Sophocles’ long life spans most of the 5th Century and coincides with the peak of Athenian political and cultural achievements. When Sophocles was still a child, the Greek city states won a decisive victory against the invading Persian armies in 490 BCE and again in 480. After the Persian Wars, Athens created the Delian League: a free alliance of states whose main purpose was to defend the Greek cities on the Ionian coast against future Persian aggression. Not long afterwards, however, Athens seized full control of the League, demanding tribute from its allies in the form of money or ships. In 454, the Athenian general Pericles had the funds of the Delian League moved from the island of Delos to the Acropolis in Athens. With these funds the city initiated an ambitious building program, which resulted in – among other things – the splendid Parthenon. This period under the leadership of Pericles saw a strengthening of democracy and an unprecedented bloom in the arts and in philosophy. Athens’ imperialist and expansionist policies soon caused friction with its allies, however, resulting in numerous revolts and led to the outbreak in 431 of a disastrous war against Sparta and its allies, known as the Peloponnesian War. Sophocles died before Athens was finally defeated in 404 BCE.
Not much is known about Sophocles’ personal background, though several ancient anecdotes give us an impression of him as a person and as a poet. Coming from a wealthy family he received a good education, and he was selected to lead a dance in honor of the Greek victory at Salamis in 480. He held several sensitive public positions throughout his life: he acted as treasurer of the Delian League in 443/2; as co-general with Pericles in 441 to suppress the revolt of Samos, one of Athens’ former allies; and as one of the ten commissioners appointed to deal with the crisis caused by Athens’ crushing defeat in Sicily in 413.
One ancient commentator tells us that Sophocles was elected as general on the basis of widespread admiration for his play Antigone. Both during and after his life Sophocles enjoyed a reputation of being a good-tempered and moderate person. Aristophanes portrayed Sophocles in Frogs as graciously leaving the throne of tragedy to Aeschylus, clearly being above the squabble between the era's other two great tragedians. And indeed, the ancients regarded Sophocles as the ideal tragedian, finding a harmonious balance between the styles of Aeschylus and Euripides, who were sometimes his direct rivals in Athens' dramatic competitions. Sophocles allegedly won the City Dionysia18 times, the first time in 468 when he defeated Aeschylus. Aristotle, Hegel, and Freud later held up Sophocles’ plays as the most perfect products of Greek drama. Modern scholarship does not treat his work as unassailable, and our appreciation of Sophocles has only profited from this less reverent but more understanding attitude.
Of the approximately 120 plays that Sophocles is said to have written, we now possess seven tragedies, some lengthy sections, and multiple fragments. The survival of these seven plays is probably due to their canonization at some point in time as his best work. Only the last two of these seven can be dated with certainty: Philoctetes in 409 and Oedipus at Colonus– set in the same Athenian suburb where Sophocles was born – produced posthumously by his grandson in 401. Oedipus Rex seems to belong to the period of 430-425, but it is hard to place Ajax,Electra, and Women of Trachis. If the anecdote about Sophocles’ generalship in the Samian revolt is true, Antigonemight have been produced around 442 BCE. Stylistically, Antigonedoes seem to belong to his earlier period.
Sophocles is generally praised for his intricate characterizations and for the rich variations in his characters’ language: the style is always suited to the individual and to the mood of the particular scene. His characters sometimes debate each other in long crafted speeches, which may be due to the influence of sophistic rhetoric in Athens. The term ‘tragic irony’ was specifically coined in the 20thCentury to describe one of his narrative techniques, where a character does or says something that has a different significance to the audience, who already knows the outcome of the story.
Oedipus Rex, for instance,is famous for the statements of tragic irony made by the main character, who is figuratively blind to the truth of his own identity. The characters in Antigone, on the other hand, have more insight into their situation and destiny, so there is less opportunity for tragic irony. Sophocles is also credited with increasing the number of speaking actors from two to three, and with expanding the chorus from 12 to 15 members. He was apparently, according to Aristotle, the first to use painted scenery. His plays, however, rarely required much staging. The focus lay on the dramatic interaction between characters.
Written by Barbara Vinck, Ph.D. candidate, Classics, Columbia University
R. Blondell. Sophocles’ Antigone. Focus Publishing (1998)
M. Griffith, ed. Sophocles: Antigone. Cambridge University Press (1999)