Sophocles: Archetypal Master of Greek Tragedy
Sophocles was a playwright who lived in Greece during the 5 th century BC. He is one of the three Greek writers of tragedy (the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides) whose works have survived till this day. According to the Suda, a 10 th century Byzantine encyclopaedia and dictionary of the ancient Mediterranean world, Sophocles wrote a total of 123 plays. Sophocles was an extremely popular playwright during his day, with twenty of his works winning first place in the dramatic competition of his city, Athens. Of Sophocles’ 123 plays, only seven are known to have survived intact: Ajax, Antigone, Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus.
Piecing Together the Life and Times of Sophocles
Like many other ancient Greek names, the name “Sophocles” has a meaning of its own. This name is a combination of two Greek words, sophos and kleos, which mean “wise” and “glory” respectively. In other words, the name of this ancient Greek playwright may be translated as “famous for wisdom.” Considering that Sophocles is one of the most influential writers of ancient Greece, and one of the world’s greatest playwrights, this name is quite appropriate.
Luc-Olivier Merson’s painting of runner Pheidippides giving word of victory after the Battle of Marathon. (Public domain)
Not much is known about Sophocles’ life, and many of the details have been lost to history. He is recorded, for instance, to have been born several years before the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). The exact year of Sophocles’ birth however, is unknown, though it has been suggested that 497/6 BC is the most likely. Sophocles was born in Colonus Hippius, a rural deme (a subdivision of an ancient Greek city state) located about 1.6 km (1 mi.) to the northwest of Athens.
Whilst it is known that Sophocles’ father was a man named Sophillus, his occupation is unclear. Some, for example, have claimed that Sophillus was a carpenter, others have claimed he was a smith, and yet others, a sword maker. It has also been suggested that he may have been a wealthy nobleman who had slaves that were carpenters, smiths, and sword makers. In any event, Sophocles’ family had the means to provide him with a good education. Although Sophocles is best-remembered as a playwright, he seems to have led an active public life, based on the information that has survived. As a youth, Sophocles is reported to have excelled in wrestling and music, and to have been graceful and handsome.
After beating the Persians after the Battle of Salamis, the young Sophocles was chosen to lead chorus of victory. (John Talbott Donoghue / CC0)
Sophocles in the Service of Athens
In 480 BC, the Greeks, who were led by Athens, defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. At the victory celebrations, Sophocles was chosen to lead the paean (a song of triumph or thanksgiving). In 443/2 BC, Sophocles served as one of the Hellenotamiae. This was a group of ten treasures (one of each of the ten Athenian tribes) who managed the treasury of the Delian League. In 441/0 BC, Sophocles was elected as one of the ten strategoi (“generals”). At that time, Athens was at war with Samos, and Sophocles, as a general, would have contributed to his city state’s victory over the Samians. Sophocles may have served as strategos on two other occasions.
Sophocles lived a long and fruitful life, serving Athens and writing over 120 plays. (Public domain)
In 413 BC, when he was around 80 years of age, Sophocles was appointed as a proboulos, a position that was created in the aftermath of the Sicilian Expedition, which was launched by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Sophocles was one of the ten commissioners who were given the task of organising the city state’s domestic and financial recovery following that disastrous expedition. Sophocles’ last known public act was to lead the chorus in public mourning for Euripides. At some point of time, Sophocles also served as a priest of Halon, and is credited with the introduction of the cult of Asclepius into Athens. It is claimed that the god granted Sophocles health and vigour of mind well into his old age.
Sophocles’ Family Tree
Some information about Sophocles’ family has also survived. Apart from his father, we also know that Sophocles had at least two sons, Iophon, whose mother was an Athenian woman named Nicostrate, and Ariston, whose mother was Theoris of Sicyon. Iophon gained some repute as a tragic poet, whilst Ariston had a son, also named Sophocles, who became famous for his tragedies. Later, this Sophocles got involved in the production of his grandfather’s plays.
A family conflict between Sophocles and Iophon is related by the 1 st century AD Greek author Plutarch in his Moralia, a collection of essays and transcribed speeches. In Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs, Plutarch reports that Sophocles was summoned by Iophon before a court on the charge of dementia. The elderly Sophocles, however, acquits himself by reading aloud the entrance song of the chorus in his Oedipus at Colonus. At the end of the performance, “the song aroused such admiration that he was escorted from the court as if from the theater, with the applause and shouts of those present.”
The death of Sophocles, in an engraving by S. Pomarede from 1748. (CC BY 4.0)
How Did Sophocles Die?
Sophocles died in 406/5 BC, not long after Euripides. There are several stories regarding the manner of his death. One of them, for instance, claims that the playwright died after choking on a grape. According to other accounts, Sophocles died whilst publicly reciting his Antigone, or as a result of excessive joy following a dramatic victory. In any case, at the time of Sophocles’ death, Athens was still engaged in the Peloponnesian War, and was being attacked by the Spartans. According to legend, the god Dionysus appeared repeatedly as an apparition in the dreams of the Spartan general who was attacking the city. As a result, he was prompted to grant a truce, so that playwright could be buried in his family grave outside the city.
A statue of a siren, symbolising the charm of poetry, was placed on his tomb. Sophocles was worshipped as a hero after his death, and sacrifices in his memory were offered annually. During the 4 th century BC, a bronze statue to Sophocles was erected, on the proposal of the orator Lycurgus of Athens. Statues to Aeschylus and Euripides were erected at the same time. In addition, copies of their works were made, so as to preserve them for posterity.
Sophocles took part in the Dionysia dramatic festival, featuring tragedy, drama and satire. (eileen10 / Adobe Stock)
Sophocles: Popular During His Own Lifetime
Sophocles was not only a prolific playwright, but an extremely popular and successful one as well. In ancient Athens, a large festival called the Dionysia was celebrated each year. This was the most important Athenian festival after the Panathenaea, and was actually composed of two separate festivals – the Rural, or Lesser Dionysia, and the City, or Great Dionysia. The former was a vintage festival that was held during the month of Poseidon, i.e. December / January, in the various Athenian demes. The latter, on the other hand, was a dramatic festival held during the month of Elaphebolion, i.e. March / April, in Athens. The dramatic competitions were one of the highlights of the City Dionysia, and involved not only tragedy, but comedy and satiric drama as well.
The Ancient Greeks created a new art form, the tragedy, of which Sophocles was a master. This painting is inspired by one of his famed characters, Antigone, and was created by Nikiforos Lytras in 1865. (Public domain)
Ancient Greek tragedy traces its origins to the “choral songs sung to local heroes and divinities,” which were performed by a large group of people, i.e. the chorus. By adding actors, the ancient Greeks turned the choral songs into a new art form, the tragedy. It is believed that this transformation occurred during the 6 th century BC, though the earliest piece of tragedy that has survived, i.e. Aeschylus’ The Persians, dates to 472 BC. Ancient Greek tragedy was not only a form of entertainment, but also a way that political and social issues of the day could be explored. This is evidenced in the tragedies that Sophocles wrote.
One of the Greatest and Most Prolific Playwrights in History
The tragic competition of the City Dionysia involved three playwrights, each of whom wrote, produced, and probably acted in, three tragedies based on a single theme. In addition to the three tragedies, each playwright was also required to enter a satyr play, a tragicomedy that treats a heroic subject in a burlesque manner. The judges were appointed by lot, and the best playwright was awarded a prize. Considering the Suda’s claim that Sophocles wrote 123 plays, it may be assumed that he partook in dramatic competitions around 30 times. It has been claimed that Sophocles won first place at the City Dionysia around 20 times, the first time in 468 BC, when he defeated Aeschylus. In the competitions where he did not win first prize, Sophocles came second.
The agony and despair of Antigone, one of the surviving Greek tragedies by Sophocles, is a timeless theater classic. (VladoubidoOo / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Although Sophocles wrote more than a hundred plays, only seven of them have survived intact. In addition, fragments for between 80 and 90 of his other plays have been discovered. Of the seven surviving plays, Oedipus Rex is generally considered to be his best work. This tragedy was written around 425 BC, and, incidentally, only won second place at the City Dionysia when it was presented. Instead, the first prize that year went to Sophocles’ nephew, Philocles. Oedipus Rex is the second of Sophocles’ three Theban plays, or the Oedipus cycle, the other two being Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Chronologically speaking, Oedipus Rex would have been the first of the three plays, followed by Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.
The Oedipus Trilogy: Quintessential Greek Tragedy
Oedipus Rex revolves around the mythical character of Oedipus, the son of King Laius of Thebes and his wife, Jocasta. Those familiar with the myth would know that as an infant, Oedipus was left to die on a mountainside in order to avoid the fulfilment of a prophecy. According to this prophecy, Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. The infant, however, was rescued by a shepherd, and raised at the court of the King Polybus of Corinth and his wife. When Oedipus hears of the prophecy, he resolves to leave Corinth, believing that the king and queen were his real parents. Whilst on the road, he meets Laius, and accidentally kills him. Later on, he arrives in Thebes, saves the city from the Sphinx by answering its riddle, and is rewarded with the kingdom, and the hand of Jocasta in marriage. All this while, Oedipus is oblivious to the fact that he is fulfilling the prophecy.
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Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex picks up the story form there, and begins with Thebes being struck by a plague. This was caused by the gods, who were outraged by Oedipus’ patricide and incest. All this while, Oedipus is unaware of the crimes he had committed. Although Tiresias, the blind prophet, tells Oedipus explicitly that he is the cause of the plague, the king does not understand, believing instead that he is plotting with Creon, Jocasta’s brother, to overthrow him. As Oedipus investigates the cause of the plague, the truth is slowly unravelled.
Oedipus Rex is generally considered to be Sophocles’ best work. In this oil painting by Bénigne Gagneraux in 1784, the blind Oedipus commends his children to the Gods. (Public domain)
First, a former servant of Laius, the only surviving witness of the murder, is summoned by Oedipus. Then, a messenger from Corinth arrives, announcing the death of Polybus. It is only then that Oedipus learns that he was actually adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. In the subsequent discussions between Oedipus, Jocasta, the servant, and the messenger, the truth is revealed, after which Jocasta runs off-stage. A little later, Oedipus too realises what was going on, and runs off-stage too. From the chorus, we learn that Jocasta hanged herself, and Oedipus, when he discovered her body, blinded himself with the brooches of her dress. The children of Oedipus and Jocasta are placed in the care of Creon, and the king goes into exile.
Sophocles’ Stories Are Ours as Well
The themes explored in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex continue to be pertinent today. The dramatic technique employed, i.e. the difference between the audience’s awareness of events and those of the characters, is still used even in modern times to create suspense. The questions explored in Oedipus Rex still resonate today. These include ignorance as a universal human limitation, and the inevitability of fate. Such deep questions can be found in Sophocles’ other plays as well. In Oedipus at Colonus, for instance, the question of a person’s moral responsibility for his or her actions, and the possibility of defying fate are explored, whilst in Antigone the conflict between obedience to man-made laws and obedience to higher laws, laws of duty to the gods and to one’s family, can be seen.
Although Sophocles’ plays were written more than two millennia ago, they remain relevant today. Although the specifics may have changed, the themes they explored are as relatable as they were during Sophocles’ time. It is little wonder that Sophocles is considered to be one of the greatest playwrights in human history and that his works have been appreciated throughout the ages.
Top image: Monumental sculpture of Sophocles. Photo source: LukeS / Adobe Stock.
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