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Sophocles: Biography & Plays

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the playwright Sophocles, one of the three great innovators of Greek tragedies. Explore his success as a playwright and general, and delve into one of his most famous plays.

His Early Life

Sophocles was one of those people who lived under a lucky star. The timing for everything in his life was perfect, and he always seemed to have good luck in his relationships. He was born in Attica, or greater Athens, in 497/6 BC. That was six or seven years before the Battle of Marathon and 16/17 years before the Battle of Salamis, the two biggest and most important battles of his lifetime. These battles brought Athens into a golden age, and Sophocles became an adult just as it was starting.

Bust
Sophocles Bust

Sophocles was the son of a successful armor manufacturer, which meant that his family could afford an excellent education. He was also talented. In 480, he was chosen to lead a paean (choral chant) in honor of the victory at Salamis.

Sophocles as the leader of a paean
Sophocles Salamis

When Sophocles put his mind to being a playwright, he had the same success. His first play was probably put on in about 470, and his first victory was in 468 at the Dionysian dramatic festival. While we don't' know the name of the play, his victory so affected the reigning master, Aeschylus, that he set sail for Sicily. He also had the same luck with money. It's possible that the politician, Cimon, was one of the playwrights early patrons.

Career in Politics and Tragedy

When Cimon was ostracized in 461, it didn't affect Sophocles' career. In fact, Sophocles found a friend in his Cimon's successor, Pericles. Pericles would have him serve as one of the Hellenotamiai, or treasurers of Athena, in 443/2. In 441, he was elected one of the ten strategoi, or generals, under the leadership of Pericles.

From 470 until his death in 406 or 405, though, Sophocles continued to produce plays - 123 in total. His last, Oedipus at Colonus was even staged after his death.

A Life of Success

During Sophocles' life, he competed in only 30 competitions, but won about 24 and never placed lower than second. By comparison, his predecessor Aeschylus won 14 times and Euripides only 4. Of all the playwrights in the Greek Golden Age, he was easily the most respected and most remembered. His fame went well beyond Greece, too. His work got him noticed by foreign kings, some of whom asked him to stay with them. He never chose to.

Antigone
Oedipus and Antigone

Innovations

Sophocles introduced a couple very important changes to the tragedies as Aeschylus had written them. For one, he added a third character. With three people, there were a lot more options for giving a story. Three characters also allowed for more interesting relationships and better character development than ever before. Three characters also meant the chorus wasn't as important any more.

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