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