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Sophocles Biography

Article abstract: Greek playwright{$I[g]Greece;Sophocles} One of the most important ancient Greek tragedians, Sophocles was an innovative and skilled master of character development and dramatic irony.

Early Life

The life of Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) is known from a variety of ancient sources but especially from an Alexandrian biography included in the manuscript tradition of his plays. The playwright was born about 496 b.c.e. in Colonus, a suburb of Athens, which Sophocles commemorated in his last play, Oidipous epi Kolōnōi (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729). His father, Sophilus, was a wealthy industrialist who owned many slaves and operated a prosperous weapons factory. The young Sophocles was given a good education. He won several prizes in school for music and wrestling, and his music teacher, Lamprus, was famous for a sobriety and restraint in composition that would later be noted in the style of his student.

The childhood of Sophocles parallels his city’s long conflict with Persia, which began shortly after his birth with Darius the Great’s invasion, continued with Darius’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490, and climaxed in 480 with Xerxes’ capture of Athens and defeat in the sea battle of Salamis. Sophocles was probably too young to have seen action at Salamis, but his family status—as well as his own personal talent and beauty—may account for his selection as a chorus leader in the public celebration that followed Athens’s unexpected defeat of the Persian fleet.

Record of Sophocles’ dramatic career begins in 468, when he entered an annual competition at Athens with a group of plays. It is not known if the young Sophocles was competing for the first time in this year, but his victory over the established playwright Aeschylus at this festival must have raised a sensation among the Athenians, especially if, as is recorded, the officiating public servant requested Cimon and nine other generals to replace the judges usually chosen by lot. Sophocles did not compete in the following year, but a papyrus fragment discovered in the twentieth century suggests that in 463 Sophocles was defeated by Aeschylus, who produced his Danaid trilogy.

Sophocles performed in many of his earlier plays, none of which survives. His appearance as the ball-playing heroine in one play and his lyre playing in another are recorded in his ancient biography. Later in his career, Sophocles abandoned such performances, perhaps because his voice was weakening or because the roles of actor and playwright became increasingly specialized in the second half of the fifth century.

Life’s Work

The second half of Sophocles’ life was dedicated to public service, both in the theater and in government. In general, the several civic offices held by the mature Sophocles are better documented than are the dates of Sophocles’ extant tragedies. The most difficult extant plays to put in a chronology are probably Aias (early 440’s b.c.e.; Ajax, 1729) and Trachinai (435-429 b.c.e.; The Women of Trachis, 1729), usually placed somewhere between 435 and 429.

In 443 or 442, Sophocles served as a Hellenotamias, one of the financial officials in the Delian League of the Athenian Empire. This appointment may have been the result of the great wealth of Sophocles’ family. It may also be attributable to the well-known patriotism of Sophocles, who did not follow the example of many contemporary artists, including Aeschylus and Euripides, in leaving Athens for the court of a foreign patron.

In 441 or 440, Sophocles was elected to serve as general along with the great Athenian leader Pericles during the rebellion of Athens’s ally Samos. As the ancient hypothesis, or introduction, to Antigonē (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) says that his election was encouraged by the success of this play, Sophocles’ military service is often considered to have been more honorary than practical, but it is almost certain that the playwright traveled with the fleet on the campaign.

In 438,...

(The entire page is 2,054 words.)

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