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Bronze bust of Sophocles  Sophocles, the son of a wealthy arms manufacturer, was born probably in 496 B.C.E. in the deme Colonus near Athens. Of all the ancient playwrights, he scored the most wins in dramatic competitions, and won the most important dramatic festival, the City Dionysia, an unmatched 18 times. He received an education in music, athletics, and dancing, and as a boy of fifteen was chosen to lead the paean (hymn of praise) sung by the chorus of boys after the victory of Salamis. Like most of the ancient playwrights, he acted in the plays he wrote. He showed his musical skill in public, when he played the blind singer Thamyris in his drama of the same name, and played the cithara with such success that he was painted as Thamyris with the cithara in the famous Stoa Poecile ("painted colonnade"), a prominent gathering place in ancient Athens.   Sophocles was also involved in Athenian political and military affairs. Owing to his practical gifts with language he was involved in negotiations with the allies of Chios and Samos. During the Peloponnesian War he was one of the generals. In 435 B.C.E., fulfilling the office of Hellenotamias, he was at the head of the management of the treasure of the allies, which was kept on the Acropolis; and in 413 B.C.E., when the question arose of giving to the state an oligarchical constitution, he was on the commission of preliminary investigation. He also filled a priestly office.
  The charm and the refinement of his character seem to have won him many friends. Among them was the historian Herodotus. He was also deemed by antiquity as a man especially beloved by the gods, particularly by Asclepius, god of medicine, whose priest he probably was, and who was said to have granted him health and vigor of mind to extreme old age. By the Athenian Nicostrate he had a son, Iophon, who won some repute as a tragic poet, and by Theoris of Sicyon another son, Ariston, father of another Sophocles who gained fame for himself by writing tragedies of his own, and afterwards by the production of his grandfather's dramas. There was a legend that a quarrel arose between Sophocles and his son Iophon, on account of his preference for this grandson, and that, when summoned by Iophon before the court as weak in mind and unable to manage his affairs, he obtained his own absolute acquittal by reading the chorus on his native place in the Oedipus Coloneus [Plutarch, Moralia, p. 775 B]. The tales of his death, in 405 B.C.E., are also mythical. According to one account, he was choked by a grape. According to others, he died either when publicly reciting the Antigone, or from excessive joy at some dramatic victory. The only fact unanimously attested by his contemporaries is that his death was as dignified as his life. We are also told that the god Dionysus, by repeated apparitions in dreams, prompted the general of the Spartans, who were then attacking Athens, to grant a truce in order to bury the poet in the family grave outside the city. On his tomb stood a Siren as a symbol of the charm of poetry. After his death the Athenians worshipped him as a hero and offered an annual sacrifice in his memory. In later times, on the proposal of the orator Lycurgus, a bronze statue was erected to him, together with Aeschylus and Euripides, in the theatre, and an authorized and standard copy of his dramas was made to preserve them.
  Even in his lifetime, and indeed through the whole of antiquity, he was held to be the most perfect of tragedians; one of the ancient writers calls him the "pupil of Homer" [Vita Anon., ad fin.]. If Aeschylus is the creator of Greek tragedy, it was Sophocles who brought it to perfection. He extended the dramatic action (1) by the introduction of a third actor, so that three people could be on stage in addition to the chorus, while in his last pieces he even added a fourth; and (2) by a due subordination of the chorus, to which, however, he gave a more artistic development, while he increased its numbers from twelve to fifteen persons. These moves made dialogue all the more important. He also perfected the costumes and decoration. But Sophocles' great mastery of his art appears, above all, in the clearness with which he portrays his characters, which are developed with a scrupulous attention to details, and in which he is not satisfied, like Aeschylus, with mere outlines, nor, as Euripides often did, with copies from common life. His heroes, too, are ideal figures, like those of Aeschylus. While they lack the superhuman loftiness of Aeschylus' creations, they have a certain ideal truth of their own. In contrast to Euripides, Sophocles, like Aeschylus, is profoundly religious, and the attitude which he adopts towards popular religion is marked by an instinctive reverence. The grace peculiar to Sophocles' nature makes itself felt in his language, the charm of which was universally praised by the ancients. With his noble simplicity he takes in this respect also a middle place between the weightiness and boldness of the language of Aeschylus, and the smoothness and rhetorical embellishment which distinguish that of Euripides.
  Sophocles was a very prolific poet. The number of his plays is given as between 123 and 130, of which above 100 are known to us by their titles and by fragments. Only seven have been preserved complete: The Trachinice (so named from the chorus, and its treating of the death of Heracles), the Ajax, the Philoctetes, the Electra, the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Oedipus at Colonus, and the Antigone. The last-mentioned play was produced in the spring of 440 B.C.E.; the Philoctetes in 410 B.C.E.; the Oedipus at Colonus was not put on the stage until 401 B.C.E., after his death, by his grandson Sophocles. Besides tragedies, Sophocles composed paeans, elegies, epigrams, and a work in prose on the chorus.
  Green, Richard and Eric Handley. Images of the Greek Theater. London, 1995: Trustees of the British Museum
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