Socrates similar to the plant that killed him

Water Hemlock found in Athens near the Hocking River. Photo by Alex Card.

By Alex Card, CG Science

In 399 B.C. a harmless-looking plant resembling a wild carrot was mixed into a deadly concoction and fed to Socrates as a means of court-ordered execution.  The philosopher from Athens Greece, famous for developing the eponymous method of inquiry, died quietly, his last words instructing a friend to see that a pending debt was resolved on his behalf.


Over a millennium later, the same plant was brought to America from Europe for decorative purposes.  It wasn’t long before it escaped domestication and spread quickly across the continent.  Needless to say, poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, soon achieved “weed” status, and is now recognized as an invasive species.


The philosopher and his killer may have more in common than is initially obvious, as though their first — and only — interaction was part of some ironic fate.


Socrates is one of the most well-known Athenian philosophers, generally regarded as the father of Western philosophy.  Though he never recorded his musings on ethics or the Socratic Method, the writings of his students, Plato and Xenophon, stand as documentation of his eccentric genius.

Photo by Alex Card.

Despite how relatively little is known about his life, it is clear that Socrates’ hobbies consisted primarily of making social and moral criticisms to the citizens and governing bodies of Athens. He also strived to prove to the upper class that they were not nearly as intelligent as they may have thought themselves to be.  In short, he raised hell for the fun of it.  Unfortunately for him, his idea of “fun” made him about as popular as the toxic plant that killed him.


Instances of publicly humiliating the aristocracy of Athens attracted many young students to Socrates, but left the general public sore and annoyed.  In 399 BC, Athens saw to it that Socrates received his come-uppance.  He was officially tried for impiety and corruption of the youth, and executed via consumption of poison hemlock.


The plant that killed Socrates was no stranger to Greek society.  At the time, execution by consumption of poison hemlock was considered the most “humane” method.  When ingested, hemlock gradually paralyzes the unlucky consumer from the feet up.  When the toxin reaches the torso, it causes cardio-respiratory failure.


As an Athenian in the 4th century BC, you might have walked outside on any given day in fair weather, only to see Socrates standing at the side of the street, going on about irony and the true meaning of knowledge.  Here in Athens, Ohio, poison hemlock is an equally common sight.


Although most of us aren’t aware of the deadly weeds dotting landscape, they’re easy enough to find for those willing to look.  Since its foray into our country, we’ve learned that poison hemlock can grow pretty much anywhere.  After all, its resilience is what makes it so effective as an invasive species.


Poison hemlock is one of the first plants to grow in the spring and one of the last to die in the winter. Since it looks an awful lot like the closely-related wild carrot, animals hungry from months of hibernation may find themselves in for a deadly surprise when they stumble upon this tasty-looking plant.  It’s so rampant that large patches of hemlock are visible only days after a heavy snowfall.


Luckily for curious Boy Scouts, it takes around five or six leaves from the plant to kill a person, although significantly less of the root is necessary for a deadly reaction.  However, gardeners who find the weed in their flower bed should be wary.  Merely touching poison hemlock with bare skin is enough to induce a rash. Much like Socrates, hemlock requires only brief contact to leave a lasting impression.