Socrates US book cover

Why Socrates Died: UK hardback; UK paperback
Why Socrates Died: US hardback; US paperback 
Why Socrates Died: Canada hardback; Canada paperback

ebook version 
Greek edition

Socrates' trial and death together form an iconic moment in Western civilization. The picture we have of it - created by his immediate followers and perpetuated in countless works of literature and art ever since - is that a noble man was put to death in a fit of folly by the ancient Athenian democracy. But an icon, an image, is not reality. The trial was, in part, a response to troubled times - a catastrophic war and turbulent social changes - and so provides a good lens through which to explore the history of the period; the historical facts allow us to strip away some of the veneer that has for so long denied us glimpses of the real Socrates. Written by a scholar, but not only for scholars, this is an accessible, authoritative account of one of the defining periods of Western civilization.


‘Richly told and enjoyable ... a wonderfully full picture of Athens in the fifth century ... As clear an exegesis of the Peloponnesian War as the general reader will find ... Waterfield builds up a cogent picture’ - Charlotte Higgins, Guardian

‘Waterfield is an accomplished guide ... we get a vivid account of the vested interests of the day ... absolutely secure in his material, Waterfield can stride off on thematic digressions such as the nature and point of law ... [he] is sympathetic and skilful. His physical delight in Greece resonates. He is sharp with words, robust in his knowledge of antiquity, and honest. Socrates - who encouraged men to reason and question, to “dispel'” - would have approved’ - Bettany Hughes, The Times

‘Robin Waterfield’s erudite but deeply engaging book takes a historian’s scalpel to the myths. Richly detailed, briskly written, it fills in the bloodstained background of Athens around 400 BC: the enervating wars with Sparta, the brutal regime of the “Thirty Tyrants”, the fatal political charisma of Socrates’ ex-lover and pupil, Alcibiades. Even if your vote would still have let the sceptic dodge the poison, you grasp the purpose of the prosecution case. History defeats hindsight’ - Boyd Tonkin, Independent

‘Incisive and readable … Waterfield certainly managed to keep my interest, and even provide me with some new insights, and he will certainly do the same for the majority of readers … Waterfield paints for us in a manner both learned and lively’ - John Dillon, Irish Times

‘Lucid, careful and balanced ... an admirably detailed and nuanced account of the context of the trial and the range of factors in play in its outcome’ - Michael Trapp, Anglo-Hellenic Review

‘Waterfield ... offers an informed and well-written account of classical Athenian history ... readable and interesting ... he describes well the ambitious and unscrupulous characters that dominated the public life of the age’ - Barbara Graziosi, Times Higher Education Supplement

'Engaging, informative and beautifully written ... It presents a serious and thought-provoking challenge to anyone who believes that we can understand why Socrates was tried and executed merely by reading the apologies of Plato and Xenophon' - Thomas C. Brickhouse, Polis

‘Waterfield’s narrative brings 399 BCE to life, giving us a genuine sense of how it felt to live through the social unrest and panic that swept Socrates into the abyss ... essential reading for everyone interested in Socrates and his time ... Why Socrates Died presents a theory about Socrates’ trial that many people will find appealing because of its sensitivity to the trial’s place and time. And it does this while resolving some of the most serious problems with similar views ... Waterfield has updated the case for a political motive behind Socrates’ trial, and he has given us some very good reasons to consider it. His book points us in a new direction, and it is a promising one: we should focus primarily on reconstructing the political culture of Socrates’ trial, not Socrates’ irrecoverable beliefs, which, after all, probably were not known or understood by anyone on his jury, and may not have been reported by Xenophon or Plato. It is now up to others to find out whether this new path will bear fruit. Let the next round of debates begin!’ – Mark Ralkowski, Ancient Philosophy   


‘Admirably clear and informative ... shows enviable mastery of the ancient sources’ – C.C.W. Taylor, Phronesis  

‘Thorough and fair-minded’ - Peter Jones, Literary Review

‘Enormously useful’ – William M. Calder III, Classical Journal 

‘[A] lively revision of the evidence’ - Frederic Raphael, truthdig

‘Remarkable and thoroughly original’ - Kevin Hartnett, Christian Science Monitor

‘Masterfully drawing the strands of his narrative together into an analysis of the trial itself, Waterfield recasts Socrates as, not martyr, but necessary sacrifice to the new state' - Observer

 ‘A clear-headed portrait of Athenian history and culture that will engage all interested readers’ - Jonathan Gibbs, Financial Times

‘Makes his case compellingly’ - Jenny Bunker, New Humanist

‘[Waterfield is] less interested in rewriting history, though, than re-reading it, teasing out the complex and competing strands of ancient commentary to uncover the agendas - of Socrates himself, of his accusers and friends. He’s also concerned to comprehend the crime, to understand the mindset which could convict the great man as an enemy of the people. It sounds impossibly rarified - and you have to admire the scholarship and subtlety - yet this is an absorbing book. After the red meat of Roman history, that of ancient Athens can easily feel anaemic - a bit too classically perfect, too sedate. Here, on the other hand, we get a strong sense of just how down and dirty the democratic way was and just how brutishly the popular voice could roar.’ Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

‘Sitting atop a solid foundation of scholarship, this valuable survey of an important period of ancient history is especially useful ... Of the many introductory studies on the Athenian judicial system, the trial of Socrates, the conflict between Athens and Sparta and the reasons that democracy gave way to oligarchy in Athens, this is among the clearest, most well-organized and most concise’ - Publisher’s Weekly

‘Robin Waterfield takes a fresh direction in Socratic research, revealing the how and why of the decision of the new democrats to offer the old man the hemlock that sent him to sleep forever’ - Alasdair Buchan, Diplomat magazine

‘Waterfield tells his story well’ - Mark Golden, Globe & Mail (Canada)

‘[A] fine book written primarily for the general reader … a solid account of Greek history … makes a good case’ - Mark Joyal, Winnipeg Free Press

'Highly recommended' - J.R. Asher, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

'Impressive scholarship redefining an iconic event' - Bryce Christensen, Booklist

'Fascinating ... belongs in all libraries' - Steward Desmond, Library Journal

‘Surprisingly entertaining’ - Tod Hoffman, Montreal Gazette

‘Intriguing and enlightening … brings the ancient world to life … fascinating and page-turning history … wonderful’ - Wayne Hurlbert, Blog Business World

‘A clear, precisely informed portrait of the times and tensions’ - Allan Graubard, Leonardo Reviews online


Rights Sold

UK: Faber and Faber

US: Norton

Canada: McClelland and Stewart

Greece: Psichogios

Spain: Gredos