Sophocles (497 BC, – 406 BC) (Greek: Σοφοκλῆς) was one of the three great ancient Greek tragedians, together with Aeschylus and Euripides. According to the Suda he wrote 123 plays; in the dramatic competitions of the Festival of Dionysus (where each submission by one playwright consisted of four plays; three tragedies and a satyr play), he won more first prizes (around 20) than any other playwright, and placed second in all others he participated in (Lloyd-Jones 1994: 8). His first victory was in 468, although scholars are no longer certain that this was the first time that he competed (Scullion 2002).
Only seven of his tragedies have survived complete in the medieval manuscript tradition. The most famous are the three tragedies concerning Oedipus and Antigone: these are often known as the Theban plays or The Oedipus Cycle, although they do not make up a single trilogy. Discoveries of papyri from the late nineteenth century onwards, especially at Oxyrhynchus, have greatly added to our knowledge of Sophocles' works. The most substantial fragment which has so far appeared contains around half of a satyr play, The Tracking Satyrs.
Sophocles was born in the rural deme (small community) of Colonus Hippius in Attica, which today is near the railway station. His birth took place a few years before the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC: the exact year is unclear, although 497/6 is perhaps most likely (Lloyd-Jones 1994: 7). The ancient life of Sophocles disputes claims that his father, Sophillus, was a carpenter, smith, or swordmaker, asserting rather that he owned slaves who pursued such occupations. The Life goes on to say the young Sophocles won awards in wrestling and music, and was graceful and handsome. He led the chorus of naked boys (paean) at the Athenian celebration of the victory against the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
Sophocles enjoyed a public profile outside the theatre. In 443/2 he served as one of the Hellenotamiai or treasurers of Athena. The Athenian people elected him as one of the ten generals for 441/0, during which he participated in the crushing of the revolt of Samos. There is some evidence that he was one of the commissioners appointed in 413 BC as a response to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily (Lloyd-Jones 1994: 12-13). Sophocles also served as a priest for a time.
Several ancient writers have commented on Sophocles' fame as a lover of youths. Athenaeus alleged that Sophocles loved boys as Euripides loved women. He relates an anecdote involving Sophocles seducing a serving boy at a symposium, as well as another, ascribed to Hieronymus of Rhodes (Historical Notes), in which Sophocles is tricked by a hustler. Plutarch, in his "Life of Pericles," mentions an incident, during a naval expedition, in which Sophocles praised the beauty of a young recruit. Pericles rebuked him by warning that a general must keep not only his hands clean, but also his eyes.
Only two of the seven surviving plays have securely dated first or second performances: Philoctetes (409 BC) and Oedipus at Colonus (401 BC, put on after Sophocles' death by his grandson, also called Sophocles). Of the others, Electra shows stylistic similarities to these two plays, and so is probably late. Ajax, Antigone and The Trachiniae are generally thought to be early, again on grounds of style, with Oedipus the King coming in Sophocles' middle period (see e.g. Lloyd-Jones 1994: 8-9).
Fragments of The Tracking Satyrs (Ichneutae) were discovered in Egypt in 1907. It is one of only two recovered satyr plays.
Fragments of The Progeny (Epigonoi) were discovered in April 2005 by classicists at Oxford University with the help of infrared technology previously used for satellite imaging. The tragedy tells the story of the siege of Thebes. The fragment translates to the following:
Speaker A: . . . gobbling the whole, sharpening the flashing iron.
Speaker B: And the helmets are shaking their purple-dyed crests, and for the wearers of breast-plates the weavers are striking up the wise shuttle's songs, that wakes up those who are asleep.
Speaker A: And he is gluing together the chariot's rail.