the marriage of Socrates, friendship, and life and death of the sole

death of Socrates

You yourself, Aristomenes, were you there on the day that Socrates married?

Yes, I was, and it makes me tremble to recall the strange mix of pleasure and pain with which we, his friends, saw him led to the altar. We gathered at the Cock & Bull for his bachelor party. No topless serving girls jiggling with trays, no pole-dancing beauties with marvelous twists and turns caressing poles — Socrates desired only to sit and drink and talk with his friends.

So, what did the man say before getting married? How did he prepare himself to meet that end? We all crowded around to learn how Fate had struck. Socrates insisted that before any talk we make a toast to marriage drained to the dregs. Then he spoke.

Elated that the Redskins had defeated the Cowboys, from RFK Stadium I walked home talking to myself. Can we say that Bigness and Smallness are both in the Redskins? Can we say that the Redskins are better than the Cowboys, because the Redskins are bigger than the Cowboys? Or is it because of the color of their skins? How much redder would the Cowboys’ skins be if the Redskins could skin skin?

Socrates, please, tell us how it happened!

Along with many others, I was laid off from my job as an adjunct professor at the Frederick Douglass Community College. Some proposed a hunger strike in protest. But my unemployment benefits were higher than the meager wage the college paid to its slave-like adjuncts. I was already nearly starving. My belly ached with the ache that has gnawed at thinkers and writers since Hesiod lamented the rocky soil that he worked. So I bought a delicious double quarter-pounder with cheese, a hamburger to truly honor the hungry. At MacDonald’s, that’s cheaper than a half-pounder.

A week later I was evicted from my studio apartment. I could pay the rent with my unemployment check, but they refused to renew a lease to the jobless. Shaken to the essence of my being, I checked into a cheap inn that had at its front desk a hostess named Xanthippe. She was an old woman, but still somehow had a sexy look in the joyfully expanding wrinkles around her eyes. I told her that I had extensively studied philosophy, that I had been abruptly laid off as an adjunct professor, and that I could no longer explore being with students. She invited me to her bed. With one single act of sex, and with knowledge of how law imposes forced financial fatherhood on men, I had no better choice than to accept a decrepit and pestilential Xanthippe as my future wife.

At the Cock & Bull, all Socrates’s friends were distraught. Peter Dronke wept. He said, “Socrates, I’ve come to recognize you as the noblest and gentlest and best man among all who have drank at this bar. How could the best man get married?” Dronke spasmodically sobbed, turned, and walked away without paying his bar tab. But R. Howard Bloch, more a hanger-on than a friend, told Socrates, “You valorize in imputation all the impassioned violence of men for your acts of writing with a pen. You hate women because you choose the voluputations of Venus and a hoary whore so as to gain a patriarchal position in the home.” Socrates, with a look of befuddlement on his face, said nothing in response.

I put two fingers to my mouth. Pushing my lips gently through them, I told Bloch, “Don’t disparage that other-worldly woman, or she will do us grave harm. She is a witch. She can cause the sky to fall or the earth to heave into the air; she can solidify gushing fountains, dissolve mountains, call up daemons and bring down gods, extinguish stars and light up Hell.” Bloch scoffed and said, “Take away that tragic curtain, fold up these linguistic constructions, and set it out in ordinary language.” With a heavy heart I responded, “She has turned you into a chased beaver. You’re obscuring your transformation by the fuliginous fabric of your pants. She forced a man to make monthly payments to a woman who raped him. She could turn me into a frog.” I’d rather be turned into a donkey, which is well-hung, I thought.

Fearing that Xanthippe might sniff even from a great distance word of what was said and that doing so might spur her to abuse Socrates further, I coaxed him to come with me to my apartment. Having made many strong toasts to marriage, he was weary and quite drunk. Soon he was snoring on my bed even as I spoke learnedly of contraries, hoping he would understand their relevance to the merits of marriage. What if Xanthippe stormed into the room in search of Socrates? I put my cot across the door to be sure that I could insist that he wasn’t here and call for help before she could break in.

After much restless worry I finally fell asleep. Then suddenly the door was smashed in. It tumbled over my cot, overturning it and pressing me underneath like a turtle with a cot shell. I kept my body hidden within my shell and, raising the lid of one eye, warily scanned the room. Two old women, one with a bare sword and another with a lighted lantern, menacingly surrounded the sleeping Socrates. The one with the sword said:

This one, sister Panthia, is the dear Endymion, this one is my Catamite, who for days and nights made fun of my tender age, this is the one who poured disdain on my love and not only maligned me with slanders, but also arranged his escape. But I, deserted, to be sure, through the cunning of an Odysseus, will weep, Calypso-like, for my eternal loneliness.

Then she pointed to me:

He’s watching us, he who led my fiancé to the Cock & Bull bachelor party where unkind words were said about me. Later, no soon, no right now, he’ll feel pain for his past pleasantries and present watchfulness.

Panthia proposed tearing my limbs off in a Bacchic frenzy, or at least tying me up and castrating me. I quaked with fear, causing the cot on top of me to jiggle and dance. Xanthippe said no, let him live to see his friend Socrates led to the altar. Then she plunged her sword into the left side of Socrates’s neck and thrust it in to the hilt. After carefully collecting in a leather bottle blood gushing from the wound, she stuck her right hand into the wound and reached down into Socrates’s innards. Grasping his heart, she pulled it out as he rasped forth a moan. She took a wooden box from her satchel, placed his heart into it, and returned the box to her satchel. Then she staunched his throat wound with a sponge.

The old women-witches came toward me. They pulled away my protective cot shell, squatted over my face, and emptied their bladders. I was soaked in their urine. With wetted, stinging eyes I watched them walk out of the room. Then the door suddenly pulled back from the floor onto its hinges as if it had never been smashed in. I felt as if I had experienced a bad, wet dream that had left me extensively soiled. How could I attend my dead friend Socrates’s wedding?

I knew it was impossible. I couldn’t live to do it. I addressed my cot as a death-bringing savior:

Now is the time, my cot, most dear to my heart, you who have suffered together with me so many trials and tribulations as my accomplice and spectator of what happened this night. You, whom alone I can summon as witness for how I was soiled, now that my life promises to lead me to see my dead friend married, supply the saving weapon to me and send me to the Underworld where the blessed dead don’t live to be married.

After this solemn oration I unraveled the rope that held together the cot’s frame. I tossed one end of the rope over a beam near the window and tied the other end into a noose. I climbed up onto the remains of the cot and fitted the noose around my neck. I pushed away the cot’s remains. so that my body would drop, the noose would tighten around my neck, and my inspiration would end. Instead the rope, old and worn, broke. I tumbled to the floor atop the inert body of my beloved friend Socrates.

At that very moment the porter burst into the room. The dead Socrates got up and walked toward him. Socrates spoke to him of his rudeness in waking us from our pleasurable sleep. I was filled with astonishment and joy. Socrates lives! I embraced him and began kissing him passionately as the porter looked at us knowingly. Socrates pushed me away, saying, “You stink like the bottom of a latrine.” Indeed I did, and he began to enquire why. I improvised an absurd joke to shift the direction of the dialogue. Then I took his hand and proposed, “Let’s enjoy the charms of an early-morning stroll.”

Walking through a meadow in the radiant light of morning, I kept studying the spot on Socrates’s throat where Xanthippe had thrust her sword. I said to myself:

You are mad, you were buried in your cups of wine and had merely a bad nightmare! Look, Socrates is untouched, healthy and unhurt. Where is the wound, where is the sponge? Where, finally, is that scar so deep, so fresh?

I said to Socrates:

It’s not without reason that trustworthy doctors maintain that people swollen with food and spirited drinks have vicious and oppressive dreams. Take me, for instance. Because last evening I did not sufficiently restrain myself from the marriage toasts, a rough night brought me dire and wild visions, so that I still believe that I have been splattered and polluted with human blood.

Socrates smirked at this and responded:

You were not doused in blood, but in piss. But I myself had a dream, too, that I had my throat cut. For I felt pain in my throat, right here, and believed that my heart itself was torn out of me. Even now I am out of breath, my knees shaking when I walk, and I crave some drink to warm my spirits again.

Without understanding, I asked Socrates if he, the most blessed and happy of men, still intended to marry Xanthippe. Isn’t getting married an injustice against those who love you? Doesn’t your body rebel in fear at the horror of sexless marriage? How can you endure the idea that marriage is meant to last forever, despite better and worse opportunities for escape, even through sickness and death?

Socrates explained that, for men, marriage is the practice of dying and being dead. Love, he explained, is a prison from which men find release in marriage. If you embrace misology and misandry, you find no reason to fear death, and you understand that marriage is purification that brings men to ennobling love. Moreover, in truth, under long-established paternity law, sexless marriage doesn’t impede a husband from being credited with many children. Many persons’ beliefs about paternity are merely shadows and lies.

I sank to the ground in aporia.

Two weeks later, with his friends watching in silence, Socrates was led to the altar to marry Xanthippe. His friends never saw him again.

death of Socrates

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The above story is adapted from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses 1.6-19 (Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe), and more distantly, from Plato’s Phaedo. Scholars haven’t adequately appreciated the relation of Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe to literature of men’s sexed protest. The above adaptation is intended to advance scholarly inquiry into this important topic.

Several quotations above are closely adapted from the English translation of May (2013). They are (cited by book.chapter.section in Metamorphoses and page in id.): 1.12.4–6, p. 77 (This one, sister Panthia…); 1.16.2-3 (Now is the time, my cot…); 1.18.2-3, p. 83; 1.18.4-5, p. 83 (It’s not without reason…); 1.18.6-7, p. 83 (You were not doused in blood…). The incident of the two women pissing on Socrates is lightly adapted from Metamorphoses 1.13.8. For a close reading of that incident, Watson (2004).

The Metamorphoses emphasizes negative possibilities for marriage. It presents “marriage as undependable, sexual trust as unimaginable, and conjugality as a likely source of humiliation and amusement for others.” Lateiner (2000) p. 316. “The general idea of marriage in Apuleius is that there is an ultimate breakdown of affection.” May (2005) p. 148. In the Metamorphoses, the sexual relation of Photis and Lucius, however, is extraordinarily warm and generous. On optimistic views of marriage in the Metamorphoses, McNamara (2003).

The recovery of the lost third book of Apuleius’s De Platone et eius Dogmate should increase interest in Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe. In his summary of Phaedo, Apuleius observed:

the origins of things and their ends come about from their opposites.

{origines rerum et interitus ex contrariis fieri putat.}

Stover (2016) pp. 108-9. At the same time, Apuleius emphasized the prohibition on suicide that Plato sets out in the Phaedo:

he speaks both about dreams and about the providence of the gods, which forbids one to depart from life † … † and he does not think it right to undergo voluntary death, if no reason requires it.

{aeque de somniis loquitur tanquam de providentia deorum vetante excedere †autem† vita; et voluntaria morte obire nulla ratione dictante non iudicat.}

Id. Stover observed:

{Apuleis} takes such pains to emphasize the prohibition on suicide in the Phaedo because of the widely disseminated stories of people killing themselves after reading the dialogue.

Id. p. 154. Lucius himself considers suicide, without negative moral coloring, three times in the Metamorphoses: 4.2.17-22 (by eating poisonous laurel-roses), 7.24.4-5 (by hunger strike or jumping from a cliff), and 10.29.3-6 (by a sword). For discussion, Michalopoulos (2002). The marriage of Socrates, and the more general issue of men marrying, provides an additional, rich context for considering Apuleius’s reading of the Phaedo, Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe, and suicide.

[images] (1) Death of Socrates. By Jacques-Louis David, 1787 (oil on canvas). Held in Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gallery 601, accession #31.45. Credit to Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931. Image thanks to the Met and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Death of Socrates. By Mark Antokolsky, 1875 (detail of sculpture). Image thanks to Alex Bakharev and Wikimedia Commons.


Lateiner, Donald. 2000. “Marriage and the Return of Spouses in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” The Classical Journal. 95 (4): 313-332.

May, Regine. 2005. “Chaste Artemis and Lusty Aphrodite: The Portrait of Women and Marriage in the Greek and Latin Novels.” Ch. 7 (pp. 129-153) in Smith, Warren S., ed. Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

May, Regine, ed. and trans. 2013. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass: Book 1. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

McNamara, Joanne. 2004. ‘The only wife worth having’? Marriage and Storytelling in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” Ancient Narrative. 3: 106-128.

Michalopoulos, Andreas N. 2002. “Lucius’ Suicide Attempts in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” The Classical Quarterly. 52 (2): 538-548.

Stover, Justin A. 2016. A new work by Apuleius: the lost third book of the De Platone. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watson, Lindsay. 2004. “Making water not love: Apuleius, Metamorphoses 1.13–14.” The Classical Quarterly. 54 (2): 651-655.