Book review: The Hemlock Cup

THE HEMLOCK CUP By Bettany Hughes Jonathan Cape, 544pp, £25

Absences are a draw for Bettany Hughes. Where a life should be full of artefacts, pictures and words, there are only gaps: this is kind of story that irresistibly attracts her, because she wants to fill those gaps. And so, in 2005, Helen of Troy, that elusive owner of the face "that launched a thousand ships", drew Hughes to create a very thorough and convincing account of the life a real Bronze-Age Mycenaean princess might have led. Helen of Troy suddenly became a flesh-and-blood woman.

Now it is the story of Socrates, the philosopher who wrote nothing down, who coined the aphorism "the unexamined life is not worth living" and yet who we struggle to see through the mists of time examining anything, that has benefited from her considerable skills. Huge gaps exist in a life that leaves no record, other than in the testimony of others: how are we to fill them? We only know about Socrates because of Plato, one of his pupils, Xenophon, a historian and contemporary, and Aristophanes, a satirist who depicted him in a play, Clouds. So what kind of man was he, Hughes wants to know? We know how he thinks, but what does he feel? Who is he?

Hughes's approach is similar to that in Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, as she aims to construct her real-life man by exploring every aspect of daily life in Socrates's Athens, as well as investigating the few little biographical facts we have. She focuses on these few physical aspects about Socrates – his record of fighting for Athens; his fame in the Agora where he regularly conversed with folk, all the while dirty-haired and barefoot; that he was twice-married – and fleshes them out with archaeological evidence of the times, much of it newly discovered, to give us as real an individual as she can. She also details the many wars Athens was engaged in throughout Socrates's life, against Persia and Sparta, which made for turbulent times and, Hughes argues, a thoroughly traumatised people. Socrates variously benefited from, and was ultimately sacrificed to, that terrible legacy of a pulverised, beleaguered state.

But when he was growing up, as one of the cream of Athenian youth who were all highly prized just for surviving these terrible wars, Socrates enjoyed a "Golden Age". Quite literally: the hair of statues was painted in gilt and yellow paint; nipples, teeth and eyes were carved out in silver and copper. Physical perfection demanded time in gyms, even for one as short and ugly as Socrates, where he talked with "beautiful young men". Pericles was the state's great commander; his consort Aspasia, a courtesan who liked to hold literary salons and with whom Socrates regularly conversed. But at 29 years of age, Socrates fought for his state in the Peloponnesian wars. What, Hughes asks, did a philosopher who advocated a good life, a life worth living, make of such bloody battles? "As he fought and watched skulls smashing, guts spilled, the mortally wounded turning green and then black before their last breath escaped them – Greeks slaughtering Greeks, for honour and to grab land – did he wonder: Why? What is this for?"

Hughes never speculates idly: she knows from evidence just how these wars must have been. Yet daily life in Athens, Golden Age or no, was hardly a picnic either, nor were events such as the typhoid epidemic that hit in 431BC, and which wiped out some 80,000 Athenians. No physical aspect of life as experienced by an Athenian man is left out: she covers the potteries, theatre, faith in the gods, symposiums (intellecutual and artistic drinking parties] and the Agora (assembly], as well as the political battles and the training in the many gyms. Socrates grew up when Athens was discovering itself as a democracy, when ordinary men could vote. There might have been senseless, bloody wars, but there was also reason and argument.

It is that legacy of democracy which formed Socrates' thinking as much as anything else he experienced. Athens was a city then that revered Peitho, the power of persuasion, a goddess whose importance in the new democracy should not be underestimated, Hughes warns. Peitho promoted the ambitious but also "persuaded Athenian men to think collectively, to encourage consensus for the common good". What is valuable about this is that it shows Socrates did not operate in a vacuum: his philosophy about the good life was not something he simply invented. It was being discussed by those around him as he grew up. The values of Sparta – the single-minded aim to die well, with courage, in battle, their "focus on the fundamentals rather than the fripperies of life" – he may have had to keep a little more quiet about, given that they belonged to Athens' great enemy, but his admiration of them shows a man unusually unaffected by xenophobic rhetoric, able to make up his own mind.

Unfortunately for Socrates, the great goddess Peitho had a "monstrous bastard child" called Pheme, the root of our word fame. It originally meant rumour and it was rumour, in spite of everyone knowing about his intimate relationship with the beautiful but volatile princely warrior Alcibiades, who famously switched sides and fled Athens for Sparta, which condemned him for his relationships with young men. Like the negative effects of a spin campaign today, whispers against him grew into charges that he was corrupting the state's youth with his talk, and when he was found guilty, it was, Hughes argues, by a populace which had been brutalised by repeated wars and which was now suspicious of everyone. With their democratic power, they were able to condemn their greatest citizen to death, to force suicide from a cup of hemlock. And yet very shortly after he died, they repented, and quickly began to honour him.

If Socrates is a "strange hero", as Hughes says, he was made so by the people around him, and by the state that he loved. Yet "all Socrates does is ask questions": his business is not to provide answers. And that refusal of his to write down anything has, ironically, served him well throughout the centuries: the absences in his life story have allowed us to imagine the man we want. Hughes's expert attempts to make him flesh and blood, to fill in the gaps, do him no harm. They teach us about the value of the real as well as the philosophical.