Sophocles was an ancient Greek playwright and was one of three major ancient Greek playwrights (the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides) whose plays survive to today. Sophocles was born in 497 or 496 BC in Colonus, a village just outside Athens, to Sophilus, a wealthy armor manufacturer. Sophocles was well-educated, handsome, athletic, musical, artistic, and a well-respected member of his community, so he was appointed at age 16 to lead the paean, a choral chant to the gods, after Greece defeated Persia at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
It is estimated that during his lifetime, Sophocles entered about 120 plays in the Dionysus theatre festival, and his first victory was in 468 BC, when he defeated Aeschylus, who had been the reigning champion. Sophocles is the most celebrated of the Greek tragedians, having won 24, whereas Aeschylus and Euripides won 13 and 4, respectively. Of the many plays Sophocles wrote, only seven (Ajax, Antigone, Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus) remain in their entirety. Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone are three of Sophocles’s most famous plays and although they feature the same characters (and are thus known as the Theban plays, after their setting, Thebes), they contain plot inconsistencies, were written decades apart, and were never designed to be a part of a trilogy, as they are seen today.
In addition to being an award-winning playwright, Sophocles was a politically active member of the Athenian community. In 440 BC, he was elected one of 10 strategōi (essentially a junior general) under the great general Pericles, and he served in that position at least twice more in his lifetime. And in 413 BC, he was appointed to be a proboulos, and he worked with other men to figure out how Athens would recover, financially and otherwise, after it was defeated at Syracuse in Sicily. Sophocles died in the winter of 406 or 405 BC.
Sophocles made an advancement in the theatre that substantially helped shape the art we know today. He introduced the third actor into theatre, thus lessening the role of the chorus and allowing playwrights to invent more complex characters and situations. Though the two actors often played multiple roles, allowing a third actor to be onstage as part of the story and not part of the chorus revolutionized the art in a way previously unseen.
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