According to The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, by Douglas Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law.
My dim memory of Classical history was that Socrates was put on trial for asking annoying questions and making people uncomfortable.
Linder’s view, however, is that Socrates was primarily prosecuted for his hostility to democracy and support for Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants. Supporters of the tyrants couldn’t be prosecuted for their support per se due to an amnesty, so Athenians went after Socrates on other charges. From the course notes:
Athenians considered the teachings of Socrates—especially his disdain for the established constitution—partially responsible for the death and suffering during those two awful periods. Thugs with daggers and whips roamed the streets, murdering opponents. Many of Athens’s leading citizens went into exile, where they organized a resistance movement. It is no coincidence that Anytus, the likely instigator of the prosecution of Socrates, was among the exiles.
Socrates, unbowed by the revolts and their aftermaths, resumed his teachings. Once again, it appears, he began attracting a band of youthful followers. The final straw may well have been another antidemocratic uprising—this one unsuccessful—in 401. Athenians finally had had enough of their know-it-all busybody. It was time to send a message that the city would do whatever it took to defend its precious democracy.
Anytus, on the other hand, was a well-known politician, highly influential, and the driving force behind the prosecution. Anytus had a number of reasons to be upset with Socrates, including Socrates’s (likely sexual) relationship with Anytus’s son and the philosopher’s antidemocratic political message.
The professor also points out that the Salem Witch Trials conveniently often pitted low-wealth accusers against high-wealth defendants, whose property often ended up in the hands of the accusers after the inevitable hanging. Also, something I hadn’t heard before: accusers and defendants were generally those who’d been on opposite sides of a schism in the local church.
The lecture on the Trials of Oscar Wilde was also interesting.
An 1885 law criminalized acts of “gross indecency,” which had been interpreted to apply to any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex. Interestingly, the 1885 law was widely seen at the time of its passage as progressive legislation. Prior to 1885, sexual assaults on boys over the age of 13 that fell short of rape were not crimes at all. The law was passed to protect boys from preying adults, not to punish consenting adults.
Prior to Wilde’s trials, prosecutions for consensual homosexuality in England were about as rare as they were in the United States at the end of the 20th century. What offended Victorian society about Wilde’s conduct was not so much that it involved sex with other males, but that Wilde had sex with a large number of young male prostitutes. Wilde was not prosecuted because he was the lover of a social equal who happened to be male; he was prosecuted for his participation in a somewhat indiscreet prostitution ring
This guy is a great lecturer. If you’re looking for inspiration to go to law school (at the University of Missouri at least), look no further!