Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge

By Charles Segal | Go to book overview

2
Historical and Cultural Background

PERICLEAN ATHENS AND THE FIFTH-CENTURY ENLIGHTENMENT

Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus during a period of both extraordinary intellectual and artistic energy and crisis. Under its astute and ambitious statesman, Pericles, Athens became the most powerful city-state (or polis) in Greece, and by 440 B.C.E. it was the acknowledged leader in almost every area of cultural activity and a center for philosophy, literature, architecture, sculpture, and painting at a level that is comparable to fifteenth-century Florence or seventeenthcentury Paris.

Why such an outburst of creativity at this time and place? One can only guess at some contributing factors. At the very beginning of the century, Athens developed a stable democratic constitution. It gained both power and confidence from defeating the invading forces of the Persian Empire's attempt at westward expansion, first on land at Marathon (490), then at sea at Salamis (480). In this conflict (known as the Persian Wars), it built up a powerful navy, which gradually developed into a maritime empire that exacted tribute from the island and coastal cities of the eastern Aegean in return for protection against Persia. There are also more elusive factors, such as the native energy and initiative of the people, which the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides contrasts with the conservative and slower temperament of Athens’ great rival, the land-based citystate of Sparta.1 Of no small importance too was the gifted leadership of Pericles, a man of wealthy and aristocratic origins who early in his career joined the democratic faction and guided Athens toward Hellenic leadership with a grand, if sometimes ruthless, vision of its cultural and political supremacy.

Pericles was and is controversial—cold, aloof, ambitious, but intensely patriotic. He sponsored the elaborate rebuilding of the Acropolis, which had been burned by the invading Persians in 480. The Periclean Acropolis contained the magnificent new temple of Athena known as the Parthenon, a grandiose entrance known as the Propylaea, and two other smaller temples completed after his death, the complex but graceful Erechtheum, with its famous caryatids (tall female figures who replace the columns in the south colonnade), and the ex-

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