by Andrew Aulner, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The next of the three great tragedians to be born was Sophocles, who, like Aeschylus before him, served in the Greek military. Sophocles was a general during the war against the island of Samos and later lived through the Peloponnesian War. Both of these events exposed Sophocles to the realities of human suffering, as well as to both the successes and the shortcomings of even the greatest of leaders.
Sophocles served as a general alongside Pericles in 441/0 BC during the Samian revolt, likely serving aboard a small squadron of ships sent to collect reinforcements off of the islands of Chios and Lesbos during naval operations against Samos. According to Woodbury, despite the fact that “Sophocles had no especial political or military claims beyond those of any other member of his class”, the playwright nevertheless “was certainly prominent in the earlier campaign” against Samos. Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles was more valued as a playwright than as a soldier, though he was still respected for his public service.
There is no question that Sophocles was influenced by his roles as both a participant in and a viewer of the effects of war. Martial violence and leadership are both expressed in the playwright’s examinations of survival and human nature in the face of death and suffering. As Tritle explains, “From Sophocles we hear the bitter and plaintive cries of Philoctetes, the wounded survivor of violence, while from Oedipus come cries of another kind as well as lessons on leadership and knowledge”. Sophocles’ protagonists are written with a keen awareness of deep suffering and pain.
As a military veteran and a witness to a war that lasted decades and claimed thousands of lives, Sophocles was constantly reminded of man’s mortality. According to Sommerstein, “the power of the dead over the living is an idea that perpetually haunts Sophocles”; in his works, there is a “recurring motif…of the dead destroying the living”, which is unsurprising for a man who fought in and lived through warfare for most of his life. An example of this motif is found in Oedipus Rex, in which the titular protagonist is consumed with uncovering the truth of King Laius’s murder, only to be undone after learning the truth behind his own previously unknown role in the killing. This concern with death is made even stronger when considering the possibility that, as postulated by Tritle, Oedipus Rex may have been composed shortly after the death of Pericles near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. In his most famous play, Sophocles theatrically explores the issues of a plague-ravaged city and a fallen ruler, the very things that his home of Athens was undergoing in contemporary history; the playwright ultimately concludes that such things happen, as Tirtle puts it, “because we are humans, and suffering is the nature of the human condition”, a conclusion reached after Sophocles had faced the ever-present reality of death in wartime.
In addition to his fixation with the influence of the dead upon those yet alive, Sophocles also examines, in Sommerstein’s words, “the responsibilities of leaders, military and political, to those whom they lead…the tendency in Sophocles is rather to emphasize the dependence of the community on their leader’s guidance and protection,” . This stands in contrast to Aeschylus’ juxtaposition of the virtuous democrats and the selfish leader, as evidenced in Orestes’ legal triumph over the usurpers in Eumenides. This difference in literary approaches to leadership may be due to the fact that Aeschylus was a foot soldier, while Sophocles was an elected general. Each man brings a different perspective to the issue of leadership thanks to his own unique military experience.
However, this is not to say that Sophocles necessarily had an idealized view of leadership. Tritle notes the possibility within the historical record that Sophocles chafed under Pericles’s leadership during his time spent as a general; Tritle also states that Antigone, which was written while Pericles was still alive, may be interpreted as a subversive commentary “on Pericles, his leadership of Athens, and his harsh suppression of Samos”. Furthermore, Sophocles’ high valuation of a community’s dependence on its leaders does not automatically imply a disregard for the plight of the common person. Antigone, the very same play that may subtly criticize the ruler Pericles through its antagonist Creon, is also a celebration of a strong, morally superior female protagonist; Hanson theorizes that this depiction was influenced by the role of real-life “stalwart women in Athenian society” whom Sophocles observed during the wars of the mid-fifth century. Thus, while Sophocles highlights the importance of leadership, particularly during times of strife, he also presents a nuanced view of governance that allows for a leader’s failings as well as the importance of community members outside of official leadership roles.