Socrates’ Death Site: a Guide for the Confused

Socrates: he’s the OG shitposter, martyr for annoying people everywhere, and forefather of all men who ever raised their hand in a college seminar and said, Let me play devil’s advocate.

Widely regarded as the father of Western thought (people in the West did not think before Socrates was born), this ancient Greek philosopher made a career out of asking Athenians annoying questions to prove they knew nothing. Socrates proclaimed that he himself also knew nothing, but his message—one promoting modesty and open-mindedness, believe it or not—didn’t quite land. Predictably, people got sick of him. He was accused of “impiety” and “corrupting the youth” and was sentenced to a cruel self-execution: voluntarily drinking the poison hemlock. A forced suicide, essentially.

La Mort de Socrate by Jacques-Louis David, who made the stunning decision to paint Socrates half-naked

The exact setting of this cautionary tale against professional-grade trolling is disputed. Google the location, and what little info you’ll find is confusing. There seem to be two prevailing theories (at least among internet users; scholars, please correct me): the first is a cave carved into the Hill of the Muses just west of the Acropolis. How do we know this is where Socrates died? Someone put a sign out front that says Socrates’ Prison; therefore, it must be true. Someone else with a Weebly account even made a website confirming this fact. Who am I to dispute the author of The Athens Key?

Lies and slander!!! (photo from Wikipedia)

Philosophy enthusiasts have staged an uprising in the Socrates Prison TripAdvisor reviews. One needs look no further than the scathing, one-star screed from user EuripedesRex, which reads:

Just to reiterate previous review – this is NOT the prison and place of death of Socrates.
The location is most likely the Ancient Agora’s State Prison. It’s in the south west corner – you’ll have to look carefully, there’s not many signs to help (I’ve just visited the site myself). It isn’t popular so you might have the place to yourself. I spent an hour there just cogitating – only one visitor passing by.
Good luck.

According to his profile picture, EuripedesRex is a sentient, bearded stone bust, so we are required to take his word as law.

The ancient agora’s state prison, an ideal place to cogitate

He also has back-up from Harvard. No Athens Key, but still, Harvard’s not so bad. Classical Inquires, a publication by the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies, published an article in 2015 on Socrates’ last words, and they cite the state prison in Athens’ ancient agora as Socrates’ death site–not some cinematic, picture-ready cave. Their claim is further solidified by an old New York Times article published when the site was first identified by an American archeologist.

This is all very good news for me, because it means I took my selfie in the right place.

All smiles at the execution site of Western thought’s dad.

You’ll notice that this state prison does not look like a state prison. Where are the iron bars? The inmates in striped jumpsuits playing harmonica? Sadly, all that’s left of the place are limestone bricks and weeds. If you’re looking for something more dramatic, you can always visit the Prison of Socrates, ranked #90 on TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in Athens. Who among your Instagram followers will be the wiser?

According to Socrates, no one. There’s nothing we can know except that we know nothing, so take the selfie, mime drinking hemlock, and remember that shitposting can be fatal.

How to Get There

Finally, the part you actually came here for.

The State Prison is located in the ancient agora, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Athens. Directions to the agora itself are easy to find, but spotting the prison is a little trickier. Think of it as a scavenger hunt. There are signs throughout the agora distinguishing all the different piles rubble from each other. One of them says “state prison.” I found it after lots of happy wandering (the agora is an awesome place in itself — even folks with no interest in Socrates should go!). EuripedesRex says it’s in the southwest corner. Good luck!