Sophocles (Classical Writers)/Chapter 1

Sophocles by Lewis Campbell
Chapter I. Life of Sophocles.



The creations of a great tragic writer are but remotely connected with the events of his life. What is sometimes asserted of all poets is especially true of him, that his circumstances, even when thoroughly known, throw but a faint and distant light upon his writings. For the dramatist, even more than the epic poet, points us away from his individual being; and tragedy is a result out of all proportion to the external influences, even could we know them perfectly, which were operative on the author's mind. Intense participation in a great cause, as in Dante and Milton, may assist creative imagination in some forms, but such preoccupations are but little favourable to purely dramatic art. And if the tragic genius is once present in its fulness, every life contains enough of sadness to give it ample food. The tragic artist could not himself have told us whence this or that portraiture was drawn. The data of personal experience are transmuted by him far more completely than by the subjective lyric poet. Hence it is more important, if not more interesting, to know particulars of the life of Sappho or of Shelley than of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Of that of Sophocles we know very little.

1. Early life and training.—He is said to have been about fifteen at the time of the battle of Salamis, when he was chosen, on account of his beauty and his skill in music, to lead a choral procession in honour of the victory. He had been trained in the school of Lamprus, the famous musician of Athens. This is all that is told us of his education in the narrower sense. It includes more than may appear at first sight; for music was the chief means of culture for Greek youth, and led to an intimate knowledge of the earlier poetry.

But his real education, and the chief interest of his life always, must have centred in the drama. At what precise moment he was initiated amongst the company of Dionysiac votaries (the dramatic guild, or θίασος), we can never know, but long before he had himself produced a tragedy we must imagine him as fired by the genius of Æschylus, and drinking in the harmonies of Phrynichus, as well as of Simonides and "Homer." And the crisis of his existence which has most interest for us, is his triumph over Æschylus, in B.C. 468, the twenty-seventh year of his age, by the award of Cimon and the other generals, to whom the judges delegated their powers, at the Lenæan (or Spring Dionysiac) festival. The dramatic training, of which this was the culminating point, was in the highest sense of a practical kind. His voice is said to have disqualified him from acting, except in silent parts; but there is little doubt that he exercised the closest supervision over the performances of his own plays, and that, like Æschylus, like Shakespeare, like Molière, he was personally conversant with the details of dramatic representation.

2. He was a native of the suburban district of Colonus, and his father is said to have been in a good position, and to have made money by superintending the manufacture of cutlery. The former statement at least is confirmed by the appointments which Sophocles held in public life, apparently without having earned them by special qualifications.

Middle life.—We are told that he was sent on various embassies, and it is affirmed by constant tradition that he held command with Pericles in the war with Samos, B.C. 441 or 440, being then fifty-five years old. The chief interest of both of these facts, if we may call them so, is the varied experience which would result from such employment, the contact with foreign cities, especially in Ionia, and the opportunities for personal observation elsewhere than at Athens which it must have involved. On one of these occasions he is supposed to have made the acquaintance of Herodotus, and an epigram attributed to Sophocles, but of doubtful authenticity, purports to record their intimacy. A contemporary tragic poet, Ion of Chios (the same who spoke of Pericles as dry and surly), made some notes of his fugitive intercourse with Sophocles, of which a few scraps have been preserved. In his public capacity Sophocles did not strike his brother artist as at all remarkable. "He was like any other respectable Athenian." But in society his urbanity, readiness and sprightliness seem to have charmed the facile Ionians with whom he found himself. He made no pretensions to generalship, and repeated with relish what Pericles had said of him, that he succeeded better as a poet than as a commander.[1]

3. These slight and casual impressions are all that remain to us of the person of Sophocles in his prime, unless, indeed, we may trust as authentic the beautiful statue of him now in the Lateran Museum at Rome, in which the first glance may show us only a statesman or general of handsome presence but moderate calibre, "like any other respectable Athenian"; but as we continue gazing on the harmonious figure, a grave and sympathetic humanity is seen to breathe from every line.

4. So much appears certain: that the man whom we know to have fully measured the height and depth of happiness and misery was sensitive to the touch of lighter joys, and counted "nothing human alien to him"; that he lived the life of a well-born Athenian of his time, not shrinking from public services, though not shining in them; and that he was gifted with all the versatile graces of which Pericles boasts in his countrymen, passing through rough and smooth hours imperturbably, and indulging perhaps somewhat freely in pleasure unreproved.[2]

5. And to set off against the description of his gayer moments (men like Ion were not witnesses of his graver moods), we have the authority of Plato for a story of his later years, which in an interesting manner reflects to us the sober colouring of

"an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality."

To one who rallied him on having outlived the pleasures of love, he said, with something of severity, "Nay, but in escaping from that I have left the tyrannical service of a mad master." (Cp. Ant. 781 foll., Trach, 441 foll.)

6. His old age was spent at Athens, perhaps in Colonus, his native district, whose flora he has immortalised as Shakespeare has done that of Stratford. (Had Sophocles a "New Place" by the Cephisus?)

The poet was eighty-two years old when the precinct of Poseidon at Colonus was made the scene of the oligarchical revolution of the Four Hundred, by which, in the spring of B.C. 411, Athenian democracy was temporarily suppressed. As one of the older generation, whose natural tendency was to blame the demagogues for the disasters of the State, he may, in common with other persons of weight, have hoped some public benefit from this change, and the name of "Sophocles" occurs amongst those of the ten probuli, or special counsellors, who had been appointed after the Syracusan calamity to provide that the commonwealth should take no harm; in Roman language, "ne quid respublica detrimenti acciperet." It may well have been that Antiphon, Pisander and their associates may have reasoned of him as Metellus Cimber does of Cicero in Julius Cæsar:—

"O, let us have him, for his silver hairs
Will purchase us a good opinion
And buy men's voices to commend our deeds."

or as Casca says of Brutus:—

"Oh, he sits high in all the people's hearts,
And that which would appear offence in us,
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness."

7. Whether this were so or not, it is manifest that he had no lasting quarrel with the majority of his countrymen, who continued to honour him while they delighted in Euripides; and we have the witness of Aristophanes to the impression which the serenity of his last years had made upon them: as of one not striving for mastery, but sure to live peaceably "wheresome'er he is,"[3] in the other world as in this. He had a son, Iophon, and a grandson, Sophocles. Iophon was a tragic poet in his father's lifetime, and Sophocles is said to have edited the Œdipus Coloneus after the author's death. It is hardly worth while to allude to stories of still more questionable authenticity, such as the conflicting legends about the death of Sophocles, who seems to have attained the age of ninety, or the honours paid by Lysander to his tomb; but a saying attributed to him by Aristotle is worth repeating, as at least well invented if not authentic:—"I make men as they ought to be, Euripides men as they are," a compliment which the realism of the later poet was hardly substantial enough to deserve.

These scanty vestiges of biography are such as a sober criticism will for the most part neither wholly accept nor wholly deny. But were they altogether to vanish into air, the central fact which is of chief significance would remain—that Sophocles was an Athenian of the age of Pericles, and a tragic poet—the author, amongst other works, of the Antigone.

The contemporary comic poet, Phrynichus, described him, after his death, in lines which may be freely rendered thus:—

"The happy child of sad Melpomene,
To whom long life brought no calamity.
To crown his works Genius and Fortune blend,
And Death has sealed them with a peaceful end."

  1. In listening to Ion's light gossip it is well to bear in mind Plutarch's caution in repeating his remarks on Pericles: "Life seemed insipid to him without the satyr-element."
  2. Not wholly so, if we may really credit Pericles with the fine warning, "A commander must not only have clean hands, but an irreproachable eye."
  3. Shak. Hen. V. ii. 3.