Bettany Hughes: Socrates and his Athens

Nov 19, 2021 | Announcements, News & Media

World-famous historian, author, and broadcaster Bettany Hughes to deliver her third Ramsay Lecture

Sydney, Friday 19 November 2021: Curious about the life experiences of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, arguably the true father of western thought?

There hasn’t been a single decade since Socrates’ death 25 centuries ago, when he hasn’t been written about and had his ideas explored, both in the East and in the West. But while much attention has been given to his philosophy, and to his extraordinary death by court-ordered suicide, what do we know about Socrates’ life? How did the city he grew up in, the relationships he forged, the life he led, influence the formation of his philosophy, his search for the ‘good life’ that intrigues people the world over to this day?

To piece together Socrates’ life, and the Golden Age Athens he inhabited, so we can inhabit his world and better understand his ideas, Professor Bettany Hughes OBE, the award-winning author, historian, and broadcaster, will deliver our eighth Ramsay Lecture for 2021.

In her exclusive lecture Socrates and his Athens Professor Hughes draws on research from her 2010 book The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. As Socrates left no written record, she cites archaeological discoveries, as well as accounts from people who lived alongside him, to illuminate Golden Age Athens and how it was experienced by the philosopher, ‘a vigorous citizen of one of the greatest capitals on Earth’.

Professor Hughes is an author and specialist in ancient and mediaeval history and culture. She has written and presented over 50 documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4, Netflix, Discovery, PBS, The History Channel, National Geographic, BBC World, and ITV, that have been watched by more than 250 million people worldwide.

This is her third lecture for the Ramsay Centre, following Odysseus’ Journey and His Women in 2020, and her recent lecture Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium – the Queen of Cities.  

Bettany takes us from Socrates’ birth to a stonemason father and midwife mother in 469 BCE, through to his life as a soldier in the Peloponnesian War and plague survivor, through to his sentencing to death by a democratic court at age 70, for corrupting the youth and failing to acknowledge the city’s official gods. We see Athens in various forms: recovering from the Persian War; glittering and prospering and full of art, theatre and ideas; as an emerging democracy; as an aggressive major power; and finally suffering horribly through foreign and civil wars.

We are left to wonder what effect plague and war had on Socrates’ psychology, and to what extent Athens’ democratic over-reach might have inspired his contemplation of individual and collective ethics. And we see modern society strangely mirrored in ancient Athens, whether it be through obsessive gym culture, Socrates’ fretting over the power of the written word (now of concern via social media), ‘rampant materialism’, teen suicides, democratic over-reach, or the threat of rumours and gossip to justice.

An undergraduate scholar at Oxford University, Professor Hughes has taught at Oxford and Cambridge and lectured at Cornell, Bristol, UCL, Maastricht, Utrecht, Manchester and Swansea. She is a Tutor for Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education and a Research Fellow of King’s College London; she recently joined the New College of the Humanities as Visiting Professor.

Her first book Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore has been translated into ten languages. Her second, The Hemlock Cup, Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life was a New York Times bestseller and shortlisted for the Writer’s Guild Award. Her book Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities was shortlisted for the Runciman Award, was a Sunday Times bestseller and has already been translated into twelve languages.

Due to COVID-19, this Ramsay Lecture event is recorded. It will be available via our website as both a video and podcast from Thursday 25 November.

Media contact: Sarah Switzer 0407 816 098 /