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.
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.