One of the most famous trials in history has been misrepresented as a miscarriage of justice, when it was really a legitimate case of democracy in action, a controversial new study claims.

Ever since it occurred in 399BC, the trial of the Athenian philosopher Socrates has been portrayed as a travesty in which the founding father of Western thought was made to face trumped-up charges invented by his ignorant and prejudiced fellow-citizens.

He was found guilty of “impiety” and “corrupting the young”, sentenced to death, and then required to carry out his own execution by consuming a deadly potion of the poisonous plant hemlock.

Politicians and historians have often used the trial to show how democracy can go rotten by descending into mob rule. Athens, it is argued, rid itself of one of its greatest thinkers because he was a perceived threat to the political status quo.

But in a new study launched today (Monday, June 8th), Cambridge University classicist Professor Paul Cartledge claims that, rather than being a farce, Socrates’ trial was legally just and that he was guilty as charged. Instead of being a warning from history, he argues, it is an example of just how different Ancient Greek politics often were.

“Everyone knows that the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not democracy as we know it, and we have misread history as a result,” Professor Cartledge said. “The charges Socrates faced seem ridiculous to us, but in Ancient Athens they were genuinely felt to serve the communal good.”

The study appears in Professor Cartledge’s new book, Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice, which examines Greek political thought in action from Homer to the time of Plutarch. In it, he questions traditional arguments that Socrates was purely the victim of political in-fighting.

Historians, influenced by ancient writers including Plato and Xenophon, have claimed that Socrates’ open criticism of prominent Athenian politicians had made him many enemies. By pinning charges of “impiety” and “corrupting the young” on him, they were able to remove a threat to their own power.

The corruption charge is seen as particularly important. Athens in 399BC had been hit by successive disasters – plague, internal political strife and a major military defeat by Sparta aided by Persian money. Claiming that Socrates’ teachings created political deviants made him a convenient scapegoat for some of these problems.

According to Professor Cartledge, however, Socrates was not just the unfortunate victim of a vicious political vendetta, but a scapegoat used for an altogether more spiritual bout of self-purging within a culture very different in kind from our own.

Rather than a made-up, token accusation, he argues that the “impiety” charge mattered. Ancient Greeks were, after all, instinctively religious people, who believed that their cities were protected by gods who needed to be appeased.

To many, it must have seemed as if these gods were far from happy after the years of disaster leading up to 399BC. Athenians probably genuinely felt that undesirables in their midst had offended Zeus and his fellow deities.

Socrates, an unconventional thinker who questioned the legitimacy and authority of many of the accepted gods, fitted that bill. Worse, he claimed to be guided by his inner daimonon – a term which he may have intended to mean “intuition”, but which could also be interpreted as a dark, supernatural influence inaccessible to conventional believers and practitioners.

And crucially, Professor Cartledge argues that these charges were entirely acceptable in a democracy of the Athenian type. Unlike in modern democracies, he points out, accusations were brought by amateur prosecutors before a jury of 501 ordinary citizens of “good standing” who acted on behalf of what they took to be the public interest. If the prosecution could prove that a defendant was responsible for jeopardising the public good, he was likely to be found guilty.

With the gods clearly furious and more disasters perhaps just around the corner, a charge of impiety was not only appropriate, but clearly very much in the public interest. In other words, Socrates had behaved impiously, and was a victim of literally 'awe-ful' times.

The study then argues that Socrates essentially invited his own death. Under the Athenian system, in this kind of trial a defendant could suggest his own penalty. Instead of taking this seriously, however, Socrates first joked that he should be rewarded, and eventually suggested a fine that was far too small.

Unsurprisingly, his jurors did not see the funny side and passed the death sentence by a greater majority than that by which he had been convicted. Instead of fleeing to save his skin, he accepted the verdict, claiming that “he owed it to the city under whose laws he had been raised to honour those laws to the letter.”

“There is no denying his bravery, and he could even be seen as an intellectual hero,” Professor Cartledge added. “But the idea that Socrates himself was not guilty, but executed by mob rule, is wrong. By removing him, society had in, Athenians’ eyes, been cleansed and reaffirmed.”

Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice is published by Cambridge University Press.

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