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Copyright © Bettany Hughes 2009

THE HEMLOCK CUP

We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. His aphorism 'The unexamined life is not worth living' may have originated twenty-five centuries ago, but it is a founding principle of modern life. Socrates lived and contributed to a city that nurtured key ingredients of contemporary civilisation - democracy, liberty, science, drama, rational thought - yet, as he wrote nothing in his lifetime, he himself is an enigmatic figure.

 

The Hemlock Cup gives Socrates the biography he deserves, setting him in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean that was his home, and dealing with him as he himself dealt with the world. Socrates was a soldier, a lover, a man of the people. He philosophised neither in grand educational establishments nor the courts of kings but in the squares and public arenas of Golden Age Athens. He lived through an age of extraordinary materialism, in which a democratic culture turned to the glorification of its own city; when war was declared under the banner of democracy; and when tolerance turned into intimidation on streets once populated by the likes of Euripides, Sophocles and Pericles. For seventy years he was a vigorous citizen of one of the greatest capitals on earth, but then his beloved Athens turned on him, condemning him to death by poison.Socrates' pursuit of personal liberty is a vibrant story that Athens did not want us to hear, but which must be told.

Bettany Hughes has painstakingly pieced together Socrates' life, following in his footsteps across Greece and Asia Minor, and examining the new archaeological discoveries that shed light on his world. In The Hemlock Cup she reveals the human heart of the man, and relates a story that is as relevant now as it has ever been.

Bettany on Socrates and The Hemlock Cup
Love And Eros, The God Of Love
BOOK NEWS

The Hemlock Cup is launched in the UK, USA, and internationally - after ten years of research, five years of writing, this book investigates Socrates’story and his mission to identify what it is that constitutes a ‘good life’. To pull together the evidence for this account Bettany has travelled across Central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. The latest archaeology from Athens and beyond is examined. Socrates’ key questions – what is the place of money in a society, what is virtue, can goodness be taught, what is the point of city walls and warships and glittering statues if we are not happy are as relevant now as they were 24 centuries ago. Enjoy!

 

Great news! The Hemlock Cup, Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life is now a New York Times bestseller and has also just been shortlisted for the Writers' Guild Non-Fiction Prize.

 

We're really delighted with the press reaction to The Hemlock Cup and that it has been chosen as a Book of the Year in all the nationals and as Book of the Week, on BBC Radio 4. Please do give us your feedback (Socrates would have insisted on it), and please do spread the word if you can/are so inclined. 

 

The Hemlock Cup has been translated into Korean.

 

 

UK REVIEWS

Her enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious...No-one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates examined life into so rich and dense a tapestry

INDEPENDENT

The Hemlock Cup is another vibrant and atmospheric work from this well-known promoter of the ancient world...this is an exciting book that puts the reader into the footsteps of Athenians of the 5th century BC

BBC HISTORY TODAY MAGAZINE

Hughes' 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. Not only that, she is expert in knowing when to alter and vary her focus. Sometimes we are led by her through the streets of modern Athens, sometimes across an archaeological site, and sometimes down into the basement of a provincial museum, where rare treasures lie hidden. She spares no effort in bringing the world of Socrates alive. Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.

OBSERVER

No physical aspect of life as experienced by an Athenian man is left out...Hughes's expert attempts to make him flesh and blood, to fill in the gaps...teach us about the value of the real as well as the philosophical.

THE SCOTSMAN

Bettany Hughes’s The Hemlock Cup delivers an exuberant, fascinating portrait of Socratic Athens.

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE - BOOK OF THE YEAR

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. 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

As vivid, vital and scholarly a work on Ancient Athens as you could ask for.

INDEPENDENT

Passion is very much Bettany Hughes’s trademark, much on display in this lively biography of Socrates, focusing particularly on his trial in May 399BC for 'corrupting the young and denying [Athens’s] gods’. As gossipy as it is erudite, Hughes’s meticulous research has worked miracles to uncover the life of the Greek philosopher who wrote almost nothing down. Noisy, greedy, gillyflower-strewn fifth-century BC Athens, with its loose tribal apartheid and ambivalence about its own democratic processes, is as much a character of this book as is the calm, witty and ultimately doomed Socrates.

LUCY BERESFORD, SUNDAY TIMES - BOOK OF THE YEAR

Radical. Hughes recreates the dusty streets of Greece in which Socrates' dialogues took shape, and revisits archaeological sites around the glittering city of Athens. It reads like an investigation and, in trying to find the man, Hughes uses the skills of historian and documentarian combined to create a fresh and surprisingly pacy biography.

INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY - BOOK OF THE YEAR

Compelling.

TELEGRAPH - BOOK OF THE YEAR

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

Riveting, passionate and learned...The Hemlock Cup is a biography of Socrates, and also a lot more than that...As she unfolds the tale, she brings us an edited history of fifth-century BC Athens, too. This isn’t padding, or even scene-setting (atmospheric though it always is). Without overstating the case, she shows how the city’s life runs alongside the philosopher’s, and then takes a different course... There’s some terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable (though that heroism resides in a constant questioning); and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want.

TOM PAYNE, TELEGRAPH

Like many of today’s best scholars Hughes thinks in visual terms, and tells history by using images as much as words. Her first book, on Helen of Troy, was a great success. Now she turns to Socrates. Her approach to this immensely difficult subject is delightfully new…Hughes is learned, resourceful, lively, ultra-modern and confiding as well as confident. So although she conveys a great deal of knowledge she does so painlessly. …there is no reason why this work should not achieve its laudable object of introducing the masses pleasurably to Socrates’ world and thought. The most valuable thing a writer on Socrates can do is to encourage readers to go back to the dialogues, read them carefully, and make up their own minds about the various difficulties. This task Bettany Hughes carries out with tumultuous confidence and relish, and I think Socrates himself would have a kindly word for her efforts.

PAUL JOHNSON, TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

From the ancient Greek world’s most beautiful woman to one of its self-acknowledged ugliest men is quite a step, but one that Hughes accomplishes without breaking strides or pausing for breath…Her enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She writes up a storm. At the end of the road we may not be any closer to certainty or closure on the biggest issues of Socrates’ inordinately rich life and afterlife but, as with the search for the historical Alexander or Jesus, travelling hopefully is quite possibly as good, and as much fun, as arriving. The journey is the reward…No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates’ examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens’ teeming high-culture and mundane experience… Readers will be drawn by Hughes’ beguiling prose into exploring the highways and byways of Athens’ topography… The Hemlock Cup is, moreover, beautifully produced, filled with a host of stunning illustrations and tricked out most inventively on its endpapers with a plethora of extraordinary Socratic quotations running from Montaigne and Lydia Child (both 1588) to Nelson Mandela. The good life is an elusive concept but, however defined, arguably no search for it would be dangerously impeded by buying this handsome volume and reading it through, critically, as Bettany Hughes’ Socrates would have devoutly wished.

PROFESSOR PAUL CARTLEDGE, INDEPENDENT

Bettany Hughes’ terrifically readable life of the philosopher, The Hemlock Cup, is more than just a life; it is also an evocation and an explanation of the world that created this extraordinary figure… 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.

DANIEL HAHN, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY

Hughes cleverly extracts the man from the dramatic scene-setting in the Platonic dialogues and puts him in his life and times by reconstructing ancient Athens and putting the same questions to us that he puts to adherents and fellow citizens. Hughes credits two editors for saving her from ‘extreme colloquialism’ but enough survives to give this intelligent, bright-eyed, vigorous book a life as vibrant as that lived by its subject.

THE TIMES

Hughes conjures up the life in which Socrates worked and lived.'...This book will come as a revelation to most of my brothers and sisters in the philosophical community

NIGHTWAVES, BBC RADIO 3

For Perfect Presents Just Look To The Past – Hughes spins the few available facts for all they’re worth, set against a richly detailed background of 5th century Athens on which she is an expert. Enthusiastic and colourful.

PETER LEWIS, CHRISTMAS CHOICE, DAILY MAIL

An ambitious book, taking us through the 70 years of Socrates' life during one of the most exciting moments in world history...its scholarship is impeccable and Hughes' command of the sources daunting

SP!KED REVIEW OF BOOKS

Hughes's beguiling prose draws the reader into the devices and desires of the world's first democratic regime, and a Mediterranean world of sex, violence, sympotic carousing and great man-made beauty. She does full justice - as perhaps the Athenian People did not! - to the religious and philosophical endeavours of a unique career fatally shadowed by the ultimately disastrous Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). All that - and a beautifully produced book too

PROFESSOR PAUL CARTLEDGE, Professor Of Greek Culture, Cambridge University

Bettany Hughes breathes life into Socrates, the thinker Athens both revered and condemned. Socrates’ has benefitted from Hughes’ considerable skills...Hughes’ expert attempts to make him flesh and blood, to fill in the gap, do him no harm. They teach us about the value of the real as well as the philosophical.

THE SCOTSMAN

So it is that the life of her hero 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. Not only that, she is expert in knowing when to alter and vary her focus. Sometimes we are led by her through the streets of modern Athens, sometimes across an archaeological site, and sometimes down into the basement of a provincial museum, where rare treasures lie hidden. She spares no effort in bringing the world of Socrates alive. Describing Athens amid the death-agonies of the Peloponnesian war, Hughes comments that it "must have been reminiscent of Kabul 2002-10: ragged, war-torn, veiled women in the streets with no husbands, brothers or sons". Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.

TOM HOLLAND, OBSERVER

One can plunge enthusiastically into the seething world inhabited by Socrates that she recreates for us...This is the grand sweep of Athenian history during its most politically inventive and culturally exciting period...It all makes for a rich mixture; Socrates' early days as a keen natural scientist, his military career, his growing sense of what is important in life, his political scrapes, and his execution are played out in the company of Plato, Xenophon, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Aspasia, free men and slaves, shoemakers and sculptors, intellectuals and thugs – a cast of millions – against a backdrop of Athens with its markets, back streets, military engagements, theatrical performances, plague, triumph and disaster. Channel 4 must be licking its lips. It will make irresistible television

PETER JONES, LITERARY REVIEW

She does a very good job of re-creating the material world in which Socrates lived, presenting ancient Athens as a much gaudier, dirtier, smellier and in some respects more industrial place than we often imagine. She is up to date on recent archaeological discoveries ...and she is full of vivid descriptions of what many of the famous landmarks look like to the modern visitor: run-down, and littered with fag ends and Coca-Cola cans. She can also be realistically unsentimental about the culture of classical Athens...she writes frankly of the nastiness of the world in which Socrates grew up and lived.

MARY BEARD, SUNDAY TIMES

Bettany Hughes’ dazzling new book.

SKY BOOK SHOW

A wonderfully rich and nuanced evocation

OBSERVER

…this fabulous Book of the Week

JANE THYME, THE INDEPENDENT

Fifth-century Athens has never sounded so vibrant and alive...This is more than one man's biography: it is a rich picture of a society on the brink of a fully-fledged democracy, where ideas and inventions are erupting with as much gusto as a volcano. Bettany's use of language and her vocal delivery are just as powerful as her subject matter, and bring Ancient Greece vividly to life.

PICK OF THE WEEK - Radio Times, Books Of The Week

Selected amongst the books of the year for 2010 by Sir Andrew Motion

THE REVIEW SHOW 2010 HIGHLIGHTS

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FULL REVIEWS
US REVIEWS

The brilliant cultural historian Hughes (Helen of Troy) has again produced an intriguing and entertaining biohistory of one of the most important individuals in the ancient world, and of the Athenian society that condemned him to death for daring to question all received wisdom... a gadfly to Athens' citizens and leaders. Moreover, through careful description of fifth century B.C.E. Athens, she brings to life the social, political, economic, literary, and military realities of Socrates' society, in particular the centrality of the agora. Hughes devotes a substantial part of her account to the trial and forced suicide of the great philosopher, events which communicated Socratic humor mixed with courage. ... She aptly conveys the continuing urgency of Socrates' devotion to the inquiring mind.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

What we get in the Hemlock Cup is many books interlaced: a biography of Socrates; a gritty description of daily lift in Athens; a vivid history of the Peloponnesian War and its after-effects; and - as an unexpected delight - a guide to museums, archaeological digs and repositories of ancient artefacts, as Hughes takes us by the hand while ferreting out her evidence.

WALTER ISAACSON

Hughes does a wonderful job of offering the reader a new and insightful look into Socrates' life and philosophy. THe writing is engaging and will appeal to academics and general readers who are interested in Socrates and life in ancient Greece

SCOTT DUIMSTRA, LIBRARY JOURNAL

The brilliant cultural historian Hughes (Helen of Troy) has again produced an intruiging and entertaining biohistory of one of the most important individuals in the ancient world, and of the Athenian society that condemned him to death for daring to question all received wisdom....she aptly conveys the continuing urgency of Socrates' devotion to the inquiring mind.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

This, then, is 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 on modern Western civilisation.

MARGARET FLANAGAN

Searchingly intelligent and quite beautifully written.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Hughes triumphs again. This is history exactly as it should be written, a masterpiece of dramatic presentation...in this beguiling book, the Socrates Hughes creates is ultimately a towering, yet intensely human figure. He lives and speaks again in these pages. It is a singular accomplishment.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Fascinating. There are scores of other books that explore the philosophical issues surrounding the death of Socrates. What Hughes provides is something far more vital; a life and times of Socrates that is so richly textured, flavourful 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 his quirks and foibles and questioning brilliance.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Delightful. Hughes presents a high-octane account of Socrates and his age. She offers vivid slices of imagined Athenian life...her biographical sketches are rich with lively detail...DO read this book, both because of its marvellous storytelling and because it will stimulate a desire to learn more about the ancient world. Socrates would be pleased if his story awakened a few modern Americans from moral slumber.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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