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State prison

Guide to Athens logo.jpg


Delphi didn’t like to come back here.  She winced when she saw the spot where she made her mad, distracting speech to free the great man himself.  There should be a statue, she thought. There should be something.

Not just passers-by.  And rain.

Agora State Prison: Fact box

  • This is most likely to have been the place where the great philosopher Socrates was put in prison.  Historians can’t be completely sure – but we can see the layout of the building from the remains and it is not like any other building.  You can see a corridor running down the middle, and small rooms coming off it on each side.  This makes it very likely that these were cells. They even found the remains of small clay jars which could have been where hemlock poison was kept – the way prisoners were put to death.


  • Going to prison was not a punishment in Ancient Athens.  The prison was only used to keep prisoners while they waited for their punishment – such as being sent out the city or being executed.


  • The Greeks practised a system called ostracism.  This meant that every year, the Assembly would vote on who was the most dangerous or unpopular person in the city.  Everybody would be allowed to write a name on a tiny piece of pot called an ostraka.  If the chosen person got enough votes, they would be thrown out the city for ten years!  This often happened to generals who lost important battles, such as Socrates' friend Alcibiades.


  • Socrates was one of the first great philosophers.  He lived in Athens, in Ancient Greece, almost two and a half thousand years ago and he’s still famous today, mainly thanks to his pupil Plato who wrote about him. But everyone agrees – however clever he might have been, Socrates was really ugly.


  • Socrates was so famous because he was the first philosopher to ask questions about what made a good life.  His method often involved questioning people who seemed to be experts about a particular idea, like beauty or justice.  However, his questions often revealed that they knew very little.  One of Socrates most famous lines is “All I know is that I know nothing.”​


  • Socrates was known to be incredibly irritating.  During his life, he made more than a few enemies which didn’t help him at his trial.  There were even plays written and performed to him about how stupid he was!  He was arrested for being a bad influence on young people and not believing in the gods properly.​

  • Socrates’ trial, in real life, lasted all day.  At the end, the five hundred people put a pebble into a pot to show which way they voted - and the crowd sentenced him to death.  Apparently, Socrates didn’t take his trial very seriously.  He hadn’t prepared a speech and he asked for a reward instead – which probably didn’t help!


  • Despite being locked up, Socrates seemed rather unaffected by his lack of freedom.  He still spent his time talking and debating like he always did, and he refused to try and escape.  He even used the time in prison to write some poetry about animals!​


Voting jars
Socrates Writing
  • Socrates died in prison, in 399 BC, aged around 71, by drinking hemlock poison.  This would have been considered a long life by Ancient Greek standards, where war and illness killed a great many people.  Many of Socrates’ friends had already died by the time of his trial.


  • You can learn much more about Socrates by watching or reading the full story of Delphi the Philosopher (this link takes you out of Delphi's Guide to Athens).


Watch the videos to see what happened when Delphi tried to free Socrates, and then when she finally met him inside the prison!

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