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Sophocles, son of Leon

Sophocles (2), son of Xenocles

Sophocles (3), tragic poet


As with most authors of this period, our sources for the life of Sophocles are late, fascinated with witty stories or scandalous details, entertaining but not very trustworthy. Such contemporary testimony as survives suggests that Sophocles was a man of great personal charm.

The Frogs of Aristophanes, was a comedy produced shortly after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides. Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy, becomes frustrated with the lack of decent playwrights, proposes to descend into the underworld and bring Euripides back to life. The play evolves into a contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, whose styles most violently clashed, but Sophocles is mentioned three times during the play. Dionysus explains that he will not attempt to bring him back from Hades. Euripides was a scoundrel and would inevitably try to escape from Hades, but “Sophocles was good-natured here (i.e., on earth) and will be good-natured there (i.e., in the underworld)” (Aristoph. Frogs 82: δ᾽ εὔκολος μὲν ἐνθάδ᾽, εὔκολος δ᾽ ἐκεῖ). When Euripides first entered the underworld, he seized hold of Aeschylus’ seat and claimed primacy as chief poet in the underworld. Sophocles, however, who died shortly before Euripides, greeted Aeschylus with a kiss and clasped his hand. Should Euripides be victorious, then Sophocles would challenge Euripides, but if Aeschylus defeats Euripides, Sophocles would be content (Aristoph. Frogs 771-794). When Aeschylus, triumphant in the end, is about to leave Hades and return to earth, he explicitly entrusts his seat of honor to Sophocles(Aristoph. Frogs 1515-1519). At Plat. Rep. 329B, Kephalos, an old man and the father of the orator Lysias, defends old age. Those who are good-natured have no cause to condemn their situation when they grow old. He cites a time when he heard someone ask the aged Sophocles whether he could still sleep with a woman. “Hush, my friend,” replied Sophocles, “I am only too grateful to have escaped from this, just as if I had escaped a crazed and savage master.” Kephalos holds this attitude up as the proper one for a balanced human being.

birth and Death

Birth of Sophocles at Colonus in Attica 495/4

Death of Sophocles 406/5

For his birth, we must turn to very late sources. The Life of Sophocles informs us that he was born in the second year of the 71st Olympiad during the archonship of Philippos at Athens: 495/4. The Suda offers a later date (Olympiad 73-488/5). Both record that he was the son of a man named Sophilos and that he came from the deme of Colonus.

Diod. 13.103.4 reports that Sophocles died in 406/5, at the age of ninety. A plausible tradition records that Sophocles’ grandson, Ariston, produced the Oedipus at Colonus in 401. Later sources report the charming, and probably untrue, story that Sophocles expired from sheer joy when his play won the victory by a single vote. According to another story, recorded in several later sources including Cicero and Plutarch, Sophocles’ sons felt that he had begun to neglect his household affairs in his extreme old age, and they took him to court so that they might undertake control of the household. In court, however, Sophocles, to prove that he was not senile, recited an ode from the Oedipus at Colonus (according to Plutarch, Soph. OC 668ff.). The court, we are told, ruled in his favor.


The fourth-century B.C. author Aristoxenus, according to Life of Sophocles 1, claimed that Sophocles’ father was a “carpenter or bronzeworker,” (τέκτων χαλκεὺς). The author of the Life of Sophocles rejects this statement. He objects that no one of such undistinguished parentage could have risen to be elected a general in mid fifth-century Athens-a problematic assumption at best. More suggestively, he argues that we would have expected the comic playwrights to have abused him for his background had he not been of the highest family. Neither objection, however, can wholly refute the clear statement of Aristoxenus, one of the earliest and most reliable sources that we have.

If we accept Aristoxenus’ assertion that Sophocles’ background was modest, then the traditions which surround his later career are especially striking. Aside from his work as a playwright, Sophocles seems to have held a number of important political positions. He was a senior administrator in the Athenian Empire (Hellenotamias) in 443/2, and was elected as one of the ten generals in charge of military affairs for the year 441/0. In 413, he belonged to a committee of ten older citizens (Probouloi) which ultimately helped institute a temporary oligarchy (Thuc. 8.1.3, Aristot. Ath. Pol. 29.2). Although already in his eighties, Sophocles had served as one of these Probouloi and was asked whether he didn’t agree that he had participated in a shameful affair. He replied that he had, but that there were no better alternatives at the time (Aristot. Rhet. 1419a25).

Perhaps more significant than his political positions, Sophocles is said to have introduced a new cult of the healing god Asklepios into Athens and to have been honored after his death as the heros Dexion. One of the things which marked the old families of the classical period was the control of a cult. If Sophocles introduced a new cult into Athens and himself received worship after his death, his personal prestige had been institutionalized and legitimated. The establishment of this cult would have been the closest Greek equivalent to the patent of nobility which a European sovereign might have bestowed.

Whoever his forebears may have been, Sophocles had several sons, and, like Aeschylus and Euripides, he did not prove to be the only tragic playwright in his family. One son named Ariston, who was born to Theodoris, a woman from another Greek city, Sikyon, was illegitimate and thus not a full citizen. Sophocles also had at least one legitimate son by a regular marriage. Iophon's mother was named Nikostrate, and he too went on to become a tragic playwright like his father. He produced, we are told, fifty plays, and Aristophanes specifically singles him out for cautious praise in the Frogs. At Aristoph. Frogs 71-79, Dionysus declares that Iophon is the only decent playwright left alive, but declines to bring Sophocles back to life at least until he can see how well Iophon does now that his father is no longer alive to help him.


Sophocles produces his first play, the Triptolemos, and wins first prize 468

Number of victories by Sophocles: 18-24

Plutarch tells a (probably apocryphal) story of Sophocles’ first victory (Plut. Cim. 8 and relates that Aeschylus, who lost to the young new playwright, departed in a huff for Sicily where he ultimately died. This cannot have happened in quite the manner Plutarch describes, since Aeschylus produced the Oresteia ten years after Sophocles’ first victory. He was victorious at the City Dionysia 18 times (IG 2.2 2325), and, including some victories at the Lenaia, the total amounted to either 20 (Life of Sophocles 8) or 24 (Suda).

importance and Influence of Sophocles

Of the three most famous fifth century tragic playwrights, Sophocles seems to have been by far the most successful in his own time. By the lowest count, he achieved half again as many victories in the City Dionysia (18 victories) as did Aeschylus (12) and almost five times as many as Euripides (4). In the fourth century, Aristotle (Aristot. Poet. 1452a24, 1453b31) singled out Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos for particular praise, and his view of tragedy, which emphasizes the importance of a strong central character, largely reflects Greek tragedy as it was developed by Sophocles. Later in antiquity, Euripides outstripped both Aeschylus and Sophocles in popularity. The New Comedy which developed in the third century as well as Hellenistic poetry treated its characters in much the same demystifying and ironic manner as Euripides, but Sophocles was the most popular playwright in both the Classical period and has been at least as popular in modern times as Euripides.

Strong central characters, the so-called “Sophoclean heroes,” dominate six of the plays of Sophocles that we now possess (Sophocles, Trachiniae is generally viewed as an exception). Bernard Knox (The Heroic Temper) explores the features which these figures share. They are stubborn and self-willed; they reject advice. Cut off from family or society, they implacably pursue their own purposes and fashion their own identities. Sophocles’ tragedies explore, among many other themes, a problem that had assumed a new importance in the evolving democracy at Athens. Where individuals had traditionally identified themselves through their families and the myriad social groups to which they belonged, democratic society began to focus on the individual as the basic unit. The fifth-century male Athenian, was to an unprecedented degree compelled to define himself through what he was and had himself done. Several of the most admired speeches in Sophocles take place when the heroes utterly cut themselves loose from their previous situation and choose to pursue their own goals: e.g., Oedipus at Soph. OT 1076ff., Ajax at Soph. Aj. 646ff., Antigone at Soph. Ant. 450ff., and Electra at Soph. El. 947ff..

Other fifth-century authors explored these “monumental” individual characters. A number of striking and self-willed figures are prominent in Euripides (e.g., the title characters in Euripides’ Medea and Hippolytos), but Euripides tends to undercut his characters in some way, and they never attain quite the same kind of stature as Sophoclean heroes. In Euripides’ Heracles, Heracles faces a dilemma similar to that of Ajax in the Ajax: maddened under the influence of a divinity, he has shed blood and disgraced himself. Heracles, like Ajax, contemplates suicide, but unlike Ajax, Heracles chooses to continue living. Euripides surely had the Ajaxin mind when he wrote the Heracles, and a close study of the two plays suggests some of the complex ways in which Euripides viewed his elder contemporary.

The most striking fifth-century analogue to the Sophoclean hero shows up in prose rather than poetry. It has often been suggested that the Athenian statesman Pericles may have provided a model for Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus: both lead cities, conspicuously rely upon their intelligence and ability to gauge what will happen in the future. In both cases, plague strikes the city and the great leaders fall, Oedipus because the plague leads to an investigation which brings out the truth of his origin, Pericles because he himself falls victim to the plague at Athens. Whether or not Sophocles had Pericles and the great plague at Athens in mind when he composed the Oedipus Tyrannos, the portrayal of Pericles in Thucydides bears many resemblances to the Sophoclean hero. In the first (Thuc. 1.140-144) and last (Thuc. 2.60-64) speeches which Thucydides attributes to Pericles, the statesman presents himself as an unswerving figure of tremendous vision. His determination and his ability to stand alone in his beliefs strongly recall the self-willed stance taken by heroes in Sophocles. In his most famous speech (Thuc. 2.35-46), however, Pericles outlines a vision of Athenian society in which the interests of the individual and of the community operate together in a state of constructive tension and reinforce one another. It is as if Thucydides were trying to portray Pericles as a Sophoclean hero who is self-defining and unswerving, yet fully engaged and integrated into his society.

Surviving Works

Production of Ajax 450-430

Date Production of Antigone c. 442?

Date Production of Trachiniai 450-430

Date Production of Oedipus Tyrannos 429-425?

Date Production of Electra 420-410

Date Production of Philoctetes 409

Date Production of Oedipus at Colonus (posthumous) 401

The dates of Sophocles’ surviving plays cannot, for the most part, be determined with any confidence. Most of our knowledge comes from “hypotheses,” brief introductions to the plays written by Byzantine scholars but often drawing upon much earlier (and more reliable) sources. Thus we know from the second Hypothesis to the play that the Philoctetes won first prize in the City Dionysia of 409. Similarly, the hypothesis to the Oedipus Coloneustells us that his play was produced posthumously by the poet's grandson, in the year 401. More tenuous is a connection that may help date the Antigone. The fourth-century historian Androtion reportedly listed Sophocles as one of the ten Athenian generals for the year 441/440 and the hypothesis to the Antigone tells us that the play's wisdom made such an impression that Sophocles was elected general. Even if we do not accept the causal connection between a successful play and election to the office of general, the hypothesis may report a fanciful deduction based upon the fact that the Antigone was in fact produced just before 441/440. We thus conventionally date the Antigone to c. 442.

The dates adduced here for the Oedipus Tyrannus are provisional at best. The play is often thought to post-date 429 because the plague at Thebes and the downfall of the clever Oedipus have been seen to reflect the plague which broke out in Athens in 430 and the subsequent death of the great Athenian statesman in 429. In the other direction, some have argued that Aristophanes, when he includes the phrase πόλις, πόλις (“O, city! city!”) at Aristoph. Ach. 27 is parodying Soph. OT 629 in which the same phrase appears. One scholar, for example, has ([Knox, 1956] esp. 144-147) argued that Aristophanes parodied Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannusextensively in Aristophanes’ Knights (produced in 424). He adduces a number of similarities, but none of them is absolutely compelling and he has not convinced many scholars.

Those who have recently worked on Sophoclean plays other than the Philoctetes or the Oedipus Coloneushave generally shied away from the issue of dating and have even avoided giving any dates at all. Those included above are very rough and reflect traditional thinking, based on a general sense of what seems “early” or “late”, and this may or may not be right. Similar thinking had convinced most scholars that the Suppliant Women of Aeschylus dated from the early 490s, and they were shocked when a papyrus fragment from Egypt made it clear that the play had been produced sometime in the 460s-or about 30 years later. Readers should bear this experience in mind when they consider the dates for any Sophoclean other than the Philoctetes and perhaps the Oedipus Coloneus.

For the traditions about the life of Sophocles, see [Lefkowitz, 1981] 75-87, [Lesky, 1966] 271-302, [Easterling, 1985] 295-316, 764-767. [Radt, 1977] 27-95 provides an exhaustive list of sources on Sophocles’ life, but his work is aimed at specialists and contains no translations. Among earlier discussions of Sophocles, [Whitman, 1951] and [Knox, 1964] provide good examples of the “humanistic” approach to Sophocles.

    Ahl, Frederick H. Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Bloom, Harold, ed. Sophocles: Edited and with an introduction. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. vii+240. Blundell, Mary Whitlock. Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Brody, Jules. "Fate" in Oedipus Tyrannus : a Textual Approach. Arethusa Monographs. Buffalo, NY: Dept of Classics, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1985. 11: 94. Bushnell, Rebecca W. Prophesying Tragedy : Sign and Voice in Sophocles' Theban Plays. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. xviii+133. Buxton, R. G. A. Sophocles. Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. 16: 38. Gardiner, Cynthia P. The Sophoclean Chorus : a Study of Character and Function. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987. x+205. Gellie, G. H. Sophocles: a Reading. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1972. viii+307. Heath, Malcolm. The Poetics of Greek Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987. vii+221. Heiden, Bruce A. Tragic Rhetoric : an Interpretation of Sophocles' Trachiniae. Hermeneutic Commentaries. New York: P. Lang, 1989. 1: 204. Hogan, James C. A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. ix+386. Kiso, Akiko. The Lost Sophocles. New York: Vantage Press, 1984. xii+161. Knox, Bernard. The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy. Sather Classical Lectures. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964. 35: 209. Knox, B. M. W. "Date of the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles." AJP 77 (1956): 133-147. Oudemans, Th. C. W. Tragic Ambiguity : Anthropology, Philosophy and Sophocles' Antigone. Brill's Studies in Intellectual History. Leiden: Brill, 1987. 4: vi+263. Poe, Joe Park. Genre and Meaning in Sophocles' Ajax. Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1987. 172: 102. Radt, Stefan. Sophocles. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Ed. Bruno Snell. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977. Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Twayne's World Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1984. 731: 155. Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. London: Croom Helm, 1982. 269. Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization : an Interpretation of Sophocles. Martin Classical Lectures. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. 26: xii+506. Steiner, George. Antigones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. 316. Sutton, Dana Ferrin. The Lost Sophocles. Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1984. xvii+190. Whitman, Cedric Hubbell. The Heroic Paradox : Essays on Homer, Sophocles, and Aristophanes. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. ix+171. Whitman, Cedric H. Sophocles: a Study of Heroic Humanism. Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 1951. 292. Wilkins, John, and Matthew MacLeod. Sophocles : Antigone & Oedipus the King : a companion to the Penguin Translation of Robert Fagles. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987. 111. Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Sophocles: an Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. xii+346.
Gregory Crane
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