Historical Context

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Last Updated on January 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

Sophocles lived and worked in a time of great cultural significance, not only in the history of Athens but the greater sense of western democratic culture. Wars with Persia and Sparta, the development of democratic culture, public architectural projects, and theatrical entertainments, as well as the rise of a distinctively rhetorical culture (a culture based on the strength of language and writing) are important features of the Athens during Sophocles's life, known as the Golden Age of Athens.

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Soon after Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 507 B.C., Athens was threatened by outside enemies. At the beginning of the fifth century B.C., the Persians, led by Darius, crossed the Aegean to conquer Athens. After its triumph over Miletos in 494, the Persian army began to be defeated, with Athens winning the decisive victory at Marathon in 490. The battles of Salamis, Platea, and Mycale in 480-79 were also won by Athens, and the Persian forces (led by Xerxes I) finally lost the war. The Athenians prided themselves on their victory over Xerxes; roughly fifteen years after Sophocles's birth, Athens had become an Empire in its own right, forming the Dehan League in 478-77. From 492-60 the city-state was led by Pericles, a populist leader who is famous today for his military skill, his rhetorical prowess, and his public building projects—including the Parthenon. Sophocles himself took part in some of Pericles's projects and in the city's military life, aiding Pericles in the Samian war (441-39), becoming an ambassador some years later, and joining the ruling council in 413.

Although the Persian threat had subsided, a new threat arose: the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and other states under their leadership began in 432. Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian noted for his impartiality and accuracy, tells the story of this war in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Athens, defeated in Sicily in 413, surrendered to Sparta (which was being supported by Persia) in 404, the year after Sophocles died.

In the midst of all this war, Athenian democracy flourished during Sophocles's lifetime, its commercial enterprises along the eastern Mediterranean coastline were successful, and its cultural life enjoyed immense nourishment and development. Greek religious life centered around the shrines frequented by worshippers of Apollo at Delphi, Apollo and Artemis at Delos, and Zeus at Olympia. Festivals were often held at the shrines, and athletic competitions, dance, song, and theatrical performances also took place. Intellectually, Athens was thriving—its mathematicians and scientists, after the work of Pythagoras and Xenophanes during the previous century, began to make new discoveries in arithmetic and geology; Pericles, who studied sophistry with Zeno, brought the skill of oratory to new, unprecedented heights, and his support of the plastic and literary arts allowed Athenians to enjoy the lasting achievements of their contemporaries. While public building was interrupted by the Persian war, it resumed with vigor in the latter half of the fifth century, with the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and, in Athens, the Temple of Athena Nike, as well as the Parthenon, Propylaea, and the Erechtheum. Pericles saw to it that elaborate public building projects motivated artists of his time to achieve greatness for their city.

Greek drama also flourished. Pericles provided entertainments and pageantry, granting allowances for public festivals so that all men could attend them. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the three great dramatists of the age; Sophocles competed successfully with both his teacher Aeschylus and with his contemporary, Euripides, in the annual tragic competitions of the Great Dionysia. Some of the drama of this period concerned specific political issues, such as Phrynichos's Capture of Mileros (493) and Aeschylus's Persians (472). Other plays, like Aeschylus's Oresteia and Oedipus Rex address broader questions about mythological leaders and their relationships to the gods, fate, and their native Greek cultural heritage. While critics have argued that readers are not meant to draw any parallels between the plague-ridden Thebes in which Oedipus Rex takes place and the plague in Athens in 430-29 B.C., it is not difficult to surmise that an audience for whom the experience of such devastation was familiar would have felt particular connections with their own situation.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Fifth Century B.C.: The development of trial by jury in the law courts and the art of sophistry as practiced by philosophers such as Zeno, led to the creation of the first hired lawyers. The ability to persuade a public audience was an important feature of cultural life, and philosophers tutored leaders such as Pericles in oratorical skills.

Today: Rhetorical efficacy remains the chief attribute of today's courtroom lawyers. The public has limited access to these trials unless they garner media attention, as, for example, did the infamous trial of former football star O. J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman.

Fifth Century B.C.: In one of many bids for popularity, Athens ruler Pericles spent extraordinary sums of money to support the arts through pageants, processions, public banquets, and monetary allowances for theatrical performances. The theater was associated with the cultural and religious festivals of the Great Dionysia, in whose annual competitions Sophocles won over twenty first-place awards.

Today: Public funding for the arts constitutes less than one percent of the federal budget, and the Republican leaders in Congress have proposed to eliminate this public source of support in favor of a privatized system of grants generated by donations from actors and other private citizens. While the theater continues to be a popular form of entertainment, the festivals surrounding public performances are rarely state-funded.

Fifth Century B.C.: There was a great conflict leading to a long war between Athens and Sparta, the most powerful city-states, and the two supported radically different governmental structures—Athens was a democracy; Sparta, an oligarchy (absolute rule by a committee).

Today: Until the early 1990s, the two largest global powers, the capitalist, democratic United States and the communist U.S.S.R., were fighting the Cold War, with both sides building up conventional weaponry and nuclear arms. The U.S.S.R. fell because of inner strife, and the Cold War mentality gave way to an understanding of the potential for global peace, on the one hand, and the escalation of more localized, civil strife, on the other.

Fifth Century B.C.: Scientific advancement and great progress in mathematics coincided with a belief, in the words of Protagoras, that "man is the measure of all things," and that people can control their own destinies, mastering the universe through the power of knowledge.

Today: Developments in artificial intelligence and bioengineering lead to difficult, controversial issues about the potential for computers and robots to "think," and about the ethics of such techniques as cloning.

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