Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.29


Mogens Herman Hansen, The Trial of Sokrates: from the Athenian Point of View. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Historisk.-filosofiske Meddelelser 71, 1995. Pp. 36. ISBN 87-7304-266-8.


Reviewed by Martin Cropp, University of Calgary.

This short monograph by a distinguished historian of the Athenian democracy revises and updates an earlier discussion published in Danish, Mus. Tusc. 40-43 (1980), 55-82. An oral version was given to a 1992 Athenian Academy symposium celebrating the 2500th anniversary of democracy. H.'s approach is in contrast with Brickhouse and Smith's insistence on the religious nature of the charges against Socrates. It has much in common with I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates (Boston, 1989) which appeared between H.'s original article and the new paper, though H. is critical of Stone's use of sources and does not share "his hostile view of Sokrates" (3).

H.'s declared purpose is "to reconstruct the trial of Sokrates, especially the case for the prosecution" (2). His argument is also in some sense a defence of the democratic régime which saw S. condemned: "Was the trial of Sokrates a disgrace to Athenian democracy, or was it an understandable and perhaps even justifiable treatment of a person who constituted a threat to the Athenian constitution?" (3). H. concludes that the evidence is insufficient for a final decision, but that political factors could readily have been worked into the prosecution despite the Amnesty of 403 and their absence from the overt terms of the indictment, and that S.'s prosecutors probably did raise such factors, especially his enthusiasm for Spartan discipline, his criticisms of certain features of the Athenian democracy such as sortition, and his association with political undesirables. Many jurors may have become convinced that he was a threat to the democracy and that they were therefore obliged by their heliastic oath to condemn him even if he was not guilty of any specific religious or political offence.

In Part I H. discusses the sources and amongst other things addresses two key points, the origin of the arguments against S. attributed to "the prosecutor" (ho kategoros) in Xen. Mem. I.ii, and the likelihood that S. was accompanied in court by synegoroi (mentioned by Xen. Apol. 22) who would have spoken after him and could have provided the response to political accusations which S. himself, to judge from the Apologies of Plato and Xenophon, neglected to provide. (H. argues incidentally that the Apologies of Plato and Xenophon are independent of each other and agree convincingly on a number of points concerning the essence of S.'s own defence.) As for the kategoros, H. effectively casts doubt on the widely accepted theory that this is Polykrates, author of a post eventum speech or essay against S.; even if Xenophon's kategoros were Polykrates his arguments would reflect those made at the trial, but more probably he is one of the real prosecutors Meletos (who had brought the indictment), Anytos and Lykon, of whom the one most likely to have made political arguments and to have carried weight was the influential democratic politician Anytos.

H.'s case concerning the kategoros is persuasive. Though H. does not make the point, Xen. Mem. I.i-ii is a coherent discussion, enquiring how "the Athenians" (i.e. the dikasts) could have been convinced by the two charges in the indictment, impiety (I.i) and corrupting the young (I.ii). The accusers are referred to in I.i.1 as OI( GRAYA/MENOI SWKRA/THN (they are nowhere named). Part-way through I.ii, Xen. begins to refer to what O( KATH/GOROS said in order to prove that S. had been corrupting the young; and he spends eleven pages (I.ii.9-61) on refuting these points. Considering the context, it is hard to suppose that Xen. is not dealing with arguments made by someone at the trial, though of course they could have reappeared in Polykrates' work.

Whether it follows (as H. suggests) that the political arguments against S. were largely left to Anytos amongst the prosecutors and to S.'s synegoroi in his defence, and that this is why they are not addressed in the Apologies of Plato and Xenophon, is not so clear to me. It is of course one plausible scenario, and H. is convincing in arguing that nothing prevented the prosecutors from representing S. as a dangerous influence on the young, and especially young future politicians, in the light of his association with such as Alkibiades and Kritias. But we are hampered by uncertainties as to how a trio of prosecutors might normally divide their task, whether S.'s synegoroi would have felt free to address matters which he himself had refused to address, and to what extent the two Apologies are to be read as faithfully reflecting (only) Socrates' own speech. There is at least one alternative scenario: the political arguments against S. were made extensively, and they were skirted by S. and his synegoroi and Plato and Xenophon in their Apologies (though not by Xen. later in the Memorabilia), precisely because they were so damaging at the trial and to S.'s reputation in the ensuing years. It is worth noting that in Plato's Apology S. responds to things said by Anytos (29c, 30b8-9), associates Anytos with the charge of corrupting the youth and the warning that S. will do further damage if he is allowed to live (ibid., and 34a7-9), names Anytos as the power behind the prosecution (18b3), and attributes S.'s condemnation to Anytos and Lykon rather than Meletos (36a6). Moreover, S. does address the matter of his exercising political influence privately rather than in the Assembly (31c4ff.), and disclaims responsibility for "teaching" anyone who goes on to be "useful" (XRHSTO/S, a political term) or the opposite (33a-b). This deftly sketched defence against the political charges, avoiding risky details, may be as much as S. or any of his defenders or his apologists in the post-trial years could usefully present.

Be that as it may, H.'s insistence on the relevance of political factors is convincing, and his brief reconstruction of the trial (Part II) usefully illustrates his view of how they were deployed. In Part III he goes on to discuss the political realities which surrounded the trial and condemnation of S., arguing that while the case shows the Athenians failing to live up to their own ideals of free speech, this is a rare failure and to some extent an understandable one in view of S.'s prominence, the times in which he lived, and his associations with so many oligarchic figures connected with the coups against the democracy and convicted of treason and/or impiety. H. shows that two-thirds of the fifteen people who both appear in discussions with Socrates in Plato's dialogues and have known records in Athenian politics are "black sheep and disreputable persons whom the Athenians sentenced to death, often in absentia" (27). S.'s tendency to criticise aspects of the democracy may well have been seen as a threat to it even though S. himself was loyal to the democratic constitution.

H.'s apologetic purpose is illustrated by his inclusion of a 'pseudo-Platonic' dialogue of his own composition, in which S. is persuaded by Anytos to admit that democracy is the best possible constitution. This unfortunately falls rather flat. H. himself admits (n. 100) that there are flaws in the argumentation of his dialogue, but maintains that S.'s criticism of the use of sortition of magistrates is "rather sophistic" because the analogy made by S. between magistrates and helmsmen is fallacious: "the Athenians chose their magistrates by lot precisely to ensure that they should not be the steersmen of the state". I should have thought that they chose them as temporary and accountable steersmen. H. then makes Anytos argue that the great number of tasks involved in operating a city requires an equally great number of experts to fulfil them successfully (since no one can achieve a variety of expertises), and that a sufficient number of experts will be found in a democratic assembly but not in an oligarchic or monarchic régime. When S. objects that that in a democratic assembly non-experts will always outnumber experts, A. replies that the non-experts will be willing to take advice from the experts, so that the democratic assembly, with its greater accumulation of expertise, remains superior. S. is reluctantly convinced, but he hardly needs to be since Anytos's argument ignores the difference between deciding what the city should do and how to get it done (i.e. political processes) and actually doing these things. All régimes have access to expert advice and fulfilment, whatever the political status of the experts. We need some further argumentation from Anytos to show that experts perform better when they have the political rights characteristic of a democracy (and perhaps also to show why, on his argument, people who are not expert in anything should have political rights!)

But this is a minor distraction. H. gives a spirited and incisive account of the political factors relevant to S.'s trial. It might well be combined for introductory purposes with Richard Parker's judicious summing up of the religious factors in Athenian Religion: a History (Oxford, 1996), 199-207. And it deserves to be included in the next anthology published on this subject.

A closing thought. Should we not all be more careful to distinguish between the reasons why S.'s prosecutors prosecuted him and the reasons why 280 of the jurors condemned him?