Hemlock, the Drug of Socrates

By Myra Davis

In 469 BC, a man named Socrates was born. He was the son of a stonecutter and a midwife and would go on to become one of the most respected thinkers of the age, acting as a teacher and mentor to the equally famous Plato. When he was 70 years old, Socrates was sentenced to death by a jury of 500. The method of execution was a simple drink of hemlock, which was a revolutionary new manner of delivering death for Athenians. The story is still frequently told to this day, but in order to understand the gravity of the situation and the sentence, one must first understand the place of both in Athenian society.

Socrates lived in a civilization that highly valued democracy, which could explain how his unpopularity began. Socrates served as an infantryman in the 431 war against the Spartan army, in which his characteristic lack of concern for his own safety and well-being made him a force to be reckoned with, even against the militaristic Spartans. After he returned to Athens, he turned his attention to the pursuit of truth. He would repeatedly question the definitions of things like “democracy” and “honesty,” and despite being hailed by the Oracle of Delphi as the wisest man in Athens, he never hesitated to admit his own ignorance as to his knowledge of the absolute truth.

Conflict arose when Socrates denounced the mass trial of a group of sailors, saying that such an action was both immoral and illegal. Later, when Sparta finally overthrew Athens in 404 BC, several of Socrates’ students, if not Socrates himself, were instated as members of the Thirty Tyrants, chosen by the Spartans to keep peace. The Thirty Tyrants fought to keep democracy out of Athens, perhaps thanks to Socrates’ view that people were, like sheep, incapable of governing themselves reliably. Democracy was eventually reinstated a year later, and Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth (as evidenced by those of his students in the Thirty Tyrants). Religious sacrilege, through his lack of attention to religious days and his assertion that the gods must be completely good or else not gods, was added to the list of charges. He was easily convicted by a vote of 280 to 220. As was customary, Socrates was given the opportunity to suggest a penalty for himself and to repent. Socrates breezily suggested that he be given the treatment and praise reserved for Greek athletes. The jury, infuriated, told him to provide a more reasonable penalty, and Socrates, who was notoriously poor, suggested a fine. The jury voted instead to sentence him to death by hemlock poisoning.

Hemlock had been used by ancient physicians as a remedy for ailments like joint pain and arthritis. Miniscule amounts were always used, since an overdose could result in paralysis of the entire body, including the lungs and heart. Hemlock belongs to the same plant family that includes carrots and parsnips, but it derives its deadly force from the fact that it contains eight piperidine alkaloids, which are compounds that can have a strong physical effect on the body. The two main alkaloids in hemlock are coniine and g-coniceine, and they are almost singularly responsible for its fatal results.

Socrates’ final hours involved being visited by his friends, students, and wife. Plato’s account of his death suggests that Socrates was remarkably calm and cheerful, even when accepting the hemlock drink from the prison guard. As Socrates began to drain the cup, his friends, who had been fighting back tears, began crying in earnest. Socrates reminded them that he’d thrown out the women who had been visiting for being overdramatic and asked that they keep control of themselves. Paralysis happened slowly, beginning with his feet and legs and eventually creeping up to stop his heart.

Plato was not present for Socrates’ death, but through the eyes of the fictional Phaedo, he pieced together what he’d heard from those students who were present and created an account of his teacher’s death. None of Socrates’ own works have survived the years, but a feel for this larger-than-life character can be gained through works such as Plato’s “Socratic Dialogues,” Aristophanes’ comedic play “The Clouds,” and Xeonphon’s “Apology of Socrates to the Jury.” Regardless of the details of the trial, the story of Socrates’ death has long been an inspirational tale of a man who refused to abandon his principles and greeted death cheerfully. The Socratic method of inquiry still exists today, as do the variety of colorful tales and anecdotes of Socrates’ life in Athens.

For more information on Socrates, his trial, and his death, check out the links below:

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