Sophocles

Sophocles was one of the most awarded playwrights in Athens and one of the three great Greek tragedians whose work has survived into modern times (the others being Aeschylus and Euripides).

Early Years

Not much is known about the early life of Sophocles. Born a few years prior to the Battle of Marathon around 497 BC, Sophocles was the son of a Sophilus, a wealthy armor manufacturer and member of a rural government or deme. Sophocles was born in a small town, Colonus, approximately one mile outside of Athens. He was highly educated and a civil leader.

At 16, due to his youth, good looks, and performing ability, he was picked to a paean (choral chant) about the victory of the Battle of Salamis. The production involved singing, dancing, and playing the lyre.

Sophocles didn’t win his first accolade as a playwright until 468 BC when he won first prize in a theatre competition (beating Aeschylus) at the young age of 28. With this victory, Aeschylus left for Sicily and Sophocles’ dramatic career took off.

For nearly 60 years, he won more competitions in Athens during then religious festivals of Lenaea and Dionysian than any other playwright. In his early years, he often acted in his productions and once performed a juggling act in the play Nausicaa or The Women Washing Clothes that was the talk of Athens for years after.

Well-Rounded Citizen

During his life, Sophocles was involved in a number of activities as he was witty, intelligent and well liked. He was wealthy, an upright citizen, and politically active but did not overly exert any one agenda. He was an ordained priest for Asclepius, god of medicine, and Alcon, Asclepius’ Attican hero and companion.

He was a strategoi (an executive military commander) and served on the Board of Generals, a committee that administered civil and military affairs in Athens. He was a military consultant during the Peloponnesian Wars. He was also a field general, with Pericles, during the revolt at Samos and later under the more experienced commander Nicias. At one time he was also an imperial treasurer of Athens, controlling the funds of the association of states known as the Delian Confederacy during the political reign of Pericles.

According to great philosopher and Athenian contemporary Plato, Sophocles had a robust appetite for physical pleasures that did not decrease until he was very old in age. Sophocles, like many Greeks of this era, had a liking for young men. He was also married twice.

Sophocles married a woman named Nicostrata. She bore him Iphlon, who became a playwright as well. Sophocles had a second marriage later in life to Theoris of Sicyon with whom he had a son named Ariston. He did have three other illegitimate sons, but there is no mention of them beyond their existence. Towards the end of his life, he was noted as having a relationship with a hetaera (courtesan) named Archippe.

Upon his death at 90 years of age, Sophocles was buried in his family tomb near Deceleia, approximately a mile from Athens.

Dramatic Work

Sophocles wrote 123 plays in his lifetime, but only 7 survived to modern day intact. His most famous plays were about Oedipus and Antigone. The complete plays include Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis, and Piloctets.

Sophocles style differed from earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus. In his plays, Sophocles influenced the development of drama and more thoroughly developed plots and characters than earlier playwrights by adding a third actor. He is also credited as the first playwright to paint scenic backdrops and he gave each play a self-contained plot rather than following the trilogy style used previously.

The Legacy of Sophocles

Sophocles was an active, engaging man throughout his whole life. Although Sophocles was an actor, a military commander, a field general, a priest, a politician, and a treasurer, it is for his plays that he is known 2,400 years after his death. It is testament to his greatness that his plays are still being adapted today for modern audiences.

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