Book Club | April 2023: Theophrastus Characters

Wordcloud of Greek figurines

Often before now have I applied my thoughts to the puzzling question — one, probably, which will puzzle me for ever — why it is that, while all Greece lies under the same sky and all the Greeks are educated alike, it has befallen us to have characters so variously constituted.
Proem of Theophrastus Characters, translated by R.C. Jebb

For April, our Book Club selection is the Characters of Theophrastus.

Theophrastus, according to the Introduction in Jebb’s edition[1], was a pupil of Aristotle, and lived probably around 373–284 BCE (p15).

The Characters comprises a series of thirty moral types, in the form of brief outlines or sketches. Jebb comments:

If they do not go far into human nature, they touch things on its surface with a good deal of humour and acuteness. As illustrations of manners, again, they have this merit, that they treat of commonplace people and of everyday life. (p1)

However, he also notes the difficulty of translating perspectives that would have been familiar to the original writer and his audience. He suggests that in this work

we have thirty such words explained and fully illustrated … To make clearness doubly clear, qualities nearly akin to each other are in some cases described. … We have, in fact, in this book, a fragment of the social language of Athens interpreted by a very full and explicit commentary…. and for once we know that we are viewing them from an absolutely Athenian standpoint. (pp2–5)

It is not clear whether the work was originally intended to stand alone, or form part of another work, or were collected from notes. Jebb’s introduction provides an outline of the views at the time (1870).

Here are links to online versions available for free:

Translation by R.C. Jebb (1870) to read online or download at
(Note that Jebb uses a different order from other editions)
The translation only is online at

Translation by J.M. Edmonds (1929), to read online or download at

Translation by Charles E. Bennett and William A. Hammond (1902), to read online or download at

(Translator not given) to read online at Classical Liberal Arts Society

Those who prefer hard copy or a more modern version might like to know that the current Loeb edition is translated by Jeffrey Rusten and E.C. Cunningham.

The Greek text (Herman Diels, 1909) is available online at Perseus.

Discussion starts and continues in the Forum, and we will meet via Zoom on Tuesday, April 25 at 11 a.m. EDT.

Happy readings!


1 Richard Claverhouse Jebb: The Characters of Theophrastus. 1870.