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ROMAN CONTEMPLATIONS (9 of 12)

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Cynics versus Lucian

Cynics were numerous in the Roman empire during the first and second centuries. One of them was Peregrinus, who lived between the years 95 and 165. He was an excommunicated Christian from a wealthy family who had studied under a Cynic philosopher of repute, Agathobulus, in Alexandria. The only detailed account of the life of Peregrinus is by the philosopher-writer Lucian of Samosata (born 125) in his satire, The Death of Peregrinus. And Lucian followed this by writing a hostile account of Cynics in general in his book The Runaways.

Lucian was a Greek who settled in Athens – which had been absorbed into the Roman Empire. Of the available range of philosophical options, he chose to admire the works of Epicurus.

Lucian fascinates people into the 21st century. In his A True Story, he parodied Homer's the Odyssey and other fantasies known to Romans. Wikipedia describes Lucian as anticipating "modern" fictional themes like voyages to the moon and Venus, extraterrestrial life and wars between planets. Lucian also gave advice concerning food intake and moderation. Lucian has had 80 works of prose attributed to him, about 10 of which are said to be spurious. He is described as writing with a "mordant and malicious wit."

Lucian gave advice on serious faults in writing history. He wrote, "It is the fashion to neglect the examination of facts." Those of their own side, he wrote, "they exalt to the skies [while] the other side they disparage intemperately." Writing praise, he complained, one does "to commend and gratify his living theme some way or other; [and] if misrepresentation will serve his purpose, he has no objection to that... History, on the other hand, abhors the intrusion of any least scruple of falsehood." Lucian believed in writing history as Thucydides had: using prose. Describing contemporary historians, Lucian wrote,

Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law – the poet's fancy.

In his The Death of Peregrinus, Lucian wrote, that Peregrinus announced to a crowd outside the Olympic games in Greece that at the next games he would burn himself to death. With the approach of those games, the prospect of Peregrinus killing himself added to the excitement. In a solemn procession followed by a large crowd, the 65 year-old Peregrinus marched to his chosen execution site, stripped to his dirty undershirt and cried out "Be gracious to me, gods of my father and my mother." Then he jumped into the flames. Lucian wrote that Peregrinus' followers were deeply moved. Some claimed that they saw a vulture fly from his flames to Olympus. Some of his followers claimed that they saw Peregrinus after death, dressed in white, walking happily with a crown of ivy on his head.

Peregrinus became a new Cynic saint around which a cult developed. Some others responded to Peregrinus' death with disgust, saying he was a lunatic driven by hunger for publicity and that he deserved to die.

It was Lucian's opinion that if someone had to die he should do it quietly and with dignity. In The Runaways, Lucian described Cynics as going from house to house begging for food and pretending to be philosophers. If questioned on any philosophical point, he wrote, they might respond with verbal abuse. A character in The Runaways asks what would become of the world if all workingmen left their jobs to live off others as the Cynics do.

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