The philosopher Sokrates was one of many Athenians critical of the people and their control over affairs of state. His probing public debates with fellow citizens led to his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, his approach and opinions having exceeded the limits on freedom of speech acceptable to the Athenians. The Agora, as the political center of Athens, was the scene of many of the events played out in the drama of his teaching, trial, and death.

According to custom, youths were not expected to spend time in the great square; the gymnasia of the city -- the Academy and Lyceum -- were their proper haunts. Sokrates, therefore, met them in a shop near the Agora, according to Xenophon (Memorabilia 4.21), and Diogenes Laertios preserves the name of Simon as the owner of the establishment where these meetings took place: "Simon, an Athenian, a shoemaker. When Sokrates came to his workshop and discoursed, he used to make notes of what he remembered, whence these dialogues were called 'The Shoemakers"' (2.13.122).

Regrettably, the shoemaker dialogues have not survived, but in the excavations of the Agora, a small house of the 5th century B.C. was excavated east of the Tholos, just outside the Agora boundary stone. Within it were found bone eyelets and iron hobnails dearly used for shoemaking, and nearby was found the broken fragment of a drinking cup, inscribed with the name of the owner, "Simon.' The archaeological evidence suggests that we have here the very shop, visited by Perikles, which Sokrates used as an informal classroom, meeting here those students too young to frequent the square.

Photograph of the House of Simon the Shoemaker. Athens, Agora excavations. The photograph shows the foundations of a house to the left of a roadway. It has been identified as a shoemaker's establishment by the discovery in the rooms of iron hobnails and bone shoelace eyelets (below). The base of a black-glaze drinking cup found in the roadway is inscribed "of Simon," so it seems likely that this was the house of Simon the Shoemaker to whom the literary texts refer.
Bone shoelace eyelets, Sth century B.C. D.: 0.015-0.025 m. Athens, Agora Museum BI 738.
Iron hobnails, 5th century B.C. L. of shafts: 0.015 m. Athens, Agora Museum IL 1361.
Base of an Athenian (Attic) black-glaze kylix (drinking cup), 5th century B.C. D.: 0.073 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 22998. The inscription ΣΙΜΟΝΟΣ, "of Simon;' is scratched on the upper surface of the cup base. The cup can be dated by details of its shape to about 460 B.C., a time rather earlier than would be consistent with the Simon known to Sokrates and mentioned in the literary sources. It has been suggested that by the end of the 5th century, the base had become separated from the bowl of the cup and had been reused as a door knocker. The name Simon thus indicates whose house it was, and the findspot in the roadway is logical.

The preliminary indictment leading to Sokrates' trial took place in the Royal Stoa and he was tried before a jury of 501 Athenians, in one of the lawcourts of the city, not as yet excavated. The trial was fairly close: 221 to 280 votes, according to Sokrates; in the penalty phase of the trial, however, he was condemned to death. According to Athenian law, the defense could propose an alternate penalty. Plato, in the Apology, tells what Sokrates suggests:

What penalty do I deserve to pay or suffer, in view of what I have done? ... I tried to persuade each one of you not to think more of practical advantages than of his mental and moral well-being, or in general to think more of advantage than of well-being in the case of the state or of anything else.... What else is appropriate for a poor man who is a public benefactor and who requires leisure for giving you moral encouragement? Nothing could be more appropriate for such a person than free maintenance at the state's expense (Apology 36B, translated by Hugh Tredennick).

Sokrates' confinement and execution in the state prison of Athens are described in some detail by Plato, and his description corresponds in several respects to a large building lying southwest of the Agora square. Here were found the thirteen little clay medicine bottles that may have held the poison hemlock with which the Athenians dispatched their political prisoners, and here, too, was found the small marble statuette that closely resembles the known portraits of Sokrates.

Set of thirteen clay medicine bottles, 4th century B.C. H.: 0.036-0.042 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 20858. These small bottles are of a type generally used for drugs and medicine. This set of thirteen, found in the annex to the state prison, may have been used to hold the hemlock that was measured out in the exact dose necessary to cause death. After his trial in 399 B.C., recorded in Plato's Apology, Sokrates was executed in this manner.
Fragmentary marble statuette, 4th century B.C. H.: 0.105 m. Athens, Agora Museum S 1413. Only one statue of Sokrates is recorded in ancient literature. After executing him, the Athenians felt such remorse that eventually they commissioned a bronze statue of Sokrates, the work of the renowned sculptor Lysippos, which they set up in the Pompeion in Athens (Diogenes Laertios 2.43). A bust in Naples may reproduce the original by Lysippos. This small statuette found in the state prison may have been a memento recalling the Lysippan bronze.
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).