Sunday, September 02, 2007


Hemlock Again

Peter Watson responds to my post on Drinking Hemlock, in particular about the passage from Plato's Phaedo:
"What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?" "Socrates," said he, "we prepare only as much (τοσοῦτον) as we think is enough." (117b)

But as much what? A reasonable case could be made for τοσοῦτον [κώνειον]. The verb translated here as 'prepared' is actually τρίβομεν, which Liddell & Scott gloss as "2. bruise, pound, knead, κεδρίδας, [κώνειον], Ar.Th.486, Pl.Phd.117b."

The association of τρίβομεν with hemlock underlies the pun in Aristophanes' Frogs 123 when Herakles and Dionysus are discussing the relative merits of different methods of suicide:
ἀλλ' ἔστιν ἀτραπὸς ξύντομος τετριμμένη
ἡ διὰ θυείας.
ἆρα κώνειον λέγεις;
μάλιστά γε.
On τετριμμένη Dover ad loc. comments: "'worn away', i.e. 'well-trodden', and also 'pounded', as hemlock was pounded in a mortar (θυεία) to make a fatal dose (Pl. Phd. 117 B)".


The scholarly consensus is that contemporary readers would have mentally supplied κώνειον with τοσοῦτον, rendering the textual absence of κώνειον largely trivial. Hence, it's something of a damp squib to say that Plato doesn't explicitly mention hemlock.
In defense of my position, I would point out that a contemporary reader might just as easily have mentally supplied φάρμακον (poison) from 117 a (where it is modified by τετριμμένον), as κώνειον (hemlock). Plato of course knew the word for hemlock, which he used in Lysis 219 e; for whatever reason, he did not use it in the Phaedo.

Mr. Watson further writes:
There is also an interesting archaeological dimension. John M. Camp, The Athenian Agora (London:Thames & Hudson, 114-5) has a photograph of thirteen clay medicine bottles recovered from a cistern in a building outside the south-west corner of the Agora.
"The identification [of this building] as the prison is strengthened by the discovery within the building of thirteen little clay medicine bottles, thrown down an abandoned cistern. In all the years of excavating in the Agora only twenty-one such bottles have come to light; thirteen in one place is a suspicious concentration. ... It has been suggested that the bottles were used to hold the hemlock with which the prisoners were dispatched, since we know that the doses of poison were individually mixed and carefully measured out. A small statuette of Sokrates himself found in the ruins of the building perhaps indicates a small memorial to the philosopher, set up in the building by the Athenians, who soon realized their mistake in executing one of the great thinkers of Classical Athens." (p.116)
I wonder if it would be possible to test these bottles for the presence of organic matter, i.e. hemlock.

My email provider, Yahoo Mail, consistently garbles Greek in incoming mail, so all Greek attributed to Mr. Watson above has been tentatively restored by me.

I am also indebted to Gary Hartenburg, who kindly searched the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for early references to κώνειον in connection with Socrates and reports two examples from the first century A.D. The first is Josephus, Against Apion 2.263-264 (adapted from William Whiston's translation):
For on what other account was it that Socrates was put to death by them? For certainly he neither betrayed their city to its enemies, nor was he guilty of any sacrilege with regard to any of their temples; but it was on this account, that he swore certain new oaths and that he affirmed either in earnest, or, as some say, only in jest, that a certain demon used to make signs to him [what he should not do]. For these reasons he was condemned to drink hemlock, and kill himself.

τίνος γὰρ ἑτέρου χάριν Σωκράτης ἀπέθανεν; οὐ γὰρ δὴ προεδίδου τὴν πόλιν τοῖς πολεμίοις οὐδὲ τῶν ἱερῶν ἐσύλησεν οὐδέν, ἀλλ' ὅτι καινοὺς ὅρκους ὤμνυεν καί τι δαιμόνιον αὐτῷ σημαίνειν ἔφασκεν ἢ διαπαίζων, ὡς ἔνιοι λέγουσι, διὰ ταῦτα κατεγνώσθη κώνειον πιὼν ἀποθανεῖν.
The second is Diodorus Siculus 14.37:
At Athens the philosopher Socrates, charged by Anytus and Meletus with impiety and corruption of the young, was condemned and died by drinking hemlock.

Ἀθήνησι δὲ ωκράτης ὁ φιλόσοφος ὑπ᾽ Ἀνύτου καὶ Μελήτου καθηγορηθεὶς ἐπ᾽ ἀσεβίᾳ καὶ φθορᾷ τῶν νέων, θανάτῳ κατεδικάστη καὶ πιῶν κώνειον ἐτελεύτησεν.
There are also Latin examples from roughly the same time. Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 13.14, says, "Hemlock made Socrates famous" (cicuta magnum Socratem fecit), and no one doubts that the "bearded teacher" in Persius 4.1-2 is Socrates:
Imagine that the bearded teacher is speaking, whom the awful swallowing of hemlock killed.

    barbatum haec crede magistrum
dicere, sorbitio tollit quem dira cicutae.

Messrs. Watson and Hartenburg also supply some bibiography:On the medicine bottles in the prison, see:I should point out that I don't doubt that the poison which killed Socrates was in fact hemlock.

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