λ The Lucian of Samosata Project

   Use the Texts / Library button above to access texts.

A Portrait-Study | Imagines

The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.

This portrait of Lucian's is, as the painters say, in his best manner and finished with love. It contains a charming description in the most warm and glowing colors of a perfect woman, and is supposed to be a striking likeness of a mistress or wife of Emperor Lucius Verus. The style throughout is finely adapted to the subject: smooth, animated, and poetical.
- Based on Francklin

Lycinus. Polystratus


Ly. Polystratus, I know now what men must have felt like when they saw the Gorgon’s head. I have justexperienced the same sensation, at the sight of a most lovely woman. A little more, and I should have realized the legend,by being turned to stone; I am benumbed with admiration.

Poly. Wonderful indeed must have been the beauty, and terrible the power of the woman who could produce such animpression on Lycinus. Tell me of this petrifying Medusa. Who is she, and whence? I would see her myself. You will notgrudge me that privilege? Your jealousy will not take alarm at the prospect of a rival petrifaction at your side?

Two friends try to piece together the image of the perfect woman using famous artists as examples

Ly. Well, I give you fair warning: one distant glimpse of her, and you are speechless, motionless as any statue.Nay, that is a light affliction: the mortal wound is not dealt till her glance has fallen on you. What cansave you then? She will lead you in chains, hither and thither, as the magnet draws the steel.


Poly. Enough! You would make her more than human. And now tell me who she is.

Ly. You think I am exaggerating: I fear you will have but a poor opinion of my eloquence when you see her as sheis — so far above my praise. Who she is, I cannot say: but to judge from the splendour of her surroundings, herretinue, her host of eunuchs and maids, she must be of no ordinary rank.

Poly. And you never even asked her name?

Ly. Why no; but she is from Ionia; because, as she passed, I heard one of the bystanders speak aside to hisneighbour: ‘See, he exclaimed, ‘what Smyrna can produce! And what wonder, if the fairest of Ionian cities has given birth tothe fairest of women?’ I thought he must come from Smyrna himself, he was so proud of her.


Poly. There you acted your stony part to perfection. As you could neither follow her, nor make inquiries of theSmyrnaean, it only remains for you to describe her as best you can, on the chance of my recognizing her.

Ly. You know not what you ask. It is not in the power of words — certainly not of my words — to portraysuch wondrous beauty; scarcely could an Apelles, a Zeuxis, a Parrhasius,— a Phidias or an Alcamenes, do justice to it; asfor my flimsy workmanship, it will but insult the original.

Poly. Well, never mind; what was she like? There can be no harm in trying your hand. What if the portrait besomewhat out of drawing?— the critic is your good friend.

Ly. I think my best way out of it will be to call in the aid of some of the old masters I have named: let themfashion the likeness for me.

Poly. Well, but — will they come? They have been dead so long.

Ly. That is easily managed: but you must not mind answering me a few questions.

Poly. You have but to ask.


Ly. Were you ever at Cnidus?

Poly. I was.

Ly. Then you have seen the Aphrodite, of course?

Poly. That masterpiece of Praxiteles’s art! I have.

Ly. And heard the story they tell there,— of the man who fell in love with the statue, and contrived to get shutinto the temple alone, and there enjoyed such favours as a statue is able to bestow.— But that is neither here nor there.—You have seen the Cnidian Aphrodite, anyhow; now I want to know whether you have also seen our own Aphrodite ofthe Gardens,— the Alcamenes.

Poly. I must be a dullard of dullards, if that most exquisite of Alcamenes’s works had escaped my notice.

Ly. I forbear to ask whether in the course of your many visits to the Acropolis you ever observed theSosandra of Calamis.

Poly. Frequently.

Ly. That is really enough for my purpose. But I should just like to know what you consider to be Phidias’s bestwork.

Poly. Can you ask?— The Lemnian Athene, which bears the artist’s own signature; oh, and of course theAmazon leaning on her spear.


Ly. I approve your judgement. We shall have no need of other artists: I am now to cull from each of these itsown peculiar beauty, and combine all in a single portrait.

Poly. And how are you going to do that?

Ly. It is quite simple. All we have to do is to hand over our several types to Reason, whose care it must be tounite them in the most harmonious fashion, with due regard to the consistency, as to the variety, of the result.

Poly. To be sure; let Reason take her materials and begin. What will she make of it, I wonder? Will she contriveto put all these different types together without their clashing?


Ly. Well, look; she is at work already. Observe her procedure. She begins with our Cnidian importation, fromwhich she takes only the head; with the rest she is not concerned, as the statue is nude. The hair, the forehead, theexquisite eyebrows, she will keep as Praxiteles has rendered them; the eyes, too, those soft, yet bright-glancing eyes, sheleaves unaltered. But the cheeks and the front of the face are taken from the ‘Garden’ Goddess; and so are the lines of thehands, the shapely wrists, the delicately-tapering fingers. Phidias and the Lemnian Athene will give the outline ofthe face, and the well-proportioned nose, and lend new softness to the cheeks; and the same artist may shape her neck andclosed lips, to resemble those of his Amazon. Calamis adorns her with Sosandra’s modesty, Sosandra’s grave half —smile; the decent seemly dress is Sosandra’s too, save that the head must not be veiled. For her stature, let it be that ofCnidian Aphrodite; once more we have recourse to Praxiteles.— What think you, Polystratus? Is it a lovelyportrait?


Poly. Assuredly it will be, when it is perfected. At present, my paragon of sculptors, one element of lovelinesshas escaped your comprehensive grasp.

Ly. What is that?

Poly. A most important one. You will agree with me that colour and tone have a good deal to do with beauty? thatblack should be black, white be white, and red play its blushing part? It looks to me as if the most importantthing of all were still lacking.

Ly. Well, how shall we manage? Call in the painters, perhaps, selecting those who were noted for their skill inmixing and laying on their colours? Be it so: we will have Polygnotus, Euphranor of course, Apelles and Aetion; they candivide the work between them. Euphranor shall colour the hair like his Hera’s; Polygnotus the comely brow andfaintly blushing cheek, after his Cassandra in the Assembly-room at Delphi. Polygnotus shall also paint her robe,—of the finest texture, part duly gathered in, but most of it floating in the breeze. For the flesh-tints, which must beneither too pale nor too high-coloured, Apelles shall copy his own Campaspe.


And lastly, Aetion shall give herRoxana’s lips. Nay, we can do better: have we not Homer, best of painters, though a Euphranor and an Apelles bepresent? Let him colour all like the limbs of Menelaus, which he says were ‘ivory tinged with red.’ He too shall paint hercalm ‘ox — eyes,’ and the Theban poet shall help him to give them their ‘violet’ hue. Homer shall add her smile, her whitearms, her rosy finger-tips, and so complete the resemblance to golden Aphrodite, to whom he has compared Brises’ daughterwith far less reason.


So far we may trust our sculptors and painters and poets: but for her crowning glory, for the grace —nay, the choir of Graces and Loves that encircle her — who shall portray them?

Poly. This was no earthly vision, Lycinus; surely she must have dropped from the clouds.— And what was shedoing?

Ly. In her hands was an open scroll; half read (so I surmised) and half to be read. As she passed, she wasmaking some remark to one of her company; what it was I did not catch. But when she smiled, ah! then, Polystratus, I beheldteeth whose whiteness, whose unbroken regularity, who shall describe? Imagine a lovely necklace of gleaming pearls, all of asize; and imagine those dazzling rows set off by ruby lips. In that glimpse, I realized what Homer meant by his ‘carvenivory.’ Other women’s teeth differ in size; or they project; or there are gaps: here, all was equality and evenness; pearljoined to pearl in unbroken line. Oh, ’twas a wondrous sight, of beauty more than human.


Poly. Stay. I know now whom you mean, as well from your description as from her nationality. You said that therewere eunuchs in her train?

Ly. Yes; and soldiers too.

Poly. My simple friend, the lady you have been describing is a celebrity, and possesses the affections of anEmperor.

Ly. And her name?

Poly. Adds one more to the list of her charms; for it is the same as that of Abradatas’s wife. You know Xenophon’s enthusiastic account of that beautiful and virtuous woman?— you have read ita dozen times.

Ly. Yes; and every time I read it, it is as if she stood before me. I almost hear her uttering the words thehistorian has put into her mouth, and see her arming her husband and sending him forth to battle.


Poly. Ah, my dear Lycinus, this lady has passed you but once, like a lightning flash; and your praises,I perceive, are all for those external charms that strike the eye. You are yet a stranger to her nobility of soul; you knownot that higher, more god-like beauty. I am her fellow-countryman, I know her, and have conversed with her manytimes. You are aware that gentleness, humanity, magnanimity, modesty, culture, are things that I prize more than beauty-andrightly; to do otherwise would be as absurd as to value raiment above the body. Where physical perfection goes hand-inhandwith spiritual excellence, there alone (as I maintain) is true beauty. I could show you many a woman whose outwardloveliness is marred by what is within; who has but to open her lips, and beauty stands confessed a faded, withered thing,the mean, unlovely handmaid of that odious mistress, her soul. Such women are like Egyptian temples: the shrine is fair andstately, wrought of costly marble, decked out with gilding and painting: but seek the God within, and you find an ape — anibis — a goat — a cat. Of how many women is the same thing true! Beauty unadorned is not enough: and her true adornments arenot purple and jewels, but those others that I have mentioned, modesty, courtesy, humanity, virtue and all that waits onvirtue.


Ly. Why then, Polystratus, you shall give me story for story, good measure, shaken together, out of yourabundance: paint me the portrait of her soul, that I may be no more her half-admirer.

Poly. This will be no light task, my friend. It is one thing to commend what all the world can see, and quiteanother to reveal what is hidden. I too shall want help with my portrait. Nor will sculptors and painters suffice me: I musthave philosophers; it is by their canons that I must adjust the proportions of the figure, if I am to attain to theperfection of ancient models.


To begin then. Of her clear, liquid voice Homer might have said, with far more truth than of aged Nestor’s, that

honey from those lips distilled.

The pitch, exquisitely soft, as far removed from masculine bass as from ultra-feminine treble, is that of a boy beforehis voice breaks; sweet, seductive, suavely penetrating; it ceases, and still vibrating murmurs play, echo-like, about thelistener’s ears, and Persuasion leaves her honeyed track upon his mind. But oh! the joy, to hear her sing, and sing to thelyre’s accompaniment. Let swans and halcyons and cicalas then be mute. There is no music like hers;


Philomela’s self,‘full-throated songstress’ though she be, is all unskilled beside her. Methinks Orpheus and Amphion, whose spell drew evenlifeless things to hear them, would have dropped their lyres and stood listening in silence to that voice. What shouldThracian Orpheus, what should Amphion, whose days upon Cithaeron were divided betwixt his lyre and his herd,— what shouldthey know of true concord, of accurate rhythm, of accentuation and time, of the harmonious adaptation of lyre and voice, ofeasy and graceful execution? Yes; once hear her sing, Lycinus, and you will know something of Sirens as well as of Gorgons:you have experienced petrifaction; you will next learn what it is to stand entranced, forgetting country and kindred. Waxwill not avail you: her song will penetrate through all; for therein is every grace that Terpsichore, Melpomene, Calliopeherself, could inspire. In a word, imagine that you hear such notes as should issue from those lips, those teeth that youhave seen.


Her perfect intonation, her pure Ionic accent, her ready Attic eloquence, need not surprise you; these are herbirthright; for is not Smyrna Athens’ daughter? And what more natural than that she should love poetry, and make it herchief study? Homer is her fellow citizen.— There you have my first portrait; the portrait of a sweet-voiced songstress,though it fall far short of its original. And now for others. For I do not propose to make one of many, as you did. I aimhigher: the complex picture of so many beauties wrought into one, however artful be the composition, cannot escapeinconsistency: with me, each separate virtue of her soul shall sit for its own portrait.

Ly. What a banquet awaits me! Here, assuredly, is good measure. Mete it out; I ask for nothing better.


Poly. I proceed then to the delineation of Culture, the confessed mistress of all mental excellences,particularly of all acquired ones: I must render her features in all their manifold variety; not even here shall myportraiture be inferior to your own. I paint her, then, with every grace that Helicon can give. Each of the Muses has buther single accomplishment, be it tragedy or history or hymn: all these Culture shall have, and with them the gifts of Hermesand of Apollo. The poet’s graceful numbers, the orator’s persuasive power, the historian’s learning, the sage’s counsel, allthese shall be her adornments; the colours shall be imperishable, and laid on with no niggardly brush. It is not my fault,if I am unable to point to any classical model for the portrait: the records of antiquity afford no precedent for a cultureso highly developed.— May I hang this beside the other? I think it is a passable likeness.

Ly. Passable! My dear Polystratus, it is sublime; exquisitely finished in every line.


Poly. Next I have to depict Wisdom; and here I shall have occasion for many models, most of them ancient; onecomes, like the lady herself, from Ionia. The artists shall be Aeschines and Socrates his master, most realistic ofpainters, for their heart was in their work. We could choose no better model of wisdom than Milesian Aspasia, the admired ofthe admirable ‘Olympian’; her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdnessand penetration, shall all be transferred to our canvas in their perfect measure. Aspasia, however, is only preserved to usin miniature: our proportions must be those of a colossus.

Ly. Explain.

Poly. The portraits will be alike, but not on the same scale. There is a difference between the little republicof ancient Athens, and the Roman Empire of today; and there will be the same difference in scale (however close theresemblance in other respects) between our huge canvas and that miniature.


A second and a third model may be found inTheano, and in the poetess of Lesbos; nay, we may add Diotima too. Theano shall give grandeur to the picture, Sapphoelegance; and Diotima shall be represented as well by her wisdom and sagacity, as by the qualities for which Socratescommended her. The portrait is complete. Let it be hung.


Ly. ’Tis a fine piece of work. Proceed.

Poly. Courtesy, benevolence: that is now my subject. I have to show forth her gentle disposition, hergraciousness to suppliants. She shall appear in the likeness of Theano — Antenor’s Theano this time —, of Arete and herdaughter Nausicaa, and of every other who in her high station has borne herself with constancy.


Next comes constancy ofanother kind,— constancy in love; its original, the daughter of Icarius, ‘constant’ and ‘wise,’ as Homer draws her; am Idoing more than justice to his Penelope? And there is another: our lady’s namesake, Abradatas’s wife; of her we have alreadyspoken.

Ly. Once more, noble work, Polystratus. And now your task must be drawing to a close: here is a whole souldepicted; its every virtue praised.


Poly. Not yet: the highest praise remains. Born to magnificence, she clothes not herself in the pride of wealth;listens not to Fortune’s flattering tale, who tells her she is more than human; but walks upon the common ground, farremoved from all thought of arrogance and ostentation. Every man is her equal; her greeting, her smile are for all whoapproach her; and how acceptable is the kindness of a superior, when it is free from every touch of condescension! When thepower of the great turns not to insolence but to beneficence, we feel that Fortune has bestowed her gifts aright. Here aloneEnvy has no place. For how should one man grudge another his prosperity when he sees him using it with moderation, not, likethe Homeric Ate, an oppressor of the weak, trampling on men’s necks? It is otherwise with those meaner souls — victims oftheir own ignoble vanity —, who, when Fortune has raised them suddenly beyond their hopes into her winged aerial car, knowno rest, can never look behind them, but must ever press upwards. To such the end soon comes: Icarus-like, with melted waxand moulting feathers, they fall headlong into the billows, a derision to mankind. The Daedaluses use their waxen wings withmoderation: they are but men; they husband their strength accordingly, and are content to fly a little higher than thewaves,— so little that the sun never finds them dry; and that prudence is their salvation.

Therein lies this lady’s highest praise. She has her reward: all men pray that her wings may never droop, and thatblessings may increase upon her.


Ly. And may the prayer be granted! She deserves every blessing: she is not outwardly fair alone, like Helen, buthas a soul within more fair, more lovely than her body. It is a fitting crown to the happiness of our benevolent andgracious Emperor, that in his day such a woman should be born; should be his, and her affections his. It is blessednessindeed, to possess one of whom we may say with Homer that she contends with golden Aphrodite in beauty, and in works is theequal of Athene. Who of womankind shall be compared to her

In comeliness, in wit, in goodly works?


Poly. Who indeed?— Lycinus, I have a proposal to make. Let us combine our portraits, yours of the body and mineof the soul, and throw them into a literary form, for the enjoyment of our generation and of all posterity. Such a work willbe more enduring than those of Apelles and Parrhasius and Polygnotus; it will be far removed from creations of wood and waxand colour, being inspired by the Muses, in whom alone is that true portraiture that shows forth in one likeness a lovelybody and a virtuous soul.