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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last!
This is a highly readable and thoroughly researched book whose subject matter might best be described as "the Life and Times of Socrates".

Anyone who has already studied Socrates will know that we have very little biographical information regarding this self-appointed gadfly, this stinger of the conscience of the Athenians. Some would even argue he never really...
Published on 26 Dec. 2010 by Mr. Richard D. L. Sargent

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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Socrates as doughnut
At the beginning of her book Bettany Hughes tells us that Socrates is a doughnut subject, with a hole in the middle. But she argues, 'painters will tell you the truest way to represent a shape is to deal with the space around it'.
The Hemlock Cup presents a picture of fifth century Athens as a city teeming with energy, ideas, wealth and ambition. At its best the book...
Published on 20 Mar. 2011 by Will Arnold


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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last!, 26 Dec. 2010
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This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
This is a highly readable and thoroughly researched book whose subject matter might best be described as "the Life and Times of Socrates".

Anyone who has already studied Socrates will know that we have very little biographical information regarding this self-appointed gadfly, this stinger of the conscience of the Athenians. Some would even argue he never really existed, but was a type of Robin Hood or King Arthur figure from literary legend.

Bettany Hughes has exhaustively mined the extant archives. The usual suspects of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes naturally feature prominently, as do Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius, as well as numerous other Greek and Roman authors whose writings are either directly or indirectly relevant.

We are given an exquisitely atmospheric rendering of Athenian life at the time of Socrates, and a most useful potted history of contemporary events - most notably the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath. Athenian attitudes towards love, religion, politics and philosophy are examined with some eye-opening or eye-watering descriptions.

For the more academically inclined, there are more than adequate footnotes, references and bibliographical citations, pp 388 to 472 (hardback copy).

And of Socrates himself? Don't expect to be informed of his innermost secrets or his most intimate life story. Unfortunately the extant contemporary writings simply do not contain these details. Although, who knows that one day, some dusty scroll in a classical collection may shed some more light?

This book has instilled in me a feeling of deeper admiration for Socrates. I admit that I have been strongly inspired by his approach to knowledge for some time, and may therefore be somewhat biased. However, this book is one of those rareties - an enjoyable and re-readable work of non-fiction. For Socrates fans it is one to keep you awake all night poring over its pages. For historians and classicists, it is rewarding and inspiring. And for the general reader, it is fascinating and atmospheric.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything you didn't know you wanted to know about "The Greek Thing", 24 Jan. 2011
By 
J "jan" (Derbyshire, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
Having read earlier excellent reviews I would like to add this. As someone who is coming to classical studies via fiction, (Mary Renault et al), I was slightly daunted by the scholarly introductions, but having read Bettany Hughes' unforgettable Helen of Troy I pressed on and was rewarded beyond my expectations! So much has been written, televised, and generally assumed about this period of history. This book brings together new and old research and opinions to weave a story better than any fiction.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bettany is the best!, 4 Dec. 2010
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This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
Bettany Hughes is one of the best British historians of the classical world. Socrates is the founder of western thought and philosophy- Bettany Hughes more than does him justice here.The book is scholarly but the narrative flows easily and the analysis is first class.I particularly liked the way Bettany Hughes built the description of recent archaeological discoveries into the text to better illustrate the society of classical Athens from which Socrates came.Your money will not be wasted if you buy this excellent book!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book, 12 Jan. 2011
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
This is a wonderfully rich and humane book. Bettany Hughes brings Socrates and his world vividly to life. As well as a fantastic account of classical Athens in both its grime and glory Hughes delivers an impressive study of Socrates' philosophy - not as a dry academic exercise but as, what seems, a genuine attempt to get inside the mind of the man and understand how he thought human beings could live 'good' lives. As relevant now as then. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "... there can be no good ... if each individual is not as good as he can possibly be ...", 26 Jun. 2011
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Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

As so little is known of Socrates from sources from his lifetime - the main sources we have on Socrates are from writers such as Plato and Xenophone - and as Socrates apparently never wrote any of his own works down, the recreation of his life in this book is centred in the life of Athens.

The story of Athens itself during the "Golden Age" of its democracy, the Peloponnesian War, the Thirty, and all the political, philosophical, social, economic and military growth and development during this time, is fascinating in and of itself. Through the life of Athens, you catch glimpses of the life of Socrates himself - in the street, in conversation with friends, mixing with the young, the powerful - and always behaving just a little out of the way of Athenian expectations. Questioning, probing, not following the way of `democracy' as Athens would have its citizens.

And it was this way of behaviour - his own idiosyncracies, that got Socrates into trouble in the end.

Because when Athens is beaten, bloody, bowed into humility by Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians turn in on each other. Democracy, the Athenian Empire, had grown, flourished, then fought long and hard for its existence - and in the end, when the Spartans stood triumphant and Athens' allies had all but deserted them - what did it stand for? And wasn't that what Socrates had been questioning all along?

There's a lot we don't know about Socrates - but there's a lot we do know about Athens, and about others of its citizens during the Golden Age, and about its enemies, its allies, its battles and its struggles to birth and give life to a new way of living. And from this we can, not unreasonably, extrapolate much that must have been real for a man such as Socrates in this place, this time. So while there is conjecture in this book (and how could there not be, when writing of the life of a man who lived so long ago and who left no known writings of his own), it is well thought out, well presented, reasonable and always true to its subject.

The only warning I'd post is that it pays, I believe, to have a good understanding of Athens, Sparta, the Peloponnesian War and some of the major players of the time to get the most out of this book. A lack of pre-knowledge in coming to this book may well leave a reader somewhat confused.

Totally highly recommended.

A further recommended book on Socrates is Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield - also highly recommended.
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55 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Socrates comes to life, 9 Oct. 2010
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
This is, genuinely, a MUST READ book. I had heard of Socrates but knew very little about him or his life. Now I realise how central he is to both Western and Eastern thought, and also more importantly I feel as though I care about him and his work. Bettany Hughes has clearly spent many years deeply researching this rich subject. As far as I can tell she is the first historian brave enough to jigsaw-puzzle together all the scattered evidence for Socrates' Golden Age and to allow him to play his part as a real man the heady world of fifth century Greece. The pages bring him to life and, what's more, it's a great read. Thoroughly recommended.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Socrates as doughnut, 20 Mar. 2011
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
At the beginning of her book Bettany Hughes tells us that Socrates is a doughnut subject, with a hole in the middle. But she argues, 'painters will tell you the truest way to represent a shape is to deal with the space around it'.
The Hemlock Cup presents a picture of fifth century Athens as a city teeming with energy, ideas, wealth and ambition. At its best the book presents a detailed, heavily researched (the use of the latest archaeological evidence is particularly strong) account of Athens in its so-called Golden Age. It is rich with descriptions of voting systems and paraphernalia, symposia, theatre-going, wars, smells and noise. No sense is left undescribed, and if you like lots of adjectives, you'll love The Hemlock Cup. Others though might find it difficult to focus on the book through the deep haze of purple prose. This is television on the page, where thousands of words are used to paint a picture. At the same time, the book is tricked out with 'would have', 'it is easy to imagine', 'it is easy to imagine' and other ways Hughes invites the reader to use their imagination. It makes at least for a vibrant read.
The book is subtitled, 'Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life'. However, oddly for the subject, Socrates's philosophy is only sketched in (people should search for the good life; the unexamined life is not worth living). Instead, Socrates's life is used as a convenient thread through the book from which to hang descriptions of different parts of Athens ('As Socrates grew up, tributes [money from allies] steadily accrued'; 'On each morning of battle, Socrates would have heard... ').
In case the reader is wondering, Hughes is not, she tells us, a philosopher, but a historian. But as with her use of phrases such as 'it is easy to imagine', this is a history where vivid drama is more important than clear and careful weighing of the evidence.
The surviving texts are overwhelmingly pro-Socrates and Hughes falls too easily into following their line. Anytus, one of the prosecutors, for example, returns to Athens after the overthrow of a violent oligarchy. She disparages Anytus, saying he has come back with a chip the size of Crete on his shoulder. Given that the oligarchy has (as Hughes describes in great detail) been executing, confiscating and exiling it is unsurprising that he might be feeling a little chippy. It is also worth noting he is also a man of some importance in Athens at the time of Socrates's trial being part of the core group of 70 democrats that regrouped in exile and formed the base to strike back at the oligarchs.
Hughes skates over any political dimension to the case brought against Socrates, principally citing the recorded charges, whereas a reading of the evidence points to at least some political motivation in the prosecution of Socrates. Hughes attempts to dismiss Socrates's involvement in the rise of the oligarchy by arguing that he cannot be blamed for associating inter alios with individuals who went on to disappoint in later life. This is not the most rigorous examination of the depth and nature of the involvement.
And Hughes asserts for example the democrats went to Eleusis to kill the remaining oligarchs in 401/00. She doesn't consider the evidence the oligarchs were threatening moves against the democrats in Athens. This and a lack of consideration of the amnesty the democrats seem to have followed after the restoration contribute to a sense of a lack of balance.
The Hemlock Cup is a colourful, sometimes thrilling account of Athens, working well on social detail. But for an alternative analysis of the events leading up to Socrates's condemnation try Stone's Trial of Socrates. For Socrates's philosophy, try Irwin, Vlastos or Burnyeat.
Hughes finishes by telling us Socrates was a wonderful man; high praise for someone who started the book as the hole in the middle of a doughnut.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magical!, 2 Jan. 2011
By 
Dr. J. L. D. Pearse (Gloucestershire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)
What a wonderful book this is. Having studied Classics to University level, I thought I knew quite a lot about Athens and Greece in the golden years of the fifth century BC, but how wrong I was. Bettany Hughes brings that world to life with a magical and magisterial account of the life, times and world of Socrates and his contemporaries. Her writing is as fluent and attractive as her TV programmes and her talks at literature festivals. She is mistress of a huge range of sources - not just literature and archaeology but the evidence of her own eyes and other senses - which she uses in combination to magnificent effect and without a trace of academic dryness. She brings to life not just the big things - the Parthenon, the law courts in the agora - but also the small or everyday: Simon the shoemaker friend of Socrates, the water clock and its attendant, the miners in Laurium. And her enthusiasm for her subject shines through on every page and carries the reader along. This is a "must read" for serious students and 'amateur' lovers of classical Athens alike.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read, 4 Nov. 2013
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I had to study Plato's 'Apology' whilst at school (in Greece) as a teenager. As well as Ancient Greek drama (e.g. 'Antigone'). I went on to do an 'O' level in Ancient Greek and Roman History which I also enjoyed. I had very good teachers but went on to pursue a scientific training and just about forgot everything (apart from bits and pieces). Now in my 40s I am re-discovering philosophy as an antidote to the crazy world we live in. I am thoroughly enjoying Bettany Hughes book as it explores the world within which Socrates lived. At school I had never thought of Socrates being a young man, or a soldier...to be honest, all I could remember was that he had been accused of 'corrupting the young' and that he had the courage to hold fast to what he believed in (oh, and he had a wife who nagged him because he didn't earn enough money and they had to eat beans practically every day !!!I am sure that came from my male teacher). Hughes has managed to flesh out the life and times of Socrates in a most admirable (and highly researched) way so that he is not just an old philosopher who chose to drink poison.
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4.0 out of 5 stars History, but little philosophy, 29 April 2012
By 
Dogbertd (Brussels, BE) - See all my reviews
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This is a great read, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. You get a strong sense of the daily life of Athens 400 years BC, how similar, and how wierdly different it was from our own times (capital punishment could mean being tied to a board and left to die - slowly). You also get a great history of Athens at the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, and a strong insight into what "Democracy" actually was in ancient Athens.

What you won't get is any real exploration of Socrates' philosophy. After reading the 500 or so pages of the book I'd still be hard pressed to tell you anything about the major strands of his thought, and the Socratic (dialectic) method is hardly covered at all. You will learn about his life, and that of his contemporaries, but there is still that hole in the middle.

Nevertheless this is a great introduction into Ancient Greece, and, yes, to Socrates himself. At the end of it you'll understand the story of the fat, ugly, smelly man, but you won't really know how he thought; but you'll be well placed - and inspired - to find out his philosophy elsewhere.
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The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes (Hardcover - 7 Oct. 2010)
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