Trial of Socrates

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The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt of two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state; the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”.

The death sentence of Socrates was the legal consequence of asking politico-philosophic questions of his students, from which resulted the two accusations of moral corruption and of impiety. At trial, the majority of the dikasts (male-citizen jurors chosen by lot) voted to convict him of the two charges; then, consistent with common legal practice, voted to determine his punishment, and agreed to a sentence of death to be executed by Socrates’s drinking a poisonous beverage of hemlock.

Primary-source accounts of the trial and execution of Socrates are the Apology of Socrates by Plato and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens, who had been his student; contemporary interpretations include The Trial of Socrates (1988) by the journalist I. F. Stone, and Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009) by the Classics scholar Robin Waterfield.[1]


Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Before the philosopher Socrates was tried for moral corruption and impiety, the citizens of Athens knew him as an intellectual and moral gadfly of their society. In the comic play, The Clouds (423 BC), Aristophanes represents Socrates as a sophistic philosopher who teaches the young man Pheidippides how to formulate arguments that justify striking and beating his father. Despite Socrates’s denying relation with the Sophists, the playwright indicates that Athenians associated the philosophic teachings of Socrates with Sophism. As philosophers, the Sophists were men of ambiguous reputation, “they were a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”[2]

Besides The Clouds, the comic play The Wasps (422 BC) also depicts inter-generational conflict, between an older man and a young man, these representations of inter-generational social conflict among the men of Athens, especially in the decade from 425 to 415 BC, in their opposition to or support of the Athenian invasion of Sicily.[3] Many Athenians blamed the teachings of the Sophists and of Socrates for instilling the younger generation with a morally nihilistic, disrespectful attitude towards their society.

Socrates left no written works, but his student and friend, Plato, wrote Socratic dialogues, featuring Socrates as the protagonist. As a teacher, competitor intellectuals resented Socrates’s elenctic examination method for intellectual enquiry, because its questions threatened their credibility as men of wisdom and virtue.[4]

One will sometimes find the claim that Socrates described himself as the "gadfly" of Athens which, like a sluggish horse, needed to be aroused by his "stinging".[5] It should be pointed out, however, that in the Greek text of his defense given by Plato, Socrates never actually uses that term (viz., "gadfly" [Grk., oîstros])[6] to describe himself. Rather, his reference is merely allusive, as he (literally) says only that he has attached himself to the City (proskeimenon tē polei)[7] in order to sting it.[8] Nevertheless, he does make the bold claim that he is a god's gift to the Athenians.[9]

Socrates' elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens.[10]

Another possible source of resentment were the political views that he and his associates were thought to have embraced. Critias, who appears in two of Plato's Socratic dialogues, was a leader of the Thirty Tyrants (the ruthless oligarchic regime that ruled Athens for eight months in 404–403 BC), but there is also a record of their falling out.[11]

As with many of the issues surrounding Socrates’ conviction, the nature of his affiliation with the Thirty Tyrants is far from straightforward. During the reign of the Thirty, many prominent Athenians who were opposed to the new government left Athens. Robin Waterfield asserts that “Socrates would have been welcome in oligarchic Thebes, where he had close associates among the Pythagoreans who flourished there, and which had already taken in other exiles.”[3]:183 Given the availability of a hospitable host outside of Athens, Socrates, at least in a limited way, chose to remain in Athens. Thus, Waterfield suggests, Socrates’ contemporaries probably thought his remaining in Athens, even without participating in the Thirty’s bloodthirsty schemes, demonstrated his sympathy for the Thirty’s cause, not neutrality towards it. This is proved, Waterfield argues, by the fact that after the Thirty were no longer in power, anyone who had remained in Athens during their rule was encouraged to move to Eleusis, the new home of the expatriate Thirty.[3] Socrates did oppose the will of the Thirty on a few specific occasions. Plato’s Apology has the character of Socrates describe one such instance. He says that the Thirty ordered him, along with four other men, to fetch a man named Leon from Salamis so that the Thirty could execute him. Socrates simply did not answer this order, while the other four men did go to Salamis to get Leon.[12]

Alcibiades, a controversial figure in Athens, was Socrates’ messmate during the siege of Potidaea (433–429 BC). Socrates remained Alcibiades' close friend, admirer, and mentor for about five or six years.[3] Known for his flamboyant and audacious behavior, Alcibiades had a volatile relationship with the city of Athens. During his career, Alcibiades famously defected to Sparta after being accused in the defamation of the Mysteries, regained his political prominence in Athens, and was eventually driven out of Athens yet again. Some contempt for Socrates may have stemmed from his relationship with Alcibiades.[citation needed]

Moreover, according to the portraits left by some of Socrates' followers, Socrates himself seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, most prominent perhaps being the view that it is not majority opinion that yields correct policy but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which is possessed by only a few.[13] Plato also portrays him as being severely critical of some of the most prominent and well-respected leaders of the Athenian democracy;[14] and even has him claim that the officials selected by the Athenian system of governance cannot credibly be regarded as benefactors, since it is not any group of many that benefits, but only "some one person or very few".[15] Finally, Socrates was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete.[16]

Apart from his views on politics, Socrates held unusual views on religion. He made several references to his personal spirit, or daimonion, although he explicitly claimed that it never urged him on, but only warned him against various prospective actions. .

Historical descriptions of the trial

The extant, primary sources about the history of the trial and execution of Socrates are: the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, by Xenophon of Athens, a historian; and the tetralogy of Socratic dialogues — Euthyphro, the Socratic Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, by Plato, a philosopher who had been a student of Socrates.

In The Indictment of Socrates (392 BC), the sophist rhetorician Polycrates (440–370) presents the prosecution speech, by Anytus, which condemned Socrates for his political and religious activities in Athens before the year 403 BC. In presenting such a prosecution, which addressed matters external to the charges of moral corruption and impiety, for which the Athenian polis were trying Socrates, Anytus violated the political amnesty granted in the agreement of reconciliation (403–402 BC)[17] that granted amnesty to a man for political and religious actions taken before or during the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, “under which all further charges and official recriminations concerning the [reign of] terror were forbidden”.[18]

Moreover, the legal and religious particulars against Socrates that Polycrates reported in The Indictment of Socrates are addressed in the replies by Xenophon and the sophist Libanius of Antioch (314–390).


The Death of Socrates (399 BC): He drank the contents as though it were a draught of wine

Formal accusation was the second element of the trial of Socrates, which the accuser, Meletus, swore to be true, before the archon (a state officer with mostly religious duties) who considered the evidence and determined that there was an actionable case of “moral corruption of Athenian youth” and “impiety”, for which the philosopher must legally answer; the archon summoned Socrates for a trial by jury.[19]

Athenian juries were drawn by lottery, from a group of hundreds of male-citizen volunteers; such a great jury usually ensured a majority verdict in a trial. Although neither Plato nor Xenophon of Athens identifies the number of jurors, a jury of 500 men likely was the legal norm. In the Apology of Socrates (36a–b), about Socrates’s defence at trial, Plato said that if just 30 of the votes had been otherwise, then Socrates would have been acquitted (36a), and that (perhaps) less than three-fifths of the jury voted against him (36b).[20]

Having been found guilty of corruption and impiety, Socrates and the prosecutor suggested sentences for the punishment of his crimes against the city-state of Athens. Expressing surprise at the few votes required for an acquittal, Socrates joked that he be punished with free meals at the Prytaneum (the city’s sacred hearth), an honour usually held for a benefactor of Athens, and for the victorious athletes of an Olympiad. After that failed suggestion, Socrates then offered to pay a fine of 100 drachmae — one-fifth of his property — which largesse testified to his integrity and poverty as a philosopher. Finally, a fine of 3,000 drachmae was agreed, proposed by Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, who guaranteed payment — nonetheless, the prosecutor of the trial of Socrates proposed the death penalty for the impious philosopher. (Diogenes Laertius, 2.42).

In the event, friends, followers, and students encouraged Socrates to flee Athens, action which the citizens expected; yet, on principle, Socrates refused to flout the law and escape his legal responsibility to Athens. (Crito) Therefore, faithful to his teaching of civic obedience to the law, the 70-year-old Socrates executed his death-sentence, and drank the hemlock, as condemned at trial. (See: Phaedo)

Interpretations of the trial of Socrates


In the time of the trial of Socrates, the year 399 BC, the city-state of Athens recently had perdured the trials and tribulations of Spartan hegemony, the thirteen-month régime of the Thirty Tyrants, imposed consequent to the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). At the request of the pro–Sparta Lysander, an Athenian admiral, the Thirty men, led by Critias and Theramenes, were installed to govern Athens, and to revise the city’s democratic laws, which were inscribed to a wall of the Stoa Basileios; their political actions meant to facilitate the subordination of Athenian government — from democracy to oligarchy — in service to Sparta.[21]

Moreover, the Thirty Tyrants also appointed a council of 500 men to perform the judicial functions that once had belonged to every Athenian citizen.[22][23] In their brief régime, the Spartan oligarchs killed about five per cent of the Athenian population, confiscated much property, and exiled democrats from the city proper; and the fact that Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants, had been a pupil of Socrates was held against him, as a citizen of Athens.[24][25]


Plato’s presentation of the trial and death of Socrates inspired the writers, artists, and philosophers to revisit the matter; for some, the execution of the man whom Plato called “the wisest and most just of all men” demonstrated the defects of democracy and of popular rule; for others, the Athenian actions were a justifiable defense of the recently re-established democracy.[26]

In The Trial of Socrates (1988), I. F. Stone said that Socrates wanted to be sentenced to death, in order to justify his philosophic opposition to the Athenian democracy of that time, and because, as a man, he saw that old age would be an unpleasant time for him.

In the play Socrates on Trial (2007), Andrew Irvine said that for loyalty to Athenian democracy, Socrates willingly accepted the guilty-verdict voted by the jurors of his trial. “During a time of war, and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views, openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that, in a democracy, the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city — even during times of war — is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth.”[27]

In Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009), Robin Waterfield said that the death of Socrates was an act of volition motivated by a greater purpose; Socrates “saw himself as healing the City’s ills by his voluntary death”.[3]:204 That Socrates, with his unconventional methods of intellectual enquiry, attempted to resolve the political confusion then occurring in the city-state of Athens, by willingly being the scapegoat, whose death would quiet old disputes, which then would allow progress towards political harmony and social peace for the Athenian polis.[3]

In The New Trial of Socrates (2012), an international panel of ten judges held a mock re-trial of Socrates to resolve the matter of the charges levelled against him by Meletus, Anytos, and Lycon, that: “Socrates is a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and he believes in other new divinities of his own”; by split decision, five judges voted “Guilty” and five judges voted “Not guilty”, which acquitted Socrates of corruption of the young and of impiety against the Athenian pantheon. Limiting themselves to the facts of the case against Socrates, the judges did not consider any sentence; the judges who voted the philosopher guilty said that they would not have considered the death penalty for Socrates.[28][29]

See also


  1. Stone, I.F. (1988). The Trial of Socrates. New York: Little, Brown. Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield, Norton, 2009
  2. Kerferd, G.B.The Sophistic Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.6.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Waterfield, Robin. Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009.
  4. Plato. Apology, 21d–e, 23a, 23e.
  5. Plato. Apology, 30e–31a.
  6. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  8. See the Greek text in H. N. Fowler, trans., Plato, vol. 1, “Euthyphro,” “Apology,” “Crito,” “Phaedo,” and “Phaedrus,” Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919), pg. 112
  9. Plato. Apology, 31a-b
  10. Plato. Apology, 23c.
  11. Xenophon. Memorabilia, 1.2.29–38.
  12. Plato. Apology, 32c.
  13. Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.2.9; Plato, Crito 47c–d, Laches 184e.
  14. Gorgias 503c–d, 515d–517c.
  15. Apology of Socrates 25a-b.
  16. Plato, Crito 52e.
  17. Waterfield, Robin. Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. New York, 2009. p. 196.
  18. Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Yale University, 2009. p. 162.
  19. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  20. The second point is tenable if Socrates’s claim (36a–b) entails that Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus each was responsible for one-third of the votes against Socrates, who implies that Meletus failed to persuade less than one-fifth of the judges. The jury of 500 or 501 men, based either on Diogenes Laertius (2.41) or on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (68). See P. Rhodes, 1981, Commentary on the Aristotelian "Athenaion Politeia", p. 729.
  21. Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.3.15–16
  22. Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 35.1 (350 BC).
  23. Krentz, Peter. The Thirty at Athens p. 50. (ISBN 0801414504)
  24. Wolpert, Andrew. Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens. (ISBN 0-8018-6790-8).
  25. Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.3.15–16
  26. I.F. Stone. The Trial of Socrates, 1988.
  27. Irvine, Andrew D. Introduction, Socrates on Trial, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. 19.
  28. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  29. The New Trial of Socrates. Onassis Cultural Centre

Further reading

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  • Filonik, Jakub (2013). "Athenian impiety trials: a reappraisal". Dike: rivista di storia del diritto greco ed ellenistico 16: 11–96.
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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. ISBN 978-0-8020-9783-5 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-8020-9538-1 (paper); ISBN 978-1-4426-9254-1 (e-pub)
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External links