Why read the Characters?  James Diggle looks at Theophrastos

The Characters is a collection of thirty short sketches, illustrating thirty different types of person, each of whom exemplifies a kind of behaviour which is faulty, abnormal, or objectionable. It was composed by a pupil of Aristotle, originally called Turtamos, who came from the island of Lesbos. When Aristotle died, Turtamos succeeded him as head of the school which he had founded, the Lyceum. Later writers say that it was Aristotle himself who changed the man's name to Theophrastos, 'the divinely spoken', so highly did the master value his pupil's eloquence.

Good judges in antiquity echoed this verdict. Quintilian, in the first century AD, speaks of a loquendi nitor diuinus ('a brightness of language heaven-sent'). Cicero calls him dulcis ('sweet') and suauis ('pleasant'), and Plutarch tells us that Cicero was accustomed to describe him as his 'particular delight'. Modern judges have looked in vain for brightness and sweetness in the works of Theophrastos which survive. But, of the 200 works which he is known to have written, only three complete works have survived, two on botany, and the Characters. Perhaps we should not expect to find brightness and sweetness in the botanical works. But we might expect to find them in the Characters. And yet a modern translator calls the Characters 'sometimes obscure and inelegant . . . their style unvaried and abrupt', and he believes that 'Their terseness suggests notes for lectures, and they can hardly have been written for separate publication as a literary work'. And one commentator complains that 'the Greek is not Greek at its most limpid'. So why do I regard the Characters as the work of a master stylist, who writes Greek that is limpid, elegant, pointed, ever glinting with flashes of brilliance? And why, after publishing a commentary on this work eighteen years ago, am I publishing another?

The answer to the second question is straightforward. That earlier commentary, published in the series Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, was not for the faint-hearted: doctum, Iuppiter, et laboriosum, Catullus might have called it. There is, I believe a wider audience, waiting for something less daunting and more usable. The aim of the new commentary, published in the series Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, is to enable the student, rather than the scholar, to understand and enjoy this aureolus libellus (as Isaac Casaubon, its greatest commentator, called it), this 'golden little book'. My answer to the first question (why I value the Characters so highly) will occupy the rest of this essay.

Let us start by examining the form in which these character-sketches are presented. Their form is unvarying. After the name of the individual there is added the expression τοιοῦτός τις οἷος, '(is) such a person as to'. For example, in sketch nο. 1, 'The Dissembler (Εἴρων) is such a person as to (i.e. is the sort of man who) . . . '. And the rest of the sketch is a series of sentences each containing an infinitive constructed with that introductory formula. This is a new technique. It is very different from the way that Aristotle describes faulty characters in the Nicomachean Ethics. Many of the faults illustrated by the characters of Theophrastos are faults which are analysed by Aristotle. But Aristotle focuses on the abstract fault and defines what it is and how it relates to other virtues and vices. Theophrastos discards the abstract noun and substitutes the person. And he locates this person in a specific time and place. The place is Athens. And it is an Athens whose daily life is recreated for us in dozens of dramatic pictures and incidents. Theophrastos takes us everywhere: to the market, theatre, baths, gymnasia, wrestling-schools, lawcourts, Assembly, dining-room and bedroom. And he peoples these places with a huge cast of extras: bankers and barbers, cooks and call-girls, fullers and fishmongers, priests and parasites, soldiers and sycophants, teachers and trierarchs. All life is here, and it is real life. They shop and gossip, and eat and drink, and lend and borrow, belch in the theatre, carry coins in their mouths, stub their toes in the street, nail the soles back on their shoes, fall off horses and crack their skulls, keep pet monkeys and oriental pheasants, buy spherical oil-flasks from the South of Italy and twisted walking-sticks from Sparta and little ladders for pet birds, rummage through the rubbish when their wife mislays a small coin, and get bitten by a neighbour's dog while going outside to the lavatory during the night.

How real this life is easily goes unnoticed. Here is an example. We read of a money-lender who charges market-traders interest of one and a half obols to the drachma per day. This is 25% interest per day. If you think about it, you will realise that this represents an astronomical rate of interest per year. One commentator records that the usual rate per year was 16%–18%, and he passes on, unconcerned, and leaves the incautious reader to suspect that the lenders and borrowers of Theophrastos, with their 25% interest per day, have gone mad, or are mere caricatures, and that this is a world of unreality. But if you turn to Paul Millett's (remarkably readable) Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens, you will discover what is happening here. A market-trader will take out a loan at high daily interest in order to buy in the morning the goods which he hopes to have sold at a profit by the evening, when he will repay the loan and interest. The butchers and fishmongers of Theophrastos, who are borrowing at 25% per day, are behaving no differently from tradesman in medieval Bruges or Victorian London.

Another example, just for the fun of it. We hear of a man who takes an excessive pride in his appearance. 'He has frequent haircuts, keeps his teeth white, and persistently changes his clothes.' How does the man keep his teeth white? What did the Greeks use for toothpaste? They used a kind of chewing gum. They chewed a resinous plant called σχῖνος, 'mastich', which comes from the island of Chios. You see what an education it can be to study this work. That is not the kind of thing you learn by reading Euripides.

I have said that Theophrastos' style has been described as 'obscure and inelegant' and 'not limpid'. Sometimes, indeed, it appears to be. But that is usually because what we have been accustomed to reading in our texts is not what Theophrastos wrote. Our printed texts have been put together by modern editors from the evidence of three manuscripts, written more than a thousand years after the time of Theophrastos. These manuscripts are very corrupt. Some of what they offer makes no sense at all, and therefore could not have been written by Theophrastos. So let me show that Thephrastos can, and often does, write Greek that is the reverse of obscure and inelegant and unlimpid.

(a drawing from an 1831 translation of Theophrastos’ Characters)

Take first the Ἄγροικος, 'The Country Bumpkin'. He is a countryman who comes to town and shows his country manners. Here is the first sentence of the sketch: 'The Country Bumpkin is the sort of man who drinks a bowl of spicy broth before going to the Assembly, and claims that garlic smells as sweetly as perfume, and wears shoes too large for his feet, and talks in a loud voice'. The Greek is simplicity itself, and conveys, in a very few words, a whole range of impressions, which develop logically the one from the other. First, the man drinks a κυκεών, a kind of drink associated with the poor or the countryman. It was a mixture of grain and liquid (water, wine, milk, honey, or oil) and sometimes of cheese, often seasoned with herbs, such as garlic. So, after he has drunk this concoction for breakfast, his breath will be pungent. And with this pungent breath he goes to town, to the Assembly, where he will meet townsmen, on whom he will pungently breathe. And he says that garlic smells as sweet as perfume: there was garlic in his broth, and so there is garlic on his breath. In the town they smell not of garlic but of perfume; but perfume and garlic are all the same to him. And he walks to town in boots too big for him, and talks too loud. Sound, sight, smell. All that in twenty-six words. Lecture notes, never intended for publication? Or 'loquendi nitor diuinus', a brightness of language heaven-sent?

Next, see how much Theophrastos can hint at in the careful placing of a single word. The Ὀψιμαθής, 'The Late Learner', is a man who pursues activities for which he is too old. 'He falls in love with a courtesan and tries to batter down her door, and when her other lover beats him up he goes to court.' Again, simple and straightforward language. But the really telling detail comes in the final word, δικάζεσθαι, 'he goes to court'. Read the sentence through again, and you will see why. A man past his prime has fallen for a hetaira. He behaves like the typical infatuated young lover from comedy, elegy, and mime: he tries to batter her door down. Along comes her other lover, a young man we assume, to claim not only the girl but also the role (as batterer) which the old man has usurped from him. So battery (but of a different kind) follows: he beats the old man up. And now comes the real punch. Because we have not yet had an infinitive, we know that the story is not quite over. What conclusion might we expect? Any sensible man will now retire chastened, to lick his wounds in silence and hush up his humiliation. But not our Late Learner. He takes the young man to court, on a charge of assault and battery. He steps out of comedy, elegy, and mime, and steps back into real life, to become an ordinary litigious Athenian. But, at the same time, he remains the man he was, insensitive to his own absurdity, impervious to the ridicule of others: ridiculous then as the elderly lover, now to be ridiculous again when his past behaviour is exposed in court. What an ancient biographer said of Sophocles could equally be said of Theophrastos: that he can create a whole personality out of half a line or a single word.

According to a reputable source, Theophrastos was a lively lecturer. 'Hermippos says that Theophrastos would arrive at the Lyceum punctually and well dressed, then would sit down and deliver his lecture, in the course of which he would use all kind of movements and gestures. Once, when he was imitating a glutton, he stuck out his tongue, and licked his lips.' I can believe it. And I can picture him performing the activities which he describes in his sketches: wiping his nose on his hand while pretending to eat, or scratching himself while purporting to sacrifice, or staggering forward as if burdened by a jar full of legal evidence, his hands plucking at documents which threaten to elude his grasp, either in his study as he wrote his sketches, or in the lecture room while reciting them, as he may have done, for all we know.

James Diggle CBE is Emeritus Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Cambridge.  He has written two editions of Theophrastos’ Characters: one for the Cambridge ‘Orange’ series in 2004 and another in the ‘Green-and-Yellow’ format of the Greek and Latin Classics which is due to be published in spring 2022.  He was editor-in-chief of the Cambridge Greek Lexicon which came out in 2021.