Theophrastus: Characters

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Theophrastus' Characters is a collection of thirty short character-sketches of various types of individuals who walked the streets of Athens in the late fourth century BC. This edition presents a radically improved text for a unique work which had a profound influence on European literature. The translation is designed to be readable and reveals the nuances of the original Greek—through a comprehensive commentary that clarifies the often enigmatic references within the text.

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"Its elegance makes it a useful introduction for students, while its comprehensive textual analysis should insure that it will be the substantial contribution to the literature on Theophrastus' engaging, puzzling Characters for some time to come." - Nancy Worman, Barnard College, Columbia University, Classical World
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James Diggle is Professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge and a Fellow of Queens' College. His publications include Studies on the Text of Euripides (OUP, 1981), The Textual Tradition of Euripides' Orestes (Oxford University Press, 1991), and Euripidea: Collected Essays (Oxford University Press, 1994). He was University Orator at Cambridge for eleven years, and has published a selection of his speeches in Cambridge Orations 1982-1993 (Cambridge University Press 0521 466180).

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Theophrastus Characters
Cambridge University Press
0521839807 - Theophrastus Characters - Edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary by James Diggle



The sources for the life of Theophrastus are collected in W. W. Fortenbaugh, P. M. Huby, R. W. Sharples, D. Gutas, Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought and Influence (Leiden 1992) frs. 1-36. The primary source is D.L. 5.36-57 (fr. 1). Some modern discussions: O. Regenbogen, 'Theophrastos', RE Suppl. VII (1940) 1355-61 (II.1 'Vita. Lebensumstände'), M. G. Sollenberger, 'The Lives of the Peripatetics: An analysis of the contents and structure of Diogenes Laertius' "Vitae Philosophorum" Book 5', ANRW II.36.6 (1992) 3793-3879, J. Mejer, 'A Life in fragments: the Vita Theophrasti', in J. M. van Ophuijsen and M. van Raalte (edd.), Theophrastus: Reappraising the Sources (New Brunswick and London 1998) 1-28.

Theophrastus was born at Eresos on Lesbos (D.L. 5.36 = fr. 1.2) in 372/1 or 371/0.1 His name, originally Τύρταμοϲ, was changed by Aristotle to Θεόφραϲτοϲ, in recognition (so later writers believed) of his divine eloquence (D.L. 5.38 = fr. 1.30-1 διὰ τὸ τῆϲ φράϲεωϲ θεϲπέϲιον, Suda Θ 199 = fr. 2.4 διὰ τὸ θείωϲ φράζειν).2 His association with Aristotle will have begin at Athens, if we accept that he studied with Plato (D.L. 5.36 = fr. 1.4; cf. D.L. 3.46).3 Otherwise it will have begun at Assos (on the coast of Asia Minor opposite Lesbos), where Hermias, ruler of Atarneus, former fellow-student of Aristotle in the Academy, gathered together a group of philosophers after the death of Plato in 348/7. The association continued in Macedonia, where Aristotle was invited by Philip Ⅱ in 343/2,4 and in Athens, when Aristotle returned there in 335/4 and founded the Lyceum.

The vicissitudes of the period which follows, and some of its leading figures, are reflected in the Characters.5 Lycurgus, during whose period of political influence Athens had retained a democratic constitution and a measure of independence from Macedon, died c. 325/4. Alexander (ⅩⅩⅢ.3) died in 323. During the uprising against Macedon which followed, Aristotle left Athens for Euboea, where he died in 322/1, and Theophrastus became head of the Lyceum (D.L. 5.36 = fr. 1.5-7). Antipater (ⅩⅩⅢ.4), regent of Macedonia, defeated the Athenians and their allies in 322, placed Athens under the control of Phocion, and imposed an oligarchic constitution and a Macedonian garrison. He designated Polyperchon (Ⅷ.6), general of Alexander, to succeed him in preference to his own son Cassander (Ⅷ.6, 9), with whom Theophrastus was on friendly terms (D.L. 5.37, = fr. 1.13, Suda Θ 199 = fr. 2.8-9). Antipater died in 319. A struggle ensued between Polyperchon and Cassander. Polyperchon offered the Greek cities autonomy in return for their support. Athens rallied to him and executed Phocion. Cassander defeated Polyperchon and captured Athens in 317 and placed it under the control of Demetrius of Phaleron, pupil of Theophrastus (D.L. 5.75).6 Through his influence Theophrastus, though a metic (like Aristotle), was allowed to own land (D.L. 5.39 = fr. 1.38-40), and so to establish the Lyceum in buildings of its own.7

Demetrius was expelled in 307. The restored democracy passed a law requiring heads of philosophical schools to obtain a licence from the state, and Theophrastus (along with other philosophers) briefly withdrew from Athens (D.L. 5.38 = fr. 1.22-9).8 On his return (the law was soon repealed) he remained head of the Lyceum until his death at the age of 85 (D.L. 5.40 = fr. 1.46) in 288/7 or 287/6.

He is reputed to have had some 2,000 students (D.L. 5.37 = fr. 1.16, Suda Θ 199 = fr. 2.7).9 He bequeathed his books to his pupil Neleus of Scepsis (D.L. 5.52 = fr. 1.310-11). The narrative of their subsequent history should be treated with reserve: together with the books of Aristotle, which Theophrastus had inherited, they were stored underground, suffered damage, and were sold to Apellicon of Teos, who issued unreliable copies; the library of Apellicon was carried off to Rome when Sulla captured Athens, and acquired by Tyrannion the grammarian, who, with Andronicus of Rhodes, put further unsatisfactory copies into circulation (Str. 13.1.54, Plu. Sull. 26.1-3 = fr. 37-8).10


(ⅰ) Title

ABV entitle the work Χαρακτῆρεϲ. Diogenes Laertius, in his catalogue of Theophrastus' writings,11 lists it twice, first as Ἠθικοὶ χαρακτῆρεϲ α ´, second as Χαρακτῆρεϲ ἠθικοί (5.47-8 = fr. 1.201, 241 = fr. 436.4a).12

The history of the noun χαρακτήρ is discussed by A. Körte, Hermes 64 (1929) 69-86 and B. A. van Groningen, Mnemosyne 58 (1930) 45-53. It describes the 'stamp' or 'imprint' on a coin, a distinguishing mark of type or value (Arist. Pol. 1257a41 ὁ γὰρ χαρακτὴρ ἐτέθη τοῦ ποϲοῦ ϲημεῖον; cf. E. El. 558-9 τί μ᾽ ἐϲδέδορκεν ὥϲπερ ἀργύρου ϲκοπῶν | λαμπρὸν χαρακτῆρ᾽; ἦ προϲεικάζει μέ τωι;).13 It is also used figuratively, to describe the 'stamp' of facial or bodily features, by which kinship or race are distinguished (Hdt. 1.116.1 ταῦτα λέγοντοϲ τοῦ παιδὸϲ τὸν Ἀϲτυάγεα ἐϲήιε ἀνάγνωϲιϲ αὐτοῦ καί οἱ ὁ . . . χαρακτὴρ τοῦ προϲώπου προϲφέρεϲθαι ἐδόκεε ἐϲ ἑωυτόν, Hyp. fr. 196 Jensen χαρακτὴρ οὐδεὶϲ ἔπεϲτιν ἐπὶ τοῦ προϲώπου τῆϲ διανοίαϲ τοῖϲ ἀνθρώποιϲ; cf. A. Su. 282, E. Med. 516-19, Hec. 379, El. 572),14 and the 'stamp' of speech, as marked by local dialect (χαρακτὴρ γλώϲϲηϲ Hdt. 1.57.3, 1.142.4; cf. S. fr. 176) or by a style of speech (Ar. Pax 220 ὁ γοῦν χαρακτὴρ ἡμεδαπὸϲ τῶν ῥημάτων) or (in later literary criticism) by a style of writing (LSJ II.5, Körte 79-83). Into this pattern fits Men. fr. 72 ἀνδρὸϲ χαρακτὴρ ἐκ λόγου γνωρίζεται, 'the stamp of a man is recognised from his speech': speech typifies him, makes him a distinct and recognisable individual.

A work entitled Χαρακτῆρεϲ advertises nothing more specific than 'types', 'marks', 'distinctive features', or 'styles'. This is not an adequate advertisement of Theophrastus' work. Definition is needed, and is provided by ἠθικοί, which the manuscripts have lost, but Diogenes Laertius has preserved. The title Characters, hallowed by usage, is both misleading and incomplete. The true title means something like Behavioural Types or Distinctive Marks of Character.15

We hear of a few other works which may have been entitled, in whole or part, Χαρακτῆρεϲ: (ⅰ) Περὶ λέξεωϲ ἢ περὶ χαρακτήρων by Antisthenes (D.L. 6.15);16 (ⅱ) Χαρακτῆρεϲ α ´ by Heraclides Ponticus (D.L. 5.88 = fr. 165 Wehrli), perhaps on style;17 (ⅲ) Χαρακτῆρεϲ ἢ Θιλοκώμωιδοι by an unknown tragic poet Dionysiades of Mallos (TrGF 105), ἐν ὧι τοὺϲ χαρακτῆραϲ (styles?) ἀπαγγέλλει τῶν ποιητῶν (Suda Δ 1169);18 (ⅳ) Сάτυροϲ ἐν τοῖϲ περὶ χαρακτήρων (Ath. 168C = FHG 3.164 fr. 20), discussed below (p. 11).

(ⅱ) Antecedents and relations

The Characters, in conception and design, is a novel work: nothing like it, so far as we know, had been attempted before. But antecedents and relations can be recognised.

Descriptions of character-types had appeared sporadically in other genres. Homer describes the δειλόϲ and the ἄλκιμοϲ in ambush, the former pale and fidgety, his heart thumping and his teeth chattering, the latter never blanching, eager for the fight to start (Il. 13.278-86). Eustathius recognised in this a foreshadowing of Theophrastus: διαϲκευάϲαντοϲ τοῦ ποιητοῦ ἀρχετυπικῶϲ ὡϲ ἐν τύπωι χαρακτῆραϲ, ὁποίουϲ δή τιναϲ ὕϲτερον καὶ Θεόφραϲτοϲ ἐξετυπώϲατο, οἷοϲ μὲν ὁ ἄλκιμοϲ ἐν καιρῶι λόχου, οἷοϲ δὲ ὁ δειλόϲ (931.22-3 = 3.469.3-5 van der Valk).19 Semonides describes ten types of women (fr. 7).20 Herodotus (through the mouth of a Persian) describes the μόναρχοϲ (3.80.3-6), and Plato describes the τιμοκρατικόϲ (R. 548D-550B), the ὀλιγαρχικόϲ (553A-555A), the δημοκρατικόϲ (558C-562A), and the τυραννικόϲ (571A-576B). Aristotle in the Rhetoric describes at length the characters (ἤθη) of νέοι, πρεϲβύτεροι, and ἀκμάζοντεϲ (1389a3-1390b13), and more briefly of εὐγενεῖϲ, πλούϲιοι, and δυνάμενοι (1390b16-1391a29).

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes and analyses moral virtues and vices, ἠθικαί (as opposed to λογικαί) ἀρεταί and κακίαι. Virtue is a mean between two opposing vices, one of deficiency, the other of excess, in emotions and actions (1106b16-18). First he lists 13 pairs of vices, with their mean (1107a32-1108b6).21 Theophrastus has 9 (here asterisked) of the 26 vices.

Deficiency Mean Excess
δειλία ἀνδρεία θράϲοϲ
ἀναιϲθηϲία ϲωφροϲύνη ἀκολαϲία
ἀνελευθερία ἐλευθεριότηϲ ἀϲωτία
εἰρωνεία ἀληθεία ἀλαζονεία
ἀγροικία εὐτραπελία βωμολοχία
δυϲεριϲτία φιλία ἀρέϲκεια
δυϲκολία φιλία κολακεία
ἀναιϲχυντία αἰδημοϲύνη κατάπληξιϲ

Aristotle develops the analysis of individual virtues and vices later (1115a4-1128b33).22 Although he personalises their bearers (exemplifying the δειλόϲ and the ἀνδρεῖοϲ, and so on, just as in the Rhetoric he exemplifies νέοι and πρεϲβύτεροι), his persons exist, for the most part, out of time and space, moral paradigms, not flesh and blood. And so it is with the μόναρχοϲ of Herodotus and the political characters drawn by Plato.

But Aristotle provides the seed from which Theophrastus's descriptions grow. He often indicates, in abstract and general terms, the circumstances or behaviour which are associated with each virtue and vice. For example, Rh. 1379b17-19 τοῖϲ ἐπιχαίρουϲι ταῖϲ ἀτυχίαιϲ καὶ ὅλωϲ εὐθυμουμένοιϲ ἐν ταῖϲ αὐτῶν ἀτυχίαιϲ· ἢ γὰρ ἐχθροῦ ἢ ὀλιγωροῦντοϲ ϲημεῖον (taking pleasure in the discomforts of others is the ϲημεῖον, i.e. χαρακτήρ, of a hostile or scornful man), 1383b19-20 οἷον τὸ ἀποβαλεῖν ἀϲπίδα ἢ φυγεῖν· ἀπὸ δειλίαϲ γάρ. καὶ τὸ ἀποϲτερῆϲαι παρακαταθήκην· ἀπὸ ἀδικίαϲ γάρ, 1383b22-5 τὸ κερδαίνειν ἀπὸ μικρῶν ἢ αἰϲχρῶν ἢ ἀπὸ ἀδυνάτων . . . ἀπὸ αἰϲχροκερδείαϲ γὰρ καὶ ἀνελευθερίαϲ.

Instead of an abstract circumstance Theophrastus gives us a real occasion, and instead of an anonymous agent, a real individual. So, while Aristotle says that τὸ περὶ αὑτοῦ πάντα λέγειν καὶ ἐπαγγέλλεϲθαι is typical of ἀλαζονεία (1384a4-6), Theophrastus lets us hear an Ἀλαζών making just such grand claims for himself before visitors in the Piraeus (ⅩⅩⅢ). The ἀνδρεῖοϲ, according to Aristotle, will best display his fearlessness at sea or in war (EN 1115a34-b1). Theophrastus shows us the Δειλόϲ on a ship and on the battlefield (ⅩⅩⅤ). Aristotle is even capable of anticipating Theophrastus's technique. The βάναυϲοϲ (Vulgar Man) makes a tasteless display of his wealth on unimportant occasions, for example by entertaining his dining club on the scale of a wedding banquet or, when acting as choregus for a comedy, bringing on the chorus in purple (EN 1123a22-3 οἷον ἐρανιϲτὰϲ γαμικῶϲ ἑϲτιῶν καὶ κωμωιδοῖϲ χορηγῶν ἐν τῆι παρόδωι πορφύραν εἰϲφέρων). With a minimum of change (οἷοϲ ἐρανιϲτὰϲ γαμικῶϲ ἑϲτιᾶν καὶ . . . εἰϲφέρειν) this becomes indistinguishable from Theophrastus in content and style.

Like Homer, in his description of the δειλόϲ and the ἄλκιμοϲ, Theophrastus locates his characters in a specific time and place. The time is the late fourth century. The place is Athens. And it is an Athens whose daily life he recreates for us in dozens of dramatic pictures and incidents. If we look elsewhere for such scenes and such people, we shall not find them (until we come to the Mimes of Herodas)23 except on the comic stage. 'Plurima inuenias in his breuibus reliquiis', observed Casaubon, 'quae ueluti tabulae e naufragio superstites utcunque remanserunt, ex quibus huius operis cum poetis, scenicis maxime et comicis, quos esse optimos exprimendorum morum artifices scimus, affinitas percipi queat'.24 Comedy furnishes much the same cast of players. Five characters of Theophrastus give their names to plays: the Ἄγροικοϲ (Antiphanes, Menander, Philemon and others), Ἄπιϲτοϲ (Menander), Δειϲιδαίμων (Menander), Κόλαξ (Menander and others), Μεμψίμοιροϲ (Antidotus). Another, the Ἀλαζών, appears regularly on stage.25 A late and dubious source (Pamphile, FHG 3.522 fr. 10 ap. D.L. 5.36 = T. fr. 1.11-12 = Men. Test. 8) claims Menander as a pupil of Theophrastus.26

And so a new type of work came into existence, owing something to the ethical theorising of the Lyceum and something to the comic stage.

(ⅲ) Later Peripatetics

Later Peripatetics attempted character-drawing of this kind, but to what extent and for what purpose is unclear. Lycon, who succeeded Theophrastus's successor Straton as head of the Lyceum c. 269 BC, wrote a description of a drunkard, preserved in the Latin translation of Rutilius Lupus (Lycon fr. 26 Wehrli ap. Rut. Lup. 2.7, 1st cent. AD). Rutilius adduces it as an example of characterismos, the schema by which an orator depicts virtues and vices, and he compares it to a painter's use of colours. The opening (Quid in hoc arbitrer bonae spei reliquum residere, qui omne uitae tempus una ac despicatissima consuetudine producit?) betrays a moralising purpose. The sketch is composed not of illustrations loosely linked but as a coherent narrative, which follows the drunkard through the day, a technique used only once by Theophrastus (the exploits of the Δειλόϲ in ⅩⅩⅤ). In style, it is far from Theophrastus: colours garish, rhetoric over-dressed, cleverness unremitting.27

A papyrus of Philodemus preserves parts of a series of character-sketches, perhaps from a work Περὶ τοῦ κουφίζειν ὑπερηφανίαϲ, 'On Relief from Arrogance',28 by Ariston of Keos, who was probably Lycon's successor (c. 225 BC). The characters depicted in the parts we have (they represent aspects of ὑπερηφανία) are the Αὐθάδηϲ, Αὐθέκαϲτοϲ, Παντειδήμων, and Εἴρων, of whom the first and fourth are also depicted by Theophrastus; and perhaps also the Сεμνοκόποϲ, Εὐτελιϲτήϲ, and Οὐδενωτήϲ.29 Although the form of the original sketches has been obscured by introductory matter, commentary, and paraphrase from Philodemus, it is clear that Ariston follows Theophrastus closely in style, technique, and content. He uses the introductory formula τοιοῦτοϲ . . . οἷοϲ or something like it,30 builds his sentences around infinitives constructed with that formula, makes much use of participles, and normally links clauses and sentences with a simple καί. And he uses the same kind of illustrative vignettes from everyday life: a man asks for hot or cold water without consulting his fellow-bather (fr. 14, I p. 36.17-19 ἐν τῆι μάκραι θερμ[ὸ]ν [ἢ ψυ]χρὸν αἰτεῖν μ[ὴ π]ροανακρ̣[ίν]α̣ϲ τὸν ϲυμβεβηκότ᾽ (ϲυ<νε>μβ- Kassel and Austin on Eup. 490) εἰ κἀκεί[νωι ϲυναρέϲκει) and does not reciprocate a rub with oil ( italicfr. 14, II p. 36.21-2 τὸν ϲυναλείψαντα μὴ ἀντιϲυναλείφειν) or is deficient in epistolary courtesies (fr. 14, II p. 36.25-6 γρά[φ]ων ἐπιϲτολὴν τὸ χαίρειν μὴ προγράψαι (Diggle: προϲ- Π) μηδ᾽ ἐρρῶϲθαι τελευταῖον) italic31 or postures Socratically (fr. 14, VII p. 39.13-14 " Ἐγὼ γὰρ οἶδα τί πλ[ήν γε] τούτου, ὅτι [οὐ]δὲν οἶδα;"). In style and wit there is nothing to distinguish these from Theophrastus.32

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Preface; Introduction: 1. Theophrastus and his times; 2. The nature and purpose of the Characters; 3. Date; 4. Transmission; 5. Some texts and commentaries; Text and translation; Commentary; Abbreviations and bibliography; Indexes.

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