The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes ( has been gracing our TV screens since 2012 presenting the history of the classical world. Her programme Genius of the Ancient World – Socrates ( was broadcast on 12 August 2015 on BBC 4. Whether to follow up the programme or in preparation for a second viewing I would recommend her 2010 book The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life.

We think the way we do because of Socrates (  and; 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 something of an enigma: a man who left no written text and about whom everything is gleaned from the writings of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes.

Hughes gives us here a brilliantly vivid portrait of Socrates and of his homeland, Athens in its Golden Age. His life spanned ‘seventy of the busiest, most wonderful and tragic years in Athenian history.’ It was a city devastated by war, but, at the same time, transformed by the burgeoning process of democracy, and Hughes re-creates this fifth-century BC city, drawing on the latest sources—archaeological, topographical and textual—to illuminate the streets where Socrates walked, to place him there and to show us the world as he experienced it.

The author takes us through the great, teeming Agora—the massive marketplace, the heart of ancient Athens—where Socrates engaged in philosophical dialogue and where he would later be condemned to death. We visit the battlefields where he fought, the red-light district and gymnasia he frequented and the religious festivals he attended. We meet the men and the few women—including his wife, Xanthippe, and his “inspiration” and confidante, Aspasia—who were central to his life. We travel to where he was born and where he died. We come to understand the profound influences of time and place in the evolution of his eternally provocative philosophy. This is a deeply informed and vibrantly written book, combining historical inquiry and storytelling skill. The Hemlock Cup gives us a substantial, fascinating, humane depiction of this most influential thinker of all time. Please read it.

To pursue the interest further reach for Gregory Vlastos’s 1991 book Socrates: Ironist and Moral  Philosopher. This begins from the conviction that the strangeness of Socrates is the key to his philosophy. It is a marvellous book, in  which no major aspect of Socrates’ career is overlooked. The rigour of his arguments, the depth of his moral commitment and understanding, his complex relationship to Athenian ethical traditions, his rational religion: all this  comes to life in writing by Vlastos ( whose  vigour and lucidity put the challenge of Socrates squarely before the  reader.

For a quick introduction to this subject go to Taylor, C.C.W. (2001). Socrates: A Very Short  Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press (

An excellent 45 minute ‘In Our Time’ Radio 4  podcast of a programme originally broadcast in 2007 is available at   With Angie Hobbs, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University; David  Sedley, Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Cambridge University; Paul  Millett, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge. First  broadcast Thursday 27 Sep 2007.

For a more bracing dip into the subject reach for The Cambridge Companion to Socrates (2010,  edited by Donald R. Morrison.

For a lifetime of study and reflection on the thought and influence of  Socrates follow the bibliographies in

When you have become wise and exhausted, let your final words be “Crito, I think we owe a cock to Asclepius”.


528 pages in Jonathan Cape

First published 2010

ISBN 978-0224071789

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       Bettany Hughes                          Socrates

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