Did Sophocles Become Incompetent As An Old Man?

Sophocles. Cast of a bust in the Pushkin Museum. CC BY-SA 3.0. Uploaded by Shakko
Sophocles. Cast of a bust in the Pushkin Museum. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Uploaded by Shakko

How would it work today? An old man devotes his time now as always to pursuit of his craft, but his other affairs need some work. Maybe he hasn’t been filing his tax returns or paying his parking tickets. Maybe his investments have gone downhill and his family wants power of attorney to straighten out his estate. How would the old man prove that he didn’t need them to take over?  In Classical Athens, Sophocles faced criticism from his sons, which turned into a legal battle. His children wanted him declared incompetent, but they lost. Sophocles proved he was in full possession of his senses to the court precisely because he was spending all his time on his finely tuned craft.

Here is what Cicero has to say on the matter, in his work on old age, De Senectute:

Old men retain their intellects well enough, if only they keep their minds active and fully employed. Nor is that the case only with men of high position and great office: it applies equally to private life and peaceful pursuits. Sophocles composed tragedies to extreme old age; and being believed to neglect the care of his property owing to his devotion to his art, his sons brought him into court to get a judicial decision depriving him of the management of his property on the ground of weak intellect – just as in our law it is customary to deprive a paterfamilias of the management of his property if he is squandering it. Thereupon the old poet is said to have read to the judges the play he had on hand and had just composed – the Oedipus Coloneus – and to have asked them whether they thought that the work of a man of weak intellect. After the reading he was acquitted by the jury. 22. Quid iuris consulti, quid pontifices, quid augures, quid philosophi senes, quam multa meminerunt! Manent ingenia senibus, modo permaneat studium et industria, neque ea solum in claris et honoratis viris, sed in vita etiam privata et quieta. Sophocles ad summam senectutem tragoedias fecit; quod propter studium cum rem neglegere familiarem videretur, a filiis in iudicium vocatus est, ut, quem ad modum nostro more male rem gerentibus patribus bonis interdici solet, sic illum quasi desipientem a re familiari removerent iudices. Tum senex dicitur eam fabulam, quam in manibus habebat et proxime scripserat, Oedipum Coloneum, recitasse iudicibus quaesisseque, num illud carmen desipientis videretur. Quo recitato sententiis iudicum est liberatus.


Ancient History Sourcebook: Cicero Old Age, c. 65 BCE.

Based on my page at Ancient/Classical History: http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_sophoclestrial.htm

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