In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sophocles

  • Introduction
  • Biography and Dating
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Surveys
  • Reference Works
  • Texts
  • Recent English Translations
  • Recent Adaptations
  • Fragments
  • Scholia
  • Transmission and Textual Criticism
  • Language
  • Hero Worshippers and Pietists
  • Dramatic Technique, Metatheater
  • Chorus
  • Narratology
  • Relation to Contemporary Thought
  • Women
  • Politics
  • Ajax
  • Electra
  • Oedipus the King
  • Women of Trachis
  • Philoctetes
  • Oedipus at Colonus
  • Fragments
  • Reception

Classics Sophocles
Ruth Scodel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0063


Sophocles won his first victory as a tragedian in 468 BCE (according to the ancient tradition, with his first production) and died in 405. He produced about 120 plays: 90 tragedies and 30 satyr plays. Seven complete tragedies of Sophocles survive. The principles on which these were selected are not known, but the three plays involving Oedipus and his family were probably chosen to form a pseudo-trilogy. He particularly favored plots drawn from the stories of the Trojan War.

Biography and Dating

We can be reasonably confident of some aspects of Sophocles' life, since his acquaintance Ion of Chios wrote a book that included anecdotes about him, and since he had a public career. Like other ancient biographies of poets, however, the Life of Sophocles (translated in Lefkowitz 1981) is more valuable as a reflection of how people imagined the author than of what they knew about him. The ancient biography stresses Sophocles' piety. It even says that he “received” the god Asclepius and was honored with a cult after his death. All the ancient evidence for Sophocles' life is collected in Radt 1999. Although the results of the tragic competitions were a matter of public record, we have dates for only two of the seven extant plays, Philoctetes in 409 and Oedipus at Colonus, produced after Sophocles' death in 401. Reinhardt 1979 (first published in 1933) influentially argued that Sophocles developed greater dramatic flexibity through his career. There is general consensus that Electra was produced in the decade before Philoctetes, while Women of Trachis, Ajax, Antigone are earlier. Antigone is often put in the 440s because the ancient biography attributes Sophocles' election as general to its success. The anecdote is unlikely, but the chronology could be right. Many attempts have been made to date individual plays on the basis of apparent allusions to recent events or borrowings from other plays of known date. For the dating of each tragedy, consult the recent commentaries.

  • Connolly, Andrew. 1998. Was Sophocles heroized as Dexion? Journal of Hellenic Studies 118: 1–21.

    DOI: 10.2307/632228

    Sophocles did not host the god and was not heroized in the 4th century.

  • Jouanna, Jacques. 2007. Sophocle. Paris: Fayard.

    More trusting in ancient testimonies than many scholars would be, but includes a thorough survey of the biographical material.

  • Lefkowitz, Mary R. 1981. Lives of the Greek poets. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    The book includes a translation of the ancient biography. Lefkowitz takes an extremely skeptical approach.

  • Radt, Stefan. 1999. Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta vol. 4. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

    A full edition of the fragments, which also contains the ancient evidence on the life of Sophocles.

  • Reinhardt, Karl. 1979. Sophocles. Translated by H. Harvey and D. Harvey. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Originally published 1933. Makes the argument that Sophocles developed greater dramatic flexibility throughout his career. The German existentialist style is too difficult for most undergraduates.

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