by Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The introduction of trial by jury was truly a momentous decision in human history. The Athenians may have been the first to institute it. For one whole year, 6,000 Athenians enlisted to be jurors. What would it have been like to be an Athenian juror at the trial of Socrates in 399 B.C.?
An Athenian Juror’s Opinion of Socrates
The Roman orator and philosopher Cicero said that Socrates brought philosophy down from the skies. He meant that Socrates made philosophy relevant to ordinary people. As the son of a humble stonemason, Socrates is one of the first persons of humble origins to burn his way onto the pages of history. But that’s in hindsight.
But imagine you are an Athenian juror in 399 B.C. Everyone has heard of Socrates. He is one of the most famous Greeks alive. You’ve heard him many times in the agora, teaching for free. He’s that fat guy with a squashed nose, who looks like a satyr. He asks questions such as, “What’s the best way to live?” “What’s virtue?” “What’s justice?”
As far as you are concerned, Socrates is a busybody. For 50 years, he’s been making himself pretty obnoxious by telling people like you that your life has no value. Finally, a man called Meletus, along with a couple of his cronies, charges Socrates with “corrupting young people, ignoring the gods, and introducing his own daimonic beings”.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Trial by Jury Without Lawyers
You turn up on the day of Socrates’ trial and are selected as one of the 500 jurors for the day. The proceedings are directed by a magistrate, whose job simply is to keep order. No witnesses will be called. Any depositions from witnesses will be read out in court. There are no lawyers.
Imagine that, trial by jury without lawyers! Socrates will speak on his own behalf. As Socrates and Meletus file into the law court where the trial is set to take place, the atmosphere is truly electric. You never know what to expect from Socrates.
The trial of Socrates begins when the prosecutor Meletus gets up and speaks first. As he begins, the clerk of the court, who is a slave, removes a cork from a water clock known as a klepsydra. A klepsydra is one of the simplest timepieces ever invented. It consists of two vases placed one above each other. The upper one has a hole just below the rim so that it can be filled only to that exact point. The water trickles at a steady rate out of this vase into the one beneath it.
If Meletus pauses for any reason—let’s say he asks that a deposition be read to the court—the clerk will replace the cork for as long as needed, in this case, for as long as the deposition is being read. As the water drains, the flow from the upper vase alters, so Meletus knows when he is coming to the end of his allotted time. In this way, both prosecutor and defendant speak for the exact same amount of time.
Meletus speaks for about an hour and then it is Socrates’ turn. He goes out of his way to antagonize you by suggesting he despises the whole process. He has the temerity to suggest that he is performing a valuable public service by lecturing you on your inadequacies. Then he abruptly sits down. The place is in an uproar. A lot of people are outraged.
Learn more about Socrates on the examined life.
The Verdict is announced
The arguments in the trial of Socrates are over. It is now time for you and the other members of the jury to vote. You don’t retire to consider your verdict. You simply take your place in line while you wait to cast your vote, which each of you does one by one by means of a secret ballot. Then, when the votes have been counted, you return to your bench and eagerly await the result.
After a few minutes, the magistrate announces that a majority of you have found the defendant guilty. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are invited to recommend a punishment. Meletus again rises to his feet first as is customary and solemnly recommends the death penalty. You’re expecting Socrates to recommend a more lenient penalty.
But Socrates never plays by the rules. He recommends that he should receive free meals in the prytaneum, the equivalent of the town hall, for life. That’s the honor that’s reserved for public benefactors! Pandemonium breaks out. So you, along with other jurors who had previously voted for his acquittal, vote for his death. On learning the verdict, Socrates delivers this memorable line, “And so we part. You to life, me to death. But which of us goes to a better destiny, only the god knows.”
Hearing those words, you—like many other jurors—suddenly begin to have second thoughts. Did he really deserve to die? Everything happened so quickly and you got caught up in the general mood. You won’t admit this to anyone, but as you leave the law court, you’re actually hoping that one of his many friends will help him to escape—after all that’s happened many times before when an Athenian citizen has been condemned to death. But Socrates rejects that easy option, which means you will be left with your misgivings for the rest of your life.
To conclude, while ancient Greek society valued human potential, it wasn’t a good thing to become too noticeable, as the trial of Socrates demonstrates. Democracy came at a cost.
Learn more about Greek philosophy.
Common Questions About the Trial of Socrates
Socrates asked philosophical questions such as, “What’s the best way to live?” “What’s virtue?” “What’s justice?”
Trials in Athens were very different from modern trials. The proceedings were directed by a magistrate, whose job was simply to keep order. No witnesses would be called. Any depositions from witnesses would be read out in court. There were no lawyers.
During the trial, Socrates suggests that he is performing a valuable social service by talking about the inadequacies of the people of Athens.
Athenian jurors did not retire to consider a verdict. They cast their vote by means of a secret ballot. Then, when the votes had been counted, the result was declared.