The trial and death of Socrates

The first vote: guilty or not guilty?

Soon afterwards it was time for us to vote. Ballots from the Athenian lawcourt We got up from our seats, and got our tokens. These are like a small wheel, with an axle sticking out on either side. We each get two – one has a solid axle, one has a hole through it. The solid one means innocent and the one with the hole through means guilty. We hold the tokens between thumb and forefinger – no one can tell which is in which hand. We file slowly between two boxes, while the official checks us. One is for votes, the other is for discards. No one can tell which one we are dropping into which box as we pass.

After all 501 have voted, the officials count them. We went back to our seats. I waited anxiously – but as I feared, the verdict was – guilty. But only by 60 votes. It was now time for the decision on his punishment.

The second vote: a fine or death?

The accusers, as expected, proposed death. Socrates would now have a chance to propose a different punishment, a large fine would be accepted, I was sure. Socrates of course had no money, but Crito or Plato or one of his rich friends would be happy to oblige. But would Socrates accept that he was guilty? I didn't really think so – none of his friends would expect him to. I was sure we'd see more of his stubborn refusal to take the proceedings seriously. And sure enough, he suggested that his "punishment" should be free meals for life! This is how in Athens we honour winners at the Olympics – and Socrates said he'd done far more good to Athens than any brawny hulk! Then he said he had no money to pay a fine – and anyway, he wasn't going to admit he'd done anything wrong, just to escape the death penalty.

But in the end he said he would pay a fine, one within his means – he could maybe afford 100 drachmas. But seeing Crito and Plato making frantic signals, he upped it to 3000.

I could tell that most of my fellow jurors were getting really angry at Socrates's attempts at humour. We filed out to vote a second time, for his punishment – the only choices were death or the fine of 3000 drachmas. I felt sick, knowing well what the result would be. I was right. Death – and by a large majority. I couldn't tell how any particular one of my fellow judges had voted, of course, but most of them had those smug, self-righteous expressions on their faces.


The condemned man can now address the judges one last time. Socrates's final speech was one of the most moving things I've ever heard.

"Dying is one of two things. Either it's like not existing, having no sensation of anything, or, as in the stories, it is some sort of change, and our spirit 'moves house' from here to somewhere else. If there is no sensation, but it's like sleep, the kind of deep sleep when you don't have any dreams, then death would be a wonderful thing to look forward to. My guess is that if anyone was asked to say which was better – those nights when he'd slept soundly, or any other nights , or days, in his life, he'd choose the first one, the nights of uninterrupted sleep. Even if he were the king of Persia! If that's what death is like, I repeat, it's a bonus: the whole of time would seem like a single night.

But what if the stories are true, and death is a move from here to somewhere else, and all the dead are there? What could be better than that? If, when you get there, escaping those who call themselves judges here, you find the real judges – Minos and those others who led a blameless life on earth, would death be such a bad bargain?

And what would you give to meet Homer and the other great writers of the past? I'd be glad to die over and over again if there was a possibility of that! I would love to chat with Palamedes or Ajax, and others who died as a result of unfair verdicts, and compare their stories with mine. And especially, I would enjoy interviewing the people down there, and finding out who is truly wise, and who just thinks he is. How fantastic to be able to question the leaders at Troy, or Odysseus, or any of the thousands of men and women there! Surely this would be an indescribable pleasure. But I guess this isn't why they execute people, so they can go somewhere that's better than being alive!

You too should be optimistic about death, my judges. Remember: nothing bad can happen to a good man, in life or after his death, and his actions are not ignored by the gods. I believe what's happened to me happened for a reason: I'm sure it is better for me to die, and escape the problems of getting old. I'm not angry with those who voted against me, or against my accusers. Although when they voted for death, they thought they were hurting me - I do blame them for that.

I have one last request. My sons – if when they grow up they seem more interested in money than living a good life, or start thinking they are something when they are nothing, give them as much grief as you've given me. Expose their mistakes, as I did yours, if they seem not to be caring about what they should. If you do this for me, my sons and I will both have been treated fairly by you.

But now it is time to go - I to death, and you to life. Which of us is going to a better thing, only god can know."

After the trial, Socrates was taken to the little prison in the agora, not far from my shop. In Athens we don't keep people in prison, it would be more than anyone, even a convicted criminal, would be able to stand for more than a few days, but it's where those under sentence of death are taken, to await execution. The method that's used is this: a drink containing pounded hemlock is prepared. The condemned man drinks the poison, and his body is slowly paralysed. He gradually loses all feeling - in his toes to begin with: this spreads slowly and when it reaches the heart, he dies. There is no pain. Most prisoners are allowed to get drunk, and there's often quite a party in the cell – even so they sometimes make a scene and try to avoid drinking the hemlock. But, as we'll see, it was different with Socrates.

While he was in prison Crito came to bribe the jailer to allow Socrates to escape: there were other friends who'd look after him on the journey, and make sure he had a place to live somewhere away from Athens. The jailer would have been quite happy to play along, because like most Athenians he didn't really believe that Socrates would be put to death. It was just that, according to our laws, the jury can only choose between the two punishments proposed – and when Socrates had said he should be kept at public expense like an Olympic champion for the rest of his life, they really had to vote for death. So it was all fixed – all Socrates had to do was walk out, and go to a new life in another city. But of course he would have none of it. He was determined to force them to execute him – although they'd have to wait a few days as there was a religious festival on.

Crito told me later that day (he was still in tears) about some of the conversation they'd had in the prison. Socrates said it was impossible for him to break the laws, which he'd obeyed all his life. Even if, as he agreed, they were bad laws. And, naturally, he refused to escape. He added that he'd lived all his life in Athens, except when on military service, and had no intention of trying to live anywhere else.

And so the day appointed for the drinking of the hemlock finally came round. I wasn't there – only Socrates's closest friends and relatives were allowed in the prison. But this is what I managed to put together from Crito and the others.

There had been a long discussion about the soul – was there an immortal part of a man which continued in some way after death? Socrates teased Crito for worrying about the funeral arrangements; if he'd followed the argument, he'd have known that the real Socrates was not in the corpse that needed burying.

Late in the afternoon, Socrates went off to have a bath. Left alone the friends shared their misery at what was going to happen. Then Socrates's wife, Xanthippe, arrived with the other women of the family, and their three children – two of them small boys. They had a few moments together before Socrates sent them away. The sun was now beginning to set. The official in charge of the prison came in to say goodbye. He complimented Socrates, and said what a good and brave man he was – and thanked him for not getting into a rage and cursing like other prisoners often did. The poor man was actually in tears, I was told.

Socrates said how charming and pleasant the man had been – and asked for the hemlock to be brought. Crito protested that there was no hurry – he could have dinner and some wine; no need to drink the hemlock till much later. Socrates replied:

"Naturally you think there's something to be gained by putting things off; naturally I don't. I should look a fool to myself if I hung on desperately to life when it has no more to offer. Don't make a fuss!

It took the man some time to prepare the hemlock, and bring Socrates the cup.

"What do I have to do?"
"Just drink it."
"Can I pour some out as an offering to the gods?"
"No, we only make just enough."

So Socrates contented himself with just a prayer, that the gods would see that he passed peacefully from this world to the next. Then he drank the liquid in one gulp.

At this point, Crito told me, he'd had to go outside for a while, unable to control his tears. When he came back in, Apollodorus, who had been weeping for a while, now set everyone else off.

"Pull yourselves together! That's why I sent the women away, so that I could die in peace and quiet. Be brave!"

They were all rather ashamed then, and tried to keep calm, while Socrates paced about, until, he said, his legs felt heavy. Then he lay down, as instructed, and the man pinched his foot and asked if he felt anything. Socrates said no. The man kept pinching him to check how the numbness was progressing. He told us that when it reached his heart, he would be dead. Socrates lay there quietly, with his head covered. Then suddenly – the numbness had reached his waist – he uncovered his head and called out. These were his last words.

"Crito, we owe Asclepius a cockerel. Will you see to it? Don't forget."

These last words meant that he wanted Crito to sacrifice to Asclepius for him – Asclepius is the god of healing and medicine, because his death had been so peaceful and painless. Crito promised, and Socrates lay still. When, after a short while, the man uncovered him, his eyes were fixed. Crito closed his eyes for him. This was the end of Socrates, the wisest, bravest and best man of our time.