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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 26 March 2017

"The Hemlock Cup" by Bettany Hughes

This is a biography of Socrates, a man who lived through political upheaval, war and civil war, and was a contemporary of Euripides, Xenophon, Sophocles, Plato, Herodotus and Alcibiades to name but a few. Part of the excitement of this book is the way it suggests how our own grasp on civilisation might be so tenuous. The Hellenic "population appears largely to have lost the power of literacy between about 1100 and 800 BC." (p 10) If the ability to read and write can be lost by a while people, what can we rely on? Athens, in its concern for democracy, but in its vulnerability to political turmoil via populism, might echo Trump's US; Sparta in its rigidly communist ideals enforced by militarism suggests the pre-1989 Soviet Union or modern North Korea. And Sparta ended up conquering proud Athens.

I suppose this story of Socrates is more importantly the story of Athens. After she had suffered under the Persian invasion and then defeated the Persians, Athens and her famous fleet of thalassocrats, became the leading light in the Delian league. Inexorably Athens became too big for her own boots. She began to treat her allies as subjects, wreaking horrific revenges (such as killing all men and enslaving all women and children) on those who wished to defect from the league. She exacted tribute which, with the silver coming from mines excavated by slave labour, made her rich; this is why the citizens, supported by at least two slaves each on average, were able to spend time talking philosophy and making their bodies beautiful. The slaves were  non-persons, Hughes mentions that "slaves' evidence was thought admissible in fifth-century Athens only if obtained under torture" (p 345). But slowly Athens was poisoning the rest of Greece against her. The long agony of the Peloponnesian war against Sparta enfeebled Athens; the Spartans regularly raided the Athenian countryside. Then Alcibiades led a naval expedition against Sicily; after the democrats recalled him to stand trial (he fled to Sparta) the incompetent leadership led to the total loss of all ships and perhaps ten thousand men (which would have been about ten per cent of the population). Athens struggled on until at last the Spartans conquered them, forcing them to demolish their city walls and abandon the democracy in favour of an oligarchy of quislings. Now civil strife started and terror ruled the new police state. Eventually Athens was reduced to a size of one third of her former glory. It was then that

One of the things that must have been so exciting about this time was that Socrates rubbed shoulders with so many incredible people. They're all here in this book:

  • Democritus, the man who named the atom: "A bit of a local celebrity up north, 'in the streets of Athens', Democritus would say, 'no one knows who I am'." (p 66)
  • "One of the rogue philosophers in Athena's city, Anaxagoras, would soon amuse others with his crazy theories - that the stars and planets were not heavenly creatures but rock-hot masses." (p 67) [Not 100% sure about rock-hot: hotness is not a quality I associate with rocks.]
  • When Socrates was just 19 he met 65 year old Parmenides and his young pupil/ lover forty yo Zeno: "Although the two alien philosophers Zeno and Parmenides were staying in the low-rent motel-strip of the ancient city, they had brought with them something priceless. A new book. Imagine the impact. The leather pannier opening, the papyrus unwrapped, the words, inked black with oak-gall and charcoal, marking out a fresh landscape of ideas." (pp 75 - 76)
  • "It is a half-Spartan boy, with a Spartan name and nursed at a Spartan breast, who will from here on in be Socrates' earthly love. A boy who will bring him much trouble. A boy called Alcibiades." (p 99)
  • "Aspasia would have been considered a 'leaky' being, someone who oozed pollution from her genitalia, her mouth, even her eyes. Hippocrates (the Greek medical expert from Cos whose lifespan almost exacly matches Socrates' own) explains that menstrual blood accumulates in the female body because this sex is organically porous. One of the reasons such a sump-residue gathers is because of women's 'sedentary' lifestyle." (p 117)
  • Alcibiades was believed to be "a direct descendant of that sage old hero of the Trojan war, King Nestor." (pp 143 - 144)
  • "In about 454 BC a group of Pythagoreans had gathered together as per usual in their meeting house in Croton, one of the Greek cities in Magna Graecia, southern Italy. Their conversation would perhaps have been about the stars, mathematics, the nature of the universe, the nature of society, the nature of love. This think-tank engaged with the world around them in the most vigorous of ways. But others were there too, in the shadows. As the radical group of thinkers settled down to business, the door was barred - from the outside - and a torch put to the tinder. All the Pythagoreans were burned alive." (p 217)
  • As well of course as the members of Socrates' circle: Plato, Xenophon, Meno, Phaedo, Lysis etc; excitingly Hughes records their archaeological existence as well. He was also satirised in the comedies of Aristophanes.



Other fabulous moments:

  • "The Ancient Greeks believed something remarkable about men. They believed that each had been given, by the gods, an equal portion of dike, justice, and aidos, shame or concern for their fellow man." (pp 3 - 4)
  • "As with other troubling, slippery, nebulous concepts (nemesis - retribution; themis - order or divine right; peitho - persuasion), she [demokratia - democracy] was personified as a woman." (p 15)
  • "Life itself was thought to be a religious experience." (p 29)
  • Athenians called a quickie with a prostitute "middle-of-the-day marriages" (p 72)
  • "Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei - 'this way' or 'follow me'" (p 84):  Prostitutes are often associated with boots but not hob-nails!
  • "Kynosarges - 'White Bitch' gym, - was designated for the half-castes of the city. As ever, Socrates does not just inhabit the 'showcase' venues of the 'violet-crowned', 'show-city' Athens, but can alos be found in its more mongrel spots." (p 108)
  • "in male-dominated European societies to date there has never yet been one that did not sponsor talented, charismatic, intelligent women in their private salons." (p 121)
  • The Isthmian games in Corinth commemorated "the death of a child-hero called Melikertes, who drowned at sea buit whose body was brought back to shore by a kindly dolphin. Priests wore black robes and crowned victors with wreaths of wild celery - the plant that was thought to grow so freely in the Underworld." (p 133)
  • "The Greeks knew just how dangerous Eros really was. Naturally, Love and Lust destroyed men. Eros brought the great and the weak alike to their knees. Socrates himself compared the kisses sponsored by Eros to the venom injected by a lethal scorpion." (pp 144 - 145)
  • "Socrates lived through an information revolution. By the time of his trial, a huge swathe of Athenians right down to the artisan class had become literate ... It was in Athens in the fifth century BC that the written word - which gives all of us so much - took flight." (p 170)
  • "Zeus himself first appeared as a small bronze from Sumeria (made in the third millennium BC) before thetre was any mention of him in records west of the Bosporus. Dionysos too danced swung and lurched his way over from Central Asia at just about the moment that written records in what we now call Greece began." (p 185)
  • "The philosopher's dying words ... remember another divine hero new to the city: the healer Asclepius." (p 186)
  • "Socrates grew up with theatre beating its juvenating rhythm out to his city." (p 212)
  • "Men often joked about the honesty of an empty belly." (p 230)
  • "Socrates' love is literal: the point of life is to love it. He is erotic. He states that if Eros passes you by in life, you are a nonentity." (p 240)
  • "book-burning begins in Athens as soon as 'the book', as a popular art-form, arrives in the city state." (p 277)
  • "Like most goddesses, the goddess of persuasion, Peitho, and Pheme, the goddess of rumour, could be irrevocably unkind." (p 309)
  • "Athens was no longer a state you wanted to arrive at, it was a place from which you tried to escape." (p 314)
  • "From 404 through to 403 BC, Athens was stifled in an endless nightmare. Fists and wooden clubs pounded on doors. Citizens turned slaughterers to avoid their own messy deaths. ... Just 10,000 lived within the walls of Athens itself. This was Balkan-village atrocity. Neighbours turned on neighbours, sometimes brother against brother." (pp 319 - 320)
  • "Democracy has a very light hold on history. In antiquity it lasted just over 180 years." (p 359)

This is a brilliant book, beautifully written, which records so much about Socrates' life, from the written records (not just Plato!) to the archaeological evidence. It navigates perfectly through the confusions of the Peloponnesian war and the roller-coaster career of the charismatic Alcibiades. Fascinating reading.

March 2017; 371 pages

A brilliant fictionalised account of the Athens of Socrates is Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine.

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