Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles


Sophocles was born in the town of Colonus near Athens sometime between 497-495 BC, but the exact date is not known for sure. He lived to a remarkable old age and died in 406 BC just before the power of Athens was destroyed by the Peloponnesian War. Together with Aeschylus and Euripides he is considered as one of the great three playwrights of Greece during the Classical Period.

Although little is known about his early age, Sophocles supposedly had lived a very happy and lucky childhood. As far as we know his father Sophillus was a rich man from a noble family who owned a knives factory. Like all sons of upper class families Sophocles thus received the usual manifold education, which covered physical military training, the arts and sciences as well as teaching in law, finance and government. He is furthermore thought to have been extremely handsome and at the age of fifteen he had the honour to be chosen for his good looks to take part in the celebration of the victory at Salamis.

Having lived through most of the 5th century Sophocles saw the Persians' invasion of Greece and their defeat, Athens at its height of power under the rule of Pericles and the long war with Sparta, which started in 431 BC and ended just after his death in 404 BC. Despite his career as a dramatist Sophocles also took part in public political life. Not only did he hold the high office of "strategus" at the time of the Samian war (441-439 BC) but he was also one of the Ten Commissioners appointed in the hour of crisis after the Sicilian expedition.

Unfortunately we cannot date the creation (nor the production) of several of Sophocles' plays nor can we arrange them with any certainty in a chronological order on evidence of a logical development in form and content. It is estimated that Sophocles wrote 123 tragedies in all during his lifetime. Today the majority of them are lost and there are only 7 complete tragedies left for us to read. Among the rest of his plays there are only few fragments left such as Triptolemus, Thamyras, Nausicaa, Telephia and Tereus. The Ajax and Antigone are generally thought to be the two earliest surviving plays. There is evidence to date the latter at about 442 BC, while Ajax is generally placed somewhat earlier (for reasons of style). The Oedipus Tyrannus (also called Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King) and Electra can probably be placed between the early and middle years of the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 BC. About the date of the Women of Trachis scholars are much in dispute but it is suggested that it was written at about 438 BC. As far as we know Philoctetes was produced in 409 BC and Oedipus at Colonus is known to have been produced posthumously, and was thus presumably written last.

His dramatic career started in 468 BC when he competed at the Dionysia for the first time and immediately won the first prize with the Triptolemus even thought Aeschylus was his favoured opponent. This Athenian festival, which lasted for a couple of days, was held annually in honour of Dionysus and was the biggest drama competition throughout Greece. All together Sophocles won eighteen awards. Surprisingly one of his defeats in the drama competition is said to have occurred the year when he presented Oedipus Rex. However, Sophocles is said to have introduced several technical innovations, including the introduction of scene painting and the use of scenes involving three speaking parts.