Sophocles is considered one of the foremost Greek tragic playwrights of the heyday of Athenian tragedy in the 5th c. BCE. Of the more than 120 plays he is said to have written, seven have survived, including Oedipus the King, Antigone, Ajax, and Electra. The original version of this statue was in bronze and may have been set up in the Theater of Dionysus at Athens in the 340s BCE by the statesman Lykourgos. In 1839 the Roman copy known as the Lateran Sophocles was uncovered in Terracina, Italy, and immediately gifted to Pope Gregory XVI, who displayed it at the Lateran Palace in Rome. It is from this setting that the sculpture was dubbed the Lateran Sophocles, despite its later removal to the Vatican Museums.
Purchased in late 1894, the cast of the Lateran Sophocles was one of the first three casts that Battle acquired for the University. At this time, the sculpted drapery tightly swathing his body and arms was understood as symbolic of the qualities of self-control Sophocles conveyed through the characters in his plays, and the sculpture was used in European contexts to represent the ideal citizen (though it is possible this meaning was deliberately constructed to explain its display by a pope). Through his acquisition of the cast of the Lateran Sophocles, Battle connected UT and Texas to this context of elevated respectability. This cast also reflected Battle's belief that Greek literature could elevate the minds of his students in the same way that Greek sculpture could elevate their aesthetic sense.
At UT, the cast of the Lateran Sophocles has experienced cyclical popularity reflected in its display contexts at different moments. When the new Main Building opened in 1937, it was installed on the second floor as one of four casts flanking the doorways to the twin reading rooms of the library. The cast of the Lateran Sophocles was then removed to storage at the Little Campus in 1951, and subsequently to the Pickle Research Campus by 1972/3 after having been lent to another institution for display during the summer of 1972. Interestingly, the cast does not appear in the 1976 conservation survey and is likely one of the ten casts considered “missing” or “lost” at the time. The Lateran Sophocles was recovered sometime before 1980, when it went on display for the opening of the Huntington Art Gallery on campus. Having joined the Blanton collection in the early 2000s, the cast now resides in storage at the museum.