BMCR 2022.04.40

Lucian, True History: introduction, text, translation, and commentary

, Lucian, True History: introduction, text, translation, and commentary. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 224. ISBN 9780198789659 £18.99.


At last, the long-standing need for a scholarly but accessible commentary of Lucian’s True History in English has been filled. There are few texts so ideal for undergraduate study: it is short, the Greek is perfectly suitable for intermediate (and advanced) students, and the content is ingenious to the extent that it provokes (what can seem like) endless class discussion. Von Möllendorff’s monumental commentary will remain the recourse for more serious, scholarly study of the text, along with that of Georgiadou and Larmour, but neither of those works fulfil the function of an undergraduate edition.[1] This new study has a substantial introduction to the text, a reader’s guide to abbreviations used in the commentary and an explanation of ancient measurements, a representative account of the bibliography,[2] and after a brief note on the manuscript tradition, the Greek text with facing translation. The commentary, 63 pages in length, follows, with short index (there is no index locorum). The translation is the sole work of the late Diskin Clay, but the other sections are a careful and seamless synthesis of Clay’s draft manuscript (which James Brusuelas revised) with Brusuelas’s own additions and augmentations.

The introduction focuses above all on the literary strategies of the text, and unsurprisingly the True History’s preface receives primary attention. An account of Lucian’s life is sandwiched between a brief overview of the preface and an excellent analysis of Lucian (or Lucian’s projected personae) as ego-narrator in the True History and in his shorter works. The initial unravelling of the preface by Clay and Brusuelas reflects a (perhaps too ready) willingness to take Lucian at face-value on the basis of his opening gambit about his work as light relief from more serious and weighty tomes (to what extent should this authorial voice of the preface be trusted more than the actor-narrator of the main narrative?). The cogent discussion of Lucian’s autobiographical games, whereby his various Lucianic personas are constructed from the fictions of the past and formed into a ‘real’ present, reflects the outstanding work done on (self-)identity (primarily by Goldhill, ní Mheallaigh and Whitmarsh),[3] and is summed up well (p. 15): ‘In the end, Lucian is very much a missing person.’

Following a brief but informative synopsis of the Nachleben of the True History, a short section (‘The anatomy of fiction’) illustrates well the interplay of truth and lies, and history and fiction, as set out above all in the preface. The longest section of the introduction (entitled ‘Mimesis’) is dedicated to discussion of the intertextuality and literary games of the main narrative of the True History, where both the episode on the Moon in Book 1 and the interview with Homer in Book 2 are covered well. The studies of Kim and ní Mheallaigh on the Homer episode are summarised,[4] but one wonders whether a more explicit theorisation should have been foregrounded, given how proto-postmodern Lucian seems to be in anticipating some of the essential tenets of twentieth-century theorists such as Barthes, as ní Mheallaigh above all has so brilliantly proven. It is a shame, too, that the possibility of categorising Lucian’s text as Science Fiction is left largely undiscussed.

For this reviewer, the English translation is now the best available. It captures accurately some of the more difficult subtleties of the text, especially in the (in places) abstruse preface, but remains nevertheless highly readable. To give some examples from the preface: Clay translates οὐκ ἀκωμῳδήτως ᾔνικται as ‘comically covert allusion’, nicely reflecting both the recondite allusions the narrator asks the reader to seek (emphasised by αἰνίττομαι) and the indebtedness to Aristophanic comedy (as argued above all by von Möllendorff in his commentary). ‘This kind of twaddle’ (τῆς τοιαύτης βωμολοχίας, preface 3) is an upgrade on the archaic ‘tomfoolery’ offered in Costa’s Oxford World’s Classics translation. The emphasis on the written word, argued for by ní Mheallaigh in her interpretation of the preface’s final sentence and especially of ἐντυγχάνοντας,[5] is caught perfectly by Clay’s ‘those who open this book should believe nothing that it says’ (my emphasis). Whether a facing translation is appropriate for an edition designed primarily for students learning Greek is another matter (and one I avoid here). Section headings are provided throughout the translation and are a useful guide for the reader, but they in places provide information not necessarily vouched for in that part of the narrative (e.g. at 1.5, the heading ‘How our intrepid author and his companions’ spoils the game of anonymity with which the narrative opens; in fact, many of the section headings refer to ‘author’).

The commentary is not as detailed as one would find in (e.g.) a Cambridge ‘Green and Yellow’, yet it strikes a good balance between literary exegesis and explanation of some of the more complex linguistic matters in the text. In this respect, it is important to heed the notice in the preface: ‘The goal was to address the needs of students, in particular first-year graduate students who are striving to improve both their Greek and their general knowledge of Greek culture in a short period of time’ (p. vi). The lemmata (sensibly) refer to the sections of Smyth’s Greek Grammar throughout. It is disappointing, however, that some of the most significant moments in the narrative, in terms of Lucian’s literary designs, are not given even a slightly fuller treatment. To give one example: the note on 1.26 (the mirror on the Moon) gives a number of important philosophical comparanda, but for the passage’s wider literary impact on the narrative as a whole the reader is directed to ní Mheallaigh’s discussion (her surname is again spelt there incorrectly) on the mirror’s significance in Lucian’s ‘notions of truth and falsehood’ (p. 172).

This is an accessible and very useful edition of Lucian’s True History which should, one hopes, result in Lucian’s more widespread appearance in the syllabus of intermediate and advanced Greek classes.[6]


[1] P. von Möllendorff, Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit. Lukians ‘Wahre Geschichten’ [= Classica Monacensia 21], Tübingen: 2000, and A. Georgiadou and D.H.J. Larmour, Lucian’s Science Fiction Novel True Histories. Interpretation and Commentary. (Mnemosyne Supplement 179), Leiden: 1998.

[2] One important (and recent) scholarly overview of Lucian’s works is notably missing: M. Baumbach and P. von Möllendorff, Ein literarischer Prometheus. Lukian aus Samosata und die Zweite Sophistik, Heidelberg: 2017.

[3] S. Goldhill, Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism, Cambridge: 2002; K. ní Mheallaigh, ‘The Game of the Name: Onymity and the Contract of Reading in Lucian’, in F. Mestre and P. Gomez (eds), Lucian of Samosata: Greek Writer and Roman Citizen, Barcelona: 2010, 121-32; T. Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire, Oxford: 2001. N.B., ní Mheallaigh throughout the introduction is misspelt as ní Mhealleigh.

[4] L. Kim, Homer between History and Fiction in Imperial Greek Literature, Cambridge: 2010; K. ní Mheallaigh, Reading fiction with Lucian: Fakes, Freaks and Hyperreality, Cambridge: 2014.

[5] K. ní Mheallaigh, 2014, op. cit., 208.

[6] There are some typographical errors. P. 16: for ‘when Lucian come’ read ‘when Lucian came’; p. 50: Rodríguez is in the wrong place in the bibliography; p. 51: von Möllendorff not von Möllendorf; p. 52: Viglas is in the wrong place alphabetically; p. 58: there is a stray beta in the Greek text above λέγειν which is not accounted for.