, at least, challenging – the traditional boundaries of the canon.1 And yet, despite this rise in popularity among academics, Lucian is still too often pegged as excessively esoteric to assign to undergraduate students, whether in the original or in translation.2 This is unfortunate, as Lucian’s high entertainment value could appeal to all audiences. Furthermore, one particular work of Lucian – How to Write History – could be a beneficial component not only in Classics courses, but also in historical methodology and epistemology courses typically required for advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students in history departments.

Rehabilitation of “textes jadis célèbres et aujourd’hui méconnus” is the mission statement of the “La roue à livres” series from “Les Belles Lettres,” which published the book that is the subject of this review, Hurst’s new French translation of Lucian’s How to Write History. Typical of the series, however, this volume is much more than just a translation. The excellent introductory materials and thorough notes aim to forestall most possible questions and problems that a reader without previous exposure to the Second Sophistic might have about Lucian’s quirky treatise. While containing quite a bit of information, both the introduction and the notes adhere to the virtue of brevitas. The end result is, therefore, easily portable and, at €19, affordable.

The translation and the notes take up the bulk of the book. Hurst’s prose style in the translation is very clear and easily readable. The notes, which follow the text at the back of the book, elucidate any difficult points in Lucian’s treatise. Hurst also provides references to relevant passages in other Greek and Roman authors. Finally, the notes summarize the discussions of significant points stemming from any given part of the text in recent secondary scholarship. Overall, the notes are delightfully detailed, with the ratio of one to two pages of notes for each page of translated text. And while Hurst acknowledges a profound debt in his notes to Helene Homeyer’s 1965 German commentary on the work, most of the commentary is his own contribution.3

The introductory materials in the book are largely aimed at a reader versed in modern historiography, but perhaps unfamiliar with the approaches to the composition of history in antiquity. Hurst begins, therefore, by explaining Lucian’s attitude towards historical writing both in contrast to the “golden standard” of Classical Greek historiography – Thucydides – and more recent schools of historical thought. Among others, he specifically mentions the historiographical approaches of Paul Veyne, Michel de Certeau, and the Annales school. History students will find this placing of Lucian in the general historiographical context especially illuminating. On the other hand, Classics students without some knowledge of modern historiography may feel lost in this particular section of the book.

Following this broad historiographical introduction, Hurst provides a brief summary of Lucian’s life and the debate regarding the date of the present treatise. Equally briefly he addresses the thorny question of the texts with which Lucian himself might have been familiar and by which he would have been influenced. Finally, a history of the text and its transmission rounds out the introductory materials. The materials at the back of the volume are equally useful. Hurst includes a bibliography in different languages of key works on Lucian and related topics, an index of names, and a separate index of geographical locations.

Overall, Hurst has provided a wonderful resource for the French-speaking (or, at least, French-reading) university student in Classics or history, as well as for the general audience interested in Classics and the broader context of the history of Western historiography. While one can never truly know with Lucian, I would like to think that he would have been happy with the end result or, at the very least, would not have invited the author of this translation to a symposium of Lapiths.


1. Cf., for instance, the work of Tim Whitmarsh, especially Greek Literature and the Roman Empire. The Politics of Imitation (Oxford: 2001), and the introductory survey text, The Second Sophistic (Oxford: 2005). Also illustrative of recent trends and approaches to the topic is Simon Goldhill’s edited collection, Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire (Cambridge: 2001). For a recent perspective on Lucian in the context of the Second Sophistic, see Laura Nasrallah’s “Mapping the World: Justin, Tatian, Lucian, and the Second Sophistic” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 465-508, and Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second-Century Church Amid the Spaces of Empire (Cambridge: 2010).

2. Neil Hopkinson’s recent edition of selections from Lucian for the Cambridge Greek and Latin Texts series will hopefully make Lucian more easily accessible for undergraduate Greek students: BMCR 2009.08.11. Also, C. D. N. Costa has recently published an English translation of selected dialogues of Lucian, including “How to Write History”, for Oxford World’s Classics: C. D. N. Costa, Lucian: Selected Dialogues (Oxford: 2005).

3. Helene Homeyer, Wie man Geschichte schreiben soll (Munich: 1965).