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The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes
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The Hemlock Cup

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The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes
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Feb 14, 2012 | ISBN 9781400076017

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  • Feb 14, 2012 | ISBN 9781400076017

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“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)

Author Q&A

Q: In THE HEMLOCK CUP you reconstruct the physical reality of Socrates’ 5th century B.C. Athens and therefore, the reality of Socrates himself.  Why Socrates?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by Socrates – he is such a powerful and yet such an enigmatic figure. His basic premise, that if we are all individually as good as we possibly can be then the world will be a good place – is irresistible and yet also immensely complicated to implement. It is no surprise perhaps that the city-state (Ancient Athens) that first prided itself on allowing, encouraging and codifying, freedom of speech, ended up condemning Socrates to death for speaking his mind freely.
Q: You say, “…as far as we know, Socrates wrote down not one word of philosophy.  The idea of Socrates is immensely influential, and yet everything we know of him is hearsay.”  How, then, did you go about fleshing out the life of “one of the most provocative and provoking thinkers of all time”?
A: Socrates is a challenge there is no doubt. But a painter once told me that the truest impression of an object is given if you also look carefully at the shape around the hole that object creates. And so I have jigsaw-puzzled together the world around Socrates – the streets where he walked, the shrines where he worshipped, the wine that he drank, the battlefields where he fought, the gyms where he exercised and the couches he lay upon with he love his life – the beautiful, dangerous, golden-haired aristocrat Alcibiades. I chose to write this book now because so much new archaeological evidence has appeared from under the streets of the modern-city of Athens (because of work for the 2004 Olympics and the new Metro system), we seem to be uniquely well placed to at last get a full picture of the eccentric, busy philosopher who walked barefoot through Ancient Athens – as Cicero says, ‘bringing philosophy down from the skies.’
Q: You are the first woman to write a full-length book on Socrates.  In THE HEMLOCK CUP, how do you bring a female perspective to this traditionally male subject?
A: There is no doubt that in this account of Socrates’ life and world, I haven’t ignored the other 50 % of the population that lived when he did. Socrates is interested in women – some of his statements about them (which of course come to us via Plato and Xenophon) are relatively unconventional. He seems to be alive to the potential that women might have in playing a fuller role in society. Of course, in his day, women were distinctly second class citizens – they weren’t allowed to ride or to drink unmixed wine, they were often given half rations. And yet at the same time women were in charge of a vast number of religious rites – and religion was an inextricable part of the DNA of Ancient Athens. I’ve tried to paint them back in to the picture of Athens – where, had you lived 24 centuries ago, you would have expected them to be. I think the fact that I am a female writer might possibly mean that I bring a holistic perspective to the Socrates’ story, I’m trying to see the 5th century world as he did, with wide-ranging eyes.

Q: You say that Socrates’ life spanned “seventy of the busiest, most wonderful and tragic years in Athenian history.”  What can you tell us about 5th century B.C. Athens?
A: 5th century Athens simply was unique. Here some of the most exciting political and social experiments ever undertaken in human society were being played out. After 25,000 years of pre-history, Athens challenges the ‘might is right’ principle, and suggests that each stakeholder in society should have a voice. In Athenian democracy, selected by lot, you could be the equivalent of home secretary, leader of congress and high-court judge all in the space of one year. Every single mandated male citizen was a politician. And with the untapping of this immense potential came a great verve for life – the art, literature, drama and scientific discovery of the period just sings with promise.  Of course the challenge was to keep all this cosmopolitan, mongrel vivacity stable. Athens found herself voting for and then dragged into a punishing and humiliating war – jealousy of the city’s high-fliers ended up pulling society apart, and the aristocratic class could never entirely reconcile itself to the idea of absolute, true, direct democracy – something that Socrates himself questioned. For me this period is mesmerizing because it speaks directly to us – about the challenges, pitfalls, privileges and delights of what it is to be human.
Q: How were time and place influential in the evolution of Socrates and his philosophy?
A: Socrates was born when democracy was just finding its feet. He watched it flourish, he fought under its banner in foreign lands, and then he also was there as it withered and died. We often forget that Socrates was a soldier – there is no doubt that some of his philosophy was honed while he was on punishing, gruesome campaigns in the North of Greece. The vital thing to remember about Socrates is that he did not withdraw himself from life – he lived it to the full, and so if we follow in his footsteps, a rich, strange, evocative world is opened up to us. Because this was a man as good at drinking, fighting, loving, exercising, sacrificing as he was at philosophizing.
Q: You say, “My ambition is very simple: to re-enter the streets of Athens in real time”.  How did you go about doing that? 
A: I have painstakingly visited every spot that Socrates visited, crossed the seas he sailed over, and held in my hands the kinds of drinking cups he would have used, the votive offerings he would have left at sanctuaries, the swords he would have killed Athens’ enemies with, the theatre tokens he would have clutched in order to get into the theatres to hear the premieres of those great dramas – tragedies and comedies - by Euripides, Aristophanes, Arschylus and Sophocles that we now realise to be world-class works. I have tried to see Athens as he did – with 5th century eyes. To feel Socrates’ Athens as he would have experienced it, not just as it has been sold to us down the centuries. Because the story of Athens is the story of us – and we need to get close to it so we can understand our own position in the modern world a little more subtly and with greater clarity.

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