Sophocles Biography

Sophocles Biography

Sophocles changed Greek drama by killing the chorus. Although the device was still used in the playwright’s works, its size and importance was significantly reduced when he introduced the third actor. This revolutionary change was so popular that even his revered predecessor, Aeschylus, adopted the convention. Eschewing the poetic roots of tragedy, Sophocles also changed Greek drama by defining it as what happens between people. Sophocles’s most famous character, Oedipus, typified the idea of the protagonist who has a “tragic flaw”—the very human quality of misjudging one’s place in the world. Whether the incest, suicides, and murders that befell Oedipus and his clan were his fault or a cruel twist of fate, they firmly established the importance of Sophocles in the evolution of Greek tragedy.

Facts and Trivia

  • Sophocles wrote more than one hundred plays, but only a handful of his works survived in their entirety.
  • Living to be nearly a century old, Sophocles served in the military and government in addition to being a writer.
  • Today referred to as Sophocles’s “Theban Cycle,” Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus were not originally part of the same trilogy, though they do feature some of the same characters and storylines.
  • Aristotle, who wrote extensively on the nature of fine tragedy, praised Oedipus the King highly. It remains the most famous of the surviving Greek tragedies.
  • Oedipus at Colonus was performed posthumously at the dramatic festival overseen by Sophocles’s grandson, who may have completed the play.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


The handsome, gifted son of Sophilus, who was a wealthy manufacturer of armor, Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) was given a good education, studying with the famous musician Lamprus and probably with the great tragic dramatist Aeschylus. At sixteen, Sophocles was chosen to lead the choral chant, or paean, celebrating the Athenian fleet’s victory at Salamis.

However, Sophocles soon became best known as a dramatist. In 468 b.c.e., his tetralogy, or set of four plays, defeated that of Aeschylus to win the contest held at the Great Dionysia, Athens’ most important religious festival. During his lifetime, Sophocles would win first prize about twenty times; he never placed lower than second. Of his 123 plays, only seven complete tragedies survive: Aias (early 440’s b.c.e.; Ajax, 1729), Antigonī (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), Trachinai (435-429 b.c.e.; The Women of Trachis, 1729), Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), Ēlektra (418-410 b.c.e.; Electra, 1649), Philoktītīs (409 b.c.e.; Philoctetes, 1729), and Oidipous epi Kolōnōi (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729). About half of a satyr play, Ichneutae (“the trackers”), is also extant.

At least two of Sophocles’ descendants also became tragic dramatists. One was Iophon, his son by his first wife, Nicostrate; the other was his grandson and namesake. Sophocles’ second wife, Theoris of Sicyon, had borne him a son, Agathon, and it was Agathon’s son, the younger Sophocles, who staged his grandfather’s final play in 401 b.c.e.

Sophocles was also a prominent leader of his city-state. In 442 b.c.e., he was made a treasurer, collecting tribute from Athens’ subject-allies. Two years later, he was one of ten generals who put down a revolt in Samos. It was said that this post was a reward for his play Antigone, but Sophocles’ military ability is evident in that he was elected general at least once more. He also traveled on diplomatic missions, and in 413 b.c.e., when he was eighty-three, he served on a commission assigned to solve Athens’ financial crisis.

After his death, Sophocles was honored as a hero for his part in bringing to Athens the worship of Asclepius, the god of healing, whose priest he became. However, the dramatist’s final public act involved his art: Just months before his own death, he led a chorus of mourning for his younger rival Euripides.


Sophocles altered Greek drama by introducing scene painting, by increasing the size of the chorus, by writing each play in a trilogy as an independent unit, and by using three actors instead of just two, thus making it possible for plays to be more complex. Sophocles’ magnificent poetry, his memorable characters, and his insights into the way human destiny is shaped by fate and frailty have continued to influence Western playwrights throughout the centuries.

Further Reading:

Budelmann, Felix. The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging study of Sophoclean language. From a detailed analysis of sentence structure in the first chapter, it moves on to discuss in subsequent chapters how language shapes the perception of characters, of myths, of gods, and of choruses. All chapters are united by a shared concern: how Sophoclean language engages readers and spectators.

Daniels, Charles B. What Really Goes on in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Daniels examines Sophocles’ Theban plays with reference to Greek mythology. Bibliography and index.

Edinger, Edwin F., and Sheila Dickman Zarrow, eds. The Psyche on Stage: Individuation Motifs in Shakespeare and Sophocles. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. The third and final section is titled “Oedipus Rex: Mythology and the Tragic Hero.” Includes bibliography and index.

Griffin, Jasper. Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek playwright{$I[g]Greece;Sophocles} One of the most important ancient Greek tragedians, Sophocles was an innovative and skilled master of character development and dramatic irony.

Early Life

The life of Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) is known from a variety of ancient sources but especially from an Alexandrian biography included in the manuscript tradition of his plays. The playwright was born about 496 b.c.e. in Colonus, a suburb of Athens, which Sophocles commemorated in his last play, Oidipous epi Kolōnōi (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729). His father, Sophilus, was a wealthy industrialist who owned many slaves and operated a prosperous weapons factory. The young Sophocles was given a good education. He won several prizes in school for music and wrestling, and his music teacher, Lamprus, was famous for a sobriety and restraint in composition that would later be noted in the style of his student.

The childhood of Sophocles parallels his city’s long conflict with Persia, which began shortly after his birth with Darius the Great’s invasion, continued with Darius’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490, and climaxed in 480 with Xerxes’ capture of Athens and defeat in the sea battle of Salamis. Sophocles was probably too young to have seen action at Salamis, but his family status—as well as his own personal talent and beauty—may account for his selection as a chorus leader in the public celebration that followed Athens’s unexpected defeat of the Persian fleet.

Record of Sophocles’ dramatic career begins in 468, when he entered an annual competition at Athens with a group of plays. It is not known if the young Sophocles was competing for the first time in this year, but his victory over the established playwright Aeschylus at this festival must have raised a sensation among the Athenians, especially if, as is recorded, the officiating public servant requested Cimon and nine other generals to replace the judges usually chosen by lot. Sophocles did not compete in the following year, but a papyrus fragment discovered in the twentieth century suggests that in 463 Sophocles was defeated by Aeschylus, who produced his Danaid trilogy.

Sophocles performed in many of his earlier plays, none of which survives. His appearance as the ball-playing heroine in one play and his lyre playing in another are recorded in his ancient biography. Later in his career, Sophocles abandoned such performances, perhaps because his voice was weakening or because the roles of actor and playwright became increasingly specialized in the second half of the fifth century.

Life’s Work

The second half of Sophocles’ life was dedicated to public service, both in the theater and in government. In general, the several civic offices held by the mature Sophocles are better documented than are the dates of Sophocles’ extant tragedies. The most difficult extant plays to put in a chronology are probably Aias (early 440’s b.c.e.; Ajax, 1729) and Trachinai (435-429 b.c.e.; The Women of Trachis, 1729), usually placed somewhere between 435 and 429.

In 443 or 442, Sophocles served as a Hellenotamias, one of the financial officials in the Delian League of the Athenian Empire. This appointment may have been the result of the great wealth of Sophocles’ family. It may also be attributable to the well-known patriotism of Sophocles, who did not follow the example of many contemporary artists, including Aeschylus and Euripides, in leaving Athens for the court of a foreign patron.

In 441 or 440, Sophocles was elected to serve as general along with the great Athenian leader Pericles during the rebellion of Athens’s ally Samos. As the ancient hypothesis, or introduction, to Antigonē (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) says that his election was encouraged by the success of this play, Sophocles’ military service is often considered to have been more honorary than practical, but it is almost certain that the playwright traveled with the fleet on the campaign.

In 438, Sophocles was back in Athens, where he defeated Euripides’ entry, including Alkēstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781), with an unrecorded group of plays. Sometime in this decade Sophocles may also have produced a group of plays, now lost, although it is doubtful that these plays were connected thematically in the same way that the plays of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777) were linked. When Euripides’ Mēdeia (Medea, 1781) was defeated in a competition of 431 by Euphorion, the son of Aeschylus, Sophocles received second place with unknown plays.

Shortly after the beginning of Athens’s long conflict with Sparta known as the Peloponnesian War and following the Athenian plague recorded in the histories of Thucydides, Sophocles produced his most famous play,...

(The entire section is 2054 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The main events of Sophocles’ life are known from several ancient sources, including inscriptions and especially an Alexandrian biography that survives in the manuscript tradition. Although it is difficult at times to distinguish fact from anecdote in these sources, even the fiction is a useful gauge of Sophocles’ image and reputation in antiquity.

Sophocles’ lifetime coincides with the glorious rise of Athenian democracy and Athens’s naval empire and with the horrors of the Peloponnesian War. Born a generation later than Aeschylus and a generation earlier than Euripides, Sophocles won dramatic victories over both of these playwrights. He was born c. 496 b.c.e. to Sophilus, a...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In modern Athens, Greece, the birthplace of Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) in Colonus stands well within the city limits. Yet at the beginning of the fifth century b.c.e., at the time when Sophocles was born (c. 496 b.c.e.), Colonus remained an identifiable community with its own traditions and heroes. One of those heroes had, according to legend, been an exiled Theban king who vanished mysteriously in a grove at Colonus and who continued to protect the area until Sophocles’ own day. The name of this exiled Theban king was Oedipus, a figure who would one day be central to three of Sophocles’ most famous tragedies.

Little is known about Sophocles’ father, a...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sophocles was the poet of the hero. The central characters of his tragedies are each “larger than life” and willing to endure bitter opposition because of their adherence to a conviction. Many times, this same unwillingness to yield both results in the hero’s greatness and is the cause of the hero’s suffering. A “heroic flaw” makes the hero different from ordinary people; it is the reason why heroes are admired but it is also responsible for their destruction. The hero is simply too great to live in an imperfect world.

To ordinary individuals, for whom heroic excellence is beyond their grasp, Sophocles counsels moderation. Human knowledge is limited, the poet argues, and people rarely understand as much as...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Few facts about Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) are known. He was born about 496 b.c.e. at Colonus in Attica, near Athens, and his father, Sophillus, was said by tradition to have been a carpenter, a blacksmith, or a sword-cutler. Perhaps he owned slaves skilled in these trades. At any rate, Sophocles apparently moved in the best society and was not lampooned by the comic writers for low birth, as was his rival Euripides. He married a woman named Nicostrate, with whom he had a son, Iophon. His second wife, a woman of Sicyon, was, according to Athenian law, not legally a wife. Together they had several illegitimate children, including a son named Ariston, whose son Sophocles was legitimized, wrote tragedies,...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Epics for Students)

Although records from the ancient world are fragmentary Sophocles is generally credited with authorship of...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Drama for Students)

Sophocles was probably born in either 497 or 496 b.c.e., in Colonus, a rural community just northwest of Athens. Because ancient biographies...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Drama for Students)

Sophocles lived from c.496 to c.406 B.C., during the Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.), the Greek city-state of which he was a citizen. He...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Drama for Students)

Sophocles was born in Colonus, near Athens, Greece, circa 496 B.C. The son of a prosperous family, he was well-respected in his day for his...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Drama for Students)

Sophocles was born in Colonus, Greece, c. 496 B.C. and died in Athens c. 406 B.C. The son of an armor manufacturer, he was a member of a...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Sophocles Biography

(Drama for Students)

Sophocles was born in Colonus Hippiu, now a part of Athens, c. 496 B.C. He was the son of Sophillus, an armor manufacturer. Little is known...

(The entire section is 454 words.)