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The Core Curriculum

Sophocles

497 BCE – 407 BCE

Head of Sophocles- Roman Copy of a Greek Original: ArtStor: UCSD Slide GalleryHead of Sophocles- Roman Copy of a Greek Original: ArtStor: UCSD Slide Gallery

“Sophocles’ plays stand out for their portraits of isolation. They showcase characters cut off from others by their difficult personalities and by the circumstances of disease, disgrace, criminality, defiance of authority, exile, bereavement, and early death. Yet from what we can tell, these conditions were quite unlike Sophocles’ own experience. Though the ancient biographies of poets are late and often unreliable, our evidence supports the summary given by Sophocles ’ biographer of an enviable life: ‘he was illustrious both in life and in poetry, he was well educated and raised in comfortable circumstances, and he was chosen for political offices and embassies.’


“Sophocles’ long life coincided with the emergence of Athens as the political and cultural leader of the Greek world. He was born in Colonus, a suburb of Athens, probably in 496 , into a prominent family; his father, Sophillus, may have been an arms manufacturer. He excelled in the gymnastic and musical studies that constituted elite education in Classical Athens and led the group of boys who performed a paean in honor of the Athenian victory at Salamis in 480. Over his lifetime he held several public positions of particular trust: in 443 – 442 financial administrator of the Delian League; in 441 – 440, general along with Pericles, helping to suppress a revolt against the league by Samos; and after Athens’ defeat in the Sicilian expedition in 413, one of a group of ten men selected as symbouloi (advisers) to deal with the crisis. The fullest surviving anecdote portrays him as a genial guest at a dinner party: he flirts with the wine server, engages in learned banter on literary topics, and makes self-deprecating remarks about his military skill.

“Sophocles was also the most successful tragedian of the Greek world. He was selected repeatedly to compete in the annual tragic competitions at the Great Dionysia, beginning in 468 when he defeated Aeschylus, and his productions there won first prize eighteen times, with seventy-two plays, presented in groups of four. His plays also won first prize in other festivals, and they never came in worse than second place. Both his son Iophon and one of his grandsons, also named Sophocles, were tragedians. It was the latter who produced Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, five years after his death in 406. In 405, Aristophanes composed the Frogs, a comedy about tragedy in which Sophocles figures as standing above a vigorous competition between Aeschylus and Euripides and is characterized as eukolos or good-tempered.”

from Sheila Murnaghan. "Sophocles." The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. Oxford Reference Online.

Historical Contexts

Oedipus Rex

Classical Greece

“The Classical Period begins with the Greek victories over the Persians in 490 and 480/479 B.C. and ends around the year 330 B.C. with the reign of Alexander the Great. .... It is during this period that the most renowned and influential philosophers, writers, and artists of Greece were active and democracy developed....

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Athenian Tribute List. Stone Inscription. 5th c. BCE: The list records the city-state in the left hand column and the amount of tribute paid to Athens in the right hand column. Public Domain ImageAthenian Tribute List. Stone Inscription. 5th c. BCE: The list records the city-state in the left hand column and the amount of tribute paid to Athens in the right hand column. Public Domain Image
“...War with the Persians, waged by a shifting alliance of Greek city-states led by Athens and Sparta, dominated the early phase of the period to about 450 B.C. Greek victories at Marathon (490), Salamis (480), and Plataea (479) turned back Persian invasions of the Greek mainland. Following these victories, Athens split from Sparta and continued the war with the purpose of taking back the territory of Ionian Greece lost to the Persians in the Archaic Period. To pursue the war, the Athenians created the Delian League, a confederation of city-states that became the basis of an Athenian Empire. The Athenians defeated the Persians in Anatolia and concluded a peace treaty in 449. During the last phase of this war, Athens had also fought a war with Sparta, Corinth, and their allies which also resulted in a peace treaty in 446....

“...Following the truces in the early 440s was a short period of peace during which Pericles, leader of Athens, undertook an ambitious building project on the Acropolis of Athens that saw the creation of the Parthenon and the chrys-elephantine statue of Athena by Pheidias. Tensions with its subject states and with Sparta grew, escalating in 431 in the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, a civil war between the Athenian and Spartan alliances that also extended to the western colonies. The war proved disastrous for Athens, causing the destruction of an Athenian fleet at Syracuse in 413 and ending in the loss of its navy at Aegospotami in 405. The Spartans triumphed finally in 404 and imposed an oligarchic government on Athens....

“...Despite the turmoil of most of the Classical Period, Greek culture flourished. Greek philosophy sought to provide a rational explanation for phenomena, seeking to discover the underlying forms and order within nature and society. Philosophers such as Protagoras argued for the importance of subjective experience as a source of knowledge. Systems of rhetoric and logic developed that culminated in the fourth century with the work of Plato and Aristotle who sought to create ideal systems of government and ethics. Philosophies such as Stoicism and Epicureanism emphasized the cosmopolitan nature of humanity and sought to provide a more personal response to the troubles of the time. Drama, tragedies and comedies performed as part of religious festivals, became a major literary form during this time with the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Theater and stage design began to develop in conjunction with these literary developments. Philosophers, writers, and artists traveled widely, bringing a measure of unity to Greek culture absent from its political life....”

from Neil Asher Silberman, John K. Papadopoulos, Ian Morris, H. A. Shapiro, Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell, Frank Holt, Timothy E. Gregory. "Greece." The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press 1996. Oxford Reference Online.