As The Hemlock Cup is released in paperback, Daisy Dunn engages in some Socratic Dialogue with its author,
historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes
I get the impression from your book that Socrates must have been quite aware of his own eccentricity, or oddness. Do you think he knew he was doomed from the start?
In a way that’s a level of knowledge of Socrates I don’t think I could have, even having studied him for ten years. Our problem is we don’t have any of his words, so it’s a
case of jigsaw-puzzling. I think what is certain, from all accounts, is that he doesn’t seem to have cared about the fact he was different from the run of the mill heroic, democratic
Athenian. And he didn’t seem to change in order to adapt to that, which is interesting, because in the classical world at this time there is a way of being – a way of behaving –
it’s an extremely public world. For anybody who has been spoken about in the public sphere – I have a public sphere aspect of my career as well so I’m aware of this – you
can really tell whether something that has been said or done has gone down well. So I think he would have been surprised if he didn’t realise there were people who were anxious about
what he was saying to the youth of Athens. And if you added two and two together you’d realise this could cause you problems. This was one of the attractions Socrates held for me,
though, his lack of compromise.
You describe the Athenians’ sudden realisation that they had made a big mistake in putting Socrates to death, and their steps towards almost idolising him. What was the turning
Well Socrates is 70 when he dies. He’s been allowed to philosophise freely in the city for almost 50 years. He clearly was – genius is an overused word – but he clearly did
have something of the genius about him. Although he did rub some people up the wrong way, other people were clearly completely bedazzled by his brilliance and how perceptive he was. That kind
of popular myth about him would have been circulating at the same time as those which said he was antidemocratic and weird and dangerous in some way. You’ve always got those two views,
but at the time of his trial the balance came down that way.
You describe in some depth Socrates’ military career – why do we so seldom hear about this side of him?
I think it’s probably because people haven’t done a birth-to-death focus on him before. People focus on his trial and death because we have those accounts, but those things would
have been of such little interest to him. He was interested in the living of the life, so it just seemed to me that you have to look at that whole span of life to comprehend him in any
way. People haven’t thought that much about Samos. There is a possibility that Socrates went there. In a way it would have been odd if he hadn’t gone. But maybe
he was a bit-part player then – he was very young – so was not talked about in the secondary sources. There must have been quite a lot of campaigns he went on, such as Scione, which we
don’t hear about specifically, but we know Socrates was in the leg of the army that was there at that time. So he must have been in that place. Otherwise he’d have been
helicoptered in to Potidea and Amphipolis and Delion, which of course didn’t happen!
It was at Potidaea that Socrates saved his lover Alcibiades. Couldn’t Socrates strike one as a hypocrite – the man who preached that one should love for what’s
within, but who then fell for a man for his good looks and charm – and was a bigamist besides?
I think Socrates was fascinated by Alcibiades. It’s almost the opposite of hypocrisy. I think it’s like when you can see the potential in someone. Socrates certainly
didn’t make life easy for himself, so maybe Alcibiades was just another challenge he was giving himself to deal with. The fact that Alcibiades does seem to have been flippant,
vainglorious and excessive makes me think Socrates was curious as to what was the good in this man. It’s as if he was thinking, “How fantastic it would be if I can teach this
young man something!” The thing about Socrates is he wasn’t an ascetic. He admired beauty and women and he drank. He didn’t deny the value of all those things, but always
said that one shouldn’t let them take over – that’s not the point of life.
Could Socrates be seen as an early proponent of women as learners?
I think it’s ironic when Plato makes the learned woman Aspasia Socrates’ teacher, but I think women crop up more in the Platonic dialogues than they do normally in texts of the period,
and in an un-hysterical way. They seem a very natural part of the discussions and debates within Socrates’ ideas. In a way he asks what the point is of women unless we’re
going to let them add something to life. In this respect he seems incredibly forward-looking. He has a lot of common sense, Socrates, even if that actually is centuries or millennia,
even, ahead of his day. So I think he was not a proto-feminist by any means, but looked at the world with clear and fresh eyes. We know women weren’t fulfilling their potential in
fifth-century Athens, and I think he was toying with the idea that maybe there was a way they could.
You draw frequent geographical comparisons between Greece today and in Socrates’ time. From your archaeological research, where do you feel has most retained its ancient
I like it down by the Kynosarges (‘White Bitch’) gym because it’s still quite rural, in a way. You’ve got bushes and rocks and remains of a kind of rivulet.
It’s a bit skanky today because you’re now right in the middle of a modern city, but you get this sort of ghost of what it would have been like when Socrates was there. The fact that
you are so close to the modern city again gives you a sense of the way they flipped between the bucolic zones of the city-state and the heart of Athens itself. Don’t go there alone after
dark, but there’s something slightly magical about it, and some of the same species of plants are still growing there.
I’ve heard you’re a keen botanist?
I did Botany A Level because at one point I thought I wanted to do paleobotany – looking at plant remains in archaeology – so I do know a bit about it. It comes in useful. Plants are so
important to the ancients for medicine and in a religious aspect – and in hemlock!
A lot of the archaeological material you discuss is still being excavated and examined. Did you worry that talking about such current matters would date your book?
Not really, partly because I was lucky enough to be at a lot of the digs before the results were published. I knew it would take 15 years or so for it to come into the public eye, so it will
still be new for 15 years. And that’s the great thing about archaeology, it doesn’t date. Once a site is dug, often it is left. For me it was about making the book as
cutting edge as I could.
But can you see yourself wanting to make more editions or revisions of your book in light of new evidence being unfurled?
I absolutely feel that. For a bit I’m going to write other things. I’m doing a big project on the history of women in religion at the moment. But yes, I am quite keen
already – The Hemlock Cup has just gone into its fifth edition. Once it’s gone into its tenth edition (if it’s still being printed), then might be the time to rethink. So
far the editions have mainly been corrections of typos. But at some point I will go back to both Socrates and Helen.
Socrates, as you say, was wedded to the spoken, not the written word. He wrote nothing down. As a woman who does both, what’s your thinking about the spoken versus the
I did feel guilty writing a book, and then going on to sell it. Socrates would have disapproved. I love writing, but he is absolutely right. You are much more honest when you are face
to face because you can’t pretend that you know stuff that you don’t. You really have to substantiate your argument. And Socrates’ big anxiety about the written word I
really feel has been played out in the riots recently, which affected us here in Ealing. The fact that kids can just Blackberry message each other makes it suddenly seem as though it is something
very heroic that they’re doing. But if they were to sit around a café table and plan they might realise that what they were talking about – not just looting trainers, but
smashing up 70-year-old ladies’ cars – isn’t really a glorious, heroic thing to do. If they’re sitting opposite each other they might think “He’s a bit of
a geek”, or “He’s got terrible halitosis”. But if they’re doing this by firing out messages, it really exalts a kind of aggressive stance. And Socrates
absolutely saw us coming with that. He was the one who said that the real problem with the written word is that it doesn’t have its father to protect it. It can be misused
and reviled and spread. So I think he wouldn’t have approved of me writing this book or selling it, but I think he would have approved of me going round giving talks and debates as a
result of it.
The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes is published by Jonathan Cape and is available in paperback from 1