An interview with Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes is the well-known historian, whose popular TV documentaries on the ancient world (The Spartans, The Minoans, Helen of Troy) have opened up classical studies to a wide audience. A Research Fellow at King’s College London, Hughes lectures, broadcasts and writes about ancient history, with a particular focus on Ancient Greece. Her latest book about Socrates and 5th century BC Athens, The Hemlock Cup, took ten years to research and five years to write. She is a patron of The Iris Project. Alistair Duncan, journalist and Classicist, has the opportunity to ask her some questions about her book.

Why did you decide to focus on Socrates as the subject of your latest book?
I have to admit that I do sometimes lie awake at night wondering why I’ve chosen to write a book about Socrates; not because I don’t think he’s a worthy subject of a book, but of course it’s an incredibly hard book to write because so little is known about him and he never wrote a word down himself. There are much easier subjects and characters to write about. But perhaps it is also for that very reason, that he is such a hugely influential character and it seems to me that his ideas about life are so interesting and so eternally relevant. Because it’s a struggle to find the evidence, people have avoided writing a life of Socrates. That means he’s become a very remote figure to a lot of people. I thought that’s a terrible shame. He was such a vigorous character. He was flesh and blood human, a larger-than-life personality. I thought that if I could somehow pin him down, then he would become familiar and his ideas would become less daunting. Cicero said that Socrates was the first person to bring philosophy down from the heavens and put it on the streets. Maybe in a tiny way I’m helping bring Socrates back on the streets.

What evidence did you rely on?
I’ve tried to use a lot of the archaeological evidence as the base for my book. It seemed like the right time to do this, because there’s a lot of new and exciting archaeology coming out of Athens at the moment. For the first time, we are able to put together a very cogent picture of his life, his world. That’s why it seemed like the right time to write this book now. We can now imagine very clearly Socrates walking around those stoas [arcades] and around the agora. For instance, there’s this one stoa that has been recently excavated, where we can now see that it had a packed earth floor, rather than a flagstone floor. Somehow, for me, that’s terribly touching, seeing Socrates, who walked around Athens famously barefooted, pottering along on this cool earth. Those little details are very helpful to me to put into focus the fact that he was both living in this immensely sophisticated, forward-thinking world, and one that’s still got one foot in the Stone Age. Somehow, people seem to imagine Socrates sweeping down all these marble staircases, but that’s not right. He was padding around in mud, talking about his ideas. It really helps clarify the picture of him for me, the world that he was living in.

What was the character who came into focus as you pieced Socrates together?
When I approached Socrates at first, it was a case of my hairs standing up at the back of my neck. I thought: how can I possibly tackle him? This huge, monumental figure in the history of world thought. But by working through his life, from birth to death, he did become a lot more familiar. If you read between the lines, people always talk about his humanity. He says that ‘I am not born of wood or rock but of human parents.’ He was obviously a very real person.

Given his ultimately tragic fate, did you find yourself sympathising with him?
Yes and I wasn’t expecting to feel that. That became terribly poignant to me, when I was writing about his death. He says that ‘it’s not my crimes that will result in my conviction, it’s rumour and gossip and prejudice’. I’ve always known that in textual terms, but going to stand in the courtroom where he was probably tried and just imagining the crowd of 500 men around him, that absolutely threw into focus that that is something we still struggle with; that, as a species, we are very happy to fall into a mass opinion about something. That must have happened the whole time in a democracy, when people stood up and voted for a war, for instance. That communal spirit can be helpful but there’s a real problem when it turns against you. We still have this problem of rumour. People think of it as a modern problem, but it’s an old one. People can be convicted by a whispering campaign. I felt very close to him, thinking on his behalf on that issue. I didn’t expect that. I expected it to be more conventional run through the sources, as opposed to actually feeling his pain.

Is it important to you to visit ancient sites when you research a historical period?
I travelled by train down to Sparta when I was a student at Oxford. From that moment onwards, I realised that, yes, I needed to visit sites to gain a fuller understanding, and not be so arrogant to think that I can just read a text and have an opinion on what life was like just through reading. Perhaps this is a shortcoming, but I can only really understand history by going to the place where it happened. When it comes to Sparta, you read the sources and you think: ‘how can people have such a sense of themselves?’ Well, if you travel to Sparta, you realise that it’s situated in this beautiful, flat, fertile river valley. Of course, they thought they were superior. They lived in one of the best locations of all of Greece.

What are your earliest memories of encountering the classical world?
One of the images I was shown at school was the image of the so-called ‘snake goddess’ from Crete that’s in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I later went to the Ashmolean to look at it as a teenager. I remember being shown her and being told that we don’t know who she is or what she is, even though she’s this incredible figure, from the Minoan culture. Whether she was a goddess or high priestess or what. I remember thinking: ‘fine, but we ought to try!’ She’s such a striking figure. I remember these flashing eyes and her grappling these snakes and her amazing breasts. I think that was a spark point, thinking this is what I want to do, professionally. I think that’s why I’ve always had loyalty towards Greece.

How interested are the public in the ancient world?
If you just look at the recent success of blockbuster epics like 300, Gladiator, even the film about the pagan philosopher Hypatia [Agora]: who would have thought ten years ago that the film industry would put up the money for a film about a pagan philosopher in Alexandria? The film industry only invests in these films if they think they’ll make money, they’re not just passion projects. So, obviously there’s a grassroots interest in the ancient world. When I was deciding what to study for post-graduate work, that was the time when ancient history was really in the doldrums. The faculty at Oxford looked like it might be closed down and there was always this terrible rhetoric that it was an elitist subject. I remember thinking: well, I’m not part of the elite and I love it. You keep something as an elitist subject if you only allow the elite to study it. What a daft idea. I’m patron of this new initiative called Classics For All. Boris Johnson is also part of it. We’re raising really substantial amounts of money to put Classics of all kinds back into state schools. It’s been incredibly warmly received. The appetite is there, it’s just down to us to serve the need.

Do you see it as your duty to reach out to a wider public?
I think it’s the most important thing. If we’re lucky enough to live in an age and culture that supports higher education, we should spend as much time researching and teaching as spreading that to as wide a public as possible. I was walking though this South Acton estate once - quite a tough place with a lot of knife crime and drug problems. These two 16-year-old lads came up to me and I thought: ‘what an idiot, I’m going to be mugged, or they’re going to knick my phone’. One of them came up to me and said: ‘so why were there two kings in Sparta then?’ It is weird that there are two kings in Sparta. They must have recognised me from the Sparta programme. We had this impromptu little seminar on Greek history. It was great! That just rams home how important it is, to reach out to the public, to inform and try to capture people’s curiosity. Sometimes, you get into trouble for dumbing down, of course. Some people seem to get angry about that. Not just academics but also journalists. I suspect that is because they think it is they who should be on telly. They really get the knife in. But I’ve always thought it’s important to reach out. It’s always been a substantial part of what I do.

Do you still get excited about the ancient world? Are you still learning about it?
There’s that famous Socratic maxim that the only thing I know is that I don’t know. I’m a great believer in that. I read a review of my book recently and thought: ‘wow, that’s an interesting way of thinking about the subject’. I was learning about my own subject from a review of my book! I learn something every day. I’ve got two daughters and I always say that to them that we’re really blessed that we learn something new each day. I’ll still be learning until I’m 96. Then, I might close my eyes and get a bit of quiet.

The Hemlock Cup is published by Jonathan Cape.