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Athenian Agora - The State Prison

runs of the agoraAn easily overlooked Classical building, dated to ca. 450 BC, is located at the southwest corner of the Agora, next to the 'Street of the Marble Workers'.

It is situated just outside the formal boundaries of the Agora and is surrounded by houses and workshops.

The building measures 40 x 17 m and does not display the usual Classical house plan, where rooms are usually grouped around a central courtyard. Instead it has a long corridor with five rooms on one side and three on the other and a walled courtyard at the far end.

Possibly, this elongated building was the State Prison, with the eight rooms acting as prisoner's cells.

The northwest room has a large pithos (an earthenware storage vessel) set into its floor that was used for the collection of water. This room could therefore have been a bath room. In the northeast room 13 'medicine bottles' (small terracotta vessels) had been thrown into a cistern after their use. Such miniature vessels are rarely found in houses or other buildings and are thought to have been used for the handing out of hemlock (a poisonous herbal potion) to prisoners who had been condemned to death.

If this building was indeed the State Prison, it would be the place where the famous philosopher Socrates was locked up and executed in 399 BC. Sokrates, 'the wisest of all men', because he knew that he knew nothing, was very popular with the young people of Athens and increasingly unpopular with their parents. They accused Socrates of 'corrupting the youth' and in the ensuing court proceedings the philosopher was found guilty by 281 to 220 votes. Under Athenian law Socrates was allowed to propose a suitable punishment, such as banishment, which the jury in all likelihood would have accepted. He chose the unacceptable alternative of paying a fine, which insulted the jury. As a result he was sentenced to death and given the hemlock which he drank with great dignity.

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