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The general voice of ancient tradition attributed the
The Coloneus ascribed to the poet's last years.
Oedipus Coloneus to the latest years of Sophocles, who is said to have died at the age of ninety, either at the beginning of 405 B.C., or in the latter half of 406 B.C. According to the author of the second Greek argument to the play (p. 4), it was brought out, after the poet's death, by his grandson and namesake, Sophocles, the son of Ariston, in the archonship of Micon, Ol. 94. 3 (402 B.C.). The ancient belief is expressed by the well-known story for which Cicero is our earliest authority:— “"Sophocles wrote tragedies to extreme old age; and as, owing to this pursuit, he was thought to neglect his property, he was brought by his sons before a court of law, in order that the judges might declare him incapable of managing his affairs,—as Roman law withdraws the control of an estate from the incompetent head of a family. Then, they say, the old man recited to the judges the play on which he was engaged, and which he had last written,—the Oedipus Coloneus; and asked whether that poem was suggestive of imbecility. Having recited it, he was acquitted by the verdict of the court."

1.

The story of the recitation —not impossible.
Plutarch specifies the part recited,—viz. the first stasimon, —which by an oversight he calls the parodos,—quoting vv. 668-673, and adding that Sophocles was escorted from the court with applauding shouts, as from a theatre in which he had triumphed. The story should not be too hastily rejected because, in a modern estimate, it may seem melodramatic or absurd. There was nothing impossible in the incident supposed. The legal phrase used by the Greek authorities is correct, describing an action which could be, and sometimes was, brought by Athenian sons against their fathers2. As to the recitation, a jury of some hundreds of citizens in an Athenian law-court formed a body to which such a coup de théâtre could be addressed with great effect. The general spirit of Greek forensic oratory makes it quite intelligible that a celebrated dramatist should have vindicated his sanity in the manner supposed. The true ground for doubt is of another kind. It
Its probable origin.
appears that an arraignment of the aged Sophocles, by his son Iophon, before a court of his clansmen (phratores), had furnished a scene to a contemporary comedy3; and it is highly probable that the comic poet's invention—founded possibly on gossip about differences between Sophocles and his sons —was the origin of the story. This inference is slightly confirmed by the words which, according to one account, Sophocles used in the law-court: “εἰ μέν εἰμι Σοφοκλῆς, οὐ παραφρονῶ: εἰ δὲ παραφρονῶ, οὐκ εἰμὶ Σοφοκλῆς”. That has the ring of the Old Comedy4. The words are quoted in the anonymous Life of Sophocles as being recorded by Satyrus, a Peripatetic who lived about 200 B.C., and left a collection of biographies. His work appears to have been of a superficial character, and uncritical5. The incident of the trial, as he found it in a comedy of the time of Sophocles, would doubtless have found easy acceptance at his hands. From Satyrus, directly or indirectly, the story was probably derived by Cicero and later writers.


1 Cic. Cato ma. seu De Sen. 7. 22. The phrase, “"eam fabulam quam in manibus habebat et proxime scripserat,"” admits of a doubt. I understand it to mean that he had lately finished the play, but had not yet brought it out; it was still "in his hands" for revision and last touches. This seems better than to give the words a literal sense, "which he was then carrying in his hands." Schneidewin (Allgemeine Einleitung, p. 13), in quoting the passage, omits the words, et proxime scripserat, whether accidentally, or regarding them as interpolated. — The story occurs also in Plut. Mor. 785 B; Lucian Macrob. 24; Apuleius De Magia 298; Valerius Maximus I. 7. 12; and the anonymous Life of Sophocles.

2 Plut. Mor. 785 B ὑπὸ παίδων παρανοίας δίκην φεύγων”: Lucian Macrob. 24ὑπὸ Ἰοφῶντος τοῦ υἱέος...παρανοίας κρινόμενος”. Cp. Xen. Mem. I. 2. 49κατὰ νόμον ἐξεῖναι παρανοίας ἑλόντι καὶ τὸν πατέρα δῆσαι”.

οἴμοι, τί δράσω παραφρονοῦντος τοῦ πατρός;
πότερα παρανοίας αὐτὸν εἰσαγαγὼν ἕλω;

3 The passage which shows this is in the anonymous Βίος; — “φέρεται δὲ καὶ παρὰ πολλοῖς πρὸς τὸν υἱὸν Ἰοφῶντα γενομένη αὐτῷ δίκη ποτέ. ἔχων γὰρ ἐκ μὲν Νικοστράτης Ἰοφῶντα, ἐκ δὲ Θεώριδος Σικυωνίας Ἀρίστωνα, τὸν ἐκ τούτου γενόμενον παῖδα Σοφοκλέα πλέον ἔστεργεν. καί ποτε ἐν δράματι εἰσήγαγε τὸν Ἰοφῶντα αὐτῷ φθονοῦντα καὶ πρὸς τοὺς φράτορας ἐγκαλοῦντα τῷ πατρὶ ὡς ὑπὸ γήρως παραφρονοῦντι: οἱ δὲ τῷ Ἰοφῶντι ἐπετίμησαν. Σάτυρος δέ φησιν αὐτὸν εἰπεῖν: εἰ μέν εἰμι Σοφοκλῆς, οὐ παραφρονῶ: εἰ δὲ παραφρονῶ, οὐκ εἰμὶ Σοφοκλῆς: καὶ τότε τὸν Οἰδίποδα ἀναγνῶναι”. In the sentence, καί ποτε...εἰσήγαγε, the name of a comic poet, who was the subject to εἰσήγαγε, has evidently been lost. Some would supply Λεύκων, one of whose plays was entitled Φράτορες. Hermann conjectured, καί ποτε Ἀριστοφάνης ἐν Δράμασιν,—Aristophanes having written a play called Δράματα, or rather two, unless the Δράματα Κένταυρος and Δράματα Νίοβος were only different editions of the same. Whoever the comic poet was, his purpose towards Sophocles was benevolent, as the phratores censured Iophon. This tone, at least, is quite consistent with the conjecture that the poet was Aristophanes (cp. Ran. 79). Just after the death of Sophocles, Phrynichus wrote of him as one whose happiness had been unclouded to the very end—καλῶς δ᾽ ἐτελεύτης᾿, οὐδὲν ὑπομείνας κακόν. There is some force in Schneidewin's remark that this would be strange if the poet's last days had been troubled by such a scandal as the supposed trial.

4 I need scarcely point out how easily the words could be made into a pair of comic trimeters, e.g.εἰ μὲν Σοφοκλέης εἰμί, παραφρονοῖμ᾽ ἂν οὔ:
εἰ δ᾽ αὖ παραφρονῶ, Σοφοκλέης οὐκ εἴμ᾽ ἐγώ

”. This would fit into a burlesque forensic speech, in the style of the new rhetoric, which the comedy may have put into the mouth of Sophocles. As though, in a modern comedy, the pedagogue should say,—‘"If I am Doctor X., I am not fallible; if I am fallible, I am not Doctor X."

5 The literary vestiges of this Satyrus will be found in Müller, Fragm. Hist. III. 159 ff.

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hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (1):
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 668
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (6):
    • Aristophanes, Clouds, 844
    • Aristophanes, Frogs, 79
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.2.49
    • Cicero, De Senectute, 7
    • Plutarch, An seni respublica gerenda sit, 785b
    • Apuleius, Apologia, 37
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