A Jury of Athenians Sentence Socrates To Death

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787).

Today on February 15, 399 BCE, Socrates, one of the most influential philosophers of antiquity, was sentenced to death.

Socrates is perhaps the most famous classical philosopher from Ancient Greece. Historians generally consider him as a founding father of modern Western philosophy and ethical traditions. At the age of 70, Socrates was tried by the city-state of Athens for “corrupting the minds of the youth.” Five years earlier, Athens and Sparta ended the long and bloody Peloponnesian War. The conflict highlighted how badly the Athenian state could be damaged by individuals not respecting religious customs. Throughout the year 399, many other prominent public figures were prosecuted for blasphemy in Athens. Religious tensions were undoubtedly running high.

It was well-known that Socrates outwardly refused to recognize all of the state deities. City officials had always viewed this as questionable behavior. But to make matters worse, new accusations spread suggesting he had been introducing new gods into society. These rumors were simply too egregious to ignore. Officers were instructed to detain Socrates so that he could stand on trial.
The formal trial of Socrates took place in central Athens in front of his three main accusers. A jury of five hundred men presided over the hearings. Spectators gathered around to witness this high-profile trial. After hours of accusations and testimony, the jurors were asked to vote. Each was given a small coin to place in an urn - one marked ‘guilty’ and the other ‘not guilty.’

The final tally revealed that 280 jurors had voted guilty — enough to convict the elderly philosopher. His accusers then recommended the death penalty as a suitable punishment. Socrates sarcastically, yet foolishly suggested they reward him his actions. Socrates quickly reversed his comment and proposed a small fine. The jurors were now forced to decide between the two options. They opted for his execution. Athenian law demanded convicted citizens commit suicide by drinking a concoction of hemlock — a poisonous plant. Socrates asked to cover his face during the execution.

Socrates has been dubbed as the Father of Western Philosophy. Most of his thoughts, dialogues, and works were only later recorded by his students — mainly by Plato and Xenophon. Historians continue to debate the exact reason for Socrates’ execution. The charges against him were rather vague and might not have been exclusively related to religious tension. The precise trial date is unknown. February 15 has traditionally been adopted as an estimated date.

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