July 5, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein
Sophocles the politician
Sophocles was arguably the greatest, and certainly in his own time the most popular, of Greek tragic dramatists. He was also, in his later years, a prominent figure in Athenian public life, and one whose relationship to Athens’ democratic political system was curiously equivocal. He was more than once chosen by popular vote for the city’s most important elective offices. But in his early career he had been a protégé of Cimon, the opponent of radical democracy and advocate of friendship with oligarchic, authoritarian Sparta; and Cimon’s great antagonist, Pericles, seems to have seen Sophocles as someone who was politically on the other side, and spoken (unsuccessfully) against his election as one of Athens’ ten chief military commanders. A contemporary anecdote, told by Ion of Chios (another dramatist-cum-politician), has Sophocles at a party employing an ingenious ruse to steal a kiss from a handsome young (male) wine-waiter, and then saying to his fellow-diners: “I’m practising generalship, gentlemen, since Pericles says I know how to write poetry but not how to be a general. Hasn’t this stratagem of mine been successful?”
In his plays, so far as our evidence goes, Sophocles’ favoured model of political activity was that of the strong leader who guides his people but does not coerce them, and who listens to their opinion even if he does not necessarily follow it. Neither leader nor people can succeed alone:
“The small without the great are no secure defence of a city’s wall: the weak will be best kept safe with the aid of the strong, and the great by lesser men – but it is impossible to make a stupid person understand these principles, until it is too late” (Ajax 158-163).
The Sophoclean leader is expected to know the answers: when he is reduced to asking his followers for advice without having any suggestion to make himself, it is a sign of failure. This happens to Creon in Antigone when he has received terrifying warnings from the prophet Teiresias, and it happens to the very young Neoptolemus in Philoctetes when he is unable to decide whether or not to give Philoctetes back his bow (later he will find the moral strength to do this entirely on his own initiative). On the other hand, he must not behave like an irresponsible autocrat, as Creon had done earlier in Antigone when he declared that commands by those in authority must be obeyed “be they small or great, just or unjust”, and when, on being presented with evidence that the public were opposed to his sentence of death on Antigone, he snapped back “Am I to rule this land for others, or for myself?”
Sophocles faced the hardest decision – perhaps the only really hard decision – of his political career when he was something like eighty-four years old. After the destruction of an Athenian army and fleet in Sicily, he had been elected, along with other elder statesmen, to a special board of officials (the probouloi) with some sort of advisory and supervisory responsibilities; and about a year and a half later, in 411 BC, this board had some kind of role in the process which led to an intimidated popular assembly handing over all its powers to a new council of four hundred. Sophocles went along with this decision, and some eighty years later Aristotle reported a dialogue between him and … well, Aristotle says it was Peisander, one of the leaders of the Four Hundred, but that can hardly be right:
“Sophocles, did you agree with the view of the other probouloi that power should be given to the Four Hundred?” “Yes.” “Well, didn’t you think that that was a very bad thing to do?” “I did.” “And yet you did this very bad thing?” “Yes, because there was no alternative that was any better.”
The rule of the Four Hundred was an utter failure. Within four months they were overthrown by a popular revolt, and power passed first to a broader oligarchy based on a modest property qualification, and then, a few months later, back to the whole citizen body. Many members and supporters of the Four Hundred were deprived of their rights as citizens, some going into exile. Probably just before the next major event in the calendar of tragic drama – the City Dionysia of 409 – the whole Athenian people, each of its 139 local communities (demes) in turn, took an oath, not only that they would never tolerate another overthrow of democracy, but that they would kill anyone who attempted such a move, kill him “by word and by deed and by vote and by my own hand if I am able”. The tragic competition took place a few days later. And the first prize went to Sophocles.