Who Was Sophocles

Playwright, Prize Winner and More

Bust of Sophocles (Colonus, 496 BC - Athens, 406 BC), Athenian playwright, Roman sculpture in marble from the imperial era
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/ De Agostini Picture Library/ Getty Images

Sophocles was a playwright and the second of the 3 greatest Greek writers of tragedy (with Aeschylus and Euripides). He is known best for what he wrote about Oedipus, the mythological figure who proved central to Freud and the history of psychoanalysis. He lived through most of the 5th century from 496-406 BCE, experiencing the Age of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War.

Early Life

Sophocles grew up in the town of Colonus, just outside Athens, which was the setting of his tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. His father, Sophillus, thought to have been a wealthy nobleman, sent his son to Athens for an education.

Public and Religious Offices Held by Sophocles

In 443/2 Sophocles was hellanotamis or treasurer of the Greeks and managed, with 9 others, the treasury of the Delian League. During the Samian War (441-439) and the Archidamian War (431-421) Sophocles was strategos 'general'. In 413/2, he was one of the board of 10 probouloi or commissioners in charge of the council.

Sophocles was a priest of Halon and helped introduce the cult of Asclepius, god of medicine, to Athens. He was honored posthumously as a hero (Source: Greek Tragedy An Introduction, by Bernhard Zimmerman. 1986.)

Dramatic Accomplishments

Seven complete tragedies out of more than 100 survive; fragments exist for 80-90 others. Oedipus at Colonus was produced posthumously.

  • Oedipus Tyrannus
  • Oedipus at Colonus
  • Antigone
  • Electra
  • Trachiniae
  • Ajax
  • Philoctetes

In 468 BCE, Sophocles defeated the first of the three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, in a dramatic competition; then in 441 BCE, the third of the tragedian trio, Euripides, beat him. During his long life, Sophocles earned many prizes, including about 20 for 1st place. Here are his prize dates (when known):

  • Ajax (440's)
  • Antigone (442?)
  • Electra
  • Oedipus at Colonus
  • Oedipus Tyrannus (425?)
  • Philoctetes (409)
  • Trachiniae

Sophocles increased the number of actors to 3 (thereby reducing the importance of the chorus). He broke from Aeschylus' thematically-unified trilogies, and invented skenographia (scene painting), to define the background.