In 399 BC Socrates is condemned to death for impiety and corruption of the young. His trial is registered as a dark moment in the history of democracy, since it implies the execution of a philosopher, not for his deeds but rather for his ideas.

Significance of the trial

The trial of Socrates is possibly the only historical fact of his life which we can claim with absolute certainty. It is also the fact that, according to the 7th letter, triggers Plato’s desire to turn to philosophy, both because of his disenchantment with politics as he experienced it, but also because of the hope he developed for a new model of political regime, in which the city will be led if and only if philosophers rule or rulers become philosophers. With regard to the reception of this historical fact, trial has special significance for the criticism of democracy, since it was bound to lead to the question: “How can a democratic institution, with all the value it placed on free speech, allow the condemnation of a philosopher like Socrates?” Moreover, to the extent that Plato was interested to show that both he and his teacher subscribed to a tradition committed to truth, Socrates’ trial gradually becomes a challenge for the distinction between philosophy from rhetoric and sophistry.

The judges, the accusers and the accusation

Socrates was condemned in 399, by a thin majority of a jury of 501 judges, who had been drawn by lot among citizens who had asked to participate, provided they had completed their thirtieth year of age.

The main accuser was Meletus, a young unknown man according to Plato’s testimony (Euthyphro 2b8). Meletus brought an accusation against Socrates to the King Archon, which was the officer in charge of cases of impiety and homicide. From this fact we gather that the charge that was pressed against Socrates was indeed a charge of impiety.

Two more accusers sided with Meletus, namely Anytus and Lycon. Since impiety implied failure to fulfill duties that were connected to the public worship of the gods, it seems that any citizen could add his name on the accusation.

Anytus, who in the same year participated in another trial of impiety (that of Andocides), was certainly the most prominent of the accusers. Having raised a significant fortune, he had been elected as a general and had been accused of his failure to claim Pylos back from the Spartans. He was acquitted after the court was bribed; in 404 he originally sided with the Thirty, then, however, he sided with the exiled proponents of democracy, a fact that was acknowledged to him after the restoration of 403. For Lycon our information is very limited.

Both the identity of the accusers, but also the fact that after the restoration of the democracy a political amnesty had been passed for cases that were connected to the tyranny of the Thirties, has led to the widespread hypothesis that impiety was the pretext behind which the Athenians wished to condemn the political attitude or the views of Socrates. Similar motives are often traced in other cases of impiety. Without ruling out a certain element of religious fundamentalism which may have been further corroborated by the scandal of the Herms, most scholars hold that the later tendency to stress the problem of atheism for the period we are interested is based on limited historical basis.

In any case, what must have bothered the Athenians in relation to Socrates was not the particular acts (because no such acts are reported) but rather the content of his teaching and his association with, and thus also his impact as a teacher on, people who had indeed harmed the democracy, since both Charmides and Critias but most primarily Alcibiades had been regarded as threats for the constitution.

The official charge is preserved in Diogenes Laertius who reports Favorinus as his source (2nd century AD), who, in turn, reports that in his times one could still see the text on the Metroon.

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metroon, ran as follows: "This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death." Diogenes Laertius, 2.40.37

After the preliminary hearing of Meletus and Socrates, the King referred the case to the court. According to the procedure, first came the speech of Meletus, who gave part o f his time to the other two accusers. The same amount of time was given to Socrates who, according to a testimony, turned down the offer of the orator Lysias (Diogenes Laertius 2.40.37) and preferred to defend himself on his own. In Crito 52c3-6 we learn that, according to legislation, Socrates had the right to choose exile over the sentence proposed by the court, but he still preferred to be tried.

Platonic testimonies literary and philosophical projections of history

The use of Plato’s dialogues as a historical source must be done with caution. But it is interesting to point to the ways in which the history of the trial is exploited in, and gives life to, the philosophical and literary compositions of Plato’s dialogues. This kind of exploitation can be traced in a series of dialogues, which turn on the history of the trial as an introduction to philosophical questions.

Thus, the Crito presents the arguments which, according to Plato, explain Socrates’ choice not to escape. The dramatic time of the Euthyphro situates the dialogue in the King-Archon’s Portico) right before Socrates presents himself for the preliminary hearing, and uses this historical circumstance as the framework for a discussion with an expert on religious matters like Euthyphro on the true meaning of piety; on the other hand, in there are may dialogues in which Plato raises the question of the jury’s judgment and the function of the courts in the Athenian Democracy (a famous case in point is Meletus’ cross-examination in the Apology).

Particularly interesting allusions to the question of new divinities introduced by Socrates can also be traced in some well known passages of Plato’s dialogues, such as the beginning of the Republic, which makes a special reference to the introduction of the worship of a new Thracian goddess by the Athenians themselves, or to the end of the Phaedo, where Socrates leaves life urging his students to sacrifice to another god that has been recently introduced to Athens, namely to Asclepius.

Author: Chloe Balla
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  • Burnyeat, M.F. "The Impiety of Socrates." Ancient Philosophy 17 (1998)
  • Dover, K. "The Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society." Talanta 7 (1975)
  • Hansen, M.H. The Trial of Socrates - From the Athenian Point of View. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1995.
  • Janko, R. "Socrates the Freethinker." Goulet-Cazé, M-I, Branham, B. eds. A Companion to Socrates. Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Nails, D. "The Trial and Death of Socrates." Griswold, C.L. , Dillon, J. M. eds. A Companion to Socrates. Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Nails, D. The people of Plato. A Prosopography of Plato and other Socratics. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002.
  • Ober, J. "Socrates and Democratic Athens." Schofield, M. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Socrates.. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
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