In 404 B.C.E. Athens was compelled to surrender unconditionally to Sparta. Part of the peace settlement required Athens to open the city to those who had been exiled in the years after the first restoration of the democracy in 410. By and large, these individuals were bitter enemies of the democracy and they returned with schemes to replace the democracy with rule by a few (oligarchy).
Operating with the support of Lysander (Sparta's military leader who had ordered the formation of a group of thirty to "codify the ancestral laws") these few were placed in positions of power and soon became abusive and extreme. They secured Spartan troops to impose their will, confiscated property to support themselves, and began executing people at will. The supporters of democracy, who had forced the oligarchs out of the city, were forced themselves now into exile (included among them were Anytus and Chairephon).
One of the thirty, Critias, was particularly harsh in carrying out a policy of terror, murder, and confiscation. As part of a general campaign against foreigners, Socrates and four others were ordered to arrest Leon of Salamis. Socrates refused on principle that this was a violation of the law of Athens . Again, Socrates was the only dissenter. He probably would have been executed except that the Rule of the Thirty was overthrown (after ruling less than a year) and democracy restored.
A point to bear in mind is that, at the time of
Socrates' trial there was division in
Athens between those who preferred democracy and
those who preferred a more aristocratic form of government.
Socrates attempts to diffuse this point by providing
personal examples of courage in defense of the law against both forms of
Map of Athens (207K)