Over the centuries, many historians have presented the trial of Socrates as a parody of that time, claiming that the Athenian philosopher was forced to face charges invented by his fellow citizens because of ignorance.
In the 399 BC trial, Socrates was found of two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state; the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”.
The death sentence of Socrates was the legal consequence of asking politico-philosophic questions of his students, which resulted in the two accusations of moral corruption and impiety.
At trial, the majority of the male-citizen jurors chosen by lot voted to convict him of the two charges; then, consistent with common legal practice voted to determine his punishment and agreed to a sentence of death to be executed by Socrates’s drinking a poisonous beverage of hemlock.
Historians have traditionally claimed that Socrates created many enemies by openly criticizing prominent politicians. The trial gave them an opportunity to get rid of him.
The Athenian philosopher was the scapegoat of a series of disasters that befell Athens, including a plague and a military defeat.
Socrates: “the wisest and most just of all men”
The trial and death of Socrates inspired the writers, artists, and philosophers to revisit the matter. For some, the execution of the man whom Plato called “the wisest and most just of all men” demonstrated the defects of democracy and of popular rule, for others the Athenian actions were a justifiable defence of the recently re-established democracy.
In The New Trial of Socrates in 2012, an international panel of ten judges held a mock re-trial of Socrates to resolve the matter of the charges levelled against him.
Five judges voted guilty and five judges voted not guilty. Limiting themselves to the facts of the case against Socrates, the judges did not consider any sentence, but the judges who voted the philosopher guilty said that they would not have considered the death penalty for him
A more recent study by Cambridge Professor Paul Cartledge argues that the trial was legally just and Socrates was indeed guilty as charged.
“Everyone knows that the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not the republic as we know it today. As a result, History has been misinterpreted,” the professor says.
“The accusations Socrates faced may seem ridiculous to us, but in Ancient Athens they seemed to serve the common good,” he adds.
Professor Cartledge argues that some people interpreted those events as a sign of displeasure of the gods. They claimed that Socrates had offended the gods because the philosopher used to question the authority of several deities.
Cartledge believes that the charges of impiety against Socrates were not only fair – given the beliefs of the time – but also attributed to the common good.
The study concludes that Socrates essentially caused his own death. According to the Athenian legal system, the defendant could suggest his own sentence.
In the beginning Socrates joked saying that he should have been rewarded instead. Eventually he suggested a small fine, but the jury did not find his joke funny and decided the death penalty.