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Sophocles and the History of the Play

Sophocles (c. 496 BCE to 405 BCE) was one of the most celebrated Greek dramatists of his day, a frequent winner of the annual theatrical competitions held in Athens as celebrations of the god Dionysus. At the time, Greece had a citizen army, with mandatory military service for men, and these festivals were most likely attended by an all-male audience; therefore the plays were performed for soldiers and veterans of the ongoing wars that engaged the Greeks for over 100 years. Born into a wealthy family, Sophocles himself was a warrior and became a general around 441 BCE, serving in the military campaign against Samos. Of the 120+ plays he has known to have written, only seven survive in their entirety, with the most well-known of his work being ANTIGONE and the trilogy featuring Oedipus. Frequent themes in Sophocles plays take on the rightful actions of citizens, divine law versus civilian law, and war and the aftermath of war—and the difficulties of integrating back into society having been a hero.

Here is an introduction by Greg Thalmann, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at University of Southern California:

AJAX, the Play


When Achilles, the great Greek hero, is killed in the Trojan War, his armor is to be presented to another soldier. Ajax, as the greatest of all warriors, expects that the armor will be awarded to him. But the top brass give Achilles’ sword and shield to Odysseus instead. Ajax, deeply wounded by this slight, plots revenge against the other Greeks, but Athena intervenes to protect Odysseus, her favorite. She causes Ajax to fall into a hallucinatory state where he believes that a flock of cattle and sheep—the Greeks’ spoils from victory over the Trojans—is in fact the Greek army. He brutally slaughters half of the animals and brings the rest of them back to his encampment where he intends to slowly torture them and kill them in vengeance. As Ajax comes out of his deluded state and starts to realize what he has done, his wife Tecmessa fears that he will harm himself or someone else out of desperation. How will he survive the humiliation of going from celebrated war hero to the murderer of sheep? As Ajax comes to terms with what he has done, he plots to kill himself—for there is no other honorable choice as far as he is concerned. The play deals with justice and injustice, the ideas of heroism, and calls to mind PTSD and the mental difficulties of returning from battle into a community that may not appreciate the sacrifices that have been made.

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The Hero’s Homecoming

The Hero’s Homecoming


Over and over in the Greek tragedies, the dramatists attempt to come to terms with the impossibility of returning from combat intact. How does a human being go from the rules of war to the policies of peace time? How is killing in one situation viewed as an act of bravery when in another setting it is simply brutal murder? How does a person who has experienced war begin to explain their experience to those who have not? How does a person behave heroically—and what happens when honor is lost? What damage does combat cause to the human spirit? These themes from the ancient plays resonate with veterans and their families and communities today. AJAX – AN INTERACTIVE EXPLORATION is an attempt to use the literature of the past to enlighten the community of the present.

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