“Fascinating. . . . What Bettany Hughes provides is something vital: a life and times of Socrates that is so richly textured, flavorful and atmospheric that it makes human this most enigmatic of all philosophers. By the end of her book, we can almost see and smell the man, with all of his quirks and foibles and questioning brilliance.” —Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review
“Bettany Hughes’ biography is far more than just that: this tour de force is a vivid political and social history of Athens in the 5th century BC. Hughes evokes a city steeped in change, looking past the Golden Age of democracy, new wealth and power to the reality of a century tempered by war and infighting. With the plan of his life as a backbone, the book covers the whole experience of 5th-century Athenians, yet paints a picture of Socrates as a marvellous eccentric, paddling the streets barefoot, conversing with strangers and refusing to conform . . . this approach produces an extremely exciting narrative. Descriptions of Athens’ legal system aren’t dry but dripping with colour; the city itself is dirty, smelly, defiantly alive. And what other historian has spared a thought for the buttock pain of ancient jurors sat on hard stone seats in court? This is not a study of Socrates’ philosophy but his world. As thought-provoking as it is thrilling, the book is a beacon for the relevance and interest of classics today.” —The Times (London)
“Bettany Hughes’s terrifically readable life of Socrates is more than just a life; it is also an evocation and explanation of the world that created him, and over which he would come to have such influence. . . . The Hemlock Cup makes a vivid and persuasive case for the study of Socrates as a valuable means to understanding how our way of thinking about our own world came to be, and a guide to how we might understand it better.” —The Independent on Sunday (UK)
“A beguiling book. . . . Hughes triumphs again. This is history, and historical reconstruction, exactly as it should be written. . . . The Socrates Hughes creates is ultimately a towering yet intensely human figure. He lives and speaks again in these pages: It’s a singular accomplishment.” —The Washington Post
“Delightful . . . Hughes presents a high-octane account of Socrates and his age. . . . Do read this book, both because of its marvelous storytelling and because it will stimulate a desire to learn more about the ancient world.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Bettany Hughes has done it again; she brings to life not only Socrates himself but the whole of Periclean Athens. Here is a work of dazzling erudition which remains hugely readable—what more can one ask?” —John Julius Norwich, author of Byzantium
“No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates’s examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens’s teeming high-cultural and mundane experience. . . . Hughes’s enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious.” —Paul Cartledge, The Independent (UK)
“An invigorating, tremendous work of scholarship. . . . A smart and entertaining ‘biography’ of Socrates as shaped against the great experiment of democracy in 5th-century BCE Athens. . . . Hughes thrillingly navigates the life stages of her subject.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“A compelling study of an exceptional man’s relationship with the one community that had a hope of understanding and accepting him. There’s some terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable; and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“This is a lucid, erudite, and compelling work that brings Socrates and his city to life, offering a fresh and illuminating perspective on their times . . . A fruitful melding of informed and nuanced historical narrative and personal observation that succeeds marvelously in realizing its bold ambition.” —Weekly Standard
“The brilliant cultural historian Hughes has again produced an intriguing and entertaining biohistory of one of the most important individuals in the ancient world. . . . She brings to life the social, political, economic, literary, and military realities of Socrates’ society, in particular the centrality of the agora, [and] aptly conveys the continuing urgency of Socrates’ devotion to the inquiring mind.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“There are certain historical figures whose lives merit perpetual reexamination because their impact continues to reverberate century after century. . . . Not only a lively and eminently readable biography of Socrates the man, but also a vivid evocation of Athens, the city-state on the cusp of originating many of the greatest precepts of modern Western civilization.” —Booklist
“One can plunge enthusiastically into the seething world inhabited by Socrates that Hughes recreates for us. . . . This is the grand sweep of Athenian history during its most politically inventive and culturally exciting period. . . . Irresistible.” —Literary Review (UK)
“The life of Socrates becomes a peg from which to hang a vivid depiction of Athens in its golden age, from the pinnacle of its greatness to the abyss of its ultimate defeat. . . . Hughes’s prose is the literary equivalent of CGI, re-creating for the reader a sense of the clamour and dazzle of the classical city that has rarely been bettered. . . . Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.” —The Observer (UK)
What we get in The Hemlock Cup is many books interlaced: a biography of Socrates; a gritty description of daily life in Athens; a vivid history of the Peloponnesian War and its aftereffects; andas an unexpected delighta guide to museums, archaeological digs and repositories of ancient artifacts, as Hughes takes us by the hand while ferreting out her evidence…With great spirit and diligence, Hughes is able to piece together a surprisingly vivid portrait of the hairy, slovenly son of a stonemason and midwife…By necessity, the book has a lot of speculation…Academic purists may chafe that Hughes makes such imaginative leaps. But by doing so, she helps us imagine Socrates as a body of flesh rather than a bust of marble.
The New York Times
When Bettany Hughes published her study of Helen of Troy in 2005, skeptics had good cause for doubt that anything worthwhile could be made out of such a hackneyed and intangible subject. Yet Hughes was vindicated: The result was searchingly intelligent and quite beautifully written. In her newest book, The Hemlock Cup, she visits a subject almost as mythological as Helen and, if anything, more frequented, the 4th-century Athenian philosopher Socratesand she triumphs again. This is history, and historical reconstruction, exactly as it should be written…the Socrates Hughes creates is ultimately a towering yet intensely human figure. He lives and speaks again in these pages: It's a singular accomplishment.
The Washington Post
The brilliant cultural historian Hughes (Helen of Troy) has again produced an intriguing and entertaining biohistory of one of the most important individuals in the ancient world, and of the Athenian society that condemned him to death for daring to question all received wisdom. Drawing on the abundance of contemporary references by both supporters and opponents to the philosopher, Hughes illustrates that "bsolutely of his time, he is also of ours," "the first ironic man" in an unironic age, a gadfly to Athens' citizens and leaders. Moreover, through careful description of fifth century B.C.E. Athens, she brings to life the social, political, economic, literary, and military realities of Socrates' society, in particular the centrality of the agora. Hughes devotes a substantial part of her account to the trial and forced suicide of the great philosopher, events which communicated Socratic humor mixed with courage. Regrettably, she offers little in the way of criticism of modern authors such as I.F. Stone who have clouded Socrates's reputation by championing the populist and "democratic" tyrants. But she aptly conveys the continuing urgency of Socrates' devotion to the inquiring mind. 16 pages of color illus.; 33 b&w illus.; 5 maps. (Feb.)
Hughes's (visiting research fellow, King's Coll., London; Helen of Troy) book isn't a biography of Socrates or a critique of his philosophy, but instead a look at what it was like to live in Athens during his lifetime. She uses the writings of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristophanes along with archaeological and historical discoveries to create a glimpse of the political and cultural life of Socrates' Athens. Socrates' life and philosophy are analyzed by looking at the lives of fellow Athenians such as Alcibiades and Diotima and at events he would have experienced as an adolescent in the gymnasium and as a soldier on the battlefield. His trial and death are covered at the beginning and end of the work, and Hughes examines, in detail, why Socrates' ideas were seen as so threatening for the younger citizens of Athens. VERDICT Hughes does a wonderful job of offering the reader a new and insightful look into Socrates' life and philosophy. The writing is engaging and will appeal to academics and general readers who are interested in Socrates and life in ancient Greece.—Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI
A smart and entertaining "biography" of Socrates as shaped against the great experiment of democracy in 5th-century BCE Athens.
British historian and journalist Hughes (Helen of Troy, 2005) again seizes an elusive subject and fleshes it out by depicting the world around it. In this case, the Athenian philosopher who never wrote a word of his own springs to life through the work of his contemporaries (Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon) and the record of his trial and death by hemlock poison for not acknowledging the city's gods and for corrupting the youth. Socrates lived during the Golden Age of a virile, proud Athens, in which the spirit of open inquiry, justice and civic participation flourished among the common people, thedemos. Unaffiliated with any school and content to roam barefoot and simply clad through Athens's Agora engaging people in dialogue about how man could best lead a virtuous life, Socrates presented his listeners, often impressionable young men, with a moral challenge: What is the point of wealth if you are not happy? What is beauty? Who deserves power? Above all, Socrates goaded his followers to look deeper and to ask questions—a powerful and increasingly dangerous message in a new democracy that would soon be torn apart by plague, the Peloponnesian War and the rule of tyrants. Hughes thrillingly navigates the life stages of her subject. The young son of humble people, born just as Athens was constructing its Acropolis and Pericles came to glory, Socrates sowed his wild oats among the prostitutes in the city's Kerameikos red-light district, enjoyed early association as a soldier with the beautiful Alcibiades and frequented the gyms to admire and engage the young men. Love, truth, virtue, the place of women—these were the preoccupations for the wandering sage, but the city had darkened, and Socrates was put on trial as a way of, as Aristotle wrote, "cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn."
An invigorating, tremendous work of scholarship.