Sophocles: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Sarah Burges Watson

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The texts and translations relating to this guide have been prepared by Sarah Burges Watson.

Best-loved of the tragedians, Sophocles won at least twenty times in the Athenian dramatic festivals. He died in 406/5 BCE, aged around ninety. He wrote over a hundred and twenty plays (Suda Suda, s.v. Sophocles); seven survive complete: Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis, Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, Philoctetes (409 BCE), Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE). The Life Anon. Vit. Soph. transmitted with his plays is probably Hellenistic (see Bing 1993), but biographical stories circulated during Sophocles’ lifetime. Sources on Sophocles are collected by Radt (1977).

A ‘Blessed’ Life?

If classicism is the product of nostalgia for an idealized past (see Porter 2006), Sophocles represents its acme. His ‘Life’ is perfectly harmonized with his poetry (cf. Graziosi 2006: 160-5). Considered through the lens of Sophocles’ mighty champion Aristotle, it might actually qualify as ‘blessed’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1.10). It apparently combines flourishing in accordance with the excellences of character and intellect (both contemplative and politically oriented) with good fortune—and no reversals. It certainly exemplifies the good timing said to be characteristic of his dramas Anon. Vit. Soph. 20-1. Raised in prosperity, Sophocles receives an aristocratic education in gymnastics and mousikê and sings the paean after the victory at Salamis Anon. Vit. Soph. 3. His career coincides with Athens’ heyday, ending before her catastrophic defeat by Sparta. He influences and is influenced by luminaries like Herodotus (see Dewald/Marincola 2006), whom he celebrates in an epigram Plut. An Seni 3.785a. Taking what is best from Aeschylus, he brings tragedy to what Aristotle considers its natural fulfillment. Thereafter, Sophocles represents the golden mean between his principal rivals, Aeschylus and Euripides (see Hunter 2009).

Sophocles and Religion

Whilst Euripides subverts traditional religion and Aeschylus is accused of profaning the mysteries (see Aeschylus: A Guide to Selected Sources), Sophocles is ‘more pious than anyone else’ Anon. Vit. Soph. 12; cf. also 16 (see Jouanna 2007: 73-90). He enjoys reciprocal divine favour and possesses vatic authority Anon. Vit. Soph. 12, 15, 17. When Heracles’ shrine is robbed, the hero reveals the thief’s identity to Sophocles in a dream (Life 12 Anon. Vit. Soph. 12, cf. Cicero Cic. Div. 1.25.54), as he reveals Philoctetes’ destiny in Sophocles’ tragedy. The Life Anon. Vit. Soph. 11 says that Sophocles was priest of a healer-hero, Halon. Some suspect confusion with Amynus, attested in inscriptions IG II/III 1252, 1253 with Asclepius and ‘Dexion’—Sophocles’ cult-name in a Byzantine lexicon Etym. Magn. s.v. ‘Dexion’. Supposedly derived from his ‘reception’ (dexis) of Asclepius (cf. Plutarch Plut. Num. 4.8.62c Plut. Non Posse 22.1103a; Lefkowitz 2012; Connolly 1998), the name may pun on his poetic dexterity Phryn. Com. Muses, fr. 32 K.-A. Ath. Deipn. 13.603e. A Sophoclean paean to Asclepius (Page, PMG 737) was still performed in Athens in Philostratus’ Philostr. Vit. Ap. Ty. 3.17 day.

Death and Hero Cult

The tragic poet dies a Dionysian death Anon. Vit. Soph. 14 by choking on an unripe grape during the Dionysian festival Anthesteria; or from joy at the Antigone’s victory (cf. Diodorus Diod. Sic. Bib. Hist. 13.103.4); or because he ran out of breath whilst reciting a long passage (an anecdote which may have arisen in a didactic context). Dionysus prescribes burial honours for ‘the new Siren’ Anon. Vit. Soph. 15 Paus. 1.21.1. Pausanias understands the title as a reference to the seductiveness of (his) poetry. Sophocles is made a hero Anon. Vit. Soph. 17, perhaps in imitation of his (posthumous) Oedipus at Colonus—Sophocles’ own deme (see Lefkowitz 2012: 84 and Currie 2012, with further bibliography). His canon-/hero-ization is already underway in 405 BCE in Phrynichus Comicus’ Muses Phryn. Com. Muses, fr. 32 K.-A. (Harvey 2000) and Aristophanes’ Frogs Ar. Ran. 76-82, 786-794, 1515-1519. In the latter, Sophocles floats peacefully above his quarrelsome rivals, surrendering life and the infernal Chair of Tragedy as graciously as he surrenders the sexual pleasures of his youth in Plato Pl. Resp. 329b.

Sophoclean Charm

The charm (charis) of Sophocles’ personality Anon. Vit. Soph. 7 matches the charis of his poetry. His Life exemplifies his declaration (in Aristotle’s Poetics 25.1460b32 Arist. Poet. 25.1460b32) that he (like Homer) depicted men as they should be (the proper mode for tragedy), Euripides as they are (cf. also Poetics 3.1448a25 Arist. Poet. 3.1448a25). Aristophanes’ flattering portrait may reflect Sophocles’ tribute to Euripides Vit. Eur. 2, who died in the same year. The tragedian seems never to have missed an opportunity to display his excellence. He is the antitype of the antisocial Euripides (see Euripides: A Guide to Selected Sources; Davidson 2012). Athenaeus Ath. Deipn. 13.603e constructs their sexualities as opposite: Euripides is a woman-lover; Sophocles likes boys. Elsewhere Pl. Resp. 329b Plut. Per. 8.8 Ath. Deipn. 13.592a, however, Sophocles pursues women even in old age (pace Plato). He falls for a courtesan and leaves her his property Anon. Vit. Soph. Ath. Deipn. 13.592a Schol. Ar. Ran. 78. The Life Anon. Vit. Soph. 13 says that his son/s charged him with dementia and that Sophocles was acquitted after reading from the OC, a story found in other sources Cic. Sen. 22.

Anecdotes involving (the conspicuously un-erotic) Aeschylus are restricted to poetics. Sophocles Ath. Deipn. 10.428f Plut. fr. 130 Sandbach comments in Socratic fashion on the older poet’s instinctive creativity (see Aeschylus: A Guide to Selected Sources) and, in Plutarch Plut. Quomodo adul. 7.79b, charts his relationship to Aeschylus in teleological terms (see Pelling 2007). Aeschylus is said to have left Athens in indignation Anon. Vit. Aesch. 8 Plut. Cim. 8.483e when defeated by Sophocles’ first production.

Sophocles and Politics

While his rivals’ biographies end in exile, Sophocles is ‘most Athens-loving’ Anon. Vit. Soph. 10 (see Hanink 2010). Indeed, after serving as treasurer in 443/2, he held the highest political office (general) Schol. Aristid. p. 485, 28 Dindorf Hyp. 1 Soph. Ant. Plut. Nic. 15.2.533b at least once—with Pericles—during the Samian revolt of 441/0 BCE. According to the Antigone’s hypothesis Hyp. 1 Soph. Ant., Sophocles was elected because of the play’s popularity (the dating conflicts with Life 14). In an anecdote ascribed to Ion of Chios Ath. Deipn. 13.603e, Sophocles playfully challenges Pericles’ observation that he is a better poet than general by ensnaring a slave-boy at a symposium (see Ford 2002: 191-3). This follows a virtuosic erotic/poetic display which, when challenged by a pedantic symposiast, becomes another demonstration of ‘how men should be’. Dexterity in mousikê is crucial for elite social competition, but Ion judges Sophocles politically unremarkable. In the Frogs, where questions about poetry’s educational status are central, Sophocles’ absence from the fray exonerates Aristophanes from exploring how good the poet’s advice to the people actually was, at least when he left the theatre. This subject was perhaps best avoided, not least since a committee on which Sophocles served had established a (despotic) oligarchic regime in 411 BCE. As Aristotle Arist. Rh. 3.18.1419a25 Arist. Rh. 1.14.1374b34 Arist. Rh. 3.15.1416a13 attests, Sophocles was questioned about his role by his fellow-counsellor Peisander, probably during the latter’s prosecution for a suicide, for which Sophocles proposed the death penalty (see Jameson 1971).

Sophocles the ‘Homer-Lover’

Aristophanes said Anon. Vit. Soph. 22 that Sophocles’ mouth, like Pindar’s elsewhere (Pindar: A Guide to Selected Sources), was smeared with honey. In the Life Anon. Vit. Soph. 20, his honey/charis is gathered from what is sweetest in his forebears, above all Homer—the ultimate classic. He is dubbed philhomeros by the Homerist Eustathius and ‘the tragic Homer’ by the Academician Polemon Diog. Laert. 4.20 (see Schein 2012). These judgments echo Aristotle. Aeschylus Ath. Deipn. 8.347e allegedly described his own tragedies as slices from Homer’s banquet; the Life Anon. Vit. Soph. 22 apparently endorses the judgment that ‘only Sophocles was a student of Homer’.

Sophocles as Thamyras

Sophocles is said to have performed onstage twice in Homeric roles. According to Athenaeus Ath. Deipn. 1.20e, he played a memorable ball-game as Nausicaa. His other character, Thamyras, was said in Asclepiades Tragilus’ summary of tragic plots (fourth-century BCE) to have competed with the Muses, demanding to sleep with all of them, if victorious. His defeat was punished with blindness (see Wilson 2009: 59-79). We do not know how much of this is Sophoclean. In one fragment (245 Radt with Wilson 2009: 67-70), Thamyras may have described himself as entering the Assembly under the compulsion of mousikê—an intriguing parallel with Sophocles’ political activities. The statement that Sophocles abandoned acting because his voice was weak Anon. Vit. Soph. 4 may echo Thamyras’ loss of song. It may also reflect the play’s interests in the professionalization of mousikê—formerly the aristocrat’s preserve (see Wilson 2004, 2009: 70-9). From the perspective of poetics, Sophocles’ alignment with Thamyras is remarkable. In the Iliad (2.594-600), the positioning of his confrontation with the Muses within Homer’s Muse-inspired Catalogue of Ships suggests that Thamyras is a negative antitype of Homer, who loses both his eyesight and the gift of song (on Homer’s blindness see Homer: A Guide to Selected Sources). Whatever the resonances of this Homeric story in Sophocles’ biography, it has a comparable erotic/musical counterpart in the Siren placed on his tomb Anon. Vit. Soph. 15 Paus. 1.21.1.


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