Ancient History & Civilisation


The first prize for tragedy was won from Aeschylus in 468 by a newcomer, aged twenty-seven, and bearing a name that meant the Wise and Honored One. Sophocles was the most fortunate of men, and almost the darkest of pessimists. He came from Colonus, a suburb of Athens, and was the son of a sword manufacturer, so that the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, which impoverished nearly all Athenians, left the dramatist a comfortable income.57 In addition to wealth he had genius, beauty, and good health. He won the double prize for wrestling and music—a combination that would have pleased Plato; his skill as a ballplayer and a harpist enabled him to give public performances in both fields; and after the battle of Salamis it was he who was chosen by the city to lead the nude youths of Athens in a dance and song of victory.58 Even in later years he was handsome; the Lateran Museum statue shows him old and bearded and rounded, but still vigorous and tall. He grew up in the happiest age of Athens; he was the friend of Pericles, and held high offices under him; in 443 he was Imperial Treasurer; in 440 he was one of the generals who commanded the Athenian forces in Pericles’ expedition against Samos—though it should be added that Pericles preferred his poetry to his strategy. After the Athenian debacle in Syracuse he was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety;59 and in this capacity he voted for the oligarchical constitution of 411. His character pleased the people more than his politics; he was genial, witty, unassuming, pleasure-loving, and endowed with a charm that atoned for all his errors. He had a fancy for money60 and boys,61 but in his old age he turned his favor to courtesans.62 He was very pious, and occasionally filled the office of priest.63

He wrote 113 plays; we have only seven, and do not know the order in which they were produced. Eighteen times he won the first award at the Dionysian, twice at the Lenaean, festivals; he received his first prize at twenty-five, his last at eighty-five; for thirty years he ruled the Athenian stage more completely than Pericles contemporaneously ruled Athens. He increased the number of actors to three, and played a role himself until he lost his voice. He (and after him Euripides) abandoned the Aeschylean form of trilogy, preferring to compete with three independent plays. Aeschylus was interested in cosmic themes that overshadowed the persons of his drama; Sophocles was interested in character, and was almost modern in his flair for psychology. The Trachinian Women is on its surface a sensational melodrama: Deianeira, jealous of her husband and Heracles’ love for Iola, sends him unwittingly a poisoned robe, and, when it consumes him, kills herself; what draws Sophocles here is not the punishment of Heracles, which would have seemed central to Aeschylus—nor even the passion of love, which would have attracted Euripides—but the psychology of jealousy. So in the Ajax no attention is paid to the mighty deeds of the hero; what lures the author is the study of a man going mad. In the Philoctetes there is almost no action, but a frank analysis of injured simplicity and diplomatic dishonesty. In the Electra the story is as slight as it is old; Aeschylus was fascinated by the moral issues involved; Sophocles almost ignores them in his eagerness to study with psychoanalytic ruthlessness the young woman’s hatred of her mother. The play has given its name to a neurosis once widely discussed, as Oedipus the Kinghas provided a name for another.

Oedipus Tyrannus is the most famous of Greek dramas. Its opening scene is impressive: a motley throng of men, women, boys, girls, and infants sit before the royal palace in Thebes, carrying boughs of laurel and olive as symbols of supplication. A plague has fallen upon the city, and the people have gathered to beg King Oedipus to offer some appeasing sacrifice to the gods. An oracle announces that the plague will leave Thebes with the unknown assassin of Laius, the former king. Oedipus lays a bitter curse upon the murderer, whoever he may be, whose crime has brought such misery to Thebes. This is a perfect instance of that method which Horace advised, of plunging in medias res, and letting explanations enter afterward. But the audience, of course, knew the story, for the tale of Laius, Oedipus, and the Sphinx was part of the folklore of the Greeks. Tradition said that a curse had been laid upon Laius and his children because he had introduced an unnatural vice into Hellas;64 the consequences of this sin, ruining generation after generation, formed a typical theme for Greek tragedy. Laius and his queen Jocasta, said an oracle, would have a son who would slay his father and marry his mother. For once in the world’s history two parents wanted a girl for their first child. But a son came; and to avoid fulfillment of the oracle he was exposed on the hills. A shepherd found him, called him Oedipus from his swollen feet, and gave him to the king and queen of Corinth, who reared him as their son. Grown to manhood, Oedipus learned, again from the oracle, that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Believing the king and queen of Corinth to be his parents, he fled from that city and took the road to Thebes. On the way he met an old man, quarreled with him, and slew him, not knowing that the old man was his father. Nearing Thebes he encountered the Sphinx, a creature with the face of a woman, the tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. To Oedipus the Sphinx presented its renowned riddle: “What is that which is four-footed, three-footed, and two-footed?” All who failed to answer correctly were destroyed by the Sphinx; and the terrified Thebans, longing to clear the highway of this monster, had vowed to have as their next king whoever should solve the riddle, for the Sphinx had agreed to commit suicide if anyone answered it. Oedipus replied: “Man; for as a child he crawls on four feet, as an adult he walks on two, and as an old man he adds a cane.” It was a lame answer, but the Sphinx accepted it, and loyally plunged to its death. The Thebans hailed Oedipus as their savior, and when Laius failed to return they made the newcomer king. Obeying the custom of the land, Oedipus married the queen, and had by her four children: Antigone, Polynices, Eteocles, and Ismene. In the second scene in Sophocles’ play—the most powerful scene in Greek drama—an old high priest, commanded by Oedipus to reveal, if he can, the identity of Laius’ murderer, names Oedipus himself. Nothing could be more tragic than the King’s reluctant and terrified realization that he is the slayer of his father and the mate of his mother. Jocasta refuses to believe it, and explains it away as a Freudian dream: “It has been the lot of many men in dreams,” she reassures Oedipus, “to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed; but he passes through life most easily to whom these things become trifles.”65 When the identification is complete she hangs herself; and Oedipus, mad with remorse, gouges out his own eyes, and leaves Thebes as an exile, with only Antigone to help him.

In Oedipus at Colonus, the second play of an unintentional trilogy,* the former king is a white-haired outcast leaning upon his daughter’s arm and begging his bread from town to town. He comes in his wandering to shady Colonus, and Sophocles takes the opportunity to sing to his native village, and its faithful olive groves, an untranslatable song which ranks high in Greek poetry:

Stranger, where thy feet now rest

In this land of horse and rider,

Here is earth all earth excelling,

White Colonus here doth shine.

Oftenest here, and homing best

Where the close green coverts hide her,

Warbling her sweet mournful tale,

Sings the melodious nightingale . . .

Fresh with heavenly dews, and crowned

With earliest white in shining cluster,

Each new morn the young narcissus

Blooms. . . .

And a marvelous herb of the soil grows here,

Whose match I never had heard it sung

In the Dorian Isle of Pelops near

Or in Asia far hath sprung.

’Tis a plant that flourishes unsubdued,

Self-engendering, self-renewed,

To her armed foes’ dismay:

That never so fair but in this land bloomed,—

With the grey-blue silvery leaf soft-plumed,

Her nurturing Olive-Spray.

No force, no ravaging hand shall raze it,

In youth so rash or in age so wise,

For the orb of Zeus in heaven surveys it,

And blue-grey light of Athena’s eyes.66

An oracle has foretold that Oedipus will die in the precincts of the Eumenides; and when he learns that he is now in their sacred grove at Colonus the old man, having found no loveliness in life, thinks that here it would be sweet to die. To Theseus, King of Athens, he speaks lines that sum up with clairvoyant insight the forces that were weakening Greece—the decay of the soil, of faith, of morals, and of men:

                Only to gods in heaven

Comes no old age, nor death of anything;

All else is turmoiled by our master Time.

The earth’s strength fades, and manhood’s glory fades,

Faith dies, and unfaith blossoms like a flower.

And who shall find in the open streets of men,

Or secret places of his own heart’s love,

One wind blow true forever?67

Then, seeming to hear the call of a god, Oedipus bids a tender farewell to Antigone and Ismene, and walks into the dark grove, Theseus alone accompanying him.

                         Going on

A little space we turned. And lo, we saw

The man no more; but he, the King,* was there,

Holding a hand to shade his eyes, as one

To whom there comes a vision drear and dread

He may not bear to look upon. . . .

               What form of death

He died, knows no man but our Theseus only. . . .

But either some one whom the gods had sent

To guide his steps, or else the abyss of earth

In friendly mood had opened wide its jaws

Without one pang. And so the man was led

With naught to mourn for—did not leave the world

As worn with pain and sickness; but his end,

If any ever was, was wonderful.68

The last play in the sequence, but apparently the first of the three to be composed, carries the faithful Antigone to her grave. Hearing that her brothers Polynices and Eteocles are warring for the kingdom, she hurries back to Thebes in the hope of bringing peace. But she is ignored, and the brothers fight to their death. Creon, ally of Eteocles, seizes the throne, and, as punishment for Polynices’ rebellion, forbids his burial. Antigone, sharing the Greek belief that the spirit of the dead is tortured so long as the corpse is not interred, violates the edict and buries Polynices. Meanwhile the chorus sings one of the most renowned of Sophocles’ odes:

Many wonders there be, but naught more wondrous than man.

Over the surging sea, with a whitening south wind wan,

Through the foam of the firth man makes his perilous way;

And the eldest of deities, Earth that knows not toil or decay,

Ever he furrows and scores, as his team, year in year out,

With breed of the yoked horse the ploughshare turneth about.

The light-witted birds of the air, the beasts of the weald and the wood,

He traps with his woven snare, and the brood of the briny flood.

Master of cunning he: the savage bull, and the hart

Who roams the mountain free, are tamed by his infinite art;

And the shaggy rough-maned steed is broken to bear the bit.

Speech, and the wind-swift speed of counsel and civic wit,

He hath learned for himself all these; and the arrowy rain to fly,

And the nipping airs that freeze, ’neath the open winter sky.

He hath provision for all; fell plague he hath learned to endure;

Safe whate’er may befall: yet for death he hath found no cure.69

Antigone is condemned by Creon to be buried alive. Creon’s son Haemon protests against the awful sentence, and, being repulsed swears to his father “thou shalt never more set eyes upon my face.” Here for a moment love plays a part in a Sophoclean tragedy and the poet intones to Eros a hymn long remembered in antiquity:

Love resistless in fight, all yield at a glance of thine eye;

Love who pillowed all night on a maiden’s cheek doth lie;

Over the upland folds thou roamest, and the trackless sea.

Love the gods captive holds; shall mortals not yield to thee?70

Haemon disappears; and in search for him Creon orders his soldiers to open the cave in which Antigone has been entombed. There they find Antigone dead and beside her Haemon, resolved to die.

We looked, and in the cavern’s vaulted gloom

I saw the maiden lying strangled there,

A noose of linen twined about her neck;

And hard beside her, clasping her cold form,

Her lover lay bewailing his dead bride . . .

When the King saw him, with a terrible groan

He moved towards him, crying, “O my son,

What hast thou done? What ailed thee? What mischance

Has reft thee of thy reason? Oh, come forth,

Come forth, my son; thy father supplicates.”

But the son glared at him with tiger eyes,

Spat in his face, and then, without a word,

Drew his two-hilted sword and smote, but

Missed his father flying backwards. Then the boy,

Wroth with himself, poor wretch, incontinent,

Fell on his sword and drove it through his side

Home; but, yet breathing, clasped in his lax arms

The maid, her pallid cheek incarnadined

With his expiring gasps. So there they lay

Two corpses, one in death.71

The dominant qualities of these plays, surviving time and translation, are beauty of style and mastery of technique. Here is the typically “classic” form of utterance: polished, placid, and serene; vigorous but restrained, dignified but graceful, with the strength of Pheidias and the smooth delicacy of Praxiteles. Classic too is the structure; every line is relevant, and moves towards that moment in which the action finds its climax and its significance. Each of these plays is built like a temple, wherein every part is carefully finished in detail, but has its proper and subordinate place in the whole; except that the Philoctetes lazily accepts the deus ex machina (which is a jest in Euripides) as a serious solution of a knotty plot. Here, as in Aeschylus, the drama moves upward towards thehybris of some crowning insolence (as in Oedipus’ bitter curse upon the unknown murderer); turns around some anagnorisis or sudden recognition, some peripeteia or reversal of fortune; arid moves downward toward the nemesis of inevitable punishment. Aristotle, when he wished to illustrate perfection of dramatic structure, always referred to Oedipus the King, and the two plays that deal with Oedipus illustrate well the Aristotelian definition of tragedy as a purging of pity and terror through their objective presentation. The characters are more clearly drawn than in Aeschylus, though not as realistically as in Euripides. “I draw men as they ought to be drawn,” said Sophocles, “Euripides draws them as they are”72—as if to say that drama should admit some idealization, and that art should not be photography. But the influence of Euripides appears in the argumentativeness of the dialogue and the occasional exploitation of sentiment; so Oedipus wrangles unroyally with Teiresias, and, blinded, gropes about touchingly to feel the faces of his daughters. Aeschylus, contemplating the same situation, would have forgotten the daughters and thought of some eternal law.

Sophocles, too, is a philosopher and a preacher, but his counsels rely less than those of Aeschylus upon the sanctions of the gods. The spirit of the Sophists has touched him, and though he maintains a prosperous orthodoxy, he reveals himself as one who might have been Euripides had he not been so fortunate. But he has too much of the poet’s sensitivity to excuse the suffering that comes so often undeserved to men. Says Lyllus, over Heracles’ writhing body:

We are blameless, but confess

That the gods are pitiless.

Children they beget, and claim

Worship in a father’s name,

Yet with apathetic eye

Look upon such agony.73

He makes Jocasta laugh at oracles, though his plays turn upon them creakingly; Creon denounces the prophets as “all a money-getting tribe”; and Philoctetes asks the old question, “How justify the ways of Heaven, finding Heaven unjust?”74 Sophocles answers hopefully that though the moral order of the world may be too subtle for us to understand it, it is there, and right will triumph in the end.75 Following Aeschylus, he identifies Zeus with this moral order, and comes even more closely to monotheism. Like a good Victorian he is uncertain of his theology, but strong in his moral faith; the highest wisdom is to find that law which is Zeus, the moral compass of the world, and follow it.

Oh, may my constant feet not fail,

Walking in paths of righteousness.

Sinless in word and deed,

True to those eternal laws

That scale forever the high steep

Of heaven’s pure ether, whence they sprang:

For only in Olympus is their home,

Nor mortal wisdom gave them birth;

And howsoe’er men may forget,

They will not sleep.76

It is the pen of Sophocles, but the voice of Aeschylus, faith making the last stand against unbelief. In this piety and resignation we see the figure of Job repentant and reconciled; but between the lines we catch premonitions of Euripides.

Like Solon, Sophocles counts that man most blessed who has never been born, and him next happiest who dies in infancy. A modern pessimist has taken pleasure in translating the somber lines of the chorus on the death of Oedipus, lines that reflect a world-weariness brought on by old age, and the bitter fratricide of the Peloponnesian War:

What man is he that yearneth

For length unmeasured of days?

Folly mine eye discerneth

Encompassing all his ways.

For years over-running the measure

Shall change thee in evil wise:

Grief draweth nigh thee; and pleasure,

Behold it is hid from thine eyes.

This to their wage have they

Which overlive their day. . . .

Thy portion esteem I highest

Who wast not ever begot;

Thine next, being born, who diest

And straightway again art not.

With follies light as the feather

Doth Youth to man befall;

Then evils gather together,

There wants not one of them all—

  Wrath, envy, discord, strife,

  The sword that seeketh life.

And sealing the sum of trouble

Doth tottering Age draw nigh,

Whom friends and kinsfolk fly;

Age, upon whom redouble

All sorrows under the sky. . . .

And he that looseth from labor

Doth one with other befriend,

Whom bride nor bridesmen attend,

Song, nor sound of the tabor,

Death that maketh an end.77

Every scholastic gossip knows that Sophocles consoled his old age with the hetaira Theoris, and had offspring by her.78 His legitimate son Iophon, fearing, perhaps, that the poet would bequeath his wealth to Theoris’ child, brought his father to court on a charge of financial incompetence. Sophocles read to the jury, as evidence of his mental clarity, certain choruses from the play which he was writing, probably the Oedipus at Colonus; whereupon the judges not only acquitted him, but escorted him to his home.79 Born many years before Euripides, he lived to put on mourning for him; and then, in that same year 406, he too died. Legend tells how, as the Spartans besieged Athens, Dionysus, god of the drama, appeared to Lysander and obtained a safe-conduct for the friends of Sophocles, who wished to bury him in the sepulcher of his fathers at Deceleia. The Greeks rendered him divine honors, and the poet Simmias composed for him a quiet epitaph:

Creep gently, ivy, ever gently creep,

Where Sophocles sleeps on in calm repose;

Thy pale green tresses o’er the marble sweep,

While all around shall bloom the purple rose.

There let the vine with rich full clusters hang,

Its fair young tendrils flung around the stone;

Due meed for that sweet wisdom which he sang,

By Muses and by Graces called their own.

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