One question I used to have was, when did modern comedy appear? Not comedy itself, but the absurdist, completely cynical type that dominates American and British humor? Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, MAD Magazine, Sam & Max, the Hitchhiker’s Guide. There’s hints of this style in Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome, maybe a bit in Moliere, but how early does it go?

One answer is: back to Lucian of Samosata. Or Λουκιανος, to his mother. He was a Syrian (Samosata is on the Euphrates, in present-day Turkey) who wrote excellent Greek, and was one of the most popular writers of the 2nd century. More than 80 of his works survive, a very high number for an ancient author. I just read a good selection, Lionel Casson’s Selected Satires of Lucian (1962).

I first met him with his “Sale of the Philosophers”, where Lucian imagines Zeus and Hermes running a slave market, selling philosophers. His satire of the various schools is vicious and irreverent, and especially funny if (say) you’ve just finished a yearlong course in philosophy. His work must have been widely copied and criticized (or maybe he read the piece as a performance) because he found it necessary to write a sequel, “the Fishermen”, which carefully explains that he loves all the actual philosophers; he just hates their modern representatives, who happen to mostly be sophistical, greedy hypocrites.

Lucian is also cited in histories of science fiction, as his “True Story” is a novella of absurdist adventure, a parody of the Odyssey with a few jabs at credulous historians like Herodotus. After noting that the story is a pure lie, he describes taking a ship of adventurers past the Pillars of Hercules and into the Atlantic, where a storm blew them up to the Moon.

Whether it’s sf or not depends on how you split your hairs; it’s certainly an early form of fantasy (but so is Gilgamesh). Lucian’s method is to pile on absurdities:

Moonmen have artificial penises, generally of ivory but, in the case of the poor, of wood… They never die of old age but dissolve and turn into air, like smoke. The diet is the same for everyone: frog. … They don’t urinate or defecate. They have no anal orifice so, instead of the anus, boys offer for intercourse the hollow of the knee above the calf, since there’s an opening there.

This is probably the best story in the volume– always entertaining and inventive, if not very deep.

One of the more curious selections is the story of a man turned into a donkey by magic. (Pro tip: don’t ask a witch for a demonstration of her transformation magic.) The most notable bit is how much abuse the donkey is in for. It’s hard to say what Lucian intended here: to a modern, it reads like a condemnation of human cruelty to animals, but it’s possible Lucian thought it was comic, like Shakespeare’s Bottom given an ass’s head.

Lucian was known for comic dialogues– which etymologically is ‘conversation’, not limited to two people. (It’s δια ‘with’, not δί ‘two’.) The ones in this volume rely heavily on gods and mythological figures, though there’s also one featuring various literary courtesans.

His own beliefs come out most clearly in a dialog set in Hades, where the Cynic philosopher Menippus has a grand time mocking the other newly dead. This mostly amounts to making fun of dictators and rich men, who have lost all their power and gold– the afterlife is a democracy of misery. There a certain acerbic morality to this– a rebuke to greed and vanity and authority because they are all ultimately meaningless; it’s the same sort of wisdom as the medieval scholar who keeps a skull on his desk as a reminder that we all die. At the same time… well, it’s pretty nihilistic, isn’t it? “We’re all dead and equally miserable in Hades” is a great position for attacking pretension, but I kind of prefer an ideology that promotes actual benevolence.

One of the more interesting pieces is a biographical sketch of a prophet and oracle, Alexander of Abonoteichos. Lucian is not a fan, to put it mildly. By his account, the prophet is a scammer, whose shtick is to interpret the words of a new god, Glycon, who consists of a tame snake plus a hand puppet. (If you want to scam your own flock, make sure you do this in a dark room, and speak in an eldritch voice when you pass on the words of Glycon.) His method is to read and respond to sealed scrolls. This is done only after an interval– which gives Alexander time to use various methods to unseal the scrolls, read the question, and create an appropriate response. One trick was to slice through the wax, and later reheat and reseal it. Another was to make an impression of the seal in clay; the seal could then be broken, and resealed using the clay model. If the scroll was too hard to unseal, Alexander would simply give an outlandishly obscure prophecy– he would even allow associates to interpret the obscurities for an additional fee.

We don’t have Alexander’s side of the story, but we know he was real– coins were struck with the image of Glycon. Whether Lucian was an accurate reporter can be doubted (e.g. he inserts his own confrontation with the prophet– he bites his hand– which is hard to credit.) Still, it’s a convincing portrait of a charlatan, and suggests the sorts of methods that such people have always used.

Would you like Lucian? Well, you may or may not find the laughs. I don’t respond to absurdist humor quite as much as I used to; your mileage may vary. I found it most interesting as anthropology– a reminder that not everyone in the past was serious and reverent. The echoes to modern humorists may be misleading: as I noted above, his appreciation for Cynicism is precisely the sort of rebuke to the material world that philosophers valued in almost every era. I also suspect that his style of satire is not as populist as it sometimes sounds: Lucian is too well educated to be a real voice of the masses. A pose of disaffected virtue has long been popular with the more literate strata of the elite.)

On the other hand, it may be relevant that he lived in perhaps the most peaceful and best-governed century of the Roman Empire. It’s not that, as he himself might have believed, his targets were particularly decadent– that the Golden Age had passed. It’s that a culture may need a certain maturity to laugh at itself. And maybe a certain spiritual tiredness: he can treat Zeus and the gods with levity precisely because the elite no longer really believed in them (but still knew all the stories).

I like Casson’s translation on the whole– it’s lively and colloquial. Two cavils, though. One, I really wish he wouldn’t give money references in “dollars”. I understand that it’s shorthand, but I’d rather know what Lucian actually wrote– and not have to worry about what a dollar was worth 59 years ago. Second, it bugs me when he translates the wordplay and doesn’t give the original, even in a footnote. E.g. the “True Story” refers to the Saladbirds, the Fastcentaurs, and Waterburg. I’d like to at least know the Greek terms, especially since Casson leaves in most of the names of gods and historical figures, however obscure.

(Oh, another word on the original question. Lucian certainly didn’t invent the humorous dialog; the Egyptians had the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”; the Akkadians wrote debates between inanimate objects. It’s not quite the same, but it also probably indicates that there was more of the same that’s been lost. In premodern times literature was preserved when people copied it, and probably a lot of comedy was lost because the targets were no longer understood.)