Storytelling: Socrates, Alcibiades, and Athenian democracy

Lesson Plan

By John Fines, published 17th January 2011

Nigel Parker's Year 5 class had just made a start on the Ancient Greeks. In this lesson we began with Athenian democracy, where the free adult male citizens decided everything, even ostracizing generals they didn't like.

The story of Socrates

I told the children some of the story of Socrates, who taught many of the young men of Athens. Socrates wouldn't stop asking questions. His questions were resented by the people (the demos), especially when he asked: ‘How do we know whether the gods are really there?' Worse still, he queried the rights of dull, stupid, common people to take part in government. He said they should let one great man rule. The demos ordered him to stop teaching, but he wouldn't. They ordered him away from Athens, but he wouldn't go.

A problem for the class

I stopped the story at this point and asked: What were the demos to do? The children split into groups to debate ideas. They came up with:

  • Cut his tongue out
  • Send him a long way away to find answers to difficult questions
  • Put him on a ship and then set fire to it.

I now told them how Socrates had finally been condemned to take hemlock and die. But who were the winners? One boy thought the demos had won because it had had its way and got rid of Socrates, but another thought Socrates had won because we remember him even today.

The story of Alcibiades

I now moved on to tell the story of Alcibiades, Socrates' favourite pupil. Alcibiades was rich, extravagant and clever.

During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to invade Sicily to extend their empire. He was appointed as one of the three commanders of the expedition. The night before the army sailed to Sicily he held a drunken party. That same night someone threw stones at the statues of the gods, disfiguring their faces. Alcibiades and his friends were accused.

The demos decided that Alciabades should still go off to conquer Sicily and that they would meanwhile try to find out more about the statue incident. Alcibiades and the fleet sailed to Sicily, while back in Athens several informers accused him of mocking the gods and disfiguring the statues. So, when he arrived in Sicily the Athenians sent a ship to recall him to Athens to stand trial.

Alciabades set sail, but when the ship stopped at Thurii for water and food, he escaped and fled to Sparta, Athens' mortal enemy. In Sparta he made love to the Queen and when he was found out he escaped to the court of the King of Persia, enemy of both Sparta and Athens. There secret agents from Sparta found him and burnt him alive in his house.

Meanwhile in Sicily the Athenians lost their army and navy in a huge disaster. So much for following the charms of one great man - perhaps the simple common people, the demos, had it right after all?

This lesson helped the children to begin to meditate a little upon the problems of government and power.



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Ancient Greek government

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