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Why Socrates Died

An original and thought-provoking examination of the trial and execution of Socrates.

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Since his death in 399 BC, Socrates has lived well in history, enjoying a reputation as the West’s first philosopher and its first dissident. According to Robin Waterfield, though, it was actually more common qualities – innocence, naivete, and maybe a little vanity – that got Socrates into trouble.

This is the central insight behind Why Socrates Died, Waterfield’s remarkable and thoroughly original new book, which attempts to understand Socrates’s trial and execution in light of the political and social upheaval racking his native Athens at the time he drank the fatal hemlock.

“Why Socrates Died” opens with Socrates on trial in the Athenian Agora, in front of a jury of 500 dikasts (or they may have been 501 of the Greek officials; the record on this, like many other points, is inconclusive), and facing the dual charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Waterfield, an accomplished translator of ancient Greek texts, notes that in Athenian law all cases began as personal grievances. There was no state, as such, to bring charges, and so Socrates very likely had personal history with any or all of the three men – Meletus, Lycon and Anytus – who prosecuted him.

This is the first hint that Socrates’s was not your garden-variety sedition trial.

From there Waterfield travels back in time to place the prosecution in context, retracing the 30 years that led up to the trial. He provides a blow-by-blow account of the ill-fated Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) and then surveys the war’s tumultuous aftermath, in which defeated Athens lurched from oligarchy to civil war and then back into an uneasy democracy.

By the time Waterfield returns to the trial itself, he has given his narrative a cinematic sweep, as if all the contingencies of the preceding decades could not have led anywhere but the final verdict: 280 to convict, 220 against.


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