SOCRATES (469-399 B.C.)

Socrates was born in 469 or 470 B.C. in Alopeke, a village (deme) under the jurisdiction of Athens. He was the son of Sophroniscus and Phainarete. Sophroniscus was a stonemason and Socrates may have also trained as a stonemason. His circumstances, it seems, were reasonably prosperous -- he was a hoplite, or heavy infantryman, in the army and had to supply his own weapons and armor. Socrates married Xanthippe later in his life, and had three sons. The oldest of them, Lamprocles, was eighteen years old at the time of Socrates's death.


Habits and Appearance

Socrates had no regular occupation and was by poor by choice, always wearing the same thin cloak and walking barefoot in all weathers. He was considered to be extremely ugly, with bulging eyes and a snub nose. He was normally to be found in the agora, the square or marketplace that formed the civic center of Athens.


Military Experience

Socrates fought bravely in at least three campaigns in the Peloponnesian War -- at Potidaea (432 B.C. -- aged 37), at Delium (424 B.C. -- aged 45) and at Amphipolis (422 B.C. -- aged 47)



By 423 B.C. (aged 46) Socrates was sufficiently famous to be the target of Aristophanes's satirical play Clouds, produced for the Greater Dionysia in 423 B.C. (Note however that this play was not successful and that he revised it several times afterwards.) The play depicts Socrates as a natural philosopher (like the Pre-Socratics) and a Sophist (the Sophists, such as Gorgias, were philosophers who charged for their services). At the same competition, Ameipsias's Connus also made reference to Socrates.

In Clouds Socrates presides over his phrontisterion -- 'Thinkery' or 'thinking shop'. A farmer named Stepsiades enrolls in the 'thinking shop' to learn how to argue his way out of paying debts incurred by his son, Pheidippides. The play includes a contest in which Unjust Reasoning (the Weaker Argument) defeats Just Reasoning (the Stronger Argument). Later, Pheidippides, with the aid of Unjust Argument (or Weaker Argument), justifies beating his father. At the end of the play Stepsiades burns down the 'thinking shop'. Socrates claimed in his trial that this play had adversely influenced the public's opinion of him.


Trial of the Six Admirals (406 B.C.)

In 406 B.C. (aged 63), while he was a member of the sub-council (prytaneis) [see Athens] for the Council of Five Hundred which presided over the Assembly and brought proposals before them for a vote, he resisted the illegal proposal to try, as a group, and by a vote of the public Assembly instead of by a sworn jury, the remaining six admirals of the action of Arginusae (406 B.C.) in the Peloponnesian War.

Eight admirals had sailed away from a victorious naval battle without rescuing their men from damaged ships, or recovering their dead and wounded, because of a great storm. The city bayed for their blood, and two of the admirals fled rather than return to Athens.

It was against Athenian law to try citizens as a group, as opposed to giving them an individual trial. In the face of public pressure, all 49 other sub-council members allowed the illegal proposal to be presented to the Assembly for a vote. Socrates, who like every other member of the prytaneis had taken an oath not to present illegal motions to the Assembly, refused to allow the illegal proposal to be presented to the Assembly.


The Thirty Tyrants (403 B.C.)

In 403 (aged 66), while Athens was under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, Socrates did not obey the Tyrants' order -- given to him and four others -- to arrest the wealthy Leon of Salamis, reputedly a just democrat, for execution, in order to confiscate his large estate. Socrates refused and went home. The other four captured Leon, who was executed as a traitor to Athens.

Socrates had been friends with, and teacher to, some of the Thirty Tyrants -- including Critias, leader of the extremists, and Charmides. (Incidentally, both were related to Plato -- Charmides was Plato's uncle, and Critias was his cousin). Socrates was also a friend of, and teacher to, Alcibiades, another infamous traitor, who betrayed Athens to Sparta.

Socrates may have been perceived to be a critic of democracy, and perhaps, a supporter of a philosophical aristocracy [for more on Socrates as anti-democrat, see Irving Stone's The Trial of Socrates (1988), below]. This may have been why the Tyrants thought that they could count on Socrates's help to capture Leon of Salamis.


Trial of Socrates (399 B.C.)


The charge was brought against Socrates by Meletus, a poet, about whom little is known. In Athens at this time there were no public prosecutors; private individual citizens brought criminal charges to the government official (the King Archon in this case).

The two assistants (sunegoroi) to Meletus were Anytus, one of the most powerful statesmen of the time (he had been responsible for the amnesty for those implicated in the atrocities of the Thirty Tyrants several years before), and Lycon, an orator.



The indictment was posted in the Metroon, the temple that housed the city archives. Since the law against impiety was general, the charge of impiety had to be specified. It can still be read today:

"Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state and introducing other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death."


Note that the one charge is impiety, and that these three claims explain the ways in which Socrates was impious. Furthermore, the law did not stipulate the penalty for impiety. Hence, the penalty was proposed by the person who was prosecuting the case. (If a defendant was found guilty, it was up to him to offer a counterpenalty. The jury was then left to decide between the two punishments).

Preliminary Hearing

Socrates first went to the King Archon, in the Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileios), who handled cases involving alleged offences against religion, for his preliminary hearing (anakrisis), to determine if the charges were in accordance with law.



In Plato's dialogue Euthyphro Socrates meets the soothsayer Euthyphro, who has also come to the King Archon to prosecute his father for impiety, on the steps the Royal Stoa located in a corner of the agora. Socrates uses Euthyphro as a foil to engage in a discussion of the nature of piety (hosion).

Note that there is no evidence that this event ever occurred, and more than likely it did not -- at least, if there was ever a discussion between Socrates and someone else on the nature of piety, there is no evidence that it occurred on the way to his preliminary hearing. 



The King Archon decided that the charges against Socrates were legal and had enough merit to warrant a jury trial, and a date was set. Since the alleged offences of impiety were crimes against the polis, the trial was an agon timetos, in which the conviction was to be established by a sworn jury, drawn by lot. The number of jurors, who were randomly assigned to different courts on different days, was, it is believed, 500. Large numbers prevented jury tampering or bribing. (Later, Athenian juries were odd-numbered; at this stage, however, a tie would have counted in Socrates' favor). There were no prosecution or defense lawyers. The accusers and the accused spoke themselves.

The trial was presided over by the King Archon.  It began in the morning and had to be completed by the end of the day. The speeches were measured by a water clock. More than likely the accusers had the morning to give their speeches, and Socrates had the afternoon to give his speech.



Plato's Apologia Socratous or Apology of Socrates (transliteration of apologia, meaning "defense") is believed to be a faithful account of the speeches given by Socrates at his trial. It omits the speeches of his accusers. It includes three speeches. First there is Socrates' speech protesting his innocence. After this the jury votes and finds him guilty by a margin of 30 votes.

Then there is his second speech, in which he first proposes, as his sentence, free meals for the remainder of his life at the Prytaneum, the hall where the members of the prytaneis dined, and where foreign ambassadors, victorious generals and Olympic athletes were also fed. Then, with the offer of money forthcoming from his friends Plato, Crito, Critoboulus and Apollodorus, he proposes a fine of thirty minae, quite a large sum of money (about eight and a half years of wages). After this the jury votes and sentences him to death, by a greater margin of votes than had voted him guilty.

Finally there is Socrates's farewell speech to the jury. It remains a matter of scholarly debate just how faithful an account of the historical trial Plato's Apology of Socrates is. Another version of the trial is found in Xenophon's Socrates' Defense.



Socrates's execution was delayed by a month to observe the annual religious mission of sending a ship to Delos. Socrates's friends and followers visited him while he was in jail. Plato's Crito provides an account of an exchange between Socrates and Crito as to whether Socrates should flee before his execution.

Note that much of the argument provided by Socrates as to why he should not disregard the law of Athens and flee is put in the mouth of the laws of Athens itself.

Again, it is not known if an exchange between Socrates and anyone else on the subject of a citizen's obedience to the laws of Athens ever occurred. (Contemporary archaeologists, incidentally, do claim to have located the cell where Socrates was held).



At the end of the month Socrates was executed. His death was self-administered: he died by drinking hemlock at sundown. Plato's Phaedo is a dialogue about the soul and immortality which takes place at Socrates' bedside. Once again, it is it is not known if an exchange between Socrates and anyone else on the subject of the soul and immortality ever occurred. Plato was not present at the death of Socrates, due to illness.

Socrates himself did not write a single word of philosophy. His ideas are preserved in the writings of four individuals: Plato, his follower, who was present at his trial but not at his deathbed; Xenophon, a contemporary who was an admirer of Socrates, but who was not present at his trial or his deathbed; Aristophanes, a contemporary playwright; and Aristotle, who never knew Socrates.


Copyright James E. Mahon, 2002

    Primary Sources:

  1. Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. I: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Gorgias and Menexenus, trans. with analysis R. E. Allen (New Haven: Yale university Press, 1984)
  2. Plato, Five Dialogues, trans. G. M. A. Grube, ed. D. J. Zeyl (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981)
  3. Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates: Socrates' Defense; Memoirs of Socrates; The Dinner-Party; The Estate Manager, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield, ed. Robin Waterfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990).
  4. Aristophanes, Clouds, trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, in Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socrates, trans. and ed. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984)

    Secondary Sources:

  1. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, eds. The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. James A. Colaiaco, Socrates Against Athens (New York: Routledge, 2001)
  3. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000).
  4. Anthony Gottlieb, Socrates (New York: Routledge, 1999)
  5. Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato's Crito (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998)
  6. Mark L. McPherran, ed., The Religion of Socrates (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996)
  7. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato's Socrates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
  8. Gregory Vlastos, Socratic Studies, ed. Myles Burnyeat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  9. Hugh Benson, Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
  10. Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991)
  11. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989)
  12. I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
  13. Richard Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984)
  14. R. E. Allen, Socrates and Legal Obligation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980)
  15. Gerasimos Xenophon Santas, Socrates (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979)
  16. A. D. Woozley, Law and Obedience: The Argument of Plato's Crito (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979)
  17. Thomas G. West, Plato's Apology of Socrates (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1979)
  18. Gregory Vlastos, ed., The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971)
  19. W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971)
  20. A. E. Taylor, Socrates: The Man and His Thought (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1933)