Barbarians and Greeks: Theophrastos theorizes hierarchical relations of humans and animals (fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarians and Greeks: Theophrastos theorizes hierarchical relations of humans and animals (fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 28, 2023,

Ancient authors: Theophrastos, On Piety = Pötscher, fragment 20, as cited by Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals 3.25.

Comments: Theophrastos (fourth century BCE) was the successor of Aristotle in what would be come to be called the peripatetic sect at Athens. Theophrastos shared with Aristotle a hierarchical structuring of all living things, but differed somewhat in his willingness to expressly state that Greeks and barbarians are, ultimately, related to one another. However, it does not seem that this argument is meant to directly undermine the Greek-barbarian dichotomy (that Aristotle liked so much – link), since even animals and all living things are related to the Greek citizen in this way of speaking. So to suggest that “barbarians” are related to Greeks is by no means a statement of human equality. The progression of the discussion is indicative of the hierarchies at work, starting with superior Greek citizens who were of a common descent, moving out to Greek citizens who were not actually of common descent, and only subsequently to barbarian peoples and then animals.

Source of the translation: Translation by Harland in consultation with Gillian Clark, Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Bloomsbury, 2000).


(3.25) Theophrastos has made an argument like this:

We say that those from whom we are born – I mean the father and mother – are belonging (oikeious) to one another by nature. Therefore, we also think that descendants of the same ancestors (propatores) are belonging to one another, as well as fellow-citizens (politai) who share in common land and social interaction with one another. Even then we do not judge such people [i.e. fellow-citizens] to be belonging to one another by nature as descendants of the same ancestors unless the first ancestors were actually the same founders of the descent group (genos), or descended from the same ancestors. So, I think, we say that the Greek is belonging together and a relative (syngeneis) with the Greek, the barbarian is belonging together and is a relative with the barbarian, and all human beings are belonging to one another and are relatives. This is for one of two reasons: either they have the same ancestors or they share in common food, customs and that descent group (genos).

So we also assume that all human beings are relatives to one another and, actually, relatives to all the animals, because the parts (archai) of their bodies are naturally the same. I do not say this with reference to the primal elements (stoicheia), for plants are also composed of the elements: rather I mean, for example, skin, flesh and the sort of fluids that are innate to animals. We state this more emphatically because the souls of animals are no different. I mean with regard to appetite and anger, but also with regard to reasoning and especially perception. Just as with bodies, so with souls: some animals have them brought to perfection, others less so, but the parts [of the soul] are naturally the same in all cases. Now this belongingness (oikeiotēs) is also demonstrated by the passions [i.e. the passions are also shared by all souls]. Now if what is being said here is true, namely, that the origin of dispositions is like this, then all kinds (phylai) have intelligence, but they differ in upbringing and in the mixture of their primary components. The descent group of the rest of the animals would then be belonging and relative to us in every way, because all of them have the same foods and same breath (pneumata) and “all animals have blood-red flows,” as Euripides [fragment 1004] says, proving that heaven and earth are the common parents of all.


(3.25) Θεόφραστος δὲ καὶ τοιούτῳ κέχρηται λόγῳ. Τοὺς ἐκ τῶν αὐτῶν γεννηθέντας, λέγω δὲ πατρὸς καὶ μητρός, οἰκείους εἶναι φύσει φαμὲν ἀλλήλων· καὶ τοίνυν καὶ τοὺς ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν προπατόρων σπαρέντας οἰκείους ἀλλήλων εἶναι νομίζομεν καὶ μέντοι <καὶ> τοὺς ἑαυτῶν πολίτας τῷ τῆς τε γῆς καὶ <τῆς> πρὸς ἀλλήλους ὁμιλίας κοινωνεῖν. Οὐ γὰρ ἐκ τῶν αὐτῶν ἔτι τότε τοιούτους ἀλλήλοις φύντας οἰκείους αὑτοῖς εἶναι κρίνομεν, εἰ μὴ ἄρα τινὲς τῶν πρώτων αὐτοῖς προγόνων οἱ αὐτοὶ τοῦ γένους ἀρχηγοὶ πεφύκασιν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν. Οὕτω δὲ [καὶ] οἶμαι καὶ τὸν Ἕλληνα μὲν τῷ Ἕλληνι, τὸν δὲ βάρβαρον τῷ βαρβάρῳ, πάντας δὲ τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἀλλήλοις φαμὲν οἰκείους τε καὶ συγγενεῖς εἶναι, δυοῖν θάτερον, ἢ τῷ προγόνων εἶναι τῶν αὐτῶν, ἢ τῷ τροφῆς καὶ ἠθῶν καὶ ταὐτοῦ γένους κοινωνεῖν. Οὕτω δὲ καὶ τοὺς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ἀλλήλοις τίθεμεν [καὶ] συγγενεῖς, καὶ μὴν <καὶ> πᾶσι τοῖς ζῴοις· αἱ γὰρ τῶν σωμάτων ἀρχαὶ πεφύκασιν αἱ αὐταί· λέγω δὲ οὐκ ἐπὶ τὰ στοιχεῖα ἀναφέρων τὰ πρῶτα· ἐκ τούτων μὲν γὰρ καὶ τὰ φυτά· ἀλλ’ οἷον δέρμα, σάρκας καὶ τὸ τῶν ὑγρῶν τοῖς ζῴοις σύμφυτον γένος· πολὺ δὲ μᾶλλον τῷ τὰς ἐν αὐτοῖς ψυχὰς ἀδιαφόρους πεφυκέναι, λέγω δὴ ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις καὶ ταῖς ὀργαῖς, ἔτι δὲ τοῖς λογισμοῖς καὶ μάλιστα πάντων ταῖς αἰσθήσεσιν. Ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ τὰ σώματα, οὕτω καὶ τὰς ψυχὰς τὰ μὲν ἀπηκριβωμένας ἔχει τῶν ζῴων, τὰ δὲ ἧττον τοιαύτας, πᾶσί γε μὴν αὐτοῖς αἱ αὐταὶ πεφύκασιν ἀρχαί. Δηλοῖ δὲ ἡ τῶν παθῶν οἰκειότης. Εἰ δὲ ἀληθές ἐστι τὸ λεγόμενον, ὡς ἡ τῶν ἠθῶν γένεσίς ἐστι τοιαύτη, φρονοῦσι μὲν ἅπαντα φῦλα, διαφέρουσι δὲ ταῖς ἀγωγαῖς τε καὶ ταῖς τῶν πρώτων κράσεσιν. Παντάπασιν ἂν οἰκεῖον εἴη καὶ συγγενὲς ἡμῖν τὸ τῶν λοιπῶν ζῴων γένος· καὶ γὰρ τροφαὶ [πᾶσαι] αἱ αὐταὶ πᾶσιν αὐτοῖς καὶ πνεύματα, ὡς Εὐριπίδης, καὶ φοινίους ἔχει ῥοὰς τὰ ζῷα πάντα καὶ κοινοὺς ἁπάντων δείκνυσι γονεῖς οὐρανὸν καὶ γῆν.

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