Jonathan Cape, £25, 484pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, By Bettany Hughes

The shining names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes have left a permanent mark in the annals of human civilization". These are not my words, but those of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and they are unarguably persuasive. Not a bad achievement for a thinker who, in the case of Socrates, left behind not a single unquestionably self-authored word.

Bettany Hughes indeed seems irresistibly drawn to ancient-world characters who when – and if - not frankly mythical are deeply, irretrievably mythicised. Her earlier quest for an at least partly historical Helen of Troy (and Sparta) is followed here by another, almost as chimerical perhaps, for the historical Socrates. From the ancient Greek world's most beautiful woman to one of its self-acknowledgedly ugliest men is quite a step, but one that Hughes accomplishes without breaking stride 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's 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's examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens's teeming high-cultural and mundane experience. Socrates was born in 469BC, too young by at least a generation to experience the highlights of Marathon and Salamis but old enough to profit from the heady intellectual and political and cultural ferment that those victories against the invading Persian empire brewed up.

Athens had become the world's first democracy (of its own unique sort) in around 500; 50 years on, by the time Socrates came of age (officially in 451), the Athenian citizen masses had gained the confidence and had the wit to accept advice from Pericles and many other lesser mortals. They voted funds for the Parthenon and the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles as well as for a virtually non-stop, and mostly successful, series of campaigns on land and sea against Greeks and non-Greeks alike.

Readers will be drawn by Hughes's beguiling prose into exploring the highways and byways of Athens's topography. She begins programmatically with "Athena's City", and Socrates was nothing if not a denizen of the urban jungle. Archaeology has always been a strong suit of the author. Recent excavations in advance of building Athens's rather charming underground rapid-transit system are properly laid under contribution - especially the plague pits of the early 420s that, as contemporary historian Thucydides unforgettably recorded, threatened to subvert the most fundamental norms of civilised Athenian life.

She is also particularly illuminating on the devices and desires of the world's first democratic regime, towards which Socrates maintained an unfortunately ambivalent stance. On the one hand, he seems to have participated in at least some aspects of the daily round of democratic life, such as being chosen by lot to serve for one year on the 500-strong administrative Council. On the other hand, he must surely have shared to the hilt, if for more purely intellectual reasons, the general distaste of the Athenian elite for a political system that amounted in their eyes to the dictatorship of the (ignorant, fickle, stupid) proletariat. His personal associations with the maverick Alcibiades and, even more, with the arch-oligarch Critias did nothing to enhance his philo-democratic profile.

Hughes shows no less gusto for recalling and describing a Mediterranean world of sex, violence, carousing and great man-made beauty that Socrates sought rather to question than embrace. Who having read the Symposium – Plato's multiplex meditation on erotic desire – can ever forget naughty boy Alcibiades bursting in on the party, half-seas over, and regaling the assembled (fictional) company, including the playwright Aristophanes, with a richly comic tale of failed seduction: his, that is, of the habitually self-controlled Socrates? Yet "I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not in love with someone," Socrates is supposed to have said. Hughes rightly devotes a whole "Act" (one of the eight in her dramatised biographical reconstruction) to "Socrates and Love".

Above all, 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 against a Sparta backed decisively by Persian money (431-404 BC). In 399 Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of the deme (ward, parish) Alopece was indicted for impiety. He was tried before a people's jury court (no judge, or rather 501 amateur citizen-judges) for inventing new gods, not duly acknowledging through worship the gods that the city of Athens did acknowledge, and corrupting key young men who would go on to become traitors and political revolutionaries thanks to – by inference – his teaching of them.

The religious charges were crucial. Athenians took their gods deadly seriously and ascribed their defeat by Sparta not least to divine displeasure caused by the presence in their midst of such an influentially bad citizen as Socrates. The combination of alleged impiety and traitorous pedagogy proved fatal for Socrates, who died a martyr to free thought, as a new kind of intellectual hero.

Or so his many fans, among whom Hughes counts herself, have fiercely believed and argued. Whatever the truth (an elusive concept, as Socrates would probably have been the first to confess), Socrates admirably enacted his own rightly famous nostrum – that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being". Aged 70 he died the death of a philosopher by draining the prescribed hemlock dose and facing its consequences with enviable aplomb.

All of the above – and there is a good deal more here too, including an illuminating Act entitled "Socrates the Soldier" - demands reinvestigation and reappraisal. There can probably always be found room for a new book reminding us of Socrates's continued salience in our world of alarmingly unexamined prejudice and terrifyingly blind faith. 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's Socrates would have devoutly wished.

Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University

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