Socrates the Soldier

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

Socrates and Alcibiades at the Battle of Potidaea

Or how will you still be able to say as Socrates did, If so it pleases God, so let it be? Do you think that Socrates if he had been eager to pass his leisure in the Lyceum or in the Academy and to discourse daily with the young men, would have readily served in military expeditions so often as he did; and would he not have lamented and groaned, Wretch that I am; I must now be miserable here, when I might be sunning myself in the Lyceum? (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4)

Most 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.  The Suda, a 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia, likewise briefly states: “he campaigned against Amphipolis and Potidaea and fought in the battle of Delium”.

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.  During his trial he mentions in passing that just as he considered it his duty to remain where he was stationed during these three battles, despite the risk of death, he also considered it his duty, following the Delphic Oracle’s guidance, to pursue philosophy even the face of opposition, persecution, and the risk of death by execution.

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.

And that you may not think that I show you the example of a man who is a solitary person, who has neither wife nor children, nor country, nor friends nor kinsmen, by whom he could be bent and drawn in various directions, take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly. (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1)

Socrates’ Military Attire

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)

Diogenes Laertius suggests that Socrates, Antisthenes, and the subsequent Cynic philosophers wore a light grey cloak (tribon), made from undyed wool or linen, 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 stack 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.

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 woollen 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)

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 the duration of the siege, which lasted two or three years, ending in 430/429 BC.  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.  (Charmides was a mere boy when Socrates left Athens and is now a young man, implying he has been gone for several years with the army.)  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 inquiry.  Plato appears to assume that Socrates is well-known as a philosopher by this date and has established his trademark method of questioning.  If correct, he must already have been known as a philosopher (perhaps long) before 432 BC when he left Athens to serve in the army attacking Potidaea, aged around 38.

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)

Plutarch also describes this incident:

While still a stripling, he served as a soldier in the campaign of Potidaea, and had Socrates for his tent-mate and comrade in action.  A fierce battle took place, wherein both of them distinguished themselves; but when Alcibiades fell wounded, it was Socrates who stood over him and defended him, and with the most conspicuous bravery saved him, armour and all. The prize of valour fell to Socrates, of course, on the justest calculation; but the generals, owing to the high position of Alcibiades, were manifestly anxious to give him the glory of it. Socrates, therefore, wishing to increase his pupil’s honourable ambitions, led all the rest in bearing witness to his bravery, and in begging that the crown and the suit of armour be given to him. (Lives)

Alcibiades also describes in Plato’s Symposium 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.” (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 were killed, including their general.  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. (Laches)

Laches later says to Socrates that although he has never heard him discuss philosophy he would be delighted to be questioned by him about virtue:

So high is the opinion which I have entertained of you ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger, and gave a proof of your valour such as only the man of merit can give. (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. (Symposium)

Plutarch mentions this incident, adding some details:

On another occasion, in the rout of the Athenians which followed the battle of Delium, Alcibiades, on horseback, saw Socrates retreating on foot with a small company, and would not pass him by, but rode by his side and defended him, though the enemy were pressing them hard and slaying many. This, however, was a later incident. (Lives)

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.  Alternatively, if Diogenes or a copyist simply has the name wrong, he could perhaps be thinking either of the time Socrates saved Alcibiades, although that was probably at Potidaea, or possibly of Socrates’ defence of the Athenian general Laches at Delium, if he had been unhorsed.

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)

8 replies on “Socrates the Soldier”

Do you have any information about the picture of hoplites at the top of this article. I am particularly interested in the symbol of ‘three legs’ on the middle shield. Is there any evidence that this symbol was actually used in classical Greece?

I do understand that philosophy could bloom from hardship…
War and all the human emotions in it can create, not to say even enhance a parapsychological experience to a very sensitive and one in a kind person.
Socrates and his “voice of truth” Daimonion…appears to me, and I say this in a very humble way, to the whispering of Nature telling us our place in the universe.
Just like Zhuang Zhou and “the Pivot of the Dao”.

Eye-opening article. I simply had no idea about Socrates’ military background. Thanks for writing this.

Very thorough description of Socrates’ military service given the few resources we have. Good catch on Socrates saving the life of Xenophon. It could be another Xenophon. The Wiki article on Xenophon has this wrong, presuming that Socrates saved the famous Xenophon. Thank you for your research on this topic.

I’ve known vaguely of his military service and recognized his exhibiting symptoms of PTSD in his later life, leaving his family, apparently living in the streets or wherever, engaging with notable individuals in debate and showing them to be foolish and not nearly so smart as they thought they were and finally willingly drinking the hemlock when arrested and sentenced to death for it, though ostensibly that was supposed to be for following other gods and corrupting the youth. But this is the first account I’ve ever read of his actual military service and wartime experiences. Thank you for putting it all together!

This is wonderful, painting a picture of the man. My first thought is that the “light gray woolen cloak” typical of ancient philosophers only survives in — of all places — the Star Wars saga. Socrates’ comportment as a soldier also jibes with the Jedi ethic. The biggest difference being magical thinking (which is real) vs. physical magic (such as psychokinesis, which is merely wishful thinking). There’s a reason for the appeal of stories like the Jedi. The ancient philosophy will never die, however we a lot of serious studying to do.

Thanks for bringing together all of these sources on his military service. I’ve shared the post on Twitter.

I wonder if it’s accurate to describe him as a decorated soldier despite the fact that he didn’t actually accept the prize after the Battle of Potidaea.

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