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Lucian: War propaganda and its hyperbole

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Lucian: Rejecting war’s seductive appeal

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Lucian
From A True Story
Translated by A.M. Harmon

[S]tudents, I think, after much reading of serious works may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour. It would be appropriate recreation for them if they were to take up the sort of reading that, instead of affording just pure amusement based on wit and humour, also boasts a little food for thought that the Muses would not altogether spurn; and I think they will consider the present work something of the kind. They will find it enticing not only for the novelty of its subject, for the humour of its plan and because I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and specious way, but also because everything in my story is a more or less comical parody of one or another of the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables.

*****

Well, on reading all these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy. I did wonder, though, that they thought that they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity, that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic licence, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar. I think I can escape the censure of the world by my own admission that I am not telling a word of truth. Be it understood, then, that I am writing about things which I have neither seen nor had to do with nor learned from others – which, in fact, do not exist at all and, in the nature of things, cannot exist. Therefore my readers should on no account believe in them.

*****

The Vulture Dragoons are commissioned to fly about the country and bring before the king any stranger they may find, so of course they arrested us and brought us before him. When he had looked us over and drawn his conclusions from our clothes, he said: “Then you are Greeks, are you, strangers?” and when we assented, “Well, how did you get here, with so much air to cross?”

We told him all, and he began and told us about himself: that he too was a human being, Endymion by name, who had once been ravished from our country in his sleep, and on coming there had been made king of the land. He said that his country was the moon that shines down on us.

He urged us to take heart, however, and suspect no danger, for we should have everything that we required. “And if I succeed,” said he, “in the war which I am now making on the people of the sun, you shall lead the happiest of lives with me.”

We asked who the enemy were, and what the quarrel was about. “Phaethon,” said he, “the king of the inhabitants of the sun – for it is inhabited, you know, as well as the moon – has been at war with us for a long time now. It began in this way. Once upon a time I gathered together the poorest people in my kingdom and undertook to plant a colony on the Morning Star, which was empty and uninhabited. Phaethon out of jealousy thwarted the colonisation, meeting us half-way at the head of his Ant Dragoons. At that time we were beaten, for we were not a match for them in strength, and we retreated: now, however, I desire to make war again and plant the colony. If you wish, then, you may take part with me in the expedition and I will give each of you one of my royal vultures and a complete outfit. We shall take the field to-morrow.” “Very well,” said I, “since you think it best.”

*****

Joining battle when the flags had been flown and the donkeys on both sides had brayed (for they had donkeys for trumpeters), they fought. The left wing of the Sunites fled at once, without even receiving the charge of the Vulture Horse, and we pursued, cutting them down. But their right wing got the better of the left on our side, and the Sky-mosquitoes advanced in pursuit right up to the infantry. Then, when the infantry came to the rescue, they broke and fled, especially as they saw that the forces on their left had been defeated. It was a glorious victory, in which many were taken alive and many were slain; so much blood flowed on the clouds that they were dyed and looked red, as they do in our country when the sun is setting, and so much also dripped down on the earth that I wonder whether something of the sort did not take place in the sky long ago, when Homer supposed that Zeus had sent a rain of blood on account of the death of Sarpedon.

*****

As for us, we were taken off to the sun that day, our hands tied behind our backs with a section of spider-web. The enemy decided not to lay siege to the city, but on their way back they built a wall through the air, so that the rays of the sun should no longer reach the moon. The wall was double, made of cloud, so that a genuine eclipse of the moon took place, and she was completely enshrouded in unbroken night. Hard pressed by this, Endymion sent and begged them to pull down the construction and not let them lead their lives in darkness. He promised to pay tribute, to be an ally and not to make war again, and volunteered to give hostages for all this. Phaethon and his people held two assemblies; on the first day they did not lay aside a particle of their anger, but on the second day they softened, and the peace was made on these terms:

On the following conditions the Sunites and their allies make peace with the Moonites and their allies, to wit:

That the Sunites tear down the dividing-wall and do not invade the moon again, and that they make over the prisoners of war, each at a set ransom;

That the Moonites permit the stars to be autonomous, and do not make war on the Sunites;

That each country aid the other if it be attacked;

That in yearly tribute the King of the Moonites pay the King of the Sunites ten thousand gallons of dew, and that he give ten thousand of his people as hostages…

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