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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on the gold plated names etched in the base of the dome. These are the names of eight Greek and Roman philosophers and poets that lived in the ancient world, whose works are still read today. This week the focus is on Sophocles. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Title page of Sophoclis Tragœdiæ septem : cum versione Latina, notis, et deperditorum dramatum fragmentis

Sophoclis Tragœdiæ septem : cum versione Latina, notis, et deperditorum dramatum fragmentis 1812 [Ref. PA4413.A2 SOP]


Sophocles was one of the three most famous playwrights of Ancient Greece. He excelled in writing tragedies; the plays were solemn and dealt with terrible events.


Sophocles was born at Colonus, in the part of Greece called Attica. The only information we can glean about his life is from a short anonymous account of unknown date, prefixed to most of the Sophocles manuscripts, which is a mixture of fact, hypothesis and gossip.

As a child Sophocles had been a chief dancer in the festivities to celebrate victory over the Persians in 479 BCE. His father gave his son a good education: his master in music was Lamprus, the most distinguished musician of the day. Through his music he studied tragedy – which probably included musical composition and choreography under Aeschylus. Early in his career he acted in his own plays but due to a weak voice, he took up the role of a writer.

At the age of 27 he had won first prize in a competition for plays in Athens, and after this he went on to be placed first on twenty separate occasions. Although he wrote well over a hundred plays, only seven completed plays have survived today. The best loved and well known are Oedipus Rex, about the dreadful fate that overtook King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.


Besides his writing his other main interest was being an active member of the polis (the city state community). As a member, his role was that of state treasurer between 443-442 BCE. By this time, he had joined the army as a general under the Athenian statesman Pericles. In 441 alongside Pericles, he went into battle on the island of Samos, crushing an uprising. In 413 BCE he sat on the probouli, the ten-man council, which dealt with the crisis of Athens’ failed Sicilian expedition against Syracuse.


Sophocles died during the winter 406/5 BCE at the age of ninety or ninety-one. He had lived throughout many changes, the Greek victory in the Persian wars and the defeat of the Peloponnesian war. Here again, like all great men in ancient classical antiquity there are stories that surrounding his death that have come to light. It has been suggested that he died from the strain of trying to recite a long sentence on one breath without a pause. Another myth of the death of Sophocles was that he choked on a grape. Or did he die in happiness after winning his final victory at the City of Dionysis? The list goes on. Sophocles was a pious man, and a priest in the cult of Halon. After his death he himself was honoured with a cult and was given the name Dexion.


Sophocles' style of writing has set the standard of how Greek tragedy and comedy masterpieces should be written. The way that Sophocles wrote his plays demonstrated that every speech and action leads up to a climax, thus the audience is kept in suspense throughout. The choruses' lines spoken by actors are some of the most beautiful of all Greek poetry. His plays provoked discussion and reaction in other fields, notably psychology.

In our collection:

Sophoclis Tragœdiæ septem : cum versione Latina, notis, et deperditorum dramatum fragmentis

Every Friday our Special Collections' librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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