Up the hill of Filopappou we go. The path we follow is nothing more than a clearing, sandstones crushed by centuries of footsteps. Left and right aged pine trees blinker the light while owls curious about our intent fly from branch to branch. Further we go, dust rising to greet our every stride. The sun that reaches the ground kisses an ancient earth. Fallen cones are revealed, sitting, waiting to release their seed. Past Dora Stratou Theatre, where gallery seats peer at us from above the tree line. Below, shrubs jostle for a ray of light. Quicker we go, around the Roman monument of Julius Antiochus Philopappos. Over the remains of the Themistoclean wall and defensive fortifications. Past the church of Agios Dimitrios the Bombardier. A rocky hillside juts out; the Hill of the Muses. And here we stop. And we look.
And with the eyes of today we see a warren of caves carved into the hill itself; the remains of an ancient civilisation.
But with the eyes of yesterday we see a corridor; five rooms on one side, three on the other, cells at the end. The philosopher Socrates waits in one; the state prison of ancient Athens.
And our minds wander. Prisons have existed throughout time and across civilisations. Never exactly the same, but always there, standing as mirrors. A vivid reflection of the society they inhabit. In looking at a prison we see its creators. We see their hearts and their minds, their values and their beliefs. We understand their innermost thoughts and fears. Through their creation, we understand who they are.
In the Athens of Socrates, the state prison tells us of a people who understood that mistakes were made and who were willing to give a second chance when they were corrected. Justice was concerned with righting wrongs and prisons were used sparingly. Juries mostly fined, removed political rights, publically humiliated, or exiled. When a defendant was found guilty they proposed the punishment they believed appropriate. Prisons were used to hold those who could not pay fines or those sentenced to death, and death sentences were only given with the expectation that the prisoner break out and go into exile. This expectation was so strong that a defendant in a murder trial was given the chance, after his first speech of trial, to leave. The prisoner we saw waiting in a cell, Socrates, was sentenced to death by his jury. Plato’s Crito recounts that Socrates was advised only a moderate sum of money was required to allow his escape from prison. Exile would cure the wrong he had caused, freeing his victims from anger as he disappeared from Athenian society and allowing him the chance of a new beginning elsewhere. Socrates though, forever the thinker, took this as an opportunity to model good citizenship, abiding by the jury’s decision and his legal responsibilities rather than becoming stateless in exile. And so, with a drink of hemlock, his death penalty was realised and he breathed his final breath; freeing his victims from their anger but denying himself a new beginning.
Roman prisons tell us of a hard people, a people who believed cruel punishments were needed to maintain law and order. Imprisonment was not a sentence under statutory law, however detention was mentioned throughout the Digest (a compendium of writing on Roman Law compiled by emperor Justinian I). Prisons were used as a temporary measure to hold those awaiting trial, though house arrest and bail were common, and allowed wrongdoers to go into exile or kill themselves to spare their family the public humiliation of a trial. For ‘distinguished citizens’ the stripping of citizenship and exile was considered the worst punishment imaginable. For ‘lower citizens’ and non-citizens most crimes carried the death penalty, with the guilty party quickly sent to an amphitheatre to be fed to the beasts or die in combat. Higher profile prisoners such as traitors were exposed in a Roman triumph, a celebration parade where a military commander displayed the shackled prisoner and crowds could hurl abuse at them. The prisoner was then strangled and thrown in a river or lowered into a prison like the Tullianum to die of starvation out of sight. The apostles Peter and Paul were said to have been held here, but were brought up to be publically executed. For the crime of patricide a person was immediately blindfolded (as they were unworthy of light), whipped, sown into a sack with a serpent, ape and dog, and thrown into the sea. Hard labour was also a common sentence, usually in mills, mines or quarries. These places were almost exclusively underground, with tight and claustrophobic passageways and cells. The Mamertine Prison (previously Tullianum) was located within the sewer system of Rome. Conditions were squalid and most prisoners were chained to workbenches where they performed their labour, slept, and died.
The prisons in the England of Queen Victoria show a people who believed a single act does not define a person. A person may commit a sin, but there must always be opportunity for them to redeem themselves. A move away from harsh penalties began when juries, in the knowledge that capital punishment was possible for most crimes, started to refuse to convict defendants. The idea of the loss of freedom itself becoming the punishment was supported by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon concept, allowing prisons to be built where a large number of prisoners could be watched by a single watchman.
The High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, John Howard, proposed in his 1777 report ‘The State of the Prisons’ reforms to make prisons harsh but liveable, with prisoners provided with a healthy diet and reasonable living conditions.
A prisoner paid penance for their crime by losing their freedom, but prisons progressively became more humane. Prisoners were given increased opportunities to better themselves, eventually to be released back into society ready to make a contribution to the community they had let down with their crime.
Nineteen years after Socrates drank his hemlock in the Athens state prison, Plato wrote his best known work, Republic. Within this he uses dialogue between Socrates and various Athenians and foreigners to present his idea that most people live their entire lives within prisons. To prove this he describes a cave inside which prisoners are chained. All they see are shadows projected onto a wall by objects passing behind them.
And Socrates asks; if all their lives these prisoners only saw these shadows, would they believe the shadows are real and all there is in the world? Socrates suggests that our experiences impose a prison upon us, a prison created by our upbringing and our surroundings, a mental prison that constricts our thoughts and decides our behaviour. In the cave the chains that prevent a prisoner from leaving represent our ignorance. The shadows cast on the walls represent the illusions we mistake for the present world. And finally, freed prisoners represent those in society who see the physical world for the illusion that it is.
The mental prison Socrates describes is insidious because it is invisible. How can we overcome prisons we do not know are there? How can we free ourselves if we do not know we are trapped?
These prisons exist in our time exactly as they did in his.
And so the answer Socrates gave applies to us today just as it did in his Athens – thought and questioning. And he modelled this answer so he could help all Athenians escape their mental prison. He questioned the value of clinging to past glories to gain pride.
He questioned the notion of material wealth and argued its pursuit came at a cost to the person. And he questioned Athenians fixation with physical beauty, a fixation he considered came at the cost of improving one’s mind. For asking these questions Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death. His sentence reflected an Athenian society that was fearful, a society that did not want its youth to question the very foundations of their world for prisons.
But in our world we are free to ask these questions. We can examine our lives for prisons that trap us. We can look deeper than routine so that we can make our lives meaningful, lives we choose, lives that are deliberate not imposed.
We can experience the world the way we want to. We can think. We can learn. We can change. We can throw off the chains of prisons that trap us. And we can remake the world to meet our values and beliefs.
“It is never too late to be what you might have been,” said Mary Ann Evans.
“The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage,” said Thucydides. In a life that is short spending our time in prisons is a tragedy. We all deserve to live a life we want to live, free of constraint, full of achievement that gives us joy. Not achievement for others, but for ourselves. And this we can achieve by thinking and questioning, just as the prisoner Socrates taught us.
We take a final look at the cave and turn, ready to continue our journey through Filopappou Hill. Behind us the ghost of the philosopher Socrates and of ancient Athens fades away.
We leave their achievements with them, and take with us their teachings; to question deeply, to make deliberate choices, and to be true to our hearts. And we see with the eyes of today.
We see not what was but what is. And now we can be free. Truly free.