Hemlock cups from The Greeks documentary
Hemlock cups from The Greeks documentary

As the Peloponnesian War dragged on, political life in Athens became extremely unstable and dangerous. For a brief period democracy was overthrown by an oligarchy of aristocrats only to be replaced a year later, in 410 BC, by a new democratic regime.

Four years later, in 406, the Athenian navy won an important battle against the Spartan fleet. With a storm brewing, the Athenians immediately set sail for home, worried that by stopping to pick up the sailors who had fallen overboard they might risk losing the entire fleet.

Back in Athens the congratulations quickly turned into accusations. When the popular assembly learnt that 2000 men had been lost at sea the citizens demanded the fleet's leaders be executed for cowardice. Appointed as President of the assembly for that day, Socrates denounced the decision as wrong: mass trials were illegal.

Sadly, the greatest conversationalist in Athens was a poor public speaker. His protests came to nothing and the generals were executed by being forced to drink hemlock. Socrates, by standing up for what was right, had made himself dangerous political enemies.

Democracy overthrown

Downfall of Athens