Socrates the Soldier

Some notes on Socrates’ military service, and how it’s described in the surviving sources.

Athenian hoplitesMost people think of Socrates (470-399 BC) as a balding, pot bellied, old philosopher, with a beard.  People are often surprised to learn that Socrates was, in fact, also a decorated military hero, renowned among other army veterans for his courage on the battlefield, and for his extraordinary endurance and self-discipline.  Some scholars believe that it was actually Socrates’ heroism at the Battle of Delium that catapulted him to fame in Athens.

Socrates served as an Athenian hoplite, and distinguished himself in several important battles during the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), in which Athens and its allies fought the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.  We learn about Socrates’ military service mainly from the Dialogues of Plato and in Diogenes Laertius’ chapters on Socrates and Xenophon in Lives and Opinions.  However, there are also allusions to Socrates’ conduct and character in the military to be found in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which contains many allusions to the Battle of Delium, the events of which it followed by merely a few months.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates himself cites his service as a hoplite, or armored infantryman, in the Athenian army during the extended siege of Potidaea (432 BC), the Athenian assault on Delium (424 BC) and the expedition to defend the Athenian colony of Amphipolis (422 BC).  Socrates was an older soldier, aged between 38 and 48, when these particular battles took place.

In Plato’s Laches, the eponymous general is portrayed as describing an eyewitness account of Socrates’ exceptional service in the Battle of Delium.  In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades likewise describes witnessing Socrates’ courage in the battles of Potidaea and Delium.  We have a brief mention of Socrates’ service from Xenophon but also a longer portrayal of Socrates discussing military training and tactics, in a manner indicative of his past experience.  It’s clear from the surviving writings that Socrates was famous among Athenians for his military endurance, self-discipline, and courage on the battlefield.  He is also portrayed as an experienced veteran, whose opinions on military matters are valued by his younger followers.

Socrates’ Military Attire

Diogenes Laertius suggests that Socrates, Antisthenes, and the subsequent Cynic philosophers wore a light grey cotton cloak (tribon), and carried a staff (bakteria).  These appear to the resemble the “Spartan staff and cloak”, which Plutarch describes as well-known symbols of the Spartan military.  The staff used by Socrates and the Cynics was typically called a bakteria, which is the same word used to describe the staff carried by Spartan officers, and used to beat helot slaves and discipline their subordinates.

We don’t know much about Socrates’ use of the staff.  However, it plays an important role in anecdotes about his follower Antisthenes and the Cynics.  According to legend, Antisthenes went barefoot and wore only the cloak, which he doubled over to use as a blanket in winter.  He reputedly taught this to Diogenes the Cynic (although modern scholars doubt they actually met) and it became particularly associated with the Cynic tradition.  We are repeatedly told that Socrates also went barefoot, although we don’t know if he doubled his cloak in a similar manner.

According to one story, the Cynic staff was originally used as a walking stick by Diogenes but later to defend himself against scoundrels.  We’re also told repeatedly about Antisthenes and Diogenes beating followers and onlookers with their staffs, to make a point.  Again, we don’t hear anything about Socrates behaving in this manner, although there is a curious anecdote about him meeting the Athenian general Xenophon for the first time, in which Socrates blocks Xenophon’s path by holding his bakteria across a narrow alleyway.

The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his staff [bakteria] to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question, “And where do men become good and honourable?” Xenophon was fairly puzzled; “Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and learn.” From that time onward he was a pupil of Socrates. (Lives and Opinions)

Socrates’ Military Endurance

Plato’s account of Socrates focuses on his reputation for exceptional endurance (karteria) in the army, as well as his bravery and self-discipline.  In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates freezes in deep meditation en route to a drinking party (the ‘symposium’ of the title).  The host, Agathon, and the other guests, are left waiting; a slave is sent and returns reporting:

“Socrates is here, but he’s gone off to the neighbour’s porch. He’s standing there and won’t come in even though I called him several times.”

Agathon gives the order, “Go back and bring him in!” but Socrates’ companion, Aristodemus, objects:

“No, no, leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands frozen, wherever he happens to be.”

Socrates eventually arrives when the meal is halfway finished, at which Agathon chides him:

“Socrates, come lie down next to me. Who knows, if I touch you, I may catch a bit of the enlightenment (sophia) that came to you under my neighbour’s porch. It’s clear you’ve seen the light. If you hadn’t you’d still be standing there!”

Toward the end of the symposium, the drunken Alcibiades arrives. He begins a speech singing the praises of his beloved mentor, describing how the middle-aged Socrates exhibited surprising sexual restraint by continually spurning his advances, even when he went so far as slipping naked into bed with him. Alcibiades was at this time a youth, famous for his beauty.

Alcibiades continues by describing various events which he observed during their military service together, in the battles of Potidaea (432 BC) and Delium (424 BC). During battle of Potidea Socrates was awarded the ‘prize of pre-eminent valour’, which he declined in preference that it should belong to Alcibiades, who later (c. 416 BC) rose to the rank of Athenian general.  (According to some accounts, though, Socrates was overlooked by the generals in favour of Alcibiades.)  This may be connected with the fact that Socrates reputedly saved the life of Alcibiades at Potidea.

Despite his age, Socrates appeared to be hardier and tougher than any other soldier. He walked barefoot on ice, and in bitter cold wore only the customary grey, light cotton cloak of the ancient philosophers. When supplies were lost he seemed impervious to hunger. He wasn’t partial to drink, but he could drink any man under the table, seemingly unaffected by alcohol. We are also told that several times when Athens was rife with plague, Socrates was the only citizen unaffected by illness.  The Athenian troops at Potidaea were also affected by a plague, which Socrates presumably avoided.  The curious incident on the way to the Symposium is portrayed as typical of Socrates and illustrative of his behaviour, particularly his endurance, during his military service.

The Battle of Potidaea (432 BC)

Greek hoplite
Do we imagine Socrates like this?

The Athenians sent a force to attack the rebellious city of Potidaea, a former tribute-paying ally.  They ended up laying siege to its defences for three years.  This was one of the events that instigated the Peloponnesian War.  We don’t know how long Socrates served in this campaign but it may have been for up to three years, and he would have experienced siege warfare first-hand.  The Athenians were cut off from their supplies and suffered considerable hardship as a result.  There was an outbreak of plague among them at one point, which does not seem to have affected Socrates.

Socrates was probably already becoming famous as a philosopher by this point.  He was a messmate and friend of the young Alcibiades, a ward of the great Athenian statesman and general Pericles, who would later rise to the rank of Athenian general himself.  From what we know, it appears Socrates was already viewed as a competent and courageous hoplite.  During one intense battle, the Athenian lines broke, and their troops began to scatter in retreat.  Alcibiades was wounded but Socrates single-handedly rescued him and saved his life.

Plato set The Charmides the day after Socrates returned from Potidaea where he says little about the conflict except referring to Socrates’ “long absence” from Athens on military service and the fact that on the journey home some of Socrates’ friends had been slain in skirmishes.  Plato portrays Socrates being quizzed about the campaign by the excited Athenian youths who meet him on his return.  However, he doesn’t appear to want to say much about the war and artfully shifts the conversation instead back to philosophical enquiry.

Of the Battle of Potidaea, Diogenes Laertius wrote,

[Socrates] served at Potidaea, where he had gone by sea, as land communications were interrupted by the war.  While there he is said to have remained a whole night without changing his position, and to have won the prize of valour. But he resigned it to Alcibiades, for whom he cherished the tenderest affection, according to Aristippus in the fourth book of his treatise On the Luxury of the Ancients.  (Diogenes Laertius)

Likewise, Plato portrays Alcibiades’ account of Socrates at the battles of Potidaea and Delium.

And in combat, if you want to hear about it – for it is just to credit him with this once when there was a battle for which the generals gave me the prize of excellence, no other human being saved me but he; for he was not willing to leave me wounded, but saved both myself and my weapons. And even then, Socrates, asked the generals to offer me the prize of excellence. And in this too you will not blame me and say that I lie; but as a matter of fact, when the generals looked to my rank and wanted to offer me the prize of excellence, you [Socrates] proved more eager than the generals that I take it rather than yourself. (Symposium)

Alcibiades goes on to describe how, during the Potidaea campaign, Socrates would enter meditative trances to the amazement of his fellow soldiers.  He begins by using a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, comparing Socrates to the Ithacan king, adventurer, and general Odysseus.

“So much for that! But you should hear what else he did during that same campaign, ‘The exploit our strong-hearted hero dared to do.’ One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood in the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the Sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.” (The Symposium)

The Battle of Delium (424 BC)

Five years after the siege of Potidaea ended, Delium was the first full-scale hoplite battle of the whole Peloponnesian War, and it has also been called the bloodiest.  The Athenian army fortified the sanctuary of Apollo Delium with a wooden palisade, in an attempt to create a stronghold in the heart Boeotia, which was hostile territory close to Athens.  (This was presumably a sacrilegious act.)  Before long, a superior Theban force attacked and the Athenians were somehow thrown into disarray, at one point attacking and killing dozens of their own men by mistake.  They were forced to make a chaotic retreat, abandoning the small garrison trapped inside the sanctuary walls.  The men left in the building were then attacked by the Theban army using some novel “flame-blowing” siege engine, which burned their fortifications to the ground, scattering the garrison within.  Some of the Athenians who had been left behind were apparently burned alive inside the sanctuary.  According to Thucydides, nearly 500 Boeotians fell and nearly 1,000 Athenians, including their general were killed.  This was a humiliating and troublesome military disaster for the Athenians and it occurred close to their own borders.

Plato portrays the Athenian general Laches, in the dialogue of the same name, commending Socrates for his bravery as follows:

[…] I have seen him maintaining, not only his father’s, but also his country’s name. He was my companion in the retreat from Delium, and I can tell you that if others had only been like him, the honour of our country would have been upheld, and the great defeat would never have occurred. (The Laches)

Plato puts the following words in the mouth of Alcibiades:

Furthermore, men, it was worthwhile to behold Socrates when the army retreated in flight from Delium; for I happened to be there on horseback and he was a hoplite. The soldiers were then in rout, and while he and Laches were retreating together, I came upon them by chance. And as soon as I saw them, I at once urged the two of them to take heart, and I said I would not leave them behind.

I had an even finer opportunity to observe Socrates there than I had had at Potidaea, for I was less in fear because I was on horseback. First of all, how much more sensible he was than Laches; and secondly, it was my opinion, Aristophanes (and this point is yours); that walking there just as he does here in Athens, ‘stalking like a pelican, his eyes darting from side to side,’ quietly on the lookout for friends and foes, he made it plain to everyone even at a great distance that if one touches this real man, he will defend himself vigorously. Consequently, he went away safely, both he and his comrade; for when you behave in war as he did, then they just about do not even touch you; instead they pursue those who turn in headlong flight. (The Symposium)

Of Delium, Diogenes Laertius wrote,

[…] and when in the battle of Delium Xenophon had fallen from his horse, he [Socrates] stepped in and saved his life.  For in the general flight of the Athenians he personally retired at his ease, quietly turning round from time to time and ready to defend himself in case he were attacked. (Lives and Opinions)

This is either a mistake or he’s referring to another Xenophon because Socrates’ follower of that name would only have been eight years old at the time.  (He could be thinking either to the time he saved Alcibiades, although that was probably at Potidaea, or possibly to Socrates’ defence of the Athenian general Laches at Delium.)

The Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC)

Socrates was a military veteran, approximately 48 years old, with a well-known reputation for his exceptional endurance and courage when the battle of Amphipolis took place.  As far as we know, this was his last battle.  Diogenes Laertius sounds impressed that he was hardy enough to take to the field once again as a hoplite, despite his age.

He took care to exercise his body and kept in good condition. At all events he served on the expedition to Amphipolis.  (Lives and Opinions)

Two years after the Battle of Delium, the Athenians undertook a military expedition to recapture the town of Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in Thrace that had been taken by the Spartans shortly after the Athenian defeat at Delium.  However, the campaign failed.

Among the generals at this battle was Thucydides, the famous Greek historian.  He was responsible for shipping in reinforcements for the Athenians but failed to get them on the field in time to make a difference.  The Athenians therefore tried Thucydides for incompetence and exiled him for twenty years as punishment.  However, we know nothing more about Socrates’ role in the battle.

Xenophon’s Account

Xenophon was himself a young soldier, who later rose to the rank of general.  It’s surprising perhaps that he does not say more about Socrates’ military service.

Again, concerning Justice he did not hide his opinion, but proclaimed it by his actions. All his private conduct was lawful and helpful: to public authority he rendered such scrupulous obedience in all that the laws required, both in civil life and in military service, that he was a pattern of good discipline to all. (Memorabilia, 4.4.1)

In the Memorabilia, Xenophon portrays Socrates saying,

Which will find soldiering the easier task, he who cannot exist without expensive food or he who is content with what he can get? Which when besieged will surrender first, he who wants what is very hard to come by or he who can make shift with whatever is at hand? (Memorabilia, 1.6.9)

Then in his Apology, Xenophon refers to the siege of Athens during the last year of the Peloponnesian War.

Or for this, that during the siege, while others were commiserating their lot, I got along without feeling the pinch of poverty any worse than when the city’s prosperity was at its height? Or for this, that while other men get their delicacies in the markets and pay a high price for them, I devise more pleasurable ones from the resources of my soul, with no expenditure of money? And now, if no one can convict me of misstatement in all that I have said of myself, do I not unquestionably merit praise from both gods and men? (Apology, 1.18)


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