Was There a Witch Hunt in Ancient Athens?

Socrates; drawing by David Levine


Socrates’ martyrdom and the genius of Plato made him a secular saint, the superior man confronting the ignorant mob with serenity and humor. This was Socrates’ triumph and Plato’s masterpiece. Socrates needed the hemlock, as Jesus needed the Crucifixion, to fulfill a mission. The mission left a stain forever on democracy. That remains Athens’ tragic crime.

But was the condemnation of Socrates a unique case? Or was he only the most famous victim in a wave of persecutions aimed at irreligious philosophers?

Two distinguished scholars, both justly respected, have put forward the view in recent years that fifth-century Athens, though often called the Age of the Greek Enlightenment, was also—at least in its latter half—the scene of a general witch hunt against freethinkers. 1

According to E.R. Dodds in his famous work, The Greeks and the Irrational, this witch hunt began with the passage in Athens of legislation so terrifying that one wonders why so many philosophers dared to flock there and by what miracle Socrates managed to avoid arrest for thirty years after its passage. Dodds wrote:

About 432 BC or a year or two later, disbelief in the supernatural and the teaching of astronomy were made indictable offenses. The next thirty-odd years witnessed a series of heresy trials…. The victims included most of the leaders of progressive thought at Athens—Anaxagoras, Diagoras, Socrates, almost certainly Protagoras also, and possibly Euripides.

Dodds said there were almost no aquittals. “In all these cases except the last,” he claimed, “the prosecution was successful: Anaxagoras may have been fined and banished; Diagoras escaped by flight; so, probably, did Protagoras; Socrates, who could have done the same, or asked for a sentence of banishment, chose to stay and drink the hemlock.” The evidence “is more than enough to prove,” Dodds concluded, “that the Great Age of Greek Enlightenment” was also marked by the “banishment of scholars, blinkering of thought and even (if we can believe the tradition about Protagoras) burning of books.” 2

A similar picture was drawn more recently by the late Arnaldo Momigliano in two essays he contributed to the fascinating but too little known Dictionary of the History of Ideas, one, “Freedom of Speech in Antiquity,” and the other, “Impiety in The Classical World.”3 Any reexamination of the trial of Socrates would be incomplete if it did not deal with these dark views, from such honored sources.

I believe the evidence for all this is belated and dubious—that the witch hunt fable originated, like some other notorious historical misconceptions, in Athenian comedy—in a lost play, fragments of which may someday turn up among new papyrus finds, which have added so much in the past century to our knowledge of classical antiquity.

No “evidence” of a witch hunt appears any earlier than in writers of the Roman era, principally Plutarch, who wrote about five centuries after Socrates. Plutarch’s distance in…

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