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

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  573 Ratings  ·  82 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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Aug 07, 2012 Nikki rated it liked it
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 fi
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
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
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
Sep 09, 2011 Kevin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 04, 2010 Bettie☯ rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: R4 Book of the Week listeners
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
John David
Jun 10, 2011 John David rated it really liked it
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
Nov 12, 2014 Brian rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jud Barry
Mar 13, 2011 Jud Barry rated it really liked it
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
Oct 09, 2012 Ken rated it it was amazing
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
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
Jun 20, 2012 Brenda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: a219
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
May 13, 2012 Andy rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 08, 2013 Converse rated it really liked it
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
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
Apr 18, 2011 Libby rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 30, 2012 Abe rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 24, 2015 Mac rated it really liked it
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 langu
Andrew S.
Oct 19, 2015 Andrew S. rated it really liked it
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 ki
Jan 01, 2016 Jsavett1 rated it liked it
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 kno
Mar 13, 2011 Rick rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Dec 03, 2013 Thomas rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, philosophy
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
Michael Johnston
Aug 08, 2011 Michael Johnston rated it it was ok
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
Jul 23, 2011 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
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
Laurène Poret
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 p
Mar 28, 2011 Carolyn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 14, 2013 Katriona rated it it was amazing
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
Robert Case
Sep 30, 2014 Robert Case rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
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
Apr 08, 2011 Pat rated it really liked it
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
Jan 08, 2013 Crystal rated it really liked it
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
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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
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“So at that time of day when the early sun still rings haloes on human heads, Socrates is walking through the Agora to his judgement day.” 1 likes
“The highest hope of Socrates’ peers, of young Athenian men, was to serve Athens by dying for her.” 0 likes
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