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The second of the three great Greek tragedians, son of Sophilus or Sophillus, the wealthy owner of a manufactory of arms. He was born about B.C. 495 in the deme Colonus near Athens. He received a careful education in music, gymnastics, and dancing, and as a boy of fifteen was chosen to lead the paean sung by the chorus of boys after the victory of Salamis (Athen. p. 20). He afterwards showed his musical skill in public, when he represented the blind singer Thamyris in his drama of the same name, and played the cithara with such success that he was painted as Thamyris with the cithara in the Stoa Poicilé. Again, in the play called the Nausicaa, he won for himself general admiration in acting the part of the Phaeacian princess, by the dexterity and grace with which he struck the ball

Sophocles. (Lateran Museum, Rome.)

(Athen. p. 20 E). In all things his external appearance and demeanour were the reflex of a lofty mind. At his very first appearance as a tragic poet in 468, when twenty-seven years old, at the Great Dionysia, he gained a victory over Aeschylus, who was thirty years older, and from that time to extreme old age he kept the first place in tragedy. Unlike Aeschylus and Euripides, he never accepted the invitations of foreign princes. Though possessing no special inclination or fitness for political affairs, as his friend, the poet Ion of Chios, declares, he yet took his place in public life. Thus, in B.C. 440, he was one of the ten generals who, with Pericles, were in command of the fleet sent against Samos. Owing to his practical skill he was also employed in negotiations with the allies of Chios and Samos. During the Peloponnesian War he was again one of the generals, together with Nicias. In 435, as Hellenotamias, he was at the head of the management of the treasure of the allies, which was kept on the Acropolis; and, when the question arose in 413, of giving to the State an oligarchical constitution, he was on the commission of preliminary investigation (C. I. A. i. 237).

The charm and refinement of his character seem to have won him many friends. Among them was the historian Herodotus, who much resembled him in taste and temperament. He was also deemed by the ancients a man specially beloved by the gods, especially by Asclepius, whose priest he probably was, and who was said to have granted him health and vigour of mind to extreme old age. By the Athenian Nicostraté he had a son, Iophon , who won some repute as a tragic poet, and by Theoris of Sicyon another son, Ariston, father of the Sophocles who gained fame for himself by tragedies of his own, and afterwards by the production of his grandfather's dramas. There was a story that a quarrel arose between Sophocles and his son Iophon , on account of his preference for this grandson, and that, when summoned by Iophon before the court as weak in mind and unable to manage his affairs, he obtained his own absolute acquittal by reading the parodos on his native place in the Oedipus Coloneus, just written, but not yet produced (Plutarch, Moral. p. 775 B). But this appears to be a legend founded on a misunderstood pleasantry of a comic poet. The tales of his death, which happened in B.C. 405, are also mythical. According to one account, he was choked by a grape; according to others, he died either when publicly reciting the Antigoné, or from excessive joy at some dramatic victory. The only fact unanimonsly attested by his contemporaries is, that his death was as dignified as his life. A singular story is connected even with his funeral. We are told that Dionysus, by repeated apparitions in dreams, prompted the general of the Spartans, who were then investing Athens, to grant a truce for the burial of the poet in the family grave outside the city. On his tomb stood a Siren as a symbol of the charm of poetry. After his death the Athenians worshipped him as a hero and offered an annual sacrifice in his memory. In later times, on the proposal of the orator Lycurgus, a bronze statue was erected to him, together with Aeschylus and Euripides, in the theatre; and of his dramas, as of theirs, an authorized and standard copy was made, in order to protect them against arbitrary alterations.

Sophocles was a very prolific poet. The number of his plays is given as between 123 and 130, of which above 100 are known to us by their titles and by fragments; but only seven have been preserved complete: the Trachiniae (so named from the chorus, and treating of the death of Heracles), the Ajax, the Philoctetes, the Electra, the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Oedipus at Colonus, and the Antigoné. The last-mentioned play was produced in the spring of 440; the Philoctetes in 410; the Oedipus at Colonus was not put on the stage until 401, after his death, by his grandson Sophocles. Besides tragedies, Sophocles composed paeans, elegies, epigrams, and a work in prose on the chorus. With his tragedies he gained the first prize more than twenty times, and still more often the second, but never the third. Even in his lifetime, and indeed through the whole of antiquity, he was held to be the most perfect of tragedians; one of the ancient writers calls him the “pupil of Homer.”

If Aeschylus is the creator of Greek tragedy, it was Sophocles who brought it to perfection. He extended the dramatic action

  • 1. by the introduction of a third actor, while in his last pieces he even added a fourth; and
  • 2. by a due subordination of the chorus, to which, however, he gave a more artistic development, while he increased its numbers from twelve to fifteen persons.
(See Reissenmayer, De Choro Sophocleo [1878]). He also perfected the costumes and decoration. Rejecting the plan of Aeschylus, by which one story was carried through three successive plays, he made every tragedy into a complete work of art, with a separate and complete action, the motives for every detail being most skilfully devised. His art was especially shown in the way in which the action is developed from the character of the dramatis personae. Sophocles' great mastery of his art appears, above all, in the clearness with which he portrays his characters, which are developed with a scrupulous attention to details, and in which he does not content himself, like Aeschylus, with mere outlines, nor, as Euripides often did, with copies from common life. His heroes, too, are ideal figures, like those of Aeschylus (Aristot. Poet. 25). While they lack the superhuman loftiness of the earlier poet's creations, they have a certain ideal truth of their own. Sophocles succeeded in doing what was impossible for Aeschylus and Euripides with their peculiar temperaments, in expressing the nobility of the female character, in its gentleness as well as in its heroic courage. In contrast to Euripides, Sophocles, like Aeschylus, is profoundly religious; and the attitude which he adopts towards the popular religion is marked by an instinctive reverence. The grace peculiar to Sophocles' nature makes itself felt even in his language, the charm of which was universally praised by the ancients. With his noble simplicity he takes in this respect also a middle place between the weightiness and boldness of the language of Aeschylus and the smoothness and rhetorical embellishment which distinguish that of Euripides.

The seven existing plays of Sophocles are all found in the same Codex Laurentianus in Florence that contains the plays of Aeschylus. Cobet regards all the other extant MSS. of the plays as derived from this. Few of them have the whole seven. Of these, two (a Codex Parisinus of the thirteenth century and a Codex Venetus of the fourteenth) are the best. See Meifert, De Sophoclis Codicibus (1891).

The editio princeps of Sophocles appeared at Venice in 1502. The chief editions of the entire seven plays are those of Brunck, 4 vols. (1786-89); G. Herrmann (1830-41); Wunder (1847-1878); Dindorf (Leipzig, 1825); Schneidewin, rev. by Nauck (Berlin, 1877-82); and Wolff (Leipzig, 1858-65). Annotated English editions are those of Blaydes and Paley, 2 vols. (1859-80); L. Campbell, 2 vols. (1871-81); and Jebb, vols. i.-v. (Cambridge, 1884- 95). There are editions of separate plays with English notes by various scholars, among them the Oedipus Tyrannus by Jebb (1884), and by White (1890); the Oedipus Coloneus by Paley (1881), the Antigoné by Paley (1881), and by D'Ooge (1890); of the Philoctetes by Graves (1893); of the Electra by Jebb (1870); of the Ajax by Jebb (1869); and of the Trachiniae by Pretor (1877).

There is a lexicon to Sophocles by Ellendt (2d ed. revised by Genthe, Berlin, 1867-72), with a supplementary Index Commentationum (1874). There is a good translation of Sophocles into English verse by Plumptre (1871), and one by Campbell (1873). For general criticism, etc., see Hense, Studien zu Sophocles (1880); Patin, Études sur les Tragiques Grecs, vol. ii. (last ed. 1877); Campbell, Sophocles (1879); id. A Guide to Greek Tragedy (1891); Schlegel's Lectures; Kennedy's Studia Sophoclea (1874); and Ribbeck, Sophokles und Seine Tragödien (1869). On his language, style, etc., see the following monographs: Altum, Similitudines Homeri cum Sophoclis (1855); Borschke, Aeschylus und Sophocles (1872); Lichtenstein, Shakspeare and Sophocles (1850); Fleischmann, Kunst der Characteristik bei Sophokles (1875); Harmsen, De Collocatione Verborum apud Sophoclem (1880); Hartz, De Anacoluthis apud Sophoclem (1856); Jacobi, De Usu Alliterationis apud Sophoclem (1872); Juris, De Sophoclis Verbis Singularibus (1876); Maenss, Die Präpositionen bei Sophokles (1883); Schindler, De Sophocle Verborum Inventore (1877); Struve, De Dictione Sophoclis (1854); Schlegel, Die tragische Ironie bei Sophokles (1869); Fittbogen, De Sophoclis Sententiis Ethicis (1842); and Koch, De Proverbiis apud Sophoclem (1892).


Son of Ariston and grandson of the elder Sophocles, was also an Athenian tragic poet. The love of his grandfather towards him has been already mentioned. In B.C. 401 he had brought out the Oedipus at Colonus of his grandfather; but he did not begin to exhibit his own dramas till 396.

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