Ancient History & Civilisation

Sophocles & Euripides:
Brazenly bisexual playwrights

What a pair: both of them top tragedians, toasted as successes by fifth century Athenians, roasted by Aristophanes in his comic plays, and married twice. Furthermore, both of them lived their long lives as bisexuals, although that word would not have been recognized, much less used, in those days.

In her book Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Eva Canterella mentions, among others, these two extraordinary achievers, Euripides and Sophocles. They not only enjoyed youthful love affairs with males as teenagers but when mature, also became family men while pursuing sexual adventures with other men. As she puts it, “Faced with such evidence, how can one avoid thinking that adult Greek males enjoyed almost untrammeled freedom, being allowed to devote time to pederastic relationships which were far more than the occasional variation?”

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This open-air theater in Athens was one of many in which audiences thrilled to the tragic dramas of major-league playwrights, such as Euripides and Sophocles.

Older than Euripides by two decades, Sophocles came from a wealthy family that lived outside Athens. At twenty-nine he had his first triumph, taking first prize in the Dionysia theater competition. He beat Aeschylus, the man who’d reigned as king of the tragic playwrights for years.

Sophocles became famous for adding a third actor to plays and for his character development. His one-liners became bywords. Among them: “Time eases all things”; “The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves” (both from Oedipus Rex); and, from his playAntigone, “Don’t kill the messenger!”

Talented and lucky, Sophocles went on to win eighteen times at the Dionysia festivals and six times at the Lenaia annual competitions. Aristotle admired him enormously, citing his Oedipus the King as the highest achievement in tragedy. Invitations to visit as honored playwright came from foreign rulers, but Sophocles was a hometown boy. He turned all of them down.

Like other civic-minded Athenians, Sophocles took a very active role in his city’s life; as a teen, he was chosen to lead the choral chant, celebrating the Athenian victory over the Persians. He served a term as one of the city’s treasurers, and also as strategos or general, working with his friend Pericles.

At dinner parties, Sophocles was known for flirting, stealing kisses from the best-looking boys, and much besides. His buddy Pericles once gave him a hard time for admiring a handsome lad instead of keeping his mind on military strategy.

The best story that’s come down to us about his love life involved a male assistant of Sophocles who got intimate with Nico, an older gal whose beauteous buttocks were much admired. Kidding around, the assistant asked Nico to lend him her buttocks. Her reply: “Sure, honey—go ahead and take from me what you give to Sophocles.”

The great man, despite his workload and his many erotic distractions, took care of two successive families. He was first wed to Nicostrate, with whom he had a son who grew up to become a tragic poet. With his second wife, Theoris, he had another son, Ariston. A bright, merry, well-liked fellow, Sophocles lived to be ninety-two; it was not until late in life that he lost his sexual vigor. He reportedly confided to Plato, “I’m glad to be free of that raging, savage beast.”

Euripides was more somber, a reclusive chap born on Salamis Island who spent much of his life in Athens. As a youngster, his dad received an oracle prediction that Euripides would win crowns of victory. He promptly put his son into training as a pro athlete. The prediction proved true—but the victory crowns would be for five theatrical productions, among them Medea and The Bacchae.

His talents extended to painting as well, and he pioneered many innovations in the theater. His writing, by turns ironically comic and profoundly tragic, depicted ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. He shocked Athenian audiences with his empathetic portrayals of women and other victims of society. Unfortunately, the real tragedy is that over 80 percent of his plays have been lost.

He described both of his marriages, to Melite and Choerine, as “disastrous,” although he and the latter wife did collaborate to produce three sons. He had a happier long-term relationship with another tragic poet, a much younger man named Agathon whose own work wobbled from flowery to improbable. Accompanied by Agathon, in later years Euripides went to the Macedonian court of Archelaus, where he would spend his last years, dying in his mid-seventies. Macedonia is thought to be where he wrote The Bacchae, his psychological study into the primitive side of Greek religion.

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