Ancient History & Civilisation

Socrates of Athens:
Witty & sexy to the very last

Thanks to the adoring, high-minded verbiage of Socrates’ philosophical disciples Plato and Xenophon, you might not have thought their famed teacher belonged on the “sexiest men of 450 B.C.” list. Homely, chubby Socrates nevertheless attracted the ardent attentions of various men and women in the fifth century B.C. For starters, this son of a midwife and a stonemason was married twice, it appears, although no one is sure of the order. Or was it simultaneous? Several biographers assert that Socrates had both wives at the same time, making him history’s earliest philosophical bigamist. Possibly it was allowed by special decree due to the scarcity of Athenians at that time. After a plague, perhaps? We just don’t know.

Myrto, daughter of Aristides the Just, was the “good wife,” about whom almost nothing was written—except the ghastly news to locals that she came to the marriage naked. Naked, that is, of a dowry. Most Greeks would have run the other way, but Socrates did not and the couple had two sons together.

Socrates’ other wife, Xanthippe, made up for the pallid reputation of Myrto by being the saltiest-tongued woman in Athens. Her legendary irascibility led to some of Socrates’ best sound-bite stories. For example, when a student asked how he dealt with his wife’s shrewish temper, he responded, “When men who are fond of spirited horses master those beasts, they then find the rest easy to cope with. So too I in the society of Xanthippe learn to adapt myself to the rest of the world.”

The student in question was another of Socrates’ erotic connections. Brilliant, beautiful, troubled, and irresistible to both men and women, Alkibiades tried without success to seduce Socrates. The philosopher was equally taken with Alkibiades but sublimated his desires by teaching his would-be lover about a higher, noncarnal form of love.

This philosopher, called by the Pythian oracle at Delphi “the wisest of men,” attracted the best and brightest in Athenian society. Among his disciples, admirers, and groupies were aristocratic writers and thinkers such as Aristippus. But Socrates welcomed good minds wherever he found them; Aeschines the sausage-maker’s son was one. Phaedo was another. Born to a noble family, Phaedo was taken as a slave when his city of Elis fell to enemy forces. Sold to a brothel of male prostitutes in Athens, he managed to become part of the philosophical circle. At Socrates’ urging, a couple of his wealthy pupils ransomed Phaedo. From then on, he studied at Socrates’ feet as a free man. It’s possible that these two were intimate.

When not trading quips or embraces (or daydreaming about canoodling with his philosophical cadre), Socrates philosophized and flirted outrageously with any number of uppity women, including Pericles’ lover Aspasia, the classy free-thinker from Miletus, and with other intellectual women who sought knowledge.

His willingness to treat men and women of dubious reputation as warmly as he did their aristocratic counterparts won Socrates mixed blessings: applause from a few, condemnation from many, and vast amounts of jealousy from men he’d criticized—including orators, poets, and politicians.

It was a trio of such men, stung by Socratic jibes and deeply offended by the philosopher’s lifestyle and moral teachings as a social critic, who brought the indictment against Socrates in 399 B.C. Their charges? Impiety and corrupting youth. Ironic indeed, considering the relatively abstemious behavior of Socrates, and the lack of it in his accusers.

Anytus, Lycon, and Meletus got their death wish. About seventy years old, still sassy and spirited, Socrates went to prison and drank his hemlock brew among friends. Although in his last hours he exhibited his deepest love for his close male friends and disciples, he invited his wife Xanthippe to visit him on his deathbed. Once he felt the paralysis of the poison begin to move up his body, he sent his wife, now weeping, back home.

Then he told his friend Crito to pay a last debt for him—a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing. Many have sought to interpret his last request. Some believe he sent this thank-you to the healing deity because death is the “cure” that frees the soul from the body. Others feel that the token for Asclepius meant that his death would help “cure” the political malaise of Athens. But there is another possibility.

Socrates had enough chutzpah for one last riposte. When he said to Crito, “We owe a rooster to Asclepius—don’t forget to take care of it for me, will you?” his gallows humor was not lost on his companions. One fairly common reaction of a dying man is to get an erection. And everybody, not just the ancient Greeks, knows the everyday synonym for a male rooster.

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High-spirited and bawdy to the last, philosopher Socrates left his sorrowing followers with a piquant one-liner as he downed his hemlock cocktail.

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