The long life that Sophocles lived touched the centuries when the arc of Athenian civilization rose and fell sharply. Athens had been a contested corner of the globe since the time of the Old Testament’s kings. Many centuries of war and tyranny, illuminated by brief flashes of democratic reforms, shaped the history of the city-state into which Sophocles was born. The city felt the lash of tyranny again in the years after Sophocles died.
During the 5th century B.C., when Sophocles wrote, the political theory underpinning our own democracy was taking form in Athens. But this theory, and its democratic ideals of freedom and justice that inspire us today, applied to only a fraction of the people living in Athens during the playwright’s lifetime.
The rights, responsibilities and freedoms of citizenship in the Athens that Sophocles entertained with his art were available only to a small, elite class of men. Women of any class—slave or free—were denied what we think of today as basic rights. The legions of slaves that performed the society’s hardest labor—women and men—were denied liberty, the most fundamental of all democratic rights.
Despite the flawed application of democratic theory in ancient Greece, the ideals developed then and there shaped the modern world’s principles of human rights, responsibilities and freedoms. By the 19th century, the inspirations that American intellectuals and political leaders drew from ancient Greece could be seen and touched in towns and cities across this country.
Reproduced on thousands of...
(The entire section is 660 words.)