Lucian – Timon

One of Lucian’s most acclaimed works, and certainly deserving of high praise, his dialogue ‘Timon’ develops the notorious story of the 5th Century BCE Athenian nobleman, misanthrope and anti-hero.

 

 

Artist's impression of Timon, as written about by Lucian.
An atrabilious Timon broods on his misfortune.

Timon of Athens was known for his great wealth, and even greater misanthropy. His tale has been told, or mentioned, by some of the greatest satyric, historical and literary writers since his own life, writers including Aristophanes, Strabo, Plutarch and Lucian. It was Lucian’s dialogue that was to provide the source material for the far later play by Shakespeare, ‘Timon of Athens’. The key difference between them is that Shakespeare applies the tragic formula to Timon’s life before the original impoverishment, letting us see the growth of his misanthropy; whereas Lucian deals with the aftermath of Timon’s downfall and his transition from misanthropic poverty to renewed wealth.

 

Lucian’s work takes the form of a dialogue, with characters drawn from the Gods, personified tropes like Treasure (Thesaurus), Wealth (Plutus) and Poverty (Penia), Athenian citizens and of course, Timon. From the outset, Timon is hurling invective against Zeus for his gross mistreatment, and to everyone else’s great surprise, Zeus is so emasculated by his angry prayer, and so sympathetic to Timon’s plight, that he decides to send Hermes with Plutus to re-enrich Timon, the man in rags. After a witty and insightful colloquy between Hermes and Plutus over the nature of wealth and his impact on others, they meet with Timon in the Attican outskirts. Driving off Poverty upon their arrival – Poverty, who Lucian presents as far superior to Plutus – Hermes leaves Plutus, who then summons Treasure for Timon. Faced again with riches, Timon grudgingly accepts them, grudgingly, for he knows that with the gold, he is also taking on as much in problems. What is interesting, is that he does not abandon his misanthropy. Newly enriched, the dialogue concludes with a series of comic encounters between the old sycophants from Timon’s heyday, Timon, and his spade.

Written within the intellectual backdrop of the Second Sophistic, but set closer to the first, Lucian deftly applies the themes of his own day to satirise those of Timon’s. Exploring the nuances of Greek religion, human nature, wealth, and what should truly be considered most important in life, ‘Timon’ is as much a philosophical treatise as it is a comic one. As such, I would highly recommend giving it a read.

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