Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.55

Paul Millett, Theophrastus and His World. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, Supplement Vol. 33.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. x, 188.  ISBN 978-0-90614-32-5.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by John Scarborough, University of Wisconsin (
Word count: 1918 words

[Table of Contents will be found at the end.]

Anyone perusing the works of Theophrastus will initially encounter a large literature on his tracts that consider botany, works that were definitive on plants and their characteristics until the widespread acceptance of the Linnaean systems of nomenclature toward the end of the 18th century.1 Other scientific treatises that have survived also intrigue moderns searching for definitive texts that demonstrate the high levels of expertise in zoology, mineralogy, natural history, physiology, and related topics in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries B.C.2 Some of these works do bear the templates of Peripatetic philosophy, but Theophrastus -- splendid observer and recorder that he was -- reserved the right to disagree with his mentor, Aristotle, with whom he had close association ever since youthful collections of data on sea-animals, while Aristotle was tutoring family members of Hermias at Assos, sometime after the death of Plato in 348/7 B.C.3 It is the Characters, however, that has engendered the fascination of many classical scholars, and modern historians of Athenian culture will occasionally employ the seeming caricatures of behavior to discern how Athenians conducted themselves in public when Theophrastus was head of the Lyceum (322/1-287/6 B.C.). Millett's dense yet very readable account warns against any approach to the Characters that might imply 'reality,' suggesting throughout his close readings of the Greek text that Theophrastus likely meant to portray stereotypical behaviors which summarized several 'personality types,' as such came to be called in 20th century psychiatry. The stereotypes appear to 'float' somewhere between caricature and the real lives of Athenians, notably set down by Athens' most famous metic, whose lectures and smaller sessions with colleagues took place outside the city walls.

Although Millett acknowledges Theophrastus' prowess in botany and natural history, as informed by his refutations of theories on plant generation by his philosophical predecessors, one does not encounter Theophrastus "the scientist" thereafter, suggesting that the book is mis-titled: more indicative of Millett's assured readings of the Characters might be Theophrastus' Characters. Reflections on Habits and Personalities in Fourth-Century Athens. This would have been quite in keeping with Millett's commentary in Chapter 2 on George Eliot's 1879 Impressions of Theophrastus Such as a device to suggest exactly what will follow in the rest of the book: impressions as garnered from the pages of Theophrastus, although other authors in the nineteenth century would take the 'characters' genre and turn them into pure buffoonery. Of note is Millett's summary (pp. 13-15) of William Thackeray's Book of Snobs, published in the weekly issues of Punch from February 1846 through February 1847, which may -- or may not -- carry the imprint of Theophrastus' curiously influential series of 'personality types.' As Millett writes (p. 14), "Classics are deployed impartially to illustrate snobbery and expose ignorance," and the following examples of fake scholars and their made-up pseudo-classical names and equally bogus learned notes call to mind the splendid confabulated, multi-lingual puns and twists on phony scholars and scientists found in the works of Stanislaw Lem, especially the 1971 Dzienniki Gwiazdowe, translated from the Polish as The Star Diaries in 1976.4 Yet Millett is well aware that Thackeray's essays are rather distant from Theophrastus, even though some critics have attributed "influences" from the then widely dispersed English versions (by Jebb and others) available to an apparently voracious reading public. Theophrastus displays a gentle set of observations on people and public behavior of those persons, and any derivation of sarcastic or pointed humor, at the expense of the 'personality types' contained in the Characters, is false. Theophrastus is termed a "minimalist" by Millett on the basis of his close readings, a label that would certainly not be applicable to any of the scientific works that have survived complete or in the collected fragments as found in Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought and Influence.

Millett's short book is chock-full of insights and carefully assembled details, and Ch. 3, "Theophrastus the Metic," is now required reading for anyone who attempts to place Theophrastus into a proper historical or intellectual context. Meticulous comparison with the will of Aristotle shows that Theophrastus died a wealthy man, and could make many provisions for his Lyceum and the many friends and colleagues with whom he was associated (and honored) by the Athenians. A few myths about the Lyceum are neatly demolished, particularly the assumption that Theophrastus taught in settings similar to the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Moreover, the Lyceum was not founded on a legally defined religious basis, but was a 'secular educational institution.' In referring, however, to Demetrius of Phalerum as a prominent leader of Athens (and formerly a student of Aristotle and a friend of Theophrastus), Millett fails to inform his readers that the Peripatetic influences in the biological sciences would travel with Demetrius to Ptolemy in Alexandria and that there are links to what transpired in Ptolemaic Alexandria (including the famous Museum and Library).5 In some respects this connection of the Lyceum with medical and biological research in Ptolemaic Alexandria indicates a firm, if not decisive, impact on how Herophilus and Erasistratus (among others) would conduct their research on anatomy and physiology: both Aristotle and Theophrastus set down what they set down on animals and plants based on personal observations, and since there were no 'handbooks' available on fish-lore, mammals, birds, and plants (both medicinal and those that formed the basis of agricultural life), they sought experts who did know the details of fish, plants, foodstuffs, and the rest of the zoological types featured in the writings of both philosophers; the 'world of Theophrastus' included the rootcutters (rhizotomoi) and drug vendors (pharmakopolai) of Book IX in the Historia Plantarum, as well as the farmers, hunters and fishermen that gave details recorded in the Historia Animalium and other works by Aristotle; and as Fraser has noted, that 'world' of Theophrastus would include the far reaches into the Near East and India, made generally familiar by the conquests of Alexander -- who was, after all, also a student (albeit for a short time) of Aristotle.6

Even while ignoring these aspects of Theophrastus' 'world,' Millett certainly makes lucid the differences displayed by Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum: at the Lyceum, there was an evident and long term sense of cooperation among students and their teachers, as they sought as many details as possible on given topics carefully sub-divided into 'classes' of knowledge; by contrast, the Academy featured Plato and his students formulating dialogues on what might be termed 'ideal' facets of the human intellect and the nature of the soul, and, as Millett cogently observes, there would have been little sense of mutual enlightenment from collection of specifics about the natural world (the Timaeus is illustrative). In the Lyceum, speculation and theoretical structures emerge after the collection of facts, not before.

Millett succinctly demonstrates the general difficulties when moderns attempt close and literal interpretations of the composite habits and mores as given in the Characters. In ch. 5, "They Do Things Differently There?," we meet Jebb (1907), Edmonds and Austen (1904) coupled with Rusten (2002) and Smeed (1985), as each tries to smooth some of the 'personality types' into the familiar ones we know as 'timeless,' in turn contrasted with Ussher (1993) who refuses to comment on everyday activities, easily recognized as unchanging, followed by a summary of Lane Fox's assertions (1996) that grant some aspects of the Characters are recognizable from their modern counterparts, while others are not. Attempts by Jebb to detect a deep irony receive rejection by Goldhill (1998), who points out that Athens was predominantly oral in culture, a "city of words." Diggle (2004) provides a kind of catalogue of scholarly attempts to assimilate Theophrastus' erstwhile irony in the Characters, emphasizing (for example) that the "Superstitious Man" displays deisdaimonia (a 'fear of the divine') as accurately conceived as "conventional piety," certainly not what we think of as "superstition"; and comparisons with Menander's plays may -- or may not -- offer telling details of the political contexts of Macedonian dominance while Athenians generally clung to their democratic way of life, delineated by Susan Lape's forceful 2004 book, Reproducing Athens. Millett quotes Lape on the "tenacity of democratic identity," and then the editor (T. L. Shear [1978]) of an inscription honoring the mercenary, Kallias of Sphettos, who fought for Athens in the revolt against Demetrius Poliorcetes in 286 B.C.; Shear writes that "the decree is redolent with the rhetoric of democracy" (Kallias of Sphettos and the Revolt of Athens in 286 BC, pp. 11-12), and Millett comments (p. 45) "And not empty rhetoric, as reflected in repeated Athenian attempts down to 260 to restore a thoroughgoing democratic constitution." Ch. 5 gives snippets of the use and misuse of the Characters by Gordon (1912), Ehrenberg (1973), Rostovtzeff (1941), Zimmern (1961), Mosse (1973), Podlecki (1985) and many others, so that the chapter is a handy guide to some of the large literature that suggests no 'interpretation' is completely satisfying. Millett is surely right in ascertaining the continuously 'floating' personalities, likely provided by Theophrastus in a peculiarly unique fashion that has attracted literary experts, playwrights, poets, and Classicists since the Renaissance, all of whom become challenged by the simultaneous opacity and clarity that defies analysis. The hypothesis that Athenians "were more like us than not" does not work too well, and the assertion that "they were citizens of a differently-marked ancient democracy" also fails to convince.

In sum, Millett has written a splendid book, replete with his punctilious assembly of secondary literature derived from a decade of pondering. His basic text is that of Diggle (2004), and from time to time Millett will quote from Diggle's perceptive commentary. And yet, in some fundamental respects, readers are better served by Rusten's 2002 text and translation in the Loeb Classical Library: Rusten does not avoid the questions of botany, the allusions to matters of scientific expertise, and the questions of how magic and related beliefs functioned in the Athens of the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. In fact, Rusten's text with translation also incorporates footnoted leads into the literature on magic, botany, animal-lore, and the numerous intimations of Peripatetic science that pepper the Characters. Thereby Rusten deals with Theophrastus as he was, proudly combining philosophy, science, and literary abilities as would be typical of Greek and Roman intellectuals in general (one only has to think of Aristotle and Galen to prove this inner fusion).7 By choosing to ignore Theophrastus' exuberant explorations of the world of nature, Millett has, in effect, demonstrated C. P. Snow's analysis of intellectual efforts in the twentieth century:8 'humanists' shun science, and scientists do not understand what the 'humanists' try to do with such fields as sociology or anthropology, which sometimes unsuccessfully seek to bridge the divide.

Preface (p.ix)
1: The kairos of the Characters (1)
2. Theophrastus of Eresos and Theophrastus Such (7)
3. Theophrastus the Metic (20)
4. That's Entertainment? (28)
5. They do things differently there? (42)
6. Corruption and the Characters (51)
7. Honour bright (58)
8. Etiquette for an élite: at home (69)
9. Etiquette for an élite: away (83)
10. Face to face in the Agora (93)
11. Conspicuous co-operation? (99)
12. Theophrastus Nonesuch (110)
Endnotes (118)
Appendix 1: Naming the Characters (159)
Appendix 2: Characters in Punch magazine (165)
Appendix 3: Classical allusion in Thackeray's Book of Snobs (167)
Bibliography (172)
Index of References (183)


1.   Completely superseding the Loeb Classical Library edition and translation of Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum is Suzanne Amigues, ed., trans., commentary, Théophraste Recherches sur les plantes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1988-2006; 5 vols. [Budé]). Amigues' commentary includes an enormous collection of references to secondary literature on botany, the state of scholarship on ancient plant-lore, and the continuous problems of identification of particular species and genera. By contrast, the Loeb edition of Sir Arthur Hort (unrevised since its initial publication in 1916) bears the marks of a late Victorian prudery: e.g. some of the presumably offensive details on aphrodisiacs and anaphrodiasiacs are simply omitted in both the Greek and English at HP, IX, 18. 3; and the botanical identifications are provided by Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, notorious for his lack of botanical expertise (many of the plant nomenclatures in the LSJ are those by Thiselton-Dyer, and cannot be trusted). Likely the most incisive condemnation of Thiselton-Dyers' unfortunate influence on Anglophone scholarship, that takes up botany and related matters in ancient Greece, is John Raven's "Unreliability of some of Thiselton-Dyer's Identification of Greek Plant Names -- Plants of Homer -- Plants of Sappho," most easily accessible in Faith Raven, et al., eds., J. E. Raven: Plants and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece (Oxford: Leopard's Head Press, 2000), pp. 3-10. For a translation and discussion of the "missing passages" in Hort's edition and translation of the HP, see especially Anthony Preus, "Drugs and Psychic States in Theophrastus' Historia plantarum 9.8-20," in William W. Fortenbaugh and R. W. Sharples, eds., Theophrastean Studies: On Natural Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Ethics, Religion, and Rhetoric (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Oxford: Transaction Books, 1988 [Studies in Classical Humanities, Vol. III]), pp. 76-99, particularly "Drugs and Sex in HP 9: A Translation of Theophrastus HP 9.18.3-11," with commentary, pp. 88-91. For some corrected identifications of medicinal plants, as well as suggested pharmacological actions in HP, IX, see John Scarborough, "Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies, Journal of the History of Biology 11 (1978), 353-385. The texts and translations of Theophrastus' De causis plantarum in the Loeb Classical Library, as edited and translated (with frequent notes) by Benedict Einarson and George K. K. Link (3 vols., 1976-1990) are most reliable, and occasionally the editors brilliantly solve some textual questions, as explicated in the notes, indicating consultation of relevant manuscripts, as well as parallels adduced from other ancient authors who use Theophrastus to understand plant growth.
2.   Now fundamental in Theophrastean scholarship is the vast collection of fragments (Greek, Latin, Arabic) with translations in William W. Fortenbaugh, Pamela M. Huby, Robert W. Sharples (Greek and Latin) and Dimitri Gutas (Arabic), eds., Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought and Influence (Leiden and New York: E J. Brill, 1992; 2 vols.). In vol. 2, one will find fairly substantial chunks of quotations in later authors of many of Theophrastus' lost writings on zoology and physiology. A series of commentaries has begun to emerge from Brill that take up particular aspects of Theophrastus' large production, linked with Theophrastus of Eresus. Also new translations with commentaries have appeared from Brill, uniformly packaged with maroon bindings that match the original 1992 volumes.
3.   James Diggle, ed., with trans., and comm., Theophrastus Characters (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 1-2, indicates the twin traditions of Theophrastus' links with Aristotle: "[Theophrastus'] association with Aristotle will have begun at Athens, if we accept that he studied with Plato (D.L. 5.36 = fr. 1.4; cf. D.L. 3.46). 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." This 'second tradition' makes better sense, since it appears that Aristotle and Theophrastus began their research on animals soon thereafter, with a concentration on sea creatures, including the monk seal, the sea urchin, and similar organisms. See John Scarborough, "Drugs and Drug Lore in the Time of Theophrastus: Folklore, Magic, Botany, Philosophy, and the Rootcutters," Acta Classica 49 (2006), 1-29, esp. 7 with nn. 6-10.
4.   On Stanislaw Lem's importance in twentieth century literature (not only science fiction), see Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 29, 36, 76, 202, and 230; John Scarborough, "Stanislaw Lem" in E. F. Bleiler, ed., Science Fiction Writers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982), pp. 591-598; and Istan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), esp. pp. 29-30, 95-96, 255-256, and 203-206.
5.   On Demetrius of Phalerum, see now William W. Fortenbaugh and Eckart Schütrumpf, eds., Demetrius of Phalerum: Text, Translation and Discussion (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Pubs., 2000 [Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities, Vol. IX]).
6.   P. M. Fraser, "The World of Theophrastus" in Simon Hornblower, ed., Greek Historiography (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 167-191.
7.   The presumptive dichotomy separating medicine from philosophy in antiquity is refuted by Philip J. van der Eijk, Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), esp. Part II ("Aristotle and his School") and Part III ("Late Antiquity," that features 'Galen's Use of the Concept of Qualified Experience in his Dietetic and Pharmacological Works').
8.   C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998 [first published in two parts in 1959 and 1964]).

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