Socrates as a Soldier

Depicting the philosopher armed and in armour

Depicting the philosopher armed and in armour

“[Socrates] was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly.” — Epictetus

Most people have heard of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher. However, few of us visualize him as a soldier, despite the fact that it’s known for certain that he was one. Socrates served as a Greek hoplite or heavy infantryman. He was no ordinary soldier, though, as we’ll see.

I’m currently working on a graphic novel called Verissimus, about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I’m also organizing a virtual conference called Stoicon-x Military, the first event of its kind. Individuals from different branches of the armed forces, in different countries, will be describing what Stoicism has taught them. The men and women I’ve worked with in the military are often fascinated by the fact that Socrates served as a hoplite but they’ve never actually seen this depicted. So I commissioned a team of artists to design a special poster for the event, showing Socrates in armour, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.

Athenian Military Training

Athens during the classical period of the 4th and 5th centuries BC did not have a standing army but rather a militia, like most other Greek city-states. Every able-bodied male citizen was expected to answer to the call to arms when ordered to do so by the ekklesia or political assembly. Most adult Athenian men therefore served as citizen-soldiers.

I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand…

All male Athenian youths, in a sense, became military cadets. Adolescent boys trained in the ancient martial arts of boxing, wrestling, and pankration, in the gymnasia, or sports grounds, of Athens, in order to prepare themselves for military service. When they reached the age of eighteen, and attained citizenship, they began two years of national service as a member of what’s called the ephebic college. This was effectively the basic training young warriors underwent to serve in future military campaigns. The oath that ephebes took has been preserved as follows:

I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and our hearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey whoever is in authority and submit to the established laws and all others which the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defense, single-handed or with the support of all. I will honor the religion of my fathers. Let the gods be my witness, Agraulus, Enyalius, Ares, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone.

On graduating from their first year each youth would be awarded a spear and shield, at public expense. Although there’s some debate about when this basic training began, there must surely have been some similar form of basic military training during Socrates’ youth as a degree of skill is required in order to fight competently with heavy weapons and armour in a phalanx formation — you can’t just grab a spear and join in!

Socrates in the Army

Like most other Athenian youths, Socrates would therefore have been prepared for active military service by the age of twenty. Indeed, he went on to become a hardened veteran who fought in at least three major battles of the Peloponnesian War. He continued to serve, intermittently, in the Athenian army until he was nearly fifty years old.

He would have been decorated for valour, if he hadn’t turned down the award. In 432 BC the Athenians sent an expeditionary force to besiege the rebellious city of Potidaea in the north of Greece. The siege went on for 2–3 years. It was one of the events triggering the Peloponnesian War, in which Athens and her allies, the Delian League, were pitted against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. The siege ended in disaster for the Athenians. They were cut off from supplies and many died from starvation. The Plague of Athens had broken out back home and also spread into their camp, taking many lives.

Socrates reputedly stood over him and single-handedly defended him from the enemy,

During an enemy attack against the Athenians, Socrates’ friend and messmate, a young officer called Alcibiades, nearly lost his life. He was somehow unhorsed by the enemy, and lay wounded, having lost his armour, presumably his shield and perhaps also his helmet. Socrates reputedly stood over him and single-handedly defended him from the enemy. He not only saved his friend’s life but also recovered his armour, thereby salvaging his honour. Alcibiades was a ward of the leading statesmen Pericles and therefore a member of the most elite circle of Athenian society. He became devoted to Socrates, although later in life, as a maverick general, he became a highly-divisive and controversial figure at Athens.

This was not an isolated act of bravery. Five years later, Socrates took part in the Battle of Delium, in Boeotia, a hostile territory neighbouring Athens. This is believed to have been the first full-scale hoplite battle of the Peloponnesian War, and there were many casualties. Once again, the Athenians were defeated, and forced to withdraw under attack from the enemy. During the retreat, Socrates bravely defended the Athenian general Laches, who had apparently also been unhorsed. Plato portrayed Laches saying of Socrates:

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. — Plato, Laches

We’re told Socrates also took part, years later, in the Battle of Amphipolis, far from home in northern Greece. No details of his role are known. It’s possible that military service into one’s fifties was the norm during Socrates’ lifetime. However, centuries later, Diogenes Laertius seems impressed that, at forty-eight, Socrates was still in good enough physical condition to fight in close-quarters combat alongside, and against, men half his age.

Indeed, Socrates appears to have become quite famous among Athenians as a war hero. Over time, he became an experienced veteran, knowledgeable about military training, strategy, and tactics. The evidence strongly suggests that he performed a function akin, in some ways, to that of a Roman centurion or a modern-day NCO. Indeed, both Plato and Xenophon depict him liaising with, and advising, senior officers, including well-known generals, such as Laches.

Designing the Poster

One of my strategies for writing the script for my graphic novel about Marcus Aurelius was to repeatedly ask myself what amazing things I could find written about by ancient historians which nobody had actually seen depicted before.

For example, several sources tell us that the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, the wayward (adoptive) brother of Marcus Aurelius, uncovered a gigantic skeleton encased in stone, while his men were digging a canal in Syria, during the Parthian War. Some scholars believe, quite plausibly, that it was the fossil of a dinosaur. Nobody, I presumed, had ever really seen a Roman Emperor standing over the fossilized remains of a dinosaur. So I asked my illustrator to draw it, and it’s a full page splash now in Verissimus.

By chance, I’ve been asked to speak about Socrates and Stoicism several times to the military. One of my favourite moments was getting to deliver a workshop at the US Marine Corps University in Quantico. I realized that there was something we kept talking about, again and again, that fascinated everyone, but nobody had ever seen — Socrates as a soldier or, if you like, Socrates in armour. So I thought it would be a great idea to get some artists to create a poster depicting precisely that image.

I wanted to choose a dramatic setting. Sunrise over the hills always looks good. Conveniently, one of the most famous passages concerning Socrates’ military service describes him meditating at daybreak. In Plato’s dialogue called The Symposium, Alcibiades is portrayed recounting a peculiar anecdote. He begins by saying that Socrates, early on, earned a reputation for exceptional toughness and self-discipline among the other soldiers. One morning, at sunrise, he became fixed on some philosophical problem, and stood rooted to the spot in silent contemplation, refusing to budge until he’d fully-grasped whatever he was trying to understand. By nightfall, he’d become a curiosity. A unit of Ionian soldiers, who had been fighting alongside the Athenians, and were camped nearby, carried their camp-beds out of their tents and slept near Socrates so as to observe him. He remained motionless for 24 hours altogether, until sunrise the following morning, when he said a prayer to Apollo, the sun god, and finally went on his way.

This scene is so memorable that I decided to quote the passage from Plato’s Symposium on the poster. I wanted to make it accessible so I consulted several translations, and the original Greek, and produced a slight paraphrase, which I hope captures Plato’s intention in simpler language. My friend, a classicist, Lalya Lloyd, helped me check it against the original to make sure the text’s meaning wasn’t changed much but rather conveyed more clearly to modern readers.

Kasey Pierce of Red Pen Media and Source Point Press, our freelance editor for Verissimus, supervised the design of the poster and helped coordinate the three artists involved. Her input on the overall design helped to make sure it would be very striking. Several of the military personnel who are into Socrates and Stoicism told us they love movies like Gladiator, 300, and books like Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. We tried to create a design inspired by similar movie posters and comic book covers in terms of its overall look and feel.

The illustrator Stan Yak penciled the draft, which went through many revisions based on my feedback and input from others, especially our historical authenticity advisor for Verissimus, Leszek Kalka. I wasn’t too concerned about making everything look exactly as it would have been but we were careful to base the general design fairly closely on authentic details. First of all, we know this scene took place at Potidaea in northern Greece. So the landscape is loosely based on the beaches there, with hills in the background. We also know what Socrates looked like, from countless statues, and we know what an Athenian hoplite looked like. So we just had to put those two images together to make one — Socrates as a hoplite.

Socrates had notoriously distinctive features — so much so that sculptures of him are usually easily identifiable. (Although his image also seems to have merged over time, in some cases, with that of the comedy character Silenus whom Plato says he resembled.) He had bulging eyes, thick lips, and a broad, stubby nose — not conventionally handsome by classical Athenian standards! We know Socrates was aged around thirty-eight by the Battle of Potidaea, when this incident took place. However, we’re used to seeing him depicted as an older man, so I asked the artists to compromise and show him nearing forty but greying.

We had a lot of debate about his weapons and armour. First of all, it’s important to understand that classical Athenian weapons and armour were by no means uniform. As we’ve seen, the Athenian army was a citizen militia not a standing army. Armour was quite expensive and probably sometimes handed down in families. Different Athenian tribes, or regiments, may have had slightly different equipment.

Some warriors, especially the poorer ones, probably fought without much armour, and perhaps even sometimes in the nude. The heaviest, highest-quality, armour, such as the bronze cuirass, probably restricted movement, and would mainly have been worn by officers, typically nobles, mounted on horseback. By the 5th century BC, the armour historians today call linothorax was common, which was made of layers of cotton glued together to form a cheap material harder than cured leather.

A hoplite of Socrates’ standing would probably have at least worn linothorax, although other body armour, such as greaves, were probably optional and varied. He would almost certainly have worn an Attic style helmet and would definitely have carried a hoplon or shield. Some of the emblems on Greek shields appear to have been associated with different city-states. We can see them depicted on ceramics, for example. However, several designs appear to have been used by Athenian hoplites. We don’t know what they signify — perhaps membership of a specific Athenian tribe or regiment. However, we chose the owl shield, attested in ceramics, because of its strong association both with Athens and with philosophy. We based it on the famous drachma design, although similar owl emblems were used on ancient shields. Socrates, like other hoplites, would have been armed primarily with a spear, although he may also have carried a sword for more close-quarters fighting.

The illustrator Robert Nugent coloured Stan’s draft. He transformed the penciled design into something that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a best selling graphic novel. Lettering was designed by Mira Mortal. At first, I wanted to have less text on the poster — maybe losing a sentence — but I thought Mira did such a great job of the comic-book style lettering and captions that I was persuaded not to abbreviate the passage used any further.

The Hymn

Plato tells us that Socrates concluded his meditation by praying to Apollo at daybreak. The Greeks had come to associate Apollo with the sun. So it’s appropriate that Socrates would have prayed to him while contemplating the rising sun. Apollo was the god of the arts, leader of the Muses. He was the god of healing, and of disease. He was also the patron god of Greek military cadets. Depicted as a beardless youth himself, the favourite divine son of Zeus, he was responsible for the training of young men in athletics and martial arts. However, Apollo was also a patron god of philosophy. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates mentions writing a paean or hymn to Apollo while in prison awaiting his execution.

There are many other associations between Apollo and philosophy, which would take us beyond the scope of this discussion. However, Apollo was also the god of prophecy, and his temple at Delphi, outside Athens, was the home of his priestess, the famous Pythia, or Oracle of Delphi. The pronouncements of the Oracle became famous. Today 147 of her maxims survive, virtually all of them consisting of only two words apiece.

Centuries later, the philosopher Plutarch, who was also a priest at Delphi, says that these maxims functioned like seeds from which philosophy grew, as they inspired complex discussions filling numerous lengthy treatises. Socrates himself was inspired by the two most famous Delphic maxims, engraved on a pillar at the entrance to Apollo’s temple: “know thyself” (gnothi seauton) and “nothing in excess” (meden agan). It’s tempting to imagine that he had these, his favourite pieces of Apollonian wisdom, in mind as he awaited the sunrise and said his prayers to Apollo that morning.

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