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Alexandrian literature, there were many treatises respecting him, besides those on the general subject of tragedy ; but of these stores of information, the only remnants we possess are the respectable anonymous compilation, Bios 2o</>o/<:Aeoys, which is prefixed to the chief editions of the poet's works, and is also contained in Westermann's Vitamin Scriptores Graeci Minores, the very brief article of Suidas, and the incidental notices scattered through the works of Plutarch, Athenaeus, and other ancient writers. Of the numerous modern writers who have treated of the life, character, and works of Sophocles, the chief are : — Lessing, whose Leben des SophoMes is a masterpiece of aesthetic disquisition, left unfortunately incomplete ; Schlegel, in his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Criticism, which are now familiar to English readers ; F. Schultz, de Vita SopJioclis, Berol. 1836, 8vo.; Scholl, Sopho-Mes, sein Leben und Wirken, Frankfort, 1842, 8vo., with the elaborate series of reviews by C. F. Hermann, in the Berliner Jahrbucher, 1843: to these must be added the standard works on Greek tragedy by Bb'ckh (Poet. Trag. Graec. Princ.). Welcker (die Griechischen Tragodien), and Kayser (Hist. Grit. Tragicorum Grace.), and also the standard histories of Greek Literature in general, and of Greek Poetry in particular, by MUller, Ulrici, Bode, and Bernhardy.
i. The Life of Sophocles. — Sophocles was a native of the Attic village of Colonus, which lay a little more than a mile to the north-west of Athens, and the scenery and religious associations of which have been described by the poet, in his last and greatest work, in a manner which shows how powerful an influence his birth-place exercised on the whole current of his genius. The date of his birth, according to his anonymous biographer, was in 01. 71. 2, b.c. 495 ; but the Parian Marble places it one year higher, b. c. 496. Most modern writers prefer the former date, on the ground of its more exact agreement with the other passages in which the poet's age is referred to (see Clinton, F. H. s. a.; Mtiller, Hist. Lit. p. 337, Eng. trans.). But those passages, when closely examined, will be found hardly sufficient to determine so nice a point as the difference of a few months. With this remark by way of caution, we place the birth of Sophocles at B. c. 495, five years before the battle of Marathon, so that he was about thirty years younger than Aeschylus, and fifteen years older than Euripides. (The anonymous biographer also mentions these differences, but his numbers are obviously corrupt.)
His father's name was Sophilus, or Sophillus, respecting whose condition in life it is clear from the anonymous biography that the grammarians knew nothing for certain. According to Aristoxe-nus, he was a carpenter or smith ; according to Ister, a swordmaker ; while the biographer refuses to admit either of these statements, except in the sense that Sophilus had slaves who practised one or other of those handicrafts, because, he argues, it is improbable that the son of a common artificer should have been associated in military command with the first men of the state, such as Pericles and Thucydides, and also because, if he had been lowborn, the comic poets would not have failed to attack him on that ground. There is some force in the latter argument.
At all events it is clear that Sophocles received an education not inferior to that of the sons of the
most distinguished citizens of Athens. To both of the two leading branches of Greek education, music and gymnastics, he was carefully trained, in company with the boys of his own age, and in both he gained, the prize of a garland. He was taught music by the celebrated Lamprus ( Vit. Anon.). Of the skill which he had attained in music and dancing in his sixteenth year, and of the perfection of his bodily form, we have conclusive evidence in the fact that, when the Athenians were assembled in solemn festival around the trophy which they had set up in Salamis to celebrate their victory over the fleet of Xerxes, Sophocles was chosen to lead, naked and with lyre in hand, the chorus which danced about the trophy, and sang the songs of triumph, B. c. 480. (Ath. i. p. 20, f. ; Vit. Anon.)
The statement of the anonymous biographer, that Sophocles learnt tragedy from Aeschylus, has been objected to on grounds which are perfectly conclusive, if it be understood as meaning any direct and formal instruction ; but, from the connection in which the words stand, they appear to express nothing more than the simple and obvious fact, that Sophocles, having received the art in the form to which it had been advanced by Aeschylus, made in it other improvements of his own.
His first appearance as a dramatist took place in the year b. c. 468, under peculiarly interesting circumstances ; not only from the fact that Sophocles, at the age of twenty-seven, came forward as the rival of the veteran Aeschylus, whose supremacy had been maintained during an entire generation, but also from the character of the judges. It was, in short, a contest between the new and the old styles of tragic poetry, in which the competitors were the greatest dramatists, with one exception, whoever lived, and the umpires were the first men, in position and education, of a state in which almost every citizen had a nice perception of the beauties of poetry and art. The solemnities of the Great Dionysia were rendered more imposing by the occasion of the return of Cimon from his expedition to Scyros, bringing with him the bones of Theseus. Public expectation was so excited respecting the approaching dramatic contest, and party feeling ran so high, that Apsephion, the Archon Eponymus, whose duty it was to appoint the judges, had not yet ventured to proceed to the final act of drawing the lots for their election, when Cimon, with his nine colleagues in the command, having entered the theatre, and made the customary libations to Dionysus, the Archon detained them at the altar, and administered to them the oath appointed for the judges in the dramatic contests. Their decision was in favour of Sophocles, who received the first prize ; the second only being awarded to Aeschylus, who was so mortified at his defeat that he left Athens and retired to Sicily. (Plut. Cim. 8 ; Mann. Par. 57.) The drama which Sophocles exhibited on this occasion is supposed, from a chronological computation in Pliny (PL N. xviii. 7. s. 12), to have been the Triptolemus, respecting the nature of which there has been much disputation: Welcker, who has discussed the question very fully, supposes that the main subject of the drama was the institution of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the establishment of the worship of Demeter at Athens by Triptolemus.
From this epoch there can be no doubt that Sophocles held the supremacy of the Athenian stage