Sunday, November 7, 2010


From The Daily Express, October 25 2010

Bettany Hughes describes

CANNIBALISM is never pretty. But in the 5th century BC the first true democracy in the history of the world forced Greek men, women and children to consume human flesh.

These poor cannibals were war victims besieged in northern Greece. After weeks under attack all their city’s food had gone, disease was rife and outside the walls ranged the allied forces of ancient Athens.

Twenty four centuries ago democracy was being exported to the world on the point of a sword. This was one of the most epochforming, horrific, highly coloured events in the story of mankind; the brilliant and brutal age that witnessed what has become known as the Greek Miracle.

One of the Athenian soldiers besieging those city walls was an individual you might not immediately have expected to be there: the philosopher Socrates. Socrates was born in around 469BC on the outskirts of Athens. Democracy had been invented only a few years earlier and was finding its feet just as the toddler-philosopher was learning to walk.

Each day democratic citizens (men over 18 only) would make their way into the centre of town to play at a new kind of politics. Fired by each other’s can-do spirit, the new Democratic Assembly voted one year in two to go to war, and to travel out in their warships to “persuade” others to be a part of Athenian territory.

Athens soon started to build up rich imperial lands. As a result, Athens became a magnet for bright sparks. Socrates’ father was a stonemason and the young boy would have been raised with the sound of chisels and hammers shaping marble to produce world-class monuments. Glittering statues, decorated with gold, rock-crystal and hippopotamus ivory were raised on the Acropolis. Statues of gorgeous young men were cast in bronze, painted in gaudy colours and set up across the city.

In the agora (marketplace), exotic spices were used to season stews cooked on outdoor stoves. Socrates witnessed Athens’ Golden Age.

IF YOU visualise an Ancient Greek philosopher an image might spring to your mind of an ascetic, white-haired man, dressed in a flowing toga. But Socrates could not have been more different. The great man span through life like a tornado. He drank with his mates, he sweated in the gym, he was a soldier, a lover, a father.

He wandered by the city’s rivers, sun-bathed, he had conversations about the best cure for hiccups, he married a woman who was a fierce, nagging shrew – on one occasion she dumped her full bedpan over his head. We also hear that he was ugly, had a pug nose and thick lips, eyes that swivelled around oddly and had a strange lolloping walk.

But Socrates had charisma. In materialistically-minded Ancient Athens he would storm through the shopping area shouting: “How many things I don’t need!” He wore his hair long, his feet bare and he rarely had a bath. And young men flocked to him. His ideas must have been electrically exciting. All the time he asked questions – fundamental questions about life. What makes us happy?

What is love? How can we live ‘the good life’? His beloved city was fighting a war under the banner of democracy and Socrates himself was a loyal Athenian but the philosopher questioned the wisdom even of this. “What is the point of glittering statues and city walls and warships if those within them are not happy?” he asked. The youths who flocked to hear him lapped it all up. Socrates was said to bewitch their minds.

Without charging a penny for his time he spoke to anyone who would listen: bakers, prostitutes, merchants, aristocrats. Roman philosopher Cicero remarked that he was “the first philosopher to bring philosophy down from the skies.”

You would think, given all of this, that Socrates would be the perfect man-of-the-streets, to fit in with the new democracy’s ‘people power’ ideals. But he seems to have been troubled by the pure brand of democratic politics that had been dreamt up in his hometown. Every citizen in the city of Athens was a politician. Here, thanks to a kind of lottery system you could end up being the head of state for a year or foreign secretary for a day. Socrates asked, was this right? Could each and every Joe really match up to such huge responsibility?

You asked a shoemaker to make shoes because he was good at creating footwear, or an athlete to run a race because he was the fastest man in town so why would you choose your leaders with a kind of glorified lucky dip?

QUESTIONING democracy was not popular and as the 5th century BC drew to a close Socrates started to make enemies. And so, aged 70, Socrates was put on trial charged with corrupting the young and with disrespecting the gods. Whereas for most of Socrates’ life Athens had been ebullient, now she was fragile, jumpy.

Those wars that the democracy had voted for had almost destroyed it. There was disease and hunger on the streets. Examination of one girl’s skull from the plague pits of the period showed that at least one typhus epidemic ran through Athens’ tightly packed city centre.

Athens’ arch-enemies had broken down her city walls. Democrats and oligarchs were at each others’ throats and the last 15 years of Socrates’ life had seen a dreadful catalogue of civil strife leading to death squads roaming the streets. At times like these, people want answers, not questions and Socrates had come to infuriate the bulk of Athen’s citizens.

The city might have supported freedom of speech but it could not yet decide what to do with people who seemed free to offend. And so, standing there in his one, thin, shabby cloak, on a bright May morning in 399BC, facing a judge and jury of 500 democratic citizens, the philosopher heard that he was going to be condemned to death by a serving of hemlock poison.

Was it worth it all you wonder? Standing up for what you believed in, asking questions of an idea as big as democracy itself – even if it meant death? What seems certain is that Socrates searched vigorously for the good in life because so much around him seemed bad.

And even if his end was criminal and shocking, it means we are still talking about him today, still asking his questions, still debating the meaning of life - just as he did up to his very last moments: “So I go to die, and you to live - who knows which is the better journey?”

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