Read The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes Online


We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did; in his unwavering commitment to truth and in the example of his own life, he set the standard for all subsequent Western philosophy. And yet, for twenty-five centuries, he has remained an enigma: a man who left no written legacy and about whom everything we know is hearsay, gleaned from the writings of Plato,We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did; in his unwavering commitment to truth and in the example of his own life, he set the standard for all subsequent Western philosophy. And yet, for twenty-five centuries, he has remained an enigma: a man who left no written legacy and about whom everything we know is hearsay, gleaned from the writings of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes. Now Bettany Hughes gives us an unprecedented, brilliantly vivid portrait of Socrates and of his homeland, Athens in its Golden Age.His life spanned “seventy of the busiest, most wonderful and tragic years in Athenian history.” It was a city devastated by war, but, at the same time, transformed by the burgeoning process of democracy, and Hughes re-creates this fifth-century B.C. city, drawing on the latest sources—archaeological, topographical and textual—to illuminate the streets where Socrates walked, to place him there and to show us the world as he experienced it. She takes us through the great, teeming Agora—the massive marketplace, the heart of ancient Athens—where Socrates engaged in philosophical dialogue and where he would be condemned to death. We visit the battlefields where he fought, the red-light district and gymnasia he frequented and the religious festivals he attended. We meet the men and the few women—including his wife, Xanthippe, and his “inspiration” and confidante, Aspasia—who were central to his life. We travel to where he was born and where he died. And we come to understand the profound influences of time and place in the evolution of his eternally provocative philosophy.Deeply informed and vibrantly written, combining historical inquiry and storytelling élan, The Hemlock Cup gives us the most substantial, fascinating, humane depiction we have ever had of one of the most influential thinkers of all time....

Title : The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9781400041794
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 528 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Reviews

  • Nikki
    2019-03-31 15:46

    I got Bettany Hughes’ books because when I graduated from my BA, she was awarded an honorary fellowship by my university. So naturally, after her speech, I was curious about her work. My problem with her book on Helen of Troy was mostly the organisation, and I had that problem again too; she begins at the end of Socrates’ life, jumps forward and back with foreshadowing, tells you about people’s deaths and then mentions them again a few pages later…I can also imagine that a lot of people would find it a dry read. I found Socrates fascinating, learning about his character; I was sometimes doubtful about how Hughes could really have pieced together certain details about him. There’s plenty of references and so on in the back of the book, but then there’s also careless mistakes like referring to Elektra and Ismene’s brothers. (It’s Antigone, not Elektra. Wrong tragedy, wrong tragedian.) That makes me a little unsure of how to take it all — and of course, Socrates didn’t write down his philosophy in the way that Plato or Aristotle did, so everything we have is second or third hand anyway.An interesting book, at any rate, but not as fascinating as the one on Helen. I actually read it while reading Jo Walton’s The Just City, to which it makes an interesting non-fictional companion!Originally posted here.

  • Laura
    2019-04-12 22:07

    From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:Written by Bettany Hughes. We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. His aphorism 'The unexamined life is not worth living' may have originated twenty-five centuries ago, but it is a founding principle of modern life.Socrates lived in a city that nurtured the key ingredients of contemporary civilisation - democracy, liberty, science, drama, rational thought- yet, as he wrote nothing in his lifetime, he himself is an enigmatic figure. "The Hemlock Cup" tells his story, setting him in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean that was his home, and dealing with him as he himself dealt with the world.Episode 2: The young Socrates listens to the great thinkers of Athens and begins to form his own philosophical thoughts on life.Episode 3: War engulfed much of Socrates' life. Now a young man, he must take up his sword and fight for his beloved Athens.Episode 4: Socrates debates with the young men of Athens, suggesting that their future may lie in a simpler life of good.Episode 5: The Spartans break down Athenian walls and Socrates is barred from associating with the city's youth. His card is marked.Socrates was a soldier, a lover, a man of the people. He philosophised neither in grand educational establishments nor the courts of kings but in the squares and public arenas of Golden Age Athens. He lived through an age of extraordinary materialism, in which a democratic culture turned to the glorification of its own city; when war was declared under the banner of democracy; and, when tolerance turned into intimidation on streets once populated by the likes of Euripides, Sophocles and Pericles.For seventy years he was a vigorous citizen of one of the greatest capitals on earth, but then his beloved Athens turned on him, condemning him to death by poison. Socrates' pursuit of personal liberty is a vibrant story that Athens did not want us to hear. But Bettany Hughes has painstakingly pieced together Socrates' life, following in his footsteps across Greece and Asia Minor, and examining the new archaeological discoveries that shed light on his world. "The Hemlock Cup" relates a story that is as relevant now as it has ever been.Abridged by Libby SpurrierReader: Bettany HughesProducer: Joanna GreenA Pier production for BBC Radio 4.

  • Courtney Johnston
    2019-04-10 20:38

    Earlier this year I read and loved Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, a work of fiction that gave the reader a fleshy, human, vulnerable Aristotle.Bettany Hughes's biography of Socrates (who she describes as a 'donut' subject - a rich and tasty topic with a great big whole in the middle right where the subject ought to be) does something similar, bringing to life a Socrates who is heavyset, hairy, slovenly, physically very different from the golden youths who trailed him around Athens and - tried to, at least, possibly - share his bed.That 'possibly' is key; Socrates left no written texts of his own (distrusted the written word, which couldn't be interrogated, couldn't talk to you as you read). So historians rely on his contemporaries - his devoted students Xenophon and Plato and the satirical playwright Aristophanes - and later texts, and archaeological evidence, trying to piece a life together.Hughes does a wonderful job of taking us along on her historical ride, both by evoking the Athens Socrates lived and - worked? spoke? theorised? philosophised? - in, and by sharing her sources, and her excitement in tracking down shards of pottery and fragments of papyrus and standing on the sides of motorway off-ramps where great battles took place.Because Socrates' life can only be guessed at, Hughes draws for us instead a picture of the world he lived in, and places him squarely in it. The 'Socrates might have's' and 'It is likely that he's' are palatable in this context; the opening of the book, where we follow Socrates on his walk to his trial along the streets of Athens, is a masterful piece of writing, filled with utterly visualisable detail.After three hundred of so pages, the detail starts to overwhelm. I no longer needed to be told about feet slapping, dust rising, sweat dripping. Hughes notes at one stage that Greek statuary was not the milky marble our modern eyes link to Classicism, but brightly, hotly coloured - this book becomes a bit like that, relentless in its addition of yet more decoration to the already richly evocative.That said, boy, did I learn a lot, and enjoyably. Here are some of the highlights:Aristotle's famed quote 'Man is a political animal' makes a whole different kind of sense when you think of 'polis' as the city state, made up of a community that has agreed upon shared rules and responsibilities.The Athenians had a mania for posting public notices: "Papyrus chits, graffiti, stone-carved stelai communicating new laws, fines, religious summons, would have been fund everywhere in the city." The charges against Socrates were strapped to a railing beside a row of statues, and possibly painted onto a nearby wall - a source centuries later said traces of the charges were still visible.The first temple on the southwestern steps to the Acropolis belonged to Peitho, a goddess I've not heard of before - the wily and powerful goddess of persuasion. She is worshipped across the city, she is the daughter of Aphrodite or Fate, her priestesses had seats of honour at Dionysos's theatre when Athen enacted itself; prostitutes are her servants. Peitho is essential to the new democracy, because now men must shape each other and the world around them with words. Peitho's twisted child is pheme, a word that gives us 'fame' today, but in Socrates' time meant rumour.Peitho also shows us the danger of words that are persuasive but empty - the words of the sophist, the rhetorician for hire. Socrates: "If you continue to delight in clever, idle arguments you'll be qualified to combat with the sophists but never know how to live with men." In the end, in court, Socrates could not persuade, and pheme and fame condemned him.[I have to say, this book made me want the Greek gods and goddesses and godlets even more. Perhaps if I were Catholic I could pick my own personal saint, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to pick someone like Peitho to focus your thoughts on, align your action with, placate and cajole?]Democracy flourished on the back of slavery, particularly the 20,000 slaves who toiled in Athens' silver mines. It is estimated that young and middle-aged male citizens (or just 'citizens', really) spent three quarters of their day at the gymnasiums, preparing for competition, war, admiration and religious festivals. Of which there were *a lot*: a festival every day of the year bar one.Archaeologists have not yet found an aristocratic area of Athens from this period - it was an intimate little city, and people did not lead (outwardly) ostentatious lives. Prostitutes rubbed up against politicians - no doubt helpful if you were looking to arrange a 'middle of the day marriage'.The 'Academy' and the 'Lyceum' were names of exercise grounds - a lovely origin. Socrates though was given to philosophising in the street and in shops rather than in gyms or private homes, where he might have been paid for his thinking.Theatre was massively important to the Greeks - it brought them closer to the gods. And it was fundamental to the way Athens functioned - "art" wasn't something separate from life, but as integral as "society" or "politics". When the Athenians invaded Syracuse and foundered just outside the city limits, the Sicilians who defeated them revenged themselves by packing the soldiers in tight then forcing them to recite lines from Euripedes until they fell from exhaustion or were cut down.Finally, hemlock was an expensive drug. A bloodless crucifixion blood was polluting) was the choice of execution for slaves and common criminals - hemlock poisoning was for a better class of people. Although the Romantic painters might have depicted Socrates with a large cup:All most men needed was a small measure - a solution that would fit into an eye-bath; a number of modest phials of just such dimensions survive (there are two rows of them in the Agora Museum). Black-glazed, rough-cast, they are straightforward, functional objects.

  • Storyjunkie
    2019-03-24 17:58

    The Hemlock Cup is actually three narratives in one book: the physicality and history of Athens during Socrates' life, a largely-guesswork biography of Socrates, and a guided tour through the digs in modern Greece that resulted in the foundations for a lot of Bettany Hughes' supposition.Each chapter is riveting, engaging, and makes me want to look things up so that I can know more. Taken as a whole, the piece is disjointed and jumpy, uneasily sitting between the history of Athens and the after-image of Socrates.It's odd the things she explains to her readers and the things she doesn't, often seeming as if she's forgotten to put in a parenthetic statement or footnote in a number of passages (the introduction of Alcibiades was particularly frustrating to me). I was left with the feeling that she wrote some chapters with an academic audience in mind, and others with a popular audience in mind.

  • Kevin
    2019-04-14 13:45

    Socrates was forced to kill himself in 399BC via drinking poison (hemlock) because he was found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and disrespecting the Gods. He was a philosopher during the 'Golden Age' of Classical Greece, a time during the fifth century BC that saw Athens and the Hellenistic World develop a new, libertarian ideology called 'Democracy', an ideology (although that term was very new) that saw our Western societies of the present day adopt and herald. Not only was Socrates a philosopher, he also served as an Athenian Hoplite - a sort of 'citizen soldier' and saw active duty in the Peloponessian Wars that eventually saw Athens succumb to Sparta and end its Golden Age.Bettany Hughes' book has many layers. Yes, it is primarily concerning the life of Socrates, interspersing various quotes from famous Greeks such as Plato that have been ascribed to him, detailing his life, loves, teachings and eventual trial and murder, but she also paints around his life detailing the period she is concerned with - Classical Greek society. It is not a straight biography of one mans life, rather it reads as a historical study of this period (the fifth century BC). She explains the rise of the 'polis', the dawn of the first ideological state based around a libertarian and democratic ethos, explaining about how almost anyone could have a say in the Agora (of course if they were not a slave...), which was a kind of forum or meeting place if you like. She also reminds us that, despite it egalitarian veneer, there was, below the surface of their idealistic society, still slavery and exploitation of lower castes, quite severe exploitation of Women (whose places was seen primarily as being in the home), racism or a severe form of xenophobia that allowed Athens to demand monetary tribute from other Greek City States and basically, despite its almost romantic artistic brush strokes that have been idealised and painted throughout the ages, was still a very brutal period of history. The book is well researched - there are pages of references and notes in the back of the book, an incredible bibliography and she is familiar with all of the epochs poets, writers and philosophers. Bettany Hughes writes in a fluid, captivating style - short segments and short chapters split into Acts make the book immeasurably readable, not too academic (or at least not too dry) but shows that she has done her research and her love for both the protagonist and era she writes about. Saying this however, I think I preferred her first study of Helen of Troy (her first book) - but that maybe is just a personal preference. Regardless, Classical Greece, the birthplace of our Western Democracy, the conflict between the city-states is a period of Ancient History I know so little about, as well as knowing limited facts about who Socrates was, so really, 'The Hemlock Cup' was informative and useful. I eagerly await another Television history study of Socrates coming from her book.

  • Bettie☯
    2019-03-29 17:07

    *she often lists from thesaurus, which comes over as rather affected, and grates after a while; one fallen star right there.*R4 Monday - book of the week.TRAILERblurb - Written by Bettany Hughes. We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. His aphorism 'The unexamined life is not worth living' may have originated twenty-five centuries ago, but it is a founding principle of modern life. Socrates lived in a city that nurtured the key ingredients of contemporary civilisation - democracy, liberty, science, drama, rational thought- yet, as he wrote nothing in his lifetime, he himself is an enigmatic figure. "The Hemlock Cup" tells his story, setting him in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean that was his home, and dealing with him as he himself dealt with the world. Socrates was a soldier, a lover, a man of the people. He philosophised neither in grand educational establishments nor the courts of kings but in the squares and public arenas of Golden Age Athens. He lived through an age of extraordinary materialism, in which a democratic culture turned to the glorification of its own city; when war was declared under the banner of democracy; and, when tolerance turned into intimidation on streets once populated by the likes of Euripides, Sophocles and Pericles. For seventy years he was a vigorous citizen of one of the greatest capitals on earth, but then his beloved Athens turned on him, condemning him to death by poison. Socrates' pursuit of personal liberty is a vibrant story that Athens did not want us to hear. But Bettany Hughes has painstakingly pieced together Socrates' life, following in his footsteps across Greece and Asia Minor, and examining the new archaeological discoveries that shed light on his world. "The Hemlock Cup" relates a story that is as relevant now as it has ever been.Abridged by Libby Spurrier Reader: Bettany HughesProducer: Joanna Green A Pier production for BBC Radio 4.

  • John David
    2019-04-04 15:48

    i was put off at first because of the way the author drops in references about her real life visits to the sites mentioned; i hate when the flow of the story is broken like that. i've never read a biography and i was hoping for more of a novel type of book, but it didn't take long to get used to the style. in the case of attempting to understand socrates' life, the normal goal of an author - to allow the reader's imagination to shape the world - would have failed miserably. now that i've finished it, i can look back and see that the way she does it really was the best way. it isn't a story, it was a description of a dude's life, and her interruptions really are necessary. they force you to think about what's happening in more than one way, and that's what it takes to get a good picture of what life and culture may really have been like two and a half millennia other words, it took me a while to get used to the style, but now i appreciate it. other than my personal initial disagreement with that one aspect of style, the prose is very well composed and i love her complete lack of timidity in her choice of words. things like "…a word better left to the imagination" or "…herm, well, you get the point" would have totally interrupted the flow. the athenians weren't afraid to use the necessary words, so neither must a historian be. as for socrates himself, the fact that i even started this book shows how interesting i thought he would be, and the fact that i finished it should tell you how interesting i continue to find him and his world.i wholeheartedly recommend a study of socrates' life and ideas, and this book is an excellent place to start or continue that journey.

  • Brian
    2019-03-26 16:07

    If you're looking for a wider historical-cultural-economic context on Socrates' Greece, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a book that will immerse you in the world of Socrates' Athens, as this one attempts--but fails--to do, keep looking.If you simply want to learn about ancient Greece, you might be able to from this book, if you knew absolutely nothing about it before, and if you have the patience to glean single kernels of basic knowledge from between 500+ pages of Hughes's bloated attempts at prose-poetry. I have to admit it's well researched, or at least that the author knows a lot about ancient Greece, so it's not impossible to learn from it, if you want to invest the time.If you can read a sentence made up of two independent clauses linked by a comma and not notice anything wrong with it or if you actually use the word "orientated" without intending any irony, you might be able to worry through this book. If you don't understand that such breakdowns in grammar are symptomatic of a breakdown in logic (and Socrates was nothing if not an exacting logician), not to mention a breakdown in copy editing, then this book is for you!Hughes doesn't come off as insulting her reader's intelligence so much as she seems to flatter it unjustifiably. As far as I can tell, people who appreciate The Hemlock Cup don't want to learn about or understand Socrates or his time so much as they want to bask, uncomprehending, in the glow of the meaningless verbal effluvia of an intelligent Romantic poet. Or that of a very poetic professor of antiquities, possibly, and her six-pound book.

  • Jud Barry
    2019-03-27 18:08

    If the ancient Athens of your imagination is a collection of white marble buildings and dead white males in white togas, you owe it to yourself to read this book, which shows the Athens of Socrates's day to be a vivid, cacophonous place where the statues--as numerous as the crowds of people in the agora--and buildings are painted metallic and day-glo colors, where beauty in human form (especially the unclothed male form) is a sign of divine favor, where divine favor upon divine favor must be continually sought through services to a growing pantheon of deities, where a sense of the superiority of the Athenian democratic scheme asserts itself in imperialistic aggression that dooms the entire enterprise. The life of Socrates is intertwined with the rise and fall of Athens--he is a veteran of her wars, he hones his philosophy in daily conversation with her people, and he dies at the hands of religious conservatives looking for scapegoats for the city's fall from grace.The author's reconstruction of history is interspersed with notes on her visits to present-day Athens and to the museums that house the clues to the way it used to be. In effect, she puts invididual puzzle pieces together with a dramatic rendering of the entire puzzle. I found this juxtaposition to make for fascinating reading.

  • Ken
    2019-03-21 14:39

    This book is an incredible accomplishment, exhaustively researched and notated, weaving together knowledge from an incredible array of sources such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plato, as well as contemporary research and archaeology. It weaves a compelling story and picture of the places and people of Golden Age Greece. I've always been a Hellene-ophile and feel like I've been looking for this book since I was a kid. I'm not a historian, though, so I can't comment on the accuracy of the book's historical depiction. The notes and bibliography are exhaustive and will serve as an invaluable source for further reading and exploration. I think I appreciated the book more having already read a reasonable amount of the literature from this period, but it has made me want to go back and re-read many works, such as Thucydides, Euripides, and some of the dialogs of Plato, especially the Symposium, Apology, and Phaedrus. Also a great source for launching further explorations into the archaeology of ancient Athens, as well as for contemplating the philosophy of Socrates and all descendant philosophical traditions.

  • mixal
    2019-03-30 13:59

    I was really looking forward to this book and initially it met my expectations, but after a while I spotted some historical inaccuracies which made me wonder how pervasive it is in the book. Later on it became obvious that the author had an agenda, she wanted to prove how visionary Socrates was and therefore she made him as appealing to today's tastes as possible. Quite a substantial part of the book was trying to argue that Socrates was a feminist and that this was one of the reasons why he was eventually so hated. Even if it was true that he treated women with more respect, I do not think it was very important aspect of who he was (unless you have an agenda like the author of the book). Granted, it shows what were his priorities and that he was open-minded. But it was not a political gesture. Overall, all that the author describes about Socrates ends up as a cultural event. That makes it probably very digestible for the target audience, but it also makes it very empty. Finally, the whole parallel between Socrates' life and the life of Athenian democracy was very repetitive and tiring. 2 stars.

  • Thomas
    2019-04-10 19:52

    With her breezy informal style it's hard not to picture Hughes walking through some of the sites she describes, narrating the book as if it were one of her television productions. The travelogue aspect can be a bit intrusive, but I rather enjoyed it. Her goal is to put the trial of Socrates in historical context, so detailed descriptions of the sites where Socrates walked is surely appropriate, if not always enlightening. This is not a purely scholarly affair; the book is written for the same folks who would watch her shows, though it is far more detailed and focuses on the mystery that is Socrates. She draws from all the familiar sources (Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Diogenes Laertius) but spends a fair amount of time on the archaeological evidence, and takes some fascinating side trips into the erotic life of Socrates and the lives of women in fifth century Greece. Down to earth and thorough.

  • Brenda
    2019-04-10 16:41

    I wish I had read this book before my Open University A219 module. It contextualised so much of the course content. Socrates was born at the dawn of democracy, he fought in and survived many of the battles of the Peloponnesian War. This book brought home the tactics employed first to ensure the smooth running of the state, then the driver for empire / enslavement of the region. Half way in I really went off Aristophanies; till then one of my favourite playwrites - its easy to see where the Nazis learned the knack of making those you fear figures of fun thus diminishing them in other's eyes. Mine was a Kindle book, as such the timelines towards the end of the book were rendered unreadable.Bettany Hughes truly highlights the nineteenth century construct that was democratic Athens.

  • Robert Case
    2019-04-07 22:01

    This book is a must read for anyone who enjoys learning about the Bronze Age or reading historical fiction about that era. Socrates was such a prominent figure. His legacy has survived, resonating soundly into the present. This book makes his impact understandable. It contains delightful descriptions and scenes of this one man's life in all of its aspects; the soldier, lover, husband and philosopher. Bettany Hughes writes powerfully about the role of women and slaves in democratic Athens. Her attention to detail is spot on. I especially enjoyed her infrequent ramblings about geology and volcanism when describing the islands of Melos and Delos. I will read this book again someday.

  • Pat
    2019-03-28 15:03

    About as comprehensive a narrative on the life of Socrates as one could expect given the paucity of written information from and about the man. I thought the book was very readable. My main disappointment in this book was that more attention was not given to the 'Socratic method' and the impact of Socrates' approach to philosophy in his own time and to the present day. I was also a little annoyed at the number of unattributed quotes throughout the book ( not really unattributed, but the quotes required frequent paging back and forth to the page notes at the end of the book. All in all, well worth the read, however.

  • Crystal
    2019-03-22 17:05

    I began this rather hefty tome thinking there wasn't much we could know about Socrates, because all we have of him are second-hand accounts. Imagine my pleasure when reading this when I realized Bettany Hughes was able to paint a picture of the "tantalizingly illusive" Socrates. He became a real person. Ms. Hughes' ability to create a such a compelling biography of Socrates is amazing. This novel is informative and entertaining. It is also, not only a biography of Socrates, but a biography of Athens, which becomes just as much a character as the humans Ms. Hughes writes about. Simply astounding! I recommend this book to anyone who wants to study history and philosophy.

  • Andy
    2019-04-19 14:44

    Brilliant overview about the time of Socrates. Nothing really changes.All this does is make me think that as a civilization, we have gone backwards. Well worth reading.

  • Converse
    2019-04-10 20:52

    This is a history and biography of Socrates, informed by archaeology. The author is a historian, not a philosopher. Although the execution of Socrates is the focus, the book is rich in discussing the context.There appears to be more evidence that Socrates actually existed than the works of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. Though the former are the fairly complete writings still available about Socrates, we have references in other ancient works about philosophy that make reference to other texts about Socrates. Also, the major sources make references to specific aspects of the architecture of Athens the 4th and 5th centuries BC that are confirmed by archaeology, such as the location of particular cobbler's shop. It seems unlikely that anyone writing a work of fiction would bother with such verisimilitude. An important part of the context of Socrates' trial is how religious Athens was; only a day or two in the year weren't festival days for a god. The Athenian democracy had also shown before Socrates' trial that it could be touchy about people who questioned established beliefs. The "corruption of youth" charge against Socrates seems to have been about the beliefs he was spreading, rather than pederasty. One of those who brought charges against Socrates had a son who had been influenced by Socrates. Among other things, Socrates was known to not be entirely sympathetic towards Athenian democracy; the business about selecting many public officials by lot was one feature he particularly disliked.If Athens had been in a better mood, probably the charges wouldn't have come up. However, in 399 Athens had not only been recently (404) been defeated by Sparta (the city walls were still torn down as per the peace terms), but then Athens had gone through a nasty civil war which began with a Spartan-favored governing clique assassinating about 1200 democratic citizens. Socrates had been known to associate with some of this clique during better days, though that this same clique had ordered him not to teach during its rule was ignored during the trial, as well as his association with some enthusiasts for the democracy. Possibly one reason for the trial of Socrates is that he reminded many Athenian citizens of the smooth-talkers who had gotten them involved in a calamitous war, even if he wasn't one of advocates of war. Besides learning about the main event, I learned a bit about the Peloponnesian war, the status of women and slaves in Athens, and other aspects of Socrates life. With regard to the war, Athens was hardly the innocent party; Sparta had put up with numerous provocations during Athens empire-building days, not to mention the numerous city states that found themselves ruled by Athens. I was also surprised about how quickly Athens began losing, those city walls and a lack of a Spartan navy until near the end being major reasons why Athens could continue fighting. Socrates had been a hoplite,a well-equipped footsoldier, and fought in two of Athens campaigns. I had known that Athenian women were at best second-class citizens, a condition generally confirmed in the book. I was a bit surprised about one inconsistency in this ill-treatment, in that several important cults appear to have been run by priestesses. Socrates seems to have been less sexist than the average Athenian male, though I think the author has a slight tendency to ascribe all the virtues to Socrates.The majority of Athens inhabitants were slaves. Slaves dug up the silver that was a major source of Athenian weath. One important step towards Athenian defeat was a major slave revolt in the mines late in the war, in which the slaves successfully absconded to behind Spartan lines (Sparta had been trashing the area of Attica outside the city walls since the beginning of the war) which resulted in a great decrease in Athenian income. The flute-girls (prostitutes who were also skilled musicians), who seem to have been slaves, were publically jubilant when the walls of Athens were torn down.The book is well-written and contains photographs of many of the archaeological sites referred to by the author. She also provides source notes.

  • Navarra
    2019-04-16 16:48

    Bethany Hughes attempts to bring together three forms of context for Socrates in The Hemlock Cup. First, there is the chronology of Socrates life using primary and secondary textual sources. Second, she employs contemporary archaeological findings to “flesh out,” hypothesize and, perhaps, speculate on Socrates’ physical, socio-political and cultural environment. Woven through these two dimensions are visits to the locales involved in this ancient Athenian story described as they are seen in the present day. This multi-dimensional synthesis parallels a kind of guided tour to Socratic Greece of the 5th century, focusing mainly on Athens’ zenith and, arguably, it’s ancient nadir. If the reader is not already a lover of all things concerning ancient Greece and does not live within the sphere of BBC TV and their documentaries, he or she can find Bethany Hughes by typing her name into the You Tube search engine. There you will find a number of BBC documentaries hosted by her. Her television charisma is enchanting, and the material covered in these documentaries is stimulating. One would think that this engaging erudition would translate onto the written page, but it has not. The synthesis in The Hemlock Cup is simply too busy, too crowded; not quite, but almost smothering. At the same time, the prose does not flow because of the need to kowtow to the many “masters” enumerated above: chronology, history, archaeology, anthropology, travelogue, and political critique. At times the book feels fragmented, but then annoying repetitive. It feels as if you’ve read certain phrases in the book before. I am not sure if this is a playful literary “nod” to the repetitive construction found in Homer’s epics, but after a few instances, the “gadfly” stops being Socrates, and becomes the composition itself.As well, it is not a book for persons uninitiated to an understanding of the time period and players involved. It is shot through with fascinating details and, on the whole, I enjoyed the book, but there are defects. Although some background is filled in, there are passing references that may make those with more than rudimentary knowledge turn to a search engine for clarification. Without my university background in the Classics and ancient history and my visits to ancient Greek sites, I suspect I would have been lost or flailing for understanding more than once in the course of the read. For instance, the “jointed dolls” referred in the book that served as toys for ancient Greek children really must be seen to be understood. These toys are not like modern toys and might strike us from a modern perspective to be reminiscent of horror film voodoo dolls.

  • Libby
    2019-04-11 16:50

    Bettany Hughes has again proved equal to a challenge by producing The Hemlock Cup, a biography of Socrates. She herself calls Socrates "tantalizingly illusive." All we know of Socrates comes from a handful of Greek authors, who each present us with their own version of Socrates, in dialogs, verses, histories and plays which have survived the centuries through the operations of blind luck and random chance. Having said that, however, she ably wields these sources and archeological discoveries, textual criticism and topographical information, to create a picture of a man and his city in a tumultuous time.Socrates himself did not write his philosophy. He presented his ideas by talking and by questioning. He schlepped around Athens, asking passers-by "What is the greatest good?" or "How can a man obtain true happiness?" He approached everyone from ribbon sellers and shoemakers to poets and playwrights, posing simple questions that did not have simple answers. He so impressed several of his listeners that they felt compelled to record his speeches for others to read, and also to lampoon him in popular comic plays. Hughes creates a vivid picture of Socrates as both a social butterfly and an annoying gadfly. She also gives us a panoramic view of Athens in its Golden Age, a pulsating, rumbustious, vibrant city; given to shows of prosperity and public piety, as well as persistent rivalry with the other city-states and voracious hunger for the loot and glory of war. She shows us the machinery of voting in Athens, the workings of the Delphi Oracle, the training and equipment of a Greek hoplite and the proportions of the wine and water served at a symposium. She gives us comparative timelines and maps as well as little mini-bios of the writers who are our sources for our picture of Socrates. (Also 84 pages of notes and bibliography!) We are there when Athens dedicates the Parthenon, when it reels and staggers under the burden of pitiless plague, and when it prosecutes and condemns its scruffy, pot bellied, pestiferous native son for the crimes of impiety and corrupting youth. This is a tome. It is not a quick read, but a book to be savored and considered, a little bit like Socrates himself. If you love Ancient history and literature, this is your book. If archeology floats your boat, you will enjoy this read. If ideas excite you, clearly Socrates is your man and this is your new favorite book.

  • Abe
    2019-03-22 20:43

    I got this book in preparation for a trip to Greece. While it served that purpose quite well, it was not otherwise the kind of popular history book that I enjoy. Its structure and language were off-putting, and it just didn’t have the kind of pop to it that pop history needs to be entertaining.The book serves the dual function of being a biography of Socrates and a history of Athens particularly during the 5th century BC, encompassing its golden era as well as the Peloponnesian War years. Since the source material on Socrates is pretty thin – even Plato’s writings leave it unclear what is hard fact and what is embellishment – the bulk of the book, I believe, covers general Athenian history.And there’s lots of history in Athens! A pretty amazing amount of stuff happened there during that century, including the establishment and spread of democracy, its ups and downs, and its eventual decline toward the end of this period. Lots of the artifacts documenting this time have been uncovered over the last century -- in the Agora, on the Acropolis, and in surrounding areas -- and much much more still lies buried, some of it undergoing active digs today.By the time one is done with this somewhat lengthy, somewhat flowery, but extremely well-researched book, one comes to understand how imperfect the Athenians and their system was, that they remained warmongers and empire-builders throughout, but that they still left a major contribution to civilization. And it was certainly fun walking over the same paths, roads, and fields that Socrates and friends most certainly trod all those centuries ago.

  • Mac
    2019-03-31 19:54

    I read this book at the perfect time, while I was traveling in Athens. Bettany Hughes has written a biography of Socrates, but since the known facts of his life are few, she compensates by detailing what we know about life in Athens in general during his lifetime. I learned a lot! But at times Hughes's writing style annoyed me. My main problem was that she tends to write purple prose. There were a lot of invented, hyphenated adjectives. Perhaps she was attempting to evoke the Ancient Greek language, but to me it just came across like bad English. In other places, she would use sentence fragments. Something like this. Or this. When I discovered that she is a well-known presenter for TV history programs, the book began to sound like an extended documentary narration. With all that said, Hughes has put together many interesting pieces to suggest why an Athenian jury condemned Socrates to death in 399 BC. She seems to have visited every relevant site in the Greek world, and includes details from the latest archaeological research. These details were very interesting to me, as I was in the midst of visiting some of the same sites myself. And the book helpfully includes both maps and illustrations that help the reader visualize the events discussed. On balance, I would rate The Hemlock Cup 3.5 stars, but I've rounded up to 4. If you are interested in learning more about Socrates and Ancient Greek life, you will find a lot to like in this book. But if you're like me, you will find yourself constantly rewriting sentences in your head.

  • Andrew Guthrie
    2019-04-09 18:53

    It's always interesting to read what other people (readers/reviewers) take away from any book, the variety of output let alone what the individual will retain over time (and isn't Goodreads a "memory device" along with being a component of "social media"?). Some people speak of Hughes' feminist agenda, others berate her scholarship due to historical inaccuracies, while my criticism might point to Hughes' prose which seems to want to break out of a strictly academic mode but hardly reaches any kind of literary euphoria. Otherwise what I see missing from other Goodreads reviews of this book, and really seeing as the book is as much about the historical Athens as it is about the man Socrates, is how warlike the Athenians of its "golden age" were. The nation/state was in fact manned and operated (as in physical labor) by slaves leaving its citizens to pursue the "good life" so someone like Socrates could wander around thinking about stuff (though I will give him credit for caring little about appearances, he was a notoriously ill-dressed and homely character). The coffers of the nation/state were mostly derived from its imperialist adventures and by the tributes from those other cities that were placed under Athen's wings. The males that were granted full citizenship were obliged to wage war, and Socrates himself witnessed and experienced some rather traumatic and bloody conflicts. All this bluster (and non-cooperation with other nation/states) is indeed what led to Athens' downfall. All that information is what rates this book . . .

  • Jsavett1
    2019-03-30 21:38

    I don't think this book could have been better than it was. Let me clarify…Hughes is an EXCELLENT historian, and this book, regarding a subject I don't know much about, is rather a page turner. That's because Hughes places Socrates's trial and death at the center of what reads like a mystery/true crime story.The two reasons I gave this only three stars, however, are that I was hoping it was more about Socrates's PHILOSOPHY and because Hughes's subject is inherently problematic. Almost all we know about Socrates comes from Plato. So Hughes tries to extricate the two by providing an excellent discussion of the Athens in which Socrates walked, which he questioned, which he bothered, and in which, finally he may have had more faith than his fellow Athenians. But in doing so, Hughes more winds up telling the story of Athens than Socrates. Almost all direct language from or about Socrates comes from Plato. This isn't Hughes's fault---Socrates never wrote anything down. But it IS why I come back to my original statement: the book is about a void. Hughes suggests at one point that painters believe you can understand more about an image by studying the space AROUND it. This may be so. But it's more so in painting. Where there actually IS an image around which we may observe.

  • Rick
    2019-04-18 19:44

    Interesting, inconsistently engaging contextual biography of Socrates by a popular British classicist, The Hemlock Cup presents Socrates as both a product and anomaly of his times. He rises in democratic Athens but falls in the paranoid politics of Imperial Athens. Tarred with the Sophist brush by popular opinion, an opinion that Aristophanes helped forge in his comedy, The Clouds, the philosopher of the nettlesome questions was bound for exile or doom. The book is authoritative but disjointed and some passages read like a voice over for a documentary, casual and unnecessary in a text. Hughes at her best is very good but the episodic nature of the book’s organization disrupts its own narrative momentum. So enjoy the sustained sections on Athenian education, court system, warfare. Enjoy the set pieces regarding Plato, Alcibiades, Pericles and Aspasia, and other major figures of the Golden Age, but prepared for flat spots. It’s informative always, fascinating often, but not as successful as it might have been.

  • Michael Johnston
    2019-04-09 19:45

    I have a keen interest in history and picked this up hoping to find a good biography of Socrates and/or a good history of ancient Greece in Socrates time. What I got was a wildly inconsistent read. Long stretches of the book were a struggle to get through. I don't know whether this means that my interest in ancient Greek history is not what I thought or whether it was just uninteresting writing. Either way, I struggled to get through this book (which is very unusual for me). The beginning and some of the ending was good but long stretches in the middle offered no drama, repeatedly used grand cliches that provided no educational value and in the end the book did not really give me a personal feel for the life and times of Socrates. I would suggest this for only the most diehard of history buffs. Others - stay away.

  • Margaret Sankey
    2019-04-07 21:49

    In preparation for running the Athens game again in the fall semester, a new "milieu" study more than a biography from classicist Bettany Hughes, who excels at piecing together the fragments of social information to reconstruct (in Helen of Troy in particular) a vivid atmosphere of life in the ancient Mediterranean. This Athens is no intellectual theme park, but a state in the grips of a long, expensive and exhausting war which brings out the worst in its citizens while Socrates relentlessly pokes them about it until they realize that the enemy most dangerous to Athens is not the Persians or the Spartans or the metics, but themselves, a moment so terrifying that they cheapen their democratic processes to get rid of him.

  • Laurène Poret
    2019-03-22 14:03

    I enjoyed having a clear view of what happened politically and war-wise during 'Golden Age Greece'. It was all a bit muddled in my head but after reading The Histories it felt nice to keep going and investigate the Peloponnesian war.I felt like the author modernized a bit too much her Socrates and I didn't care for her writing - too all-over-the-place with long uninteresting bits and unnecessary repetitions here and there. It felt a lot like a scholarly lecture.It was quite a random read, as I picked up this book in a book splurge, and I will definitely read Thucydides next to try and get a view of the epoch as accurate as possible.

  • Carolyn
    2019-04-07 19:57

    This is a marvelous book! I became a fan of Bettany Hughes after reading her book on Helen of Troy. I purchased Hemlock Cup right after it was published, but it took me this long to finish. The reason was not because the book was boring, oh no, not at all. It was because there was so much information, that I needed to take it all in. Ms. Hughes really brings the period (470 B.C. - 399 B.C.) alive in all its glory and then in its sad dissolution. Not a philosophy book, but a History book with a capital "H" and you are so much the richer for it!Highly recommended without reservations!

  • Katriona
    2019-04-15 13:49

    A biography of Athens in the Golden Age as much as Socrates, whose life spanned the beginning and end of the idealistic Athenian democracy. I found the way Hughes parallels the Peloponnesian War and Athenian events with what we know of Socrates really absorbing and much easier to follow than my high school history class. Bettany has been in the dust & muck of the ruins of this magnificent but arrogant and destructive City and she's managed to form a more realistic version of Golden Age Athens in my mind. Socratic thinking has been passed through the ages and his thoughts are still relevant and lauded. A man of time but also for all time.