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The Role of the Vita Sophoclis in Shaping Sophocles’s Ancient Reception

Clinton Douglas Kinkade

Duke University

In this talk, I argue that the author of the Life of Sophocles decouples him from his tragic contemporaries as part of an overall strategy of distinguishing Sophocles as an incomparable tragedian. As evidence, I use Sophocles’s Life and the broader tradition of Greek Lives, especially Euripides’s and Aeschylus’s, where the biographers depict Sophocles’s success as dependent on those two poets. This biographer’s anomalous choice to isolate Sophocles in this way highlights the comparison of him to Homer at the end of the Life as another element in this campaign of raising Sophocles within the canon.

Scholarship on the Lives of the Greek poets has recently moved beyond discussing the development of the genre (Momigliano 1993) or the creative falsehoods it uses (Lefkowitz 2012) and shifted towards the agendas of the biographers themselves (Irwin 2006, Hanink 2016). While these scholars remind us that the biographers shaped their authors’ reputations while they transmitted them, little has been done along these lines for Sophocles’s Life itself. Other scholars (Villari 2001, Schein 2012) have investigated the connection between Sophocles and Homer, but they have been more concerned with finding the Homeric quality of his poetry rather than the function of this comparison is in the Life. I argue that this comparison of Sophocles to Homer is not a happenstance element within the biography but rather aligns with a strategy found elsewhere in the Life to elevate Sophocles and depict him as positively as possible.

I show that the Life of Sophocles describes him in a variety of ways that depart from general biographical practice found in the other Lives. For example, The Life of Sophocles, unlike others, avoids any mention of negative or even humanizing anecdotes in Sophocles’s life or career (such as the defeat of Oedipus Tyrannus, his failure to win a chorus, or his numerous amatory escapades) in favor of purely positive ones. Moreover, it avoids any significant mention of Sophocles’s contemporaries, even though such interactions are a staple of the Greek Lives. The biographies of both Aeschylus and Euripides include Sophocles at critical moments, explaining that Sophocles’s success was to some extent contingent upon the efforts (or faults) of Aeschylus or Euripides. Sophocles’s Life, however, avoids discussing them almost entirely, making Sophocles appear to be literally peerless.

Considering these strategies of praise and isolation, the comparison with Homer now seems like a fitting capstone to the biographer’s argument, highlighting Sophocles’s position as the best tragedian by showing him drawing upon the very best source. Given that the Life is among the earliest source for the comparison between these two poets, we may even consider this feature to be an innovation, or at least a popularization, of the biographer. This analysis of the Life allows us to understand the role this biographer had in cementing Sophocles’s status for later centuries as one of the foremost Greek poets.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Scholarship

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