This occurred during the year that Socrates served on the Council, having had his name drawn by lot. Furthermore, it happened during that one tenth of the year that his tribe presided over the Council, putting him in a premier position of leadership as one of only fifty Prytanes. The trial grew out of the aftermath of the Battle of Arginousai. This naval battle occurred two years before the end of the Peloponnesian War in the waters between Lesbos and Asia Minor. It was Athens last victory against Sparta. Unfortunately, a storm beset the victorious ships just as the battle was ending and, in light of the rough seas, the generals ordered the fleet home without rescuing their lost and disabled sailors. Due to this decision, as many sailors died at sea as died in the battle itself (some say more).
Back in Athens, the turbulent waters of a democratic government losing a war led to a focus on the abandonment of the sailors rather than the naval victory. Six generals (the others had fled) were called before the Council to testify. The Council, in turn, imprisoned them and referred them to the Assembly for trial. Such was the hysteria at the time that a proposal was made to try the accused jointly (apparently to hasten their execution) rather than separately as required by law.
In the Council, the Presiding Committee (the Antiochis
tribe, Socrates included) first opposed this
illegal move. The angry Athenians then turned on
council threatening to indict all fifty (upon
penalty of death) unless they relented! All but
Socrates did so for fear of their lives. The generals were tried as a
unit, convicted, and executed (this included Pericles son). Having been the
only one to stand opposed to the crowd at the end,
Socrates was "swept aside" as being irrelevant
and escaped indictment at this time. He of course had no way of knowing it
would turn out this way, and, thus, his decision not to yield to the mob
mentality was undertaken with the expectation that he would suffer the same
fate as the generals.
Map of Athens (207K)