Women in Theophrastus’ Characters

Group of terracotta figurines depicting comic characters

In April 2023 the Kosmos Society Book Club read Theophrastus’ Characters[1]. Wikipedia says that Theophrastus lived in Athens from 371–280 BCE, and was a pupil of Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius[2] gives us a description of Theophrastus’ life, and also a copy of his will. There is also a bibliography of his writings, although very little has survived. One of the surviving texts is Characters, which consists of thirty descriptions of behaviours by which men may be defined. Thus, there are ‘The Ironical man’, ‘The Flatterer’, ‘The Boor’, and so on. I had two early impressions. The first was that all these characters were men, and the second was that they were all negative. It is possible, of course, that a parallel positive book has been lost. Charles E. Bennett and William A. Hammond do not think so, however, but rather that these characters “were closely connected with the development of the New Comedy”[3] The descriptions of characters give small and valuable insights into ancient Greek life, so they make for interesting reading. We are told, for example, about some unacceptable ways to behave at weddings.

The translation I used was Jebb, which is dated 1880[4]. I also referred to other translations where it seemed appropriate. In Jebb each characteristic is referred to with a number, and I have used #1, #2 etc. to refer to them. I have also referred to Edmonds translation[5], dated 1929, and Bennett and Hammond,[6] 1902.

None of the listed characters was female, although some of the characteristics might, in British culture, be ascribed to people in general. Theophrastus makes it clear in his introduction that his writing is intended for men and boys, specifically for the sons of Greek men:

I will describe to you, class by class, the several kinds of conduct which characterise [life practices] and the mode in which they administer their affairs; for I conceive . . . that our sons will be the better if such memorials are bequeathed to them, using which as examples they shall choose to live and consort with men of the fairest lives, in order that they may not fall short of them.[7]

Terracotta statuette of a standing woman, draped in a mantle, hair gathered on top

Theophrastus did, however, make mention of women in his descriptions of some of the characters, so I analysed these. The analysis revealed Theophrastus’ views about proper behaviour towards women, and also issues concerning appropriate translations and the status of women and goddesses in ancient Greek society. It becomes evident that behaviours towards women and behaviours towards goddesses differ. Women, while not being allocated to behavioural traits, have very definite roles to fulfil: wives, mothers, daughters, brides and mistresses are all mentioned. None of them has any agency, but they have roles to fulfil in the household, although it is not clear exactly what they did, other than marketing. Such women are sometimes, but not always, deserving of respect. For example, the garrulous man . . .

is one who will sit down beside a person whom he does not know, and first pronounce a panegyric on his own wife.[8]

lekythos depicting woman holding basket at a tomb,

However, while a wife may be deserving of praise, she is still well under the man’s control, for the penurious man . . .

 will forbid his wife to lend salt, or a lamp-wick, or cumin, or verjuice, or meal for sacrifice, or garlands, or cakes; saying that these trifles come to much in the year.[9]

On an occasion where a woman, in this case, the gross man’s mother, has chosen to do something, she can be undermined:

His mother having gone out to the soothsayer’s, he will use words of evil omen.[10]

Or, she may be embarrassed, such as the mother of the unpleasant man:

 He is apt, also, to ask before his relations, ‘Tell me, Mommy, — when you were bringing me into the world, how went the time?’[11]

Attributed to the Amasis Painter. Courting scene. c 520 BCE https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/255011 Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art "A bearded man in an elaborate fringed cloak approaches a woman who holds a myrtle branch and offers him a rose. She is dressed like a bride with her cloak pulled over her head and a wreath of myrtle in her hair."

The man’s wishes will override those of the women in his life. If his mistress is ill, the unseasonable man will not let her rest:

He will serenade his mistress when she has a fever. [12]

And the late-learner will demand attention, for women are his audience:

when women are near, he will practise dancing-steps, warbling his own accompaniment.[13]

Behaviour regarding weddings features. On the whole, weddings seem to be occasions where men should be generous to guests, because the negative behaviours described concern meanness. Thus, the mean man:

When he is celebrating his daughter’s marriage, he will sell the flesh of the animal sacrificed, except the parts due to the priest; and will hire the attendants at the marriage festival on condition that they attend their own board. [14]

The avaricious man will even go away to avoid giving wedding presents:

If a friend, or a friend’s daughter, is to be married, he will go abroad a little while before, in order to avoid giving a wedding present. [15]

No doubt, many of these behaviours are included for their comedic potential. I can imagine a reading where an audience, male and female perhaps, would chuckle, because we all know people who engage in these inappropriate behaviours. They are well-observed and succinctly described. A comic with good timing would get laughs. But the underlying message is that men’s wishes come first. Yes, of course, men must respect women, but stating this is a token gesture, and indicative of a double standard. Our real roles are subordinate.

Terracotta figures grinding grain and using a sieve

Theophrastus recognises that both men and women occupy different levels in social structures. He often mentions slaves uncritically. The man who is a boor will behave like the working class. He will . . .

drink his wine rather strong. He will help the bakery-maid to grind the corn for the use of the household and for his own; he will eat his breakfast while he shakes down hay for his beasts of burden; he will answer a knock at the door himself . . . He will also sing at the bath; and will drive nails into his shoes[16].

Again, there is much humour here, as we all laugh because, of course, we do not do these things, not being working class. Good honest work like helping a dairy maid is evidently a negative and boorish characteristic, and

The Gross man is one who will insult freeborn women.[17]

Theophrastus makes two references to something called ‘the women’s market’. The first concerns the man who is a flatterer, who . . .

 can run errands to the women’s market without drawing breath.[18]

The second reference is more ambiguous. The mean man . .

will not buy a maid for his wife, though she brought him a dower; but will hire from the women’s market the girl who is to attend her on the occasions she goes out[19].

This made me wonder exactly what the women’s market was. It is not clear whether it was just a market where women might shop, although in the first example it is the man who shops. Or is it a market where one might buy or hire women? Other translators I checked used the same phrase, the ‘women’s market’, or just ‘the market.’[20]

Comparing translations can reveal ambiguities where Jebb has bowdlerised the original. In describing the evil speaker, he writes:

 His mother, I may add, is a noble damsel of Thrace — at least she is called “my life” in the language of Corinth — and they say that such ladies are esteemed noble in their own country. Our friend himself, as might be expected from his parentage, is — a rascally scoundrel.’ He is very fond, also, of saying to one: ‘Of course — I understand that sort of thing; you do not err in your way of describing it to our friends and me. These women snatch the passers-by out of the very street…That is a house which has not the best of characters…Really there is something in that proverb about the women…In short, they have a trick of gossiping with men, — and they answer the hall-door themselves.’[21]

Wine jug: Man with lyre and staff, woman with lamp, on opposite sides of door. The subject concerns an Athenian reveler at the end of a bibulous evening.

Edmonds is more explicit:

‘ . . . but as for his mother, she’s a high-born Thracian, at least she’s called when nobody’s listening . . . and they say that women of that sort are high-born in her country ; the man himself, as you might expect, coming of such a stock, is a knave and a villain.’ And he will say to you about quite respectable women, ‘I know only too well what trollops they are whose cause you are so mistaken as to champion to these gentlemen and me; these women seize passers-by out of the street’;” or ‘This house is simply a brothel’; or ‘The saying is all too true, They couple like dogs in the streets’; ‘Truth to tell, they are talkers with men’ ; or ‘They answer the house-door themselves.’ [22]

In both translations the evil-speaking man insults another by insulting the women in his life. Jebb, however, hints at the women’s unacceptable behaviour by accusing them of gossiping, rather than talking, as Edmonds does. Edmonds, however, has no problem with the women living in a brothel and coupling in the streets, while Jebb is not at all explicit in these two instances. These extracts suggest another example of a woman who appears often in ancient stories: the good prostitute. Women ‘of that sort’ may be high-born in Thrace. No doubt translation in such cases poses a problem, since in western culture there is not a concept of the good prostitute. Hence, there is not a word.

Grave stele: Seated man with beard holding a staff, behind him a veiled woman and child. To the left, the head of a young woman gazing down on them.

Theophrastus’ attitudes to class, slaves and women are evident in his will. He mentions that he has already emancipated slaves Pompylus and Threpta, and that Molon and Timon and Parmeno are to be emancipated at his death. However, the maidservant Somatele is not emancipated. She is bequeathed to Pompylus and Threpta. Most of his goods, in fact, are bequeathed to men.[23] However, some are to be used in the maintenance of temples, which brings us to Theophrastus’ attitudes to goddesses.

The first bequest in Theophrastus’ will is for the celebration of goddesses. He says that money ‘should be applied to finish the rebuilding of the museum with the statues of the goddesses, and to add any improvements which seem practicable to beautify them’[24].

He goes on to leave more money for statues in the temple. He makes a number of references to goddesses in his description of the superstitious man:

He is apt, also, to purify his house frequently, alleging that Hecate has been brought into it by spells; and, if an owl is startled by him in his walk, he will exclaim ‘Glory be to Athene!’ before he proceeds. He will not tread upon a tombstone, or come near a dead body or a woman defiled by childbirth, saying that it is expedient for him not to be polluted. Also on the fourth and seventh days of each month he will order his servants to mull wine, and go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and smilax; and, on coming in, will spend the day in crowning the Hermaphrodites. When he has seen a vision, he will go to the interpreters of dreams, the seers, the augurs, to ask them to what god or goddess he ought to pray. Every month he will repair to the priests of the Orphic Mysteries, to partake in their rites, accompanied by his wife, or (if she is too busy) by his children and their nurse. He would seem, too, to be of those who are scrupulous in sprinkling themselves with sea-water; and, if ever he observes anyone feasting on the garlic at the cross-roads, he will go away, pour water over his head, and, summoning the priestesses, bid them carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification.[25]

Terracotta stamnos: Standing man with staff facing a woman holding a cup. Seated man with staff or scepter and phiale and a woman with an oinochoe, a solemn scene of offering

Some of these religious rituals are, frankly, bizarre. Crowning hermaphrodites, purification by puppy, and feasting on garlic at the crossroads do not seem to me to have symbolic significance, but maybe they do. Maybe they are just ironic and ostentatious. The man of petty ambition is ostentatious in his rituals:

having provided himself with a smart white cloak and put on a wreath, he will come forward and say: ‘Athenians! we, the prytaneis [officials], have been sacrificing to the Mother of the Gods meetly and auspiciously; receive ye her good gifts!’[26]

I was interested that this first individual was described as the superstitious man, and not the religious man. The word ‘superstition’ carries different meanings and values from the word ‘religion’. I wondered if Jebb had followed the practice of calling all religions other than Christianity superstitions. However, all the translators I consulted used the term ‘superstitious.’ Maybe Theophrastus saw religious ritual as superstition. He certainly seems to have seen a place for it in celebrating goddesses, though. It is significant that worship of goddesses in religion does not transfer to respect for women’s place in secular society.

My analysis has summarised some of the mentions of females, women and goddesses, in the work of Theophrastus. Intriguing behaviours in ancient Greece have been revealed, and problems and ambiguities with translations identified. This work of Theophrastus embodies the double standard for women. Goddesses are to be worshipped, but human women are assigned roles. If we move outside of those roles, perhaps by answering our own doors, by consulting a soothsayer, or by being sexually active, we are women ‘of that sort.’ Theophrastus may have been observant of human behaviour, and he may have had a talent for making an audience laugh, but he does not seem to have taken a critical or satirical view of women’s place in ancient Greek society.

Related posts


1 R.C. Jebb 1870. The Characters of Theophrastus Online at an eudaemonist https://www.eudaemonist.com/biblion/characters/

2 Diogenes Laertius (2011) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Translated by Robert Drew Hicks. Witch Books.
Online at Perseus

3 Charles E. Bennett and William A. Hammond. The Characters of Theophrastus. 1902. Longmans, London ‘Introduction’ pages xxxiii–xxxiv.
Online at archive.org

6 https://archive.org/details/characterstheop04theogoog/page/n6/mode/2up
Charles E. Bennett and William A. Hammond. The Characters of Theophrastus. 1902. Longmans, London

20 The Greek here is it is just gunaikeia (“pertaining to or of women; effeminate” etc) or gunaikeia agora (“women’s market”).
Greek text: Characters. Theophrastus. Hermann Diels. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1909. via Perseus 

23 Diogenes Laertius (2011) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Translated by Robert Drew Hicks. Witch Books.v 1. P.271.

24 Diogenes Laertius (2011) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Translated by Robert Drew Hicks. Witch Books.v 1. P.270.

May 2023

Image credits

Featured image:
Attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter. Old king between two women. Terracotta bell-krater c 460–450 BCE
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Group of fifteen terracotta comic actors. Greek, late 5th–early 4th century BCE.
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Terracotta statuette of a standing woman. Greek, Corinthian. Late 4th century BCE
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Woman with basket at a tomb. Terracotta lekythos (oil flask) Attic. c 440–430 BCE.
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attributed to the Amasis Painter. Courting scene. c 520 BCE
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Terracotta group: making flour. Cypriot c 600–480 BCE.
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reveler knocking at the door of a house. Terracotta oinochoe: chous (jug) Greek. c 430–420 BCE
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art
“The subject concerns an Athenian reveler at the end of a bibulous evening. There has been considerable debate as to whether the man is returning home or calling on a hetaira (prostitute).” (from description on the Met’s website).

Marble grave stele with a family group. Greek, Attic c 360 BCE
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attributed to the Copenhagen Painter. Men and women making offerings. Terracotta stamnos (jar) c 480 BCE
Public domain, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible on those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.

Images accessed June 2023

Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society