(c. 496 - 406 BCE)

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Roman copy (perhaps first century A.D.) of a fourth-century B.C. Greek original.


Sophocles (ca. 496-406 B.C.), the famous Greek playwright, is said to have authored more than 120 plays. The seven that have survived (Ajax, Antigone, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes) are an amazing legacy which still possesses vitality and relevance almost 2500 years after their creation. Ancient literary accounts provide little information about Sophocles' physical appearance. We learn that he was handsome enough to be selected to lead the paean after the victory at Salamis in 479 B.C. when he was about sixteen years old. He lived to be ninety, an extraordinary feat in antiquity, and his epitaph again suggests something of his handsomeness: "I hold in this tomb Sophocles, beautiful to behold, first in the writing of tragedies."

Ancient authors also mention some portraits of Sophocles. One, a painting by Polygnotus in the Athenian Stoa Poikile, showed the author playing a kithara in the company of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy. This would have been painted while Sophocles was alive, but it is not clear that he actually sat for Polygnotus. We also learn of at least two posthumous portraits: one was set up by his son, Iophon, presumably ca. 400 B.C.; the second was part of a group of bronzes commemorating famous playwrights that was commissioned by Lycurgus in 340-336 B.C. to decorate the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. None of these original portraits survives.

From this information it would be impossible to identify a specific portrait, however handsome, as one of Sophocles. Fortunately, three Roman portraits survive that are identified by inscription as Sophocles. From this evidence scholars have been able to assemble (on the basis of similar appearance) a series of uninscribed portraits and have postulated the existence of two basic Sophocles types. Type 1, the so-called "Farnese Type," survives in at least thirty-two examples. Type II, the "Lateran Type," is represented by at least eleven extant pieces. All of these are Roman copies produced with the aid of a "pointing device,"originally a Hellenistic invention which was used to copy precisely an original statue. Type I Sophocles wears a fillet about his head and appears older than Type II; there are also differences in the treatment of the eyebrows, beard and hair.1

In addition to these two certain Sophocles types, there is another which may depict Sophocles. Type III Sophocles is represented by nine examples plus the Riley head. None of the extant versions bear inscriptional proof of identity but, because they appear to represent the same man shown by Types I and II, this type also may be the great tragedian. The Riley head is especially close to the examples in Copenhagen,2 Berlin3 and London.4 All share the same distinctive hairstyle with an almost exact correspondence of specific locks of hair.

Most scholars agree that Type III reproduces the oldest Greek original, ca. 380-30 B.C. Type II may go back to the Lycurgan bronzes, ca. 340 B.C. Type I is perhaps the latest, ca. 310 B.C. It has also been suggested that Silanion, the sculptor connected with the portrait of Plato (fig. 8), may also have been responsible for the original of Type III, but this is highly speculative.




1. For more on the subject, see G. M. A. Richter, Portraits of the Greeks (London 1965) 124-33 and the abridged and revised version by R. R. R. Smith (Oxford 1984) 205-209; P. E. Arias, s.v. "Sofocle," EAA 7 (Rome 1966) 388-89.

2. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 2022: Richter, figs. 693-95.

3. Staatliche Museen 4296: Richter, figs. 690-91.

4. British Museum 1832: Richter, figs. 705-707.


Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The Tom and Nan Riley Collection, formerly in an English private collection. Copyright © 1997 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Photos by C. Randall Tosh, copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Text from Richard Daniel De Puma. Roman Portraits. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa, 1988. Copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.


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