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on 29 July 2012
This book by Robin Waterfield provides a good account of classical Athenian history as the background to the trial of Socrates and of the mechanics and course of the trial itself. After an introduction, he discusses how the Athenian courts worked, the prosecution and defence and how the jury voting system. Next, Waterfield gives a readable account of the Peloponnesian War and the effect it had on Athenian politics, promoting both extreme democracy or demagogy and brutal oligarchy. In this, the main figure is Alcibiades, handsome and wealthy and hungry for power, either fighting for Athenian democracy or plotting against it.

Socrates had a turbulent relationship with Alcibiades as his teacher and possibly lover, and many of Socrates's student followers were rich and opponents of the Athenian democracy, including Critias, violently anti-democratic and one of the main leaders of the oligarchic coups. Waterfield argues in a final section that, although by 399BC, Critias and Alcibiades were both dead, Socrates was tarnished by his association with them. The charges he faced, impiety, worshipping new gods and corrupting the young were motivated by political revenge rather than moral or religious concerns.

However, Waterfield argues that Socrates' death was caused by his own suicidal behaviour. The jury convicted him by only a narrow majority, after which, the prosecutor and Socrates each proposed a penalty. By not proposing a fine or exile instead of death, but dinners at public expense, he created outrage which ensured a big majority for the death penalty. This is an intriguing argument, but an alternative to Waterfield's view is that Socrates was so out of touch he really believed that his actions were more worthy of praise than condemnation.

Overall an interesting book, but only one of many theories about Socrates's trial and death. He idea that Socrates deliberately sought death is not really proved.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 19 August 2010
I don't think that the author of this book suggests that Socrates supported 'the Thirty' at all. Surely it is more the case that the book argues that Socrates was sacrificed because he was seen by some as a 'sophist'; and that he taught his followers, in a very public manner, to question the underlying assumptions of Athens' way of life.

This book is very insightful and interesting; well-written and very thorough. I recommend it highly. The author's book on Xenophon is also very good, and I would recommend that too.

Both these books offer very good background and interesting historical analysis of Athens during its imperial phase and its struggles with Sparta and Persia.
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on 29 December 2009
"Why Socrates Died?" by Robin Waterfield is a fresh, carefully researched and very coherent account of Athenian democracy at its best and worst.

The most surprising theme of the book, was that democratic Athens was so deeply divided on class lines: perhaps that is why for much of this time Athens was, despite its disasters, such a success.

The detailed analysis and description of the life and death of Alcibiades was the strongest part of the book. Alcibaides can be dismissed as just a maverick and a loose cannon. Robin Waterfield reveals the complexity, driven nature and strange genius of the man.

It was rather sad in the end, that the probable reason for Socrates demise, was the revenge of fathers for Socrates supposedly leading astray the youth of Athens: I had hoped that Athenian democracy would have been stronger than that and on another day or year Socrates would have survived.

One does not need to be a Greek scholar (which I am not) to enjoy this book, which drew one back into the world of classical Greece. Although the book highlighted the weaknesses and unpleasantness of much of the Athenian polity, it reinforced in me my longstanding fascination, respect, admiration and even love for democratic Athens.

After having read the book, I found the review by Mr McCormack rather puzzling: Robin Waterfield's books ( I have also read Xenophon's Retreat) present the evidence and his well thought out views, in a story which is comprehensible for the reader (whether a scholar or layman). Perhaps Mr McCormack was disappointed that Robin Waterfield took time to explain to the reader the political, religious and cultural context which lead to the death of Socrates, rather than concentrating the whole of the book on Socrates himself.
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on 13 July 2009
This is not a difficult book to read - it is engaging and presents the information clearly and in a well structured way. Waterfield manages to present 5th Century Athenian history from the end of the Persian wars within the framework of Sokrates' life, explaining about Sokrates' association with the young oligarchic element of Athenian culture and the issues that come from this with regards to Alkibiades and the end of the Peloponnesian War, the 30 Tyrants and the restoration of Democracy.

A very well written book - an essential introduction to 5th century Athenian politics looking back from 399BC.
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on 18 April 2010
An entertaining and convincing exploration of the military and political milieu of 5th century Athens and its implications for understanding the trial and execution of Socrates. It benefits from being refreshing clear sighted about Socrates, portraying him as a flawed person, tainted by association with oligarchic and tyrannical Athenian factions, rather than the unimpeachably innocent victim of Platonic myth.
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on 9 January 2011
Socrates' actions will have been a major contributor to his conviction, and the political hysteria at the time will in turn have been the counterbalance, but this book spends about 95% of its time talking about times well before then. A lot of detail regarding the Peloponnesian war is entered into which could easily have been condensed, yet it gets more coverage than Socrates himself. The book reads more like a study of Alcibiades. I was so disappointed I came to write this review, when I must review less than one in 50 books (and normally only to praise)

The book lacks Socrates. There may be evidential reasons why the book suggested by the title cannot be written, but I feel I have just read a tepid version of Thucydides, and would not encourage anyone to read the book, unless they want to know a lot of detail about what happened BEFORE Socrates trial and death
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on 15 May 2009
The core argument of this book was featured in the January 2009 edition of History Today; a well respected journal first published in the 1950's.

Unusually, for the next two months, History Today carried letters criticising the author. I am proud mine was one of them.

Robin Waterfield suggests that Socrates supported `The Thirty', the brutal junta of noblemen who seized power over devastated Athens at the close of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE.

This book blatantly ignores the crucial fact that Socrates heroically refused to participate in the murder of Leon of Salamis. Socrates defied The Thirty to their faces, an act of immense physical and moral courage. Why does Robin Waterfield omit this?

Yes we must always review our understanding of the past, yes we must always re-examine evidence and take nothing on face value but, by the Dog, we cannot ignore key facts that count against our theories. Unless, that is, we need to be deliberately controversial to ensure publication...

I cannot recommend this book to anyone who wants an objective and honest understanding of Socrates.
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