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2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes

by Prof. Dan Curley, Classics

Sophocles was born c. 495 BCE in Colonus, the setting of his final play in the so-called "Theban Trilogy," Oedipus at Colonus. Since Colonus was a deme of Attica, the territory in and around Athens, Sophocles was an Athenian citizen by birth. Although best remembered as a tragic playwright, Sophocles was active in the affairs of his city. For example, he was a priest in the hero-cult of Halon, and helped establish an Athenian cult to the god Asclepius (420). After the defeat of the Athenian navy in the Peloponnesian War, he served on a committee of ten elder statesmen (probouloi) who guided Athens through the ensuing political tumult (413). Two years before the Antigone was produced, Sophocles was an administrator in the burgeoning Athenian empire (443), for which he managed the treasury of the Delian League, an anti-Persian alliance between Athens, Delos, and others. In the same year as the Antigone he served, along with Pericles, as one of ten generals (strategoi) in the war with Samos (441). Sophocles was long-lived, being well into his eighties upon his death in 406. His son by Nicostrate, Iophon, was a tragic poet in his own right. After Sophocles’ death a hero-cult was established in his honor under the name Dexion.

Sophocles was prolific, writing over 120 plays, only seven of which have survived. He also enjoyed great success in his own lifetime, winning eighteen victories at the City Dionysia, more than those of Aeschylus and Euripides combined; furthermore, although he frequently took second place, he was never ranked third in any dramatic competition. The extant plays feature strong-willed heroes and heroines, whose beliefs and decisions are often at odds with the established order. The Aristotelian concept of recognition (anagnorisis) also figures prominently, with characters struggling to make sense of the world and their place within it. Their realizations are often too late to prevent catastrophe, and the knowledge gained often inspires further conflict. The Antigone is quintessentially Sophoclean, with two headstrong protagonists who operate under antithetical value systems. In a play that poses so many questions, perhaps most important is who is the outsider, Creon or Antigone.