Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than, or contemporary with, those of Aeschylus; and earlier than, or contemporary with, those of Euripides. Sophocles wrote over 120 plays, but only seven have survived in a complete form: Ajax, Antigone, Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus. For almost fifty years, Sophocles was the most celebrated playwright in the dramatic competitions of the city-state of Athens which took place during the religious festivals of the Lenaea and the Dionysia. He competed in thirty competitions, won twenty-four, and was never judged lower than second place. Aeschylus won thirteen competitions, and was sometimes defeated by Sophocles; Euripides won four.
The most famous tragedies of Sophocles feature Oedipus and Antigone: they are generally known as the Theban plays, though each was part of a different tetralogy (the other members of which are now lost). Sophocles influenced the development of drama, most importantly by adding a third actor (attributed to Sophocles by Aristotle; to Aeschylus by Themistius), thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights.
Sophocles, the son of Sophillus, was a wealthy member of the rural deme (small community) of Hippeios Colonus in Attica, which was to become a setting for one of his plays; and he was probably born there, a few years before the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC: the exact year is unclear, but 497/6 is most likely. He was born into a wealthy family (his father was an armour manufacturer), and was highly educated. His first artistic triumph was in 468 BC, when he took first prize in the Dionysia, beating the reigning master of Athenian drama, Aeschylus. According to Plutarch, the victory came under unusual circumstances: instead of following the usual custom of choosing judges by lot, the archon asked Cimon, and the other strategoi present, to decide the victor of the contest. Plutarch further contends that, following this loss, Aeschylus soon left for Sicily. Though Plutarch says that this was Sophocles' first production, it is now thought that his first production was probably in 470 BC. Triptolemus was probably one of the plays that Sophocles presented at this festival.
In 480 BC Sophocles was chosen to lead the paean (a choral chant to a god), celebrating the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Early in his career, the politician Cimon might have been one of his patrons; but, if he was, there was no ill will borne by Pericles, Cimon's rival, when Cimon was ostracized in 461 BC. In 443/2, Sophocles served as one of the Hellenotamiai, or treasurers of Athena, helping to manage the finances of the city during the political ascendancy of Pericles. In 441 BC, according to the Vita Sophoclis, he was elected one of the ten generals, executive officials at Athens, as a junior colleague of Pericles; and he served in the Athenian campaign against Samos. He was supposed to have been elected to this position as the result of his production of Antigone, but this is "most improbable".
In 420 BC, he was chosen to receive the image of Asclepius in his own house, when the cult was being introduced to Athens, and lacked a proper place (τέμενος). For this, he was given the posthumous epithet Dexion (receiver) by the Athenians. But "some doubt attaches to this story". He was also elected, in 411 BC, one of the commissioners (probouloi) who responded to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War.
Sophocles died at the age of 90 or 91 in the winter of 406/5 BC, having seen, within his lifetime, both the Greek triumph in the Persian Wars, and the bloodletting of the Peloponnesian War. As with many famous men in classical antiquity, his death inspired a number of apocryphal stories. The most famous is the suggestion that he died from the strain of trying to recite a long sentence from his Antigone without pausing to take a breath. Another account suggests he choked while eating grapes at the Anthesteria festival in Athens. A third holds that he died of happiness after winning his final victory at the City Dionysia. A few months later, a comic poet, in a play titled The Muses, wrote this eulogy: "Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune." According to some accounts, however, his own sons tried to have him declared incompetent near the end of his life; and that he refuted their charge in court by reading from his new Oedipus at Colonus. One of his sons, Iophon, and a grandson, called Sophocles, also became playwrights.
Books by Sophocles
Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient Greeks, the title was simply Oedipus (Οἰδίπους), as it is referre...
Oedipus at Colonus is one of the three Theban plays of the Athenian tragedian Sophocles. It was written shortly before Sophocles's death in 406 BC and produced by his grandson (also called Sophocles) at the Festival of Dionysus in 401 BC. In the tim...
Antigone is a tragedy by Sophocles written in or before 441 BC. Of the three Theban plays Antigone is the third in order of the events depicted in the plays, but it is the first that was written. The play expands on the Theban legend that predates it...
Electra, Elektra, or The Electra is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Its date is not known, but various stylistic similarities with the Philoctetes (409 BC) and the Oedipus at Colonus (401 BC) lead scholars to suppose that it was written towards the end...
Philoctetes or Philocthetes, according to Greek mythology, was the son of Poeas, king of Meliboea in Thessaly, and Demonassa or Methone. He was a Greek hero, famed as an archer, and a participant in the Trojan War.