BMCR 2021.03.26

Theophrastus’ Characters: a new introduction

, Theophrastus' Characters: a new introduction. Routledge focus on classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. xi, 111. ISBN 9781138244436. £45.00.


“The study of ancient civilisation presents us not with patterns to be copied but with working models of possible beliefs and methods, which if intelligently and unsentimentally presented can save us from the provincialism of those who know only their own period.”[1] Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ aphorism elegantly explains why classicists need to make effort time and time again to present classical literature also to the non-specialist public. For instance, the average number of book reviews, which the readers of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review receive in their inboxes each week, is probably enough to prove that there is still much going on in classical scholarship. But the majority of these new releases, being largely concerned with points of detail, address a public of specialists sharing more or less the same profile with their authors, and, if the above-mentioned saying of Lloyd-Jones is to be believed, this gap needs to be bridged. There are still many non-specialist readers, who may even have no idea who Thucydides or Ovid were, but nonetheless share a vague interest in the ancient world and, provided they have the appropriate reading material at hand, could theoretically profit from gaining access to this body of knowledge.

In this context, Pertsinidis tries, largely successfully, to offer an introduction to Theophrastus’ Characters written “in a manner that is suitable for both a scholarly and general audience” (p. 3). The Characters, one of the most corrupt ancient Greek texts transmitted to us,[2] is a short collection of thirty literary portraits describing various character-types that were probably to be found in Athenian society of the fourth century B.C, and no character-type among them is a positive one. The characters include ‘the dissembler’, ‘the toady’, ‘the chatterbox’, ‘the country bumpkin’, etc. These portraits contain very little in the way of plot; rather, they consist of brief accounts of incidents from everyday life, so as to illustrate continuously the relevant type of character in a manner similar to vignettes. It is reasonable to assume a relationship with Aristotle’s teachings on ethics and rhetoric, and yet it is also true that the same character-types provide as much amusement to the reader as some of the characters within, say, the comedies of Menander. At some points they may even provoke laughter. Pertsinidis attempts, in particular, to provide answers to very basic questions that a reader might have about this text, namely who Theophrastus was, when he wrote this text and what purpose it served at the time, what the importance is of the Characters, why only negative character-types are portrayed, and what the influence of this work was over the course of the history of literature (pp. 3–4). This is not a long book and can be easily read cover to cover in an evening. It contains a short introduction, six chapters including an epilogue and a general index. Each chapter concludes with endnotes and a list of references. The references include not only English works, but also literature in French, German and Italian. There is no bibliography at the end of the book nor a section of ‘suggestions for further reading’, which is always a welcome addition to books of an introductory character. This gap is only partially filled by the list of abbreviated primary and secondary sources mentioned at the beginning of the book.

The book is a clear and well-structured. Pertsinidis’ introduction provides a rough description of the content of the text, explains the aim of her book, offers a very useful chapter-by-chapter preview of the whole and, at the end, reviews existing scholarship on the subject. The first chapter (“Theophrastus. His life, works and character”) describes Theophrastus’ life and work, discusses very briefly the title, as well as the date of the text and the condition in which the text survives today, and analyses certain elements in the biography of the philosopher that may have variously affected the text of the Characters. The second chapter (“Before and after Theophrastus’s Characters”) tries to contextualise Theophrastus’ Characters within the scope of European literature; it deals with the importance of the Characters for character writing in general and identifies various predecessors and successors from Homer and Semonides to La Bruyère and beyond. The third chapter (“The Characters as a comedy of manners”) picks up the issue of the relationship with comedy. Pertsinidis’ thesis is that this relationship is deliberate: by being amusing and funny, portraits of negative character-types may also define what proper behaviour in the given circumstances should consist of, provided of course that proper behaviour is considered to be behaviour that does not provoke laughter. Theophrastus, whose interest and views on comedy are attested in some surviving fragments from his lost works, may well have used this effect as a vehicle for his ethical teaching (see particularly pp. 45–50, 59–61). This chapter also contains discussion of alleged similarities between comedy and the ‘science’ of physiognomy, which some surviving titles of lost works of Theophrastus seem to hint at, as well as a section dealing with the possibility of Theophrastus’ direct influence on the comic poet Menander. The fourth chapter (“Behaving badly. Ethics and the Characters”) takes up the question of the relationship between Aristotelian ethics and the Characters. It is not news that several of the negative character-types in Theophrastus’s text correlate with certain ‘extremes’ in Aristotle’s ethical system.[3] Pertsinidis acknowledges these similarities and argues that the Characters has an ethical dimension. Theophrastus’ approach, however, is supposed to be different from that of Aristotle in his ethical writings: by combining ethics with comedy, the text constitutes a more practical and effective form of moral teaching. This chapter also includes a somewhat lengthy discussion, concluded by three case studies, about how the Characters can be used today as a source for information about social ethics in fourth-century Athens. Finally, the fifth chapter (“Style, delivery and the role of character in rhetoric”) is dedicated to the relationship with rhetoric. Here we read about the simple, clear and compact style of Theophrastus’ writing in the Characters. There then follows a brief discussion about how the Characters could have been delivered by Theophrastus himself in front of an audience, and lastly, we learn how such portraits of character-types could be subsequently incorporated into rhetorical arguments, as was the case with the later rhetoricians Hermogenes and Aphthonius. Pertsinidis tries to illustrate this latter point further by comparing the structure and style of the portrait of the ‘typical wife’ found in the fragment from Theophrastus’ On marriage with portraits found in the Characters. The epilogue recapitulates the book’s central points and, at the end, formally praises Theophrastus’ work as “a hallmark of great literature” (p. 105).

It is obvious that the author’s main concern in this book, aside from providing outreach to a general audience, is with the Characters’ proximity to comedy. Scholars have previously identified affinities with both Old and later Comedy, as well as with Menander in particular.[4] There is even a later ancient source identifying Theophrastus as teacher of the Athenian playwriter (D.L. 5.36). Pertsinidis’ contribution is the idea that these affinities are intentional, that in the Characters Theophrastus attempts to use his negative character-types to achieve a certain ‘comedic effect’ for the sake of his readers, so that the latter are confronted with an additional reason to adhere to respectable behaviour in their everyday lives, which behaviour in turn does not only pay due respect to social etiquette rules but also corresponds to the criteria of Theophrastus’ ethical philosophy. The argument is certainly worth considering, although at a general level, it remains questionable whether this is truly taking scholarship on the Characters much further. Whether Theophrastus was deliberatively using comedy in this text to assist his ethical teaching or not, is after all a matter of interpretation and, strictly speaking, cannot be proven on the basis of the material at hand (the text). Although Pertsinidis does an excellent job handling the similarities between the Characters and comedy, the question to be asked concerns the differences. The Characters is a text in prose, not a drama, and the author describes the various character-types via a series of vivid examples, without these being enacted by actors on stage.[5] Moreover, Pertsinidis’ analysis concerning the intersection of comedy with ethics is guided by the concept of ‘thoughtful laughter’ developed by George Meredith, the Victorian novelist and poet, (pp. 49–50, 59; implied also in p. 105).[6] It would perhaps have been a more reasonable choice to take into account more systematic studies of the dramatic functions of mockery in comedy.[7] My second worry is to some extent also related to this. Throughout the book, there is a tendency toward oversimplification, which does not always respect the complexity of the kind of literature at hand (texts being variously influenced by the history of their transmission). Of course, this tendency might be desirable for the non-specialist reader, but some parts might also appear confusing to the specialist. I will confine myself to a single example: discussing the influence the Characters posed on subsequent writers, Pertsinidis notes: “Cicero, one of the foremost Roman orators, does not refer explicitly to Theophrastus’ Characters, but, when he describes reading Theophrastus’s writing as his ‘private pleasure’, it is tempting to think he might have been referring to the Characters” (p. 35). However, as soon as the reader checks the reference in the endnote-section, they realise that this is not Cicero, but Plutarch relating to a testimony about Cicero (Plut. Cic. 24.5–6 = fr. 53).

Nonetheless, such shortcomings do not diminish the service this book renders as a whole. With this book, Pertsinidis offers the broader reading public a friendly, clear and vivid introduction to what is indeed one of the most influential texts of classical literature. This book will be very useful for students in classics as well as anyone else with an interest in the ancient world. It contains everything that a general reader needs to know before taking the decision to delve systematically into Theophrastus’ text. Needless to say, this would be a worthwhile decision in that the character-types that Theophrastus describes in his work are still present today. Nietzsche was certainly unfair when stating that “if the general public ever discovered how utterly unmodern antiquity really is, the classicists would lose their posts as teachers”.[8]


[1] H. Lloyd-Jones, “Introduction”, in: U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, History of Classical Scholarship, transl. by A. Harris, Baltimore 1982, xxxii.

[2] Cf. G. Wöhrle, Theophrast von Eresos. Universalwissenschaftler im Kreis des Aristoteles und Begründer der wissenschaftlichen Botanik (AKAN-Einzelschriften 13), Trier 2019, 89.

[3] See e. g. J. Diggle, Theophrastus. Characters (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 41), Cambridge 2004, 6–7.

[4] See Diggle, op. cit. 8 with further references to secondary literature.

[5] Cf. Wöhrle, supra.

[6] Meredith’s essay was originally published in the New Quarterly Magazine in April 1877.

[7] See e. g. S. Chronopoulos, Spott im Drama: dramatische Funktionen der persönlichen Verspottung in Aristophanes‘ Wespen und Frieden (Studia comica 6), Berlin 2017.

[8] W. Arrowsmith, “Notes for “We Philologists”. Translated by William Arrowsmith” Arion n.s. 1, 1973/1974, 315.