A revisionist account of the most famous trial and execution in Western civilization — one with great resonance for modern society
In the spring of 399 BCE, the elderly philosopher Socrates stood trial in his native Athens. The court was packed, and after being found guilty by his peers, Socrates died by drinking a cup of poison hemlock, his execution a defining moment in ancient civilization. Yet time has transmuted the facts into a fable. Aware of these myths, Robin Waterfield has examined the actual Greek sources, presenting a new Socrates, not an atheist or guru of a weird sect, but a deeply moral thinker, whose convictions stood in stark relief to those of his former disciple, Alcibiades, the hawkish and self-serving military leader. Refusing to surrender his beliefs even in the face of death, Socrates, as Waterfield reveals, was determined to save a morally decayed country that was tearing itself apart. Why Socrates Died is then not only a powerful revisionist book, but a work whose insights translate clearly from ancient Athens to the present day.
Socrates and Alcibiades were an unlikely couple: an ugly old philosopher and a charming, intelligent, ambitious and arrogant aristocrat. The fallout from this relationship and an unpopular war toppled the world's most significant philosophical figure. By placing the execution of Socrates against the context of the Peloponnesian War, classicist Waterfield (Xenophon's Retreat) argues that a guilty verdict against the philosopher, charged with impiety and corrupting Athens's youth, was a rational outcome. "Athens of the last third of the fifth century B.C. was affected by a striking list of stress factors. Old certainties were being undermined by prolonged warfare, morally subversive ideas, population displacement" and other forms of social upheaval. Sitting atop a solid foundation of scholarship, this valuable survey of an important period of ancient history is especially useful as a prelude to texts by Plato, Xenophon and Thucydides. Of the many introductory studies on the Athenian judicial system, the trial of Socrates, the conflict between Athens and Sparta and the reasons that democracy gave way to oligarchy in Athens, this is among the clearest, most well-organized and most concise. 4 pages of illus., maps.