Feb. 15, 2023

Socrates Goes on Trial

Socrates Goes on Trial

February 15, 399 BC. Athenian philosopher Socrates is sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the city’s youth.


Cold Open

It’s 432 BCE in Ancient Greece.

On the plains outside Potidaea, the Athenian army advances forward, ready to put down the city’s burgeoning revolt and remind them who controls this part of Greece.

Alcibiades, a citizen-soldier, stumbles as he marches forward. The 18-year-old is finding it tough to keep time with the more experienced soldiers in such a tightly packed formation.

Alcibiades feels a gentle push in his back and speeds up, closely following the soldier in front as the Athenians begin to collide with Potidaean army.

Soldiers in the front ranks stab with spears, while those further back push with their shields, trying to urge their comrades forward and force the enemy onto their back feet.

The Athenian soldier in front of Alcibiades is stabbed in his thigh and falls to the ground. Alcibiades cannot keep his balance and stumbles over. As he struggles to get to his feet, he’s horrified by the sight of a Potidaean soldier looming, his spear ready to strike.

But just as the soldier thrusts his weapon, a shield suddenly appears and the Potidaean spear deflects harmlessly off of it. Alcibiades glances at the soldier who has just saved him - an older, bearded man, who smiles back.

Another Athenian soldier steps between them, cursing them both and telling them to keep pushing forward. But Alcibiades promises himself that if he survives this battle, he will find his rescuer and thank him for saving his life.

At the end of the Battle of Potidaea, Alcibiades will discover that his savior is a 35-year-old named Socrates. The near-death experience will be the beginning of a close friendship and Socrates will become a father figure to the young man. But saving Alcibiades’s life will doom the philosopher’s own.

The young man will go on to forge a career as a politician in general — but one known for deceit and disloyalty. Eventually, he will even try to overthrow the Athenian democracy. Thirty-three years after Socrates rescued him, Alcibiades’s misdeeds will be part of the prosecution’s argument when Socrates is accused of crimes against Athens and faces the death penalty during a trial traditionally ascribed to this day, February 15th, 399 BCE.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 15th, 399 BCE: Socrates Goes on Trial.

Act One

It’s 406 BCE in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Turkey, 26 years after Socrates’s heroics at the Battle of Potidaea.

Athenian general Pericles the Younger grips a rail as a heavy swell rocks his warship from side to side. As he holds himself steady, he looks out into the distance, where a line of 90 Spartan ships have appeared on the horizon.

Pericles glances back and forth between the enemy fleet and the Athenian’s 150 warships. The Athenian fleet dwarfs the Spartans, but Pericles still worries. A few weeks ago, a different Athenian fleet was defeated by these same Spartan ships. Pericles prays today ends differently. But his men are inexperienced, and he has no idea whether numerical superiority will be enough to counter his battle-tested foe.

But Pericles has little time now to do anything but put their preparation into action. He waves his arm and a trumpeter sounds a series of notes and urges rowers to begin pulling, grunting as they heave their heavy oars through the water. The Athenian fleet breaks into separate mini-fleets. These mobile Athenian battlegroups then harass the Spartans, forcing them out of formation.

While they go to work, Pericles’s own vessel chases after the Spartan flagship. As they draw close, he shouts for his archers to fire. In the barrage, the Spartan commander falls, an arrow lodged in his throat, and his ship veers away.

By the end of the engagement, around 70 Spartan ships are sunk. The Athenians lose only 25. But the rough sea makes rescuing sailors almost impossible, and soon after the stunning victory, Pericles and his fellow generals are summoned by the council of Athens to stand trial for failing to save the sailors whose ships were sunk. Several weeks later, Pericles stands before this council of Athens, scanning the faces of the men who will decide his fate. He knows he will not be familiar with many of them.

In Athenian democracy, the council is ever-changing. Fifty men are appointed for a few weeks, before making way for a new batch of councilors for the next few weeks. Every day, one councilor is chosen randomly to serve as the chairman and the most powerful person in Athens. They hold the state seal and the keys to the treasury, and all responsible for running the council’s meetings. But to ensure no man grows too powerful, he must relinquish his position after 24 hours and may never be the chairman again.

So Pericles anxiously waits to discover who is today’s chairman and the arbiter of his fate. In answer, one of the councilors rises unsteadily to his feet. It’s an old man Pericles recognizes as Socrates. He is a veteran of the army who distinguished himself in the battle against the Spartans many years ago but is now better known as one of Athens’s most respected philosophers and teachers.

As chairman, Socrates opens up the floor to the business of the day. One of the councilmen stands and requests they vote on whether the generals should face a collective trial for abandoning sailors in the water. Most of the 50 councilors call their agreement. But Socrates raises his voice and angrily denies the request. He claims it unjust for the federals to be tried and punished as a group because it means one man’s fate relies upon the actions of others.

Pericles cannot help but be impressed with the dignity with which Socrates argues his opinion. But it is clear Socrates is in the minority. Some councilors call out and heckle while he speaks. Others raise points of order to interrupt him. Then, after disrupting Socrates’s proceedings, they force through a motion to decide whether the generals will face a joint trial. The verdict is nearly unanimous: they must all be prosecuted, and Pericles is dragged away.

Eventually, the generals will be found guilty and executed, but the Athenian councilors will soon come to regret their decision. The Spartan fleet will return the following year and inflict a decisive defeat on an Athenian army now missing its most capable generals. Athens will be forced to surrender, condemning it to two years of rule by Spartan-backed tyrants.

But few will feel the repercussions of the contentious decision more than Socrates. His unwillingness to bend to the wishes of the council’s majority will cast him as an enemy of democracy. And over the next decade, continuing anti-democratic misdeeds of his pupils will further tarnish his reputation. When his opponents finally find a chance to put the philosopher himself on trial, they will seize it.

Act Two

It’s around midday on February 15th, 399 BCE at the law court in Athens, seven years after the executions of the Athenian generals.

Now 70-year-old Socrates steps onto a raised platform and turns to face a large crowd. On one side of the court are 500 jurors, randomly chosen from a pool of eligible citizens. On the other side is an equally large number of spectators, drawn by the tantalizing promise that one of the city’s most prominent citizens is about to go on trial.

Over the past decade, Athenian democracy has been threatened by revolutionaries on several occasions. Each time, the leaders of the anti-democratic movements were former pupils of Socrates. Key among them was Alcibiades, who Socrates rescued at the Battle of Potidaea. Now, the philosopher himself has been hauled in front of the assembly on frivolous charges, and Socrates thinks it’s little more than a political ploy by democratic leaders to further damage his reputation.

As one of the court officials removes the plug from a water clock, Socrates begins to speak. He has the three hours it takes for the water to empty to defend himself against two charges laid by his accusers that morning. Socrates starts with the first charge, that of impiety. He cleverly dismisses the prosecution’s suggestion that he is an atheist, because, in the accuser’s own words, he believes in false gods—therefore he believes in some gods and cannot be an atheist.

An increasingly confident Socrates moves on to rebut the second charge—that of corrupting the youth of Athens with seditious and anti-democratic ideas. Socrates begins by reminding the jury of his service to the democracy of Athens. He describes how he served in the Athenian army and fought in battles so long ago that many of the jurors were not even alive when it took place.

Socrates then explains that he has taught Athenians for many years, and his lessons have helped his pupils become good and ethically minded citizens. He pauses as a murmur of disagreement ripples around the crowd. One person shouts out that Socrates’s pupils have tried to overthrow the government. In response, Socrates agrees. Some of his pupils have done questionable things but he claims he could not be held responsible for the actions of other men.

As Socrates walks from the stage, animated conversation breaks out around the court. Normally, accused citizens are apologetic and plead for clemency, even if they deny the charges against them. But Socrates almost confrontational defense made no attempt to appeal to the jurors’ emotions.

Over the next few minutes, the 500 jurors cast their votes by putting a token in one of two urns: guilty or not guilty. As each token lands at the bottom of the vessel, Socrates tries to guess which way the verdict is heading, but the votes seem roughly equal in number. Only when the tokens are officially counted that Socrates know his judgment: guilty, by a margin of 280 to 220.

But the court’s business is not yet over. Now, both prosecution and defense must propose a suitable punishment. Socrates raises his eyebrows when his accusers recommend that he be executed. He can sense their clever ploy coming together—they want him to panic and make a counteroffer to go into exile. Socrates suspects that getting him out of Athens was the accusers’ plan all along.

But the old philosopher is not prepared to accept his guilt, even after the ballots have been cast. He declares that he should be rewarded for teaching the youth of Athens, rather than punished for corrupting them. He suggests a suitable sentence would be free meals for life, paid for by the people of Athens. Socrates smiles as the court breaks into uproar.

The jurors then cast their votes again — this time to choose whether Socrates is to be executed or granted free food for life. By a margin of 360 to 140, the sentence is death.

After Socrates’s unusual trial, many will suggest that his death was as much suicide as an execution — result of him provoking jurors into handing down the death sentence. Many of his friends and pupils will encourage him to flee the city but Socrates will refuse; instead, facing his impending doom and, in a month’s time, his sentence will be carried out, robbing Athens of one of its greatest minds.

Act Three

It’s March 399 BCE, one month after Socrates’s trial.

In an Athenian jail cell, one of Socrates' still-devoted pupils, Crito, brings a full cup to his aged teacher, careful not to spill a drop of the poison hemlock tea it contains.

Tearfully, Crito whispers in the old man’s ear that “It’s time.”

The judgment and sentence handed out at Socrates’s trial coincided with the start of a religious festival during which no executions could be carried out. As a result, Socrates was kept in prison for the next month, but his pupils were allowed to visit during his final weeks of life. But despite their constant asking, Socrates refused to explain why he proposed such a contentious punishment at his trial, one that made it inevitable the jurors would vote for his death. Instead, Socrates quietly resigned himself to his fate. And now, the religious festival is over and Crito is here to witness the death sentence being carried out.

Socrates takes the cup. He raises it in the air and offers a toast to the gods and the afterlife. He drinks the hemlock in one go, his hand steady. Crito feels tears roll down his cheeks. Socrates then rises from his chair and walks around the room, chastising Crito and others saying he wants to die in peace. Crito wipes his face with his sleeve and forces a shaky smile to his face.

Socrates then lies down, saying his legs are becoming heavy. Crito squeezes Socrates' foot, but he cannot feel it. As the numb sensation spreads, Socrates suddenly raises his head and tells Crito to offer a sacrifice to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Crito nods and chokes with emotion as he asks his teacher if he has any other last words. But Socrates does not answer; his eyes are already glazed over, and he’s stopped breathing.

The execution of Socrates ended the life of one of Ancient Greece’s most influential figures, but the philosopher’s ideas will live on. Although none of his own writings have survived to the present day, Socrates’s teachings will be posthumously recorded by many of his pupils and will influence philosophers for centuries. His enduring legacy is in part due to the remarkable nature of his execution, which was itself the result of a sensational trial traditionally ascribed to this day, February 15th, 399 BCE.


Next onHistory Daily. February 16th, 2003. The Antwerp World Diamond Centre in Belgium is robbed of over $100 million in loose diamonds, gold, and jewelry in what is considered the biggest heist of all time.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Emily Burke. 

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.