The faces and characters of the past


The exciting news recently from Athens that scientists and archaeologists have managed to recreate the face of an 11-year-old Athenian girl (“Myrtis”) from her skull and teeth found in an ancient cemetery of the city, reminded me of just how magical it is when you can visualise the individual people who made up the great civilisations of the past.


In Myrtis’s case, it is a sad story. The little girl seems to have died of typhoid fever, possibly as part of the great plague that swept through Athens during the Peloponnesian war in the second half of the 5th century BC. Her face, on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, will be used to front a UN Millennium Project campaign as a reminder of the eternal threat of child mortality.

Similar efforts to recreate ancient faces have been made in the past, as well as attempts to reconstruct, for example, the masks worn by actors in the performance of Greek tragedy and comedy in the many theatres across the ancient Greek world.

But it is not only through the surviving archaeological evidence combined with technological wizardry that we can gaze on the faces of the past. Sometimes, the surviving literary texts give us just as good a view of the characters of the ancient Greek world.

My favourite text in this regard is Theophrastus’ Characters. Theophrastus was a philosopher, heir to the school of Aristotle (the Lyceum), but he was also an avid proto-scientist, writing Enquiries into Plants and other such texts. He is perhaps best known, however, for his Characters. This text is a series of vignette sketches of the different characters that could be found around the city.

The work is pure satire, worthy of any comedy sketch show today. Among many other characters is the Flatterer as well as the one who is Reckless, Chatty, a Gossip, Shameless, Officious, Surly, Superstitious, Mean, and a Coward. In short descriptions, these and many more ‘moral types’ of character are exposed and their typical actions recorded.

The Superstitious man sees a mouse nibbling at a bag of flour as an omen from the gods. The Busybody offers to guide people through a forest he does not know. The Shameless man will try and cheat the scales when he is buying meat by weight at the market. The ‘Gossip’ will always cite ‘sources’ that cannot be easily corroborated.

Each characterisation reaches out across the centuries and reminds us how little has changed in 2,500 years.

Reprinted from Neos Kosmos


The exhibition, Myrtis: Face to face with the past, will be at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, until 30 November 2010.