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

Michael Scott enjoys a thought-provoking new tour of classical Athens, guided by one of its greatest philosophers


Reviewed by: Michael Scott
Author: Bettany Hughes
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £25


The Hemlock Cup is another vibrant and atmospheric work from this well-known promoter of the ancient world.

Bettany Hughes has taken one of history’s great enigmatic figures, the philosopher Socrates, and made him her guide to one of the world’s most interesting and important cities, Athens, during a glorious and yet highly turbulent periods of its history.

As Hughes makes clear in her introduction to the book, to write about Socrates is to rely on second-hand accounts, which need careful sifting and weighing to generate a reliable picture of the man and his world. This Hughes enhances with her welcome vivid descriptiveness (“Athens is a kingfisher’s whisper from the sea”; “they were lines of snails
in an electric storm”) and her fast-paced narrative.

The book starts at close zoom on Socrates’s day of judgment. It then pulls back to examine Athens during his early life, his career as a soldier, his time as a middle-aged man, and as a lover, before finally returning to a dramatic retelling of his condemnation and execution.

By following Socrates in this manner, Hughes combines the difficult literary evidence with the archaeological remains to produce an enjoyable and thought-provoking tour through Athens’s major physical, historical and cultural landmarks and flash-points of the fifth and early fourth centuries BC.

Within such a rich text, there are only a few points that give pause. The focus on talking only about locations and themes that can be tied in some way to Socrates’s life means that Hughes misses out on some key features of Athens and her empire. It is difficult to understand the statesman Pericles’s building programme without thinking about its vast Attica-wide geographical scope, with buildings at Eleusis, Sounion and Rhamnous for example.

The footnotes to fantastic insights (particularly from the archaeological evidence) also sometimes frustrate you when trying to follow them to learn more (there are no references to the excavation publications of the Kerameikos, for example, in chapter ten on
the Kerameikos cemetery).

Perhaps the most difficult to swallow, though, are the headline-grabbing statements about Socrates himself: “He is hailed as humanity’s first-recorded ideological martyr” (without any footnotes to articulate the claim) and “the first man for whom we have an extant record who explores how we should all live in the world”.

Such phrases not only do an injustice to the balanced tenor of the rest of the book, but give a picture of ancient Greece isolated from other important ancient civilisations that surrounded and preceded it.

Despite these points, this is an exciting book that puts the reader into the footsteps of Athenians of the fifth century BC. It documents the slide from empire to defeat and political instability with passion and imagination, complemented by pull-no-punches descriptions of the modern landscape of Athens.    


Michael Scott writes a regular ancient Greece blog on our website