BMCR 2023.02.06

Theophrastus: Characters

, Theophrastus: Characters. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. ix, 250. ISBN 9781108932790

Vainglorious popinjays, mendacious knaves, irrepressible blatherskites, obnoxious and noisome misfits and more! All are on display in Theophrastus’ colorful study of a variety of character types that invites, rather encourages, a nostalgie de la boue. Consider the following examples: the repulsive man exposes his genitals to free women and belches in the theater (XI); the tactless man lets loose a tirade against women when invited to a wedding (XII); the self-centered man not only does not forgive people who step on his feet but curses the stones on which he stubs his toes (XV); the offensive man, as his name aptly suggests, offends against every social norm, from his lice-infected armpits to his habit of spitting while talking with friends (XIX); the disagreeable man wakes people up who have fallen asleep to initiate a conversation and discusses his black stools at a dinner party, comparing them to the color of the soup being served (XX); the boastful man talks about his vast investments, recalls his service with Alexander, whom he knew personally, mentions Antipater’s invitation to visit him in Macedonia, and reveals his gift of more than five talents to poor citizens during a food shortage (XXIII). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Theophrastus does not appear to have composed a separate volume dedicated to comparable character studies of women. What such a work might have looked like we can imagine from his entry on the slanderer: he maligns women who dragoon passers-by into a house described as having “its legs in the air” as well as copulate in the street like dogs (XXVIII). The piquant descriptions possess a cinematic quality that call Fellini to mind.

Before turning to the text and commentary, however, I would add a sobering note. There are times when we encounter less extreme character types among the sketches, which I found disquieting as I saw myself in some of them, but which, as such, also underscored for me the fact that Theophrastus had a wide range of real people in mind. As fantastic as some of the above-mentioned descriptions may sound, all in the collection likely represent actual behaviors that our author appears to have observed at first or second hand. The less exaggerated descriptions include people who speak badly of others behind their back, though praising them to their face (I); remind friends of past favors to elicit something they want (IX); must double check if the doors were locked despite the insistence of spouses that they had dealt with household security (XVIII; guilty!); show off and dote on pets, even creating funeral monuments for them (XXI; I composed a Greek epigram for our dog Carl after he passed away); not look up as an acquaintance passes by to avoid a conversation (XXIV; I do this when I can’t recall names); compete with younger folks at the gym despite a striking difference in age (XXVII; ouch!). These evidences of more benign quirks and imperfections have the effect of dragging us, willingly or not, into the company of the more extravagant personalities. We are all characters.

In his new Green and Yellow text and commentary, Professor James Diggle has elegantly distilled his impressive tome on the same subject (600 pages in the Orange series): Theophrastus: Characters. Edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Rather than take a deep dive into the particulars, I will explore the book as a teaching text, since the earlier publication has already established its reputation as a work of extraordinary scholarship (cf. M. Stein’s extensive review in Gnomon 82 (2010) 203-11, who concludes “Dem Verfasser gebührt für diesen aureus liber zu dem aureolus libellus grösster Dank”).

In a terse summary of the surviving text, Diggle notes, “the Characters, in conception and design, is a novel work: nothing like it, as far as we know, had been attempted before” (p. 3). True, archaic writers (e.g., Homer and Herodotus) had earlier included a couple of character types in their works. More recently, in his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle examined virtue as a mean between contrasting vices, excesses and deficiencies of the positive quality, with a number of each of his negative classifications providing titles for some of the sketches (listed on p. 4). Theophrastus, on the other hand, moves well beyond the few early examples and the later abstractions of his former teacher, creating real life scenarios set in specific places (e.g., Piraeus) and a specific time (the late fourth century BCE). The dramatic vignettes, some of whose characters’ names appeared as the titles of contemporary comedies, reveal a fortuitous combination of the classroom and the stage. For this reason, Theophrastus Characters would be well paired with a course on Menander in particular and/or New Comedy in general. A potential upshot would be to underscore the realism of the plots, which understandably come across as overly formulaic caricatures, by observing that they are populated with the sorts of specific individuals studied and described by Theophrastus. Perhaps the original Athenian audience even recognized themselves, friends and neighbors while watching the plays, something that would certainly enliven the theatrical experience.

While the surviving text is notoriously corrupt, the manuscript tradition is relatively straightforward, as Diggle demonstrates, and provides an approachable introduction to textual criticism, with the few extant and applicable papyri providing clear evidence of interpolation as early as the first century BCE (pp. 19-21). More significantly, not only do Diggle’s interventions (some 50 suggestions of his own) clarify more than a few impenetrable readings, but of equal importance his explanations and accompanying translations in the notes brilliantly explicate Theophrastus’ scintillating observations on human behavior that advance our reading of Characters beyond the otherwise excellent and heretofore indispensable Loeb edition (J. S. Rusten, I. C. Cunningham, Theophrastus: Characters; Herodas: Mimes; Sophron and Other Mime Fragments. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) and allow students to observe firsthand the thinking of an outstanding textual and literary critic. The Loeb editorial board, aware of the forthcoming publication (p. 4), would have done well to wait until Diggle’s 2004 text was completed before continuing with the project, as it preserves many of those challenged readings.

Upper-level undergraduate and graduate students hoping to improve their linguistic skills will definitely benefit from the significant grammatical and lexicographical assistance; that is, if they are willing to slow down and pursue the many references to Smyth’s Greek Grammar (on-line), LSJ (also on-line) and The Cambridge Greek Lexicon, of which Diggle is an editor. Specific page references to Denniston might at least make it possible that students consult The Greek Particles if a copy is available. Diggle’s descriptions of how Theophrastus’ Greek differs from that of the interpolator who added definitions (often paralleling those among the Pseudo-Platonic Definitions) and epilogues to the sketches illustrate how one deals with issues of style when determining authorship. I would also note that Diggle punctiliously cross-references specific points, grammatical, historical and otherwise, among the sketches and with the introduction. It would have been preferable if Roman numerals were used in identifying the sketches atop the commentaries’ pages to make it easier for readers to find the referenced passages.

Diggle also includes a remarkable amount of cultural and historical information among the notes. These plus the many accompanying references to the appropriate ancient texts and modern bibliography (including The Oxford Classical Dictionary4 and Brill’s New Pauly) could provide the background for a course on late fourth century BCE Athens. Pertinent issues include historical events, personages and dates, judicial and legislative processes, lending practices, theater regulations and operations, familial and societal issues, even personal hygiene (teeth cleaning with gum [p. 93] and etiquette at the bath [p. 121]). As such, the text provides an excellent resource for a study of early Hellenistic Athenian society.

In sum, Diggle has elegantly repackaged in an inviting school edition his magisterial text, translation and commentary on Theophrastus’ Characters that is fun to read and appropriate for a number of pedagogical applications. In describing the Characters as read through Diggle to several friends and family members, they laughed out loud and uniformly expressed an interest in learning more. Cambridge University Press might consider publishing Diggle’s translation separately or, more reasonably, in an anthology of some sort, as it fully captures the engaging character (if you will) of the work.