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

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  387 ratings  ·  70 reviews
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,...more
Hardcover, 528 pages
Published February 8th 2011 by Knopf (first published October 7th 2010)
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Converse
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 tex...more
Courtney Johnston
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 t...more
Brenda
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...more
Kevin
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...more
Ken
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 h...more
John David
Jun 10, 2011 John David rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone with an interest in philosophy (which is everyone, whether they realize it or not)
Recommended to John David by: barnes and noble
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 finishe...more
Jud Barry
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 con...more
Storyjunkie
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-i...more
mixal
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...more
Navarra
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...more
Andy
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.
Robert Case
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 at...more
Abe
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...more
Rick
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 a...more
Libby
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, te...more
Paul Taylor
This could have been quite turgid and Ancient Greece is not really my Schlick. I only picked it up because I was at school with the authors brother (Simon, the cricketer and sports writer) and because one of my daughter's closest friends is studying classics at St. Andrews. Hughes manages to keep the narrative flowing and we all want to know the Socratic analysis of his own death throes. Clearly the Hughes's have a facility for communication.
Thomas
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 fo...more
Michael Johnston
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 so...more
Margaret Sankey
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 pok...more
Crystal
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 At...more
Christos Angelopoulos
Aug 22, 2014 Christos Angelopoulos is currently reading it
some of the interpretations from Greek to English is misleading and loosing the real meaning for example the phrase 'kalos k' agathos' is translated as 'noble in mind and appearance'
Katriona
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 Athen...more
Pat
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 r...more
Carolyn
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...more
Marg
What a great way to learn about Greek culture and Socrates. An enjoyable read.
Petesea
A great look back at ancient Greece and Socrates though it can wander at times. I appreciated that the author went to some of the locations in the book in the present and reported their condition in out of the way, forgotten places. I want to find out more about Aspasia.
Alex
Feb 20, 2011 Alex marked it as to-read
Washington Post likes this; while I'm not direly in need of another Socrates bio, having read the excellent Why Socrates Died a couple years back, I find him - and the necessity of his execution - wicked interesting.

Check out her other books, too. She wrote a bio of Helen of Troy?! I had no idea she was a reliably real person.

NY Times also likes this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/boo...
Angela Scott
Ms. Hughes does a remarkable job of linking the history of the Golden Age of Ancient Greece to the life of Athens' most celebrated (and in some quarters, reviled) philosopher. Using the works of Xenophon, Thucydides, Aristophanes, along with recent archaelogogical discoveries, the author fleshes out the man who was by turns heroic in battle and at times seemingly complacent about the decline of his city. A great background for anyone interested in the history of Western civilization or who wants...more
Mj
I had quite a struggle to finish this biography. The author's habit of switching between her own view of current Greece and her description of Socrates's Greece was hard to handle. I did find Socrates's ideas about democracy unsettling: he felt that when leaders in a democracy were more interested in themselves than the good of the country, democracy would fail. I find that many of our modern political leaders are more interested in keeping their jobs than in the overall welfare of the country....more
Daniel Farabaugh
This book suffers from the very problem that the author talks about in the beginning. Socrates is a doughnut topic. A lot going on around but the charactor in the middle is missing. This becomes essentially a book about the Golden Age of Greece that looks at the way this is reflected in the work and life of Socrates, not a classical biography. That being said, it is engaging and well written and aside from getting a little slow in the middle, a very enjoyable book.
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143643
Bettany grew up in West London with her brother, the cricketer Simon Hughes. Her parents were in the theatre: she learnt early the importance and delight of sharing thoughts and ideas with a wider public. Bettany won a scholarship to read Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University and then continued her post-graduate research while travelling through the Balkans and Asia Minor. In recognition...more
More about Bettany Hughes...
Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore Istanbul Nutty's Ghost Nutty Knows All City of Sin

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“The highest hope of Socrates’ peers, of young Athenian men, was to serve Athens by dying for her.” 0 likes
“Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’, records the moment – and you can hear the emotion in his voice as he does so, a mixture of horror and awe: Then Kleisthenes took into his faction the common people.19” 0 likes
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