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The Prosecution of Socrates

The hostility some Athenians felt toward Socrates after the violence of the Thirty Tyrants encouraged the distinguished Athenian Anytus1, who had suffered personally under this regime, to join with two other men of lesser prominence in prosecuting Socrates in 399 B.C. Since the amnesty prevented their bringing any charges2 directly related to the period of tyranny, they accused Socrates of impiety3. Since Athenian law did not specify precisely what offenses constituted impiety, the accusers had to convince the jurors in the case that what Socrates had done was a crime. No judge presided to rule on what evidence was admissible or how the law should be applied, as usual in Athenian trials. Speaking for themselves as the prosecutors, as also required by Athenian law, the accusers argued their case against Socrates before a jury of 501 men that had been assembled by lot from that year's pool of eligible jurors, drawn from the male citizens over thirty years old. The prosecution had both a religious and a moral component. Religiously, they accused Socrates of not believing in the gods of the city-state and of introducing new divinities. Morally, they charged, he had led the young men of Athens away from Athenian conventions and ideals. After the conclusion of the prosecutors' remarks, Socrates spoke in his own defense, as required by Athenian legal procedure. Plato presents Socrates as taking this occasion not to rebut all the charges or beg for sympathy, as jurors expected in serious cases, but to reiterate his unyielding dedication to goading his fellow citizens into examining their preconceptions4. This irritating process of constant questioning, he maintained, would help them learn to live virtuous lives. Furthermore, they should care not about their material possessions but about making their true selves— their souls— as good as possible5. He vowed to remain their stinging gadfly no matter what the consequences to himself.

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