SOPHOCLES (C. 497 – 406 B.C.)
SOPHOCLES was born in the autumn of 497 [B.C.], twenty-eight years after Aeschylus. His father Sophillus, though not of aristocratic descent, was a rich man, his wealth being derived from the ownership of slaves employed in various manufactures. The deme to which the family belonged was Colonus, a village to the north-west of Athens, and about a mile distant from the city. It was here that Sophocles passed his boyhood; and the affection with which he always continued to regard his early home finds beautiful expression in the Oedipus Coloneus, the latest of his tragedies, in which he dwells with tender recollection upon the charms of that “white Colonus,” where the nightingale ever sings in the green glades amid the ivy and the vine, where the narcissus and the golden crocus bloom, and where the sleepless fountains of Cephisus wander over the swelling bosom of the land.
He was educated with great care, according to the old Greek system, in which music, dancing, and gymnastics training played an important part. His instructor was Lamprus, a celebrated musician of the period, and a supporter of the antique and dignified style of music, as opposed to the more florid manner which was then being introduced. In these various exercises Sophocles displayed his pre-eminence from the very first; and the beauty of his form and his skill in dancing and in music were so conspicuous, that when, after the defeat of the Persians, a chorus of boys was chosen to sing a paean round the trophy of victory, he was selected to lead the chorus, and to play the accompaniment on the harp.
Tradition says that he “learnt tragedy from Aeschylus”; but as there is no trace of any personal relationship between the two poets, it is probable that the phrase refers merely to that general influence which Aeschylus would naturally exert over his successors. Nothing further is known about the life of Sophocles till the occasion of his first appearance as a tragic poet in 468 [B.C.]. He was then twenty-eight years of age, and Aeschylus, now in the height of his reputation, was one of his competitors. According to the usual story, the contest which ensued was a remarkable one. It is said that the excitement and partisanship among the audience reached such a pitch of violence that Apsephion, the archon, instead of appointing the judges by lot in the usual manner, ordered the ten generals, one of whom was Cimon, to act as jury in their place, and that they awarded the prize to Sophocles. As to the victory of Sophocles there is no doubt. But the circumstances by which it is said to have been attended are so full of inherent improbability, that it is difficult to regard them as anything but fiction, invented by later biographers, in order to give point and significance to the first encounter between two great poets.
After his victory in 468 the career of Sophocles as a tragic poet was one of continuous success. He retained his productive powers in full perfection long beyond the span usually allotted to mankind, and continued for about sixty years to write and produce tragedies in which no signs of failing genius could be detected. Like Aeschylus he appears to have exhibited, on average, every alternate year, and was generally first in the competitions, winning eighteen victories at the City Dionysia, besides several other victories at the less important Lenaea. Even when he failed to obtain the first prize, he was never placed lower than second on the list. The most surprising of his defeats was that by Philocles, on the occasion of his production of the Oedipus Tyrannus. But it is possible that in this contest Philocles was competing, not with his own tragedies, but with those of his uncle Aeschylus; and in this case the failure of Sophocles would be less inexplicable. The total number of his plays is given variously by the ancient authorities as 104, 123, and 130. The first of these numbers, however, appears to be too small, since the titles of more than 110 dramas have been preserved even to the present day.
Few poets have lived through a more eventful period of history than Sophocles. His career coincided almost exactly with the rise, the maturity, and the downfall of the Athenian Empire. As a boy he was present at the rejoicings for the great victories of Salamis and Plataea, and witnessed the subsequent expansion of his country’s power. His manhood was passed during that golden age of Attic history, the age of Pericles, in which Athens reached the summit of her glory and influence. Yet he lived long enough after this to behold the miserable collapse of the Sicilian expedition, and the wreck of Athenian aspirations; and his death occurred only a few months before the final catastrophe of Aegospotami.
In many of the events of this great period he took a personal share, though at the same time, as his friend Ion of Chios confesses, he showed no particular aptitude for political life. Yet he was twice elected general — the highest office which an Athenian could hold. The first occasion was in 440, when he was sent along with Pericles to suppress the revolt in Samos, and was laughingly rebuked by the latter for his apparent carelessness in the discharge of his duties. At a later period he again served as general with Nicias, but though first in point of seniority, was content to occupy a subordinate position, remarking that, if he was oldest in years, Nicias was oldest in experience. In addition to his military commands he was also appointed treasurer of the tribute in 436, and acted as ambassador on several occasions. Possibly he may have held other offices of which no record has been preserved. But the supposition that he was the Sophocles who served on the Committee of Ten, and took part in the establishment of the Four Hundred, is more than doubtful.
In spite, however, of his connection with public affairs, there is no trace of the statesman in the writings of Sophocles; and the serene idealism of his tragedy is never ruffled by the intrusion of contemporary politics. It would be impossible, in any of his extant dramas, to point to a single passage which can be regarded as a direct allusion to passing events. The maxims concerning government which he occasionally enunciates are of the most general description. Hence it is vain to discuss the question of his political opinions, or to endeavour to ascertain whether he welcomed or regretted the great movements of the time, such as the growth of the democracy, and the imperial policy of Pericles. Even if he held decided views on these subjects, there are now no means of discovering them.
Besides the offices already mentioned, Sophocles also appears to have discharged certain priestly functions in connection with the worship of Asclepius; and the paean which he composed in honour of this deity was very famous in antiquity, and continued to be sung at Athens as late as the third century A.D. He was also priest of Alcon, the Attic hero, and companion of Asclepiu
The reverence with which he treated the traditional religion of the Greeks is proved, not only by the above facts, but also by the general tenor of his dramas; and the scholiast discribes him as “the most god-fearing of mankind.” Popular superstition loved to regard him as a special favourite of heaven, and to invest his life and character with a sort of religious glamour. He was supposed to have “entertained” Asclepius in his own house — a supposition which may perhaps have arisen from some passage in the paean, in which with a poet’s fancy he represented the god as appearing visibly before him. However this may be, after his death the Athenians worshipped him as a hero, under the title of “The Entertainer,” and built a shrine in his honour, where they offered yearly sacrifices. They also ascribed to him the power of charming baneful winds into stillness, and told several stories of his close connection with the gods. Thus when a golden crown had been stolen from the temple of Hercules, the place of its concealment was revealed to him in a vision. And when he died, and the Athenians were unable to bury him in his ancestral tomb outside the city, because of the presence of the Spartan army, [according to legend] the god Dionysus appeared in person to Lysander, and charged him to give permission for the burial.
Sophocles was married to a wife named Nicostrata, by whom he became the father of Iophon. Somewhat late in life he formed a connection with a certain Theoris, a woman of Sicyon, by whom he had a son called Ariston. Three other sons are mentioned by name, but nothing is known about them. It is also said that in extreme old age he fell into the clutches of the courtesan Archippe, whom he made heiress of his property; but this statement, which depends on very dubious authority, is discredited by the fact that it was not permissible in law for an Athenian to disinherit his children.
No incident in the career of Sophocles is more widely celebrated than the charge supposed to have been brought against him in his old age by his son Iophon. It is said that Iophon was jealous of the favour which he showed towards his illegitimate offspring, and accused him of mental incapacity, in order to get the administration of his property taken out of his hands. Sophocles, to prove his sanity, proceeded to recite a portion of the Oedipus Coloneus, which he had recently composed. The jury, struck with admiration, acquitted him on the spot.
This story is so striking and picturesque, that everyone would wish to believe in its authenticity. But the evidence against it is too strong to be resisted. In the first place there is considerable discrepancy as to the nature of the charge. According to some accounts it was merely an informal complaint before the “clansmen”; according to others it was a regular prosecution in the law courts. Then again, the testimony of contemporary authors is inconsistent with the supposition that the last years of Sophocles were clouded by legal disputes with his son Iophon. Phrynicus, the comic poet, describes him as a “fortunate man, who died happily, after encountering no evil”; and Aristophanes tells us that he continued, as long as he lived, to assist his son Iophon in the composition of his tragedies. Moreover Iophon, in the inscription which he placed upon his father’s tomb, mentioned as one of his greatest achievements the fact that he had written the Oedipus Coloneus when he was nearly a hundred years old. But if the story of the prosecution were true, he would hardly have gone out of his way, in writing his father’s epitaph, to refer to that identical tragedy by which his charge had been refuted.
The whole narrative, therefore, is apparently devoid of foundation. Some critics suggest that it was derived from a scene in an old comedy, in which Sophocles and his son were exhibited in contention. Perhaps, however, the key to its origin may be found in that passage of the Life, which states that Sophocles, in one of his dramas, introduced Iophon accusing him of madness before the clansmen. It is possible that this drama was the Oedipus Coloneus, and that the violent scene between Polyneices and Oedipus was taken by some ancient grammarian to represent the relationship between Sophocles and his own son, and so gave rise to the story about the trial. If this was the origin of the fiction, it would account for the manner in which the Oedipus Coloneus is invariably mixed up with it. At first sight the above explanation may appear far-fetched and improbable; but it is not inconsistent with the practice of the ancient biographers, as [one may] see … in the case of Euripides, the story of whose career has been diversified in more than one place by incidents derived from his own tragedies.
As the poet Phrynicus truly observed, Sophocles was one of the most fortunate of mankind, not only on account of his poetic fame, but also because of the serene prosperity of his life. He is described as a man of tranquil and contented temperament; and the well-known story in Plato represents him as rejoicing in his old age at having escaped from the tyranny of sensual passions. The same calmness of disposition rendered him averse to change, and he never left Athens, though frequently invited to do so by foreign princes. The generosity of his mind, and his freedom from all petty feelings of jealousy, are exemplified in the Frogs, where he concedes the supremacy of Aeschylus without a murmur. As to his relations with Euripides very little is known. Several anecdotes, mostly of a puerile nature, were retailed by later writers, implying the existence of a certain mean rivalry between the two poets. But these stories possess no historical value; and the admiration which he felt for the genius of Euripides was manifested, after the latter’s death, by his appearing in the theatre, along with his actors and chorus, in the garb of mourning.
Owing to the charm of his character he was universally beloved. In society, as Ion of Chios relates, he was always witty and agreeable; and the friendliness of his disposition caused him to found a sort of literary club at Athens. An interesting picture of his manners in ordinary life has been preserved in an extract from the Memoirs of Ion. The passage contains an account of a banquet held in Chios, at which Sophocles was present; and describes, among other things, a literary discussion with a certain schoolmaster, who had objected to the propriety of the epithet “purple,” as applied to cheeks; and whom Sophocles playfully refuted by quoting the analogy of phrases such as “golden-haired” and “rosy-fingered,” which would appear equally unsuitable if taken in too literal a sense.
Sophocles died in the autumn of 406, when more than ninety years of age. All that is known concerning the manner of his death is the statement of his contemporary Phrynicus, that he was “fortunate in death, as he had been fortunate in life.” The inventiveness of later ages produced various anecdotes on the subject. Some said he was choked by eating grapes sent him by the actor Callippides at the time of the Anthesteria; others said that, when reading Antigone aloud, he killed himself by trying to deliver a long sentence without taking a
Two portraits of Sophocles are known to have existed in ancient times — the painting in the Stoa, in which he was represented as playing the harp, and which was probably the work of the fifth century; and the bronze statue erected in the theatre towards the close of the fourth. In modern times several busts have been discovered, and also a splendid marble statue. The statue is said by experts to exhibit the characteristics of the age of Alexander the Great, and may possibly be an original work of that period, or may be copied from the bronze likeness in the theatre. It is a magnificent work of art, and though somewhat idealized, after the fashion of the time, probably represents the features of the poet with general fidelity. The beauty of the face and figure, the graceful dignity of the posture, and the serene yet masterful character of the expression, correspond exactly with what we should expect to find in a likeness of Sophocles.
Of the plays [of Sophocles] presented at contests only the seven selected for study and general reading of the ancient schools survive. The Oedipus Rex (or Tyrannus) is a supreme example of unconscious irony and is regarded as the perfection of Greek tragedy. Oedipus at Colonus (his last tragedy), Electra, and Antigone, also rate high and were most popular on the Attic stage. The remaining three–Ajax, Trachiniae, and Philoctetes–are good but not so well known.
Sophocles’ greatness as a dramatic writer consisted not so much in his inventiveness as in his development and rounding out of the dramatic form brought into being by Thespis and Aeschylus. He added the third actor and thus pronounced the doom of the chorus as an element of prime importance in Greek tragedy.
In the works of Aeschylus, the moralist often overshadows the dramatist; in those of Sophocles, dramatic interest always holds first place. His plays are outstanding for their smoothness of plot, the nobility of the characters and the graceful charm of the lyrics. In a sense they might be said to mirror the serenity of the poet’s own life. He had a tranquil and contented temperament and a generous spirit free from petty jealousies. He was witty, agreeable, and fond of people and his mind was keen and active right up to the time of his death at the age of 91.