How Did Socrates Die?

In 399 B.C., Socrates was tried by a jury composed of 500 Athenians. He was charged with corrupting the youth and refusing to acknowledge the gods that were recognized by the state. If the jurors found him guilty, Socrates faced the possibility of a death sentence. The jurors sat on their benches, and a crowd of Athenians closely followed the proceedings. The jurors were given three hours to lay out their case, and after that, Socrates would be given the same number of hours to speak in his defense.

During the trial, Socrates was already 70 years old and was already well-known to his fellow Athenians, not only because of his age but also because of his controversial opinions. Socrates’ sentiments against democracy upset many of his fellow citizens. The Ancient Athenians took pride in their democracy and believed it was the most efficient way of ruling a state. To add to Socrates’ unpopularity, his students, Critias and Alcibiades, had been involved in temporarily bringing down the Athenian democratic government and replacing it with tyranny, which resulted in the seizing of thousands of Athenians’ property and the execution and exile of thousands more.

Socrates’ accusers presented their case, followed by Socrates, who stated his defense. Then, it was the jury’s turn to cast its vote. In Athens, the jurors did not do any more contemplating on the points presented, and instead, they simply cast their judgment by dropping a small bronze disk labeled either “not guilty” or “guilty” into a jar. A conviction only needed a majority. Socrates was found guilty by a close vote of 280 to 220.

After determining that Socrates was guilty, the jurors then decided that he should be served the death penalty. But first, Socrates himself was asked what punishment he felt he deserved. The philosopher could have suggested that he be exiled, which probably could have been granted to him and thus saved him. However, he provocatively replied that he should be given a reward for what he did. He was again asked what punishment he thought was proportional to his actions, and he replied that he should be penalized with a small amount of money. The jury then had to choose between punishing the philosopher with a fine or death. The jury chose death for Socrates.

Socrates was then led to a jail where he would await the implementation of his sentence. He was ordered to commit suicide, specifically by drinking a potion of the poisonous plant, hemlock. 

The philosopher Plato wrote about his beloved teacher’s death. He was not present at Socrates’ jail, but he knew the people who witnessed the event. In Phaedo, a dialogue about the last hours of Socrates, he had a character named Phaedo describes what happened. Phaedo then narrated that Socrates requested to take a bath first before he drank the poison so that the burden of cleaning his corpse would fall to no one. Socrates’ friend, Crito, then asked the philosopher how he would like to be buried, to which the philosopher said he would leave the matter up to them, his friends. He had said earlier that when he was already dead, his soul would continue to live for eternity, while the body he would leave behind would no longer be Socrates because his soul would have left it. And so, he told Crito not to be sad when his body was being buried because the body would no longer be him.

At the bath, Socrates was joined by his three sons and his wife, Xanthippe. He bids them goodbye, and then they leave. After taking his bath, Socrates returns to the jail cell to rejoin his friends and students.

The sun was now setting, and a slave standing by inside Socrates’ jail went out and returned with a prison officer assigned to hand Socrates the cup of poison. On seeing the officer, Socrates asked him what he should do next. The man then instructed him to drink the hemlock and then walk around until his feet felt heavy because that was the sign that the poison was starting to work. Then the officer handed the cup to Socrates, who took it pleasantly and calmly. The officer knew that Socrates was the gentlest and most courageous man he had ever met and felt that somehow, the philosopher knew that he was implementing orders against his will. Socrates then asked the officer if he was allowed to offer the toast to anyone, and the officer said he was allowed to take his time to drink it. Shortly after, the prison officer bid Socrates goodbye, and with tears flowing down his face, he turned around and left.

Socrates then announced to his friends that it was time to drink the poison. His friend Crito protested, saying that there was no need to hurry and that many condemned prisoners waited till well after nightfall before drinking the potion. Socrates countered him and said that those prisoners were afraid of death, while he was not. After this, Socrates appealed to the gods to let his journey on earth continue happily after death. He said that this was his prayer, and he hoped that it would be realized. 

Phaedo said that all the while before Socrates raised the cup to his mouth, all of those who were beside the philosopher was able to restrain their emotions. Now that their friend had swallowed the hemlock, Phaedo said their tears flowed down their faces. He said he cried uncontrollably and realized that he was not crying for Socrates but for himself, for losing a dear friend. Meanwhile, Crito could not contain his emotions anymore and left the jail in tears. One student of Socrates named Apollodorus was alternately crying and drying his eyes which was distressing everyone even more. Socrates scolded them and asked what was wrong with them. He then reminded all his friends that he had sent all the women away because he did not want to be bothered by the crying and the sobbing. He added that he heard somewhere that a man deserves to die in peace. Socrates’s friends felt ashamed at being told these words, and they stopped crying.

Socrates walked around his jail cell until his legs felt heavy, then he lay down. An attendant came to him and touched his leg. Then he squeezed his feet and asked Socrates if he felt the pressure. Socrates said he did not feel anything. The attendant squeezed Socrates’ legs again, and it became clear that the philosopher’s body was turning rigid. The attendant felt Socrates again, and this time, he said that when the poison reached the heart, Socrates would die. The cold feeling now reached Socrates’ waist, and he suddenly removed the blanket that he had earlier put on his head. Then, he told Crito that they owe Asclepius a rooster and should not forget to pay him with one, to which Crito gave his assurance. Socrates then placed the blanket back on his head. Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, and some scholars have been puzzled that these words came from a dying man. However, other scholars state that Socrates was implying that life was a disease and that he was thanking Asclepius for the hemlock that healed him. 

Crito asked the philosopher if there were any other instructions he would like to leave, but Socrates did not reply anymore. Then, when Socrates moved a little, the attendant removed the blanket from his face and checked Socrates’ eyes. It was at this moment that Crito announced that the philosopher was dead and proceeded to close his eyelids and mouth.

Phaedo then tells us that the death of their friend was the death of a man whom they felt was the wisest and most righteous man they ever knew.