Sophocles' Oedipus and Athens
Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos was produced in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, likely in the mid-420s, and represented the famous Athenian playwright's own take on the then-popular myth of the Theban king Oedipus and his unintentional parricide and incestuous marriage with his own mother, fulfilling the very prophecy he was trying to avoid.1 Thse play contains characters, references, and details that to a significant extent reflect contemporary imperial Athens and its customs. The character of king Oedipus himself can largely be read as an analogy to the habits and tendencies of the Athenians as well as to public life in their commonwealth.2 Apart from the depiction of the plague, the play also contains parallels to the nature of the Athenian empire in general and the Mytilenean debate in particular.3
In the first place, the most striking reference to recent Athenian experience is Sophocles' portrayal of the plague at Thebes, a similar disease having ravaged Athens beginning in 430.4 In Oedipus Tyrannos, the plague is first described by the priest (25-30) and elaborated upon by the chorus (168-201). It is in the latter section that a remarkable parallel to Thucydides' description of the plague at Athens can be found. The chorus tells us: ''In the unnumbered deaths / of its people the city dies; / the children that are born lie dead on the naked earth / unpitied, spreading contagion of death; and grey-haired mothers / and wives / everywhere stand at the altar's edge, suppliant, moaning / the hymn to the healing god rings out, but with it the wailing / voices are blended.'' (17987) This image of bodies piling up on the ''naked earth'' is similar to Thucydides' account of ''men dying like sheep'' and ''bodies of dying men [lying] one upon another,'' while Sophocles' depiction of mothers and wives moaning at the altar's edge resembles Thucydides' assertion that the ''sacred places . . . were full of corpses of persons that had died there.''5 Significantly, the corpses' being unpitied brings to mind Thucydides' observation that the Athenians as a result of the plague ''became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane,'' while his curious remark that the birds and beasts of prey stayed away from infected corpses and that ''birds of this kind actually disappeared'' finds a corresponding phenomenon in Sophocles' play: ''You may see [women and children] one with another, like birds swift on the wing / quicker than fire unmastered / speeding away to the coast of the Western god.''6 (175-7, emphasis mine.) Finally, the priest tells Oedipus that ''the house of Cadmus / is emptied of its people,'' (28-9) while Thucydides observed that ''many houses were emptied of their inmates.''7
Moreover, the character of the Athenians is reflected in the character of Sophocles' Oedipus. The Corinthians in Thucydides' history might as well have had in mind the restless and inquisitive Oedipus when they portrayed the Athenians as ''adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment,'' and asserted that: ''To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.''8 Like the notoriously capricious and litigious Athenians, Oedipus ''look[s] at every rumor'' (291) and is described by his wife (and mother) Jocasta thus: ''For Oedipus excites himself too much / with all kinds of worries, not conjecturing, / like a man of sense, what will be from what was, / but he is always at the speaker's mercy, / when he speaks terrors.'' (914-8.) In a time of blossoming sophistry and speech-writing, the emphasis on being ''at the speaker's mercy'' especially must have reminded the Athenian audience of themselves. As Bernard Knox concludes: ''A constant will to action, grounded in experience, inspired by courage, expressing itself in speed and impatience but informed by intelligent reflection, endowed with the self-confidence, optimism, and versatility of the brilliant amateur, and marred by oversuspicion and occasional outbursts of demonic anger—this is the character of Athens and Oedipus alike.''9
Remarkable parallels can also be found in Sophocles' play with respect to the Athenian empire.10 Oedipus insists that he gained power over his subjects by their voluntary choice, his ''office'' having been ''given me by the city, not sought by me,'' (383-4) while the Athenians justify their empire to the Spartans by asserting that they acquired it ''because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command'' after the defeat of the Persians.11 Indeed, the Persian Wars can be seen as analogous to Oedipus' defeat of the Sphinx and his subsequent assumption of power at Thebes. The Athenians believed that they ''have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede,'' and that ''at [the battle of] Marathon we were in the forefront of danger and faced the barbarian by ourselves.''12 Likewise, Oedipus is addressed—and praised—by the chorus in the following way: ''Inasmuch as you shot your bolt / beyond the others and won the prize / of happiness complete— / O Zeus—and killed and reduced to naught the hooked taloned maid of the riddling speech, / standing a tower against death for my land; / hence you are called my kind and hence / have been honored the highest of all / honors; and hence you ruled / in the great city of Thebes.'' (1198-1203.) Chastising the prophet Teiresias for his inaction against the Sphinx, Oedipus proudly proclaims ''I came, / Oedipus, who knew nothing, and I stopped her. / I solved the riddle by my wit alone.'' (396-8).
More similarities can be seen in the juxtaposition of Oedipus' accusation of Creon and the offensive Athenian reaction to the rebellion at Mytilene. This reaction is reflected in Oedipus' assertion that ''When he that plots against me secretly / moves quickly, I must quickly counterplot / If I wait taking no decisive measure / his business will be done, and mine be spoiled.'' (618-21.) Creon in his reply almost seems to be talking about the Delian League: ''I too have some share / in the city; it is not yours alone,'' (630-1) while Oedipus finds Creon to be ''plotting / with evil tricks against my person.'' (642-3.) Like all members of the Delian League, the Mytileneans had sworn an oath to have the same friends and enemies as the Athenians13 and, though their rebellion was no small thing, the Athenians' attitude toward it could have been moderated by what the chorus tells Oedipus about Creon: ''He has been your friend, he has sworn an oath; do not cast him / away dishonored on an obscure conjecture.'' (656-7). Just like the Athenians—who eventually decide to spare the people of Mytilene14 —Oedipus is persuaded to adopt a milder approach toward Creon's alleged ''rebellion,'' and the latter, in a fitting assessment of the character of both Oedipus and Athens, asserts, ''you're dangerous / when you are out of temper; natures like yours / are justly hardest for themselves to bear.'' (673-5).
All in all, Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos contains a variety of elements best understood in the context of fifth-century Athens. In fact, it can be read as a commentary on and incarnation of the city that gave the playwright the possibility and opportunity to become a lasting voice in an entire civilization, reverberating through the centuries and still present with us today. Unlike Thucydides, Sophocles might not have intended his work to be a ''possession for all time,''15 but his take on the Oedipus myth became one of the main ingredients of the Western canon; only in its relation to Athenian culture and character can it be fully appreciated.
1 On the dating of the play, see David Grene, Richmond Lattimore, Mark Griffith, and Glenn W. Most, eds.,
Sophocles I, 3rd ed., from The Complete Greek Tragedies series, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013), 9f. All quotes from the play are taken from this edition.
2 A comprehensive case is made in Bernard M. W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), 53-106.
3 This of course requires the assumption that the play was first staged after the events at Mytilene and the corresponding Athenian deliberations at home.
4 Thuc. 2.47.3ff.
5 Thuc. 2.51.4, 2.52.2, and 2.52.3, respectively. All translations from Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Free Press 2008).
6 Ibid., 2.52.3, and 2.50.1f, respectively.
7 Ibid., 2.51.5. It should also be noted that the chorus' concern with rotting ships at 169 is exceedingly strange given the landlocked nature of Thebes and thereby serves as another indicator of what one might call the athenocentrism of the play. For the role of ships in the play, see Knox (like note 2), 63.
8 Thuc. 1.70.3, and 1.70.9. Cf. also Knox, 67f.
9 77. Knox provides a multitude of examples; in this paper, however, I try to stick to my own observations.
10 Oedipus also shares many common traits with Pericles, who was extraordinarily influential in forming imperial policy in Athens, cf. Knox, 63f.
11 Thuc. 1.75.2.
12 Ibid., 5.89, and 1.73.4.
13 Plut., Aristides, 25.
14 Thuc. 3.49.1.
15 Ibid. 1.22.4.