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The “Prison of Socrates”

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that the hills around the Acropolis may be covered in trees today but in antiquity they were part of the city. We should imagine them covered in densely packed houses, along narrow and winding alleys, some of which were so steep that they had stairs. These ancient neighborhoods must have looked a lot like the villages one finds today on the Greek islands.

As population grew and space became scarcer, several resorted to carving extra rooms out of the bare rock of the hills; something similar happens on the island of Santorini, where several homes have at least one or two rooms carved out of the porous volcanic rock where they are built.

One of those ancient buildings, with rooms carved out of the rock, can be seen today on the Hill of the Muses, also known as Philopappou Hill. The three successive rooms, whose only opening is the door, have indeed a dungeon-like appearance. That led many to conclude that they had been a prison, perhaps the very prison where Socrates spent his last days. Yet, although the name stuck, this interpretation owes more to the imagination than to archaeological fact. First, it is unlikely that a prison would exist in a densely populated residential area; secondly, no artifacts or other traces of such use have been found in the area.

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The three rooms as they are today; notice the holes for the beams supporting the roof.

So, if not a prison, then what was it? The truth is we don’t know. Most probably, it was a house; after all this was a residential area. If so, then it must have been quite large: there is a line of rectangular holes above the door where the beams that supported the roof must have fitted. Their other end would have been supported by a wall made by sun-dried mud bricks, as was the custom back then. A winding stairway carved into the rock on the left probably means that there was another floor above that. On the exposed face of the rock, there are water channels leading to the vertical shafts visible above the doors. These must have funneled rainwater to the cistern found at the back.

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The “Prison of Socrates:” notice the lower half of a staircase carved in the rock, on the left.

We may not know for certain what these rooms were used for in antiquity, but we know exactly what they were used for in the middle 20th century: shortly before WW II began, the rooms disappeared behind a thick, ugly wall of concrete. Behind it lay hidden several precious items from the collection of the National Archaeological Museum for protection. Although there were archaeologists serving in the German army, none suspected the wall for what it was and these antiquities were never removed to Germany; they were recovered intact after the war.

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The “Prison of Socrates” after the war: openings to two of the three rooms have been made, but the rest of the concrete has not been removed yet.

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4 comments on “The “Prison of Socrates”

  1. Pingback: Open tour: Philopappou hill | Aristotle, Greek tourist guide

  2. Pingback: Off the beaten path, under snow | Aristotle, Greek tourist guide

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