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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 1 Oct 2009 15:34:08 -0500
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Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. By ROBIN WATERFIELD. New York: 
W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. Pp. xxv + 253. Cloth $27.95. ISBN 

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online Forum 2009.10.01

Robin Waterfield, a translator of proven elegance and accuracy (e.g., 
Plato, Gorgias, Republic, Symposium; Plutarch Alcibiades), has given us an 
enormously useful book. Plato’s Apology is frequently taught in Greek and 
in English in departments of Classics and Philosophy throughout the United 
States. Waterfield (W.) provides in lucid prose precisely documented and 
bereft of theoretical obfuscation the historical context of Socrates’ 
trial, including a bold reconstruction of Anytus’ prosecution speech (pp. 
197–200), which will be required reading for curious students. Obviously 
all is not certain, but a putative reconstruction is more effective than 
endless annotated speculation to inform students and stimulate excited 
discussion. In short, W. argues that in the context of his time and place 
Socrates was guilty and deserved execution. His prosecutors were concerned 
defenders of democracy against oligarchic elitism. The volume begins with a 
chronological table of Athenian events ca. 630–399 BC, followed by 
relevant maps of the Athenian agora ca. 399 BC, Greece and Asia Minor, 
central Greece, and Sicily and southern Italy.

Of especial interest are chapters on the judicial system, on Alcibiades, 
and on the “Aristocratic Milieu” and “Critias and the Civil War.” 
Popular reaction to intellectuals and “Socratic politics” provides 
invaluable background that makes specialized material accessible to readers 
unfamiliar with Athenian politics and law of Socrates’ time. Because the 
author is a farmer rather than a professional academic, his views are not 
distorted by academic intrigue and petty polemics. He is an educated 
outsider (one recalls George Grote and W.W. Tarn) who writes sine ira et 
studio that in his historical context Socrates, like it or not, was guilty 
and tried justly.

I do believe that W. misses the reason (p. 204) for Socrates’ last words, 
“We owe a cock to Asclepius.” Socrates is 70 and healthy. The cock is 
thanks for his health, not a natural state as we take it, but a gift of the 
god for which Socrates is grateful. [[1]] This shows in a dramatic way the 
popular piety of a man executed for his impiety. There are minor errata. W. 
bestows on Gilbert Murray knighthood (p. 15), when in fact, true to his 
liberal principles, Murray—unlike Moses Finley—declined it. I do not 
understand why Socrates consistently “subverts” the young (p. 5 and 
passim) rather than corrupting them. All in all we have a most welcome and 
useful book concluding with a lengthy bibliography consisting (with one 
French exception) of English secondary literature. I miss Jaeger’s 
Paideia and noted only one misprint under Ober, Josiah. There is no index. 
We read on the back cover that the book concerns “the most famous trial 
and execution in Western civilization.” Surely Jesus wins first prize for 

Urbana, Illinois

[[1]] See Mnemosyne 52 (1999) 562.

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