Sunday, March 4, 2012


David M. Johnson, Socrates and Athens. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. vi, 158. ISBN 9780521757485. $26.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Marguerite Johnson, The University of Newcastle, Australia (

Version at BMCR home site


Socrates and Athens is a recent addition to the Cambridge series, Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts, which aims to provide school students and undergraduates with a solid introduction to a specific aspect of antiquity within a historical and cultural framework. The format follows the basic structure of the series, incorporating a user- friendly layout (complete with illustrations, information and summary 'boxes,' questions-for-discussion 'boxes' and timelines) and includes readable translations. This format allows for the inclusion, in particular, of some interesting artwork from the ancient world and beyond (such as the powerful painting by Jacques-Philip-Joseph de Saint- Quentin, The Death of Socrates from 1762 [although, unfortunately, it is printed in black and white] and the humorous Socrates Visiting Aspasia by Honoré Daumier from 1842).

Johnson's aim is to present the reader with what he defines as 'the original Socrates' or 'several original Socrateses' (p. v) and to focus on representations of him from the earliest sources, particularly Plato (especially the Apology and Laches ) and Xenophon (Memorabilia), although there is also treatment of passages from Aristophanes. Each of these authors is listed in Chapter One (along with Aristotle) and a biography for them is provided, followed by an overview of their portrayals. Various background sections, including 'Socrates and Athens' (a biographical and historical context); 'Socrates and the sophists;' 'Socrates, Greek religion and the divine sign;' etc. complete the chapter. Johnson makes effective use of the source material throughout these early sections in order to familiarise students with the writings of the ancients at this introductory stage, thus preparing them for the source-focused approach of the chapters that follow.

This provides a good background for the chapters that follow, ensuring that students have a sound grasp of the philosophical, cultural and, to a lesser extent, historical context for the ancient texts that comprise the rest of the book (chapters two to five).

Chapter Two consists of a translation with accompanying notes of Plato's Apology, interspersed with some excellent 'side' additions, such as a restored plan of the agora, question 'boxes' that are well matched to particular sections of the Apology and some inclusions that are clearly designed to capture students' attention and imagination (such as the section of 'Simon the shoemaker' on p. 45). The translation is lucid and very accessible for students and the notes are informative and help to clarify certain ambiguous passages and ideas.

Chapter Three is on Plato's Laches and, as with the previous chapter, the ancient source under specific analysis is well introduced. Again, the translation is crisp and while the text has been edited (unlike the Apology, which is cited in full), the segues between each section are well managed. The division of the work for students into topics (e.g., 'Courage as remaining at one's post;' 'Courage and animals;' 'Courage as a part of virtue), is well conceived and lays emphasis on the major themes of the work (manliness, courage, correct behaviour in war).

Chapter Four, 'Xenophon's Socrates,' provides some well-chosen excerpts from the Memorabilia featuring the theme of 'Self-control and leadership,' incorporating the passage on Heracles. As with the previous two chapters, this one includes useful discussion points for use in the classroom. In relation to the story of Heracles, Johnson lists questions that not only focus on the passage from the Memorabilia but extend student analysis to incorporate modern representations of the hero, asking them: 'From what you know of Heracles' life in myth (or TV or film), did he follow Virtue's advice? If so, did her promises come true?' (p. 123). Such areas of engagement may work better with high school students than undergraduates, but there are also more nuanced equivalents that have the potential to work at university level.1

Chapter Five on 'Socrates and the sophists on ethics' begins with a passage from Plato's Euthydemus in which Socrates emerges as a saviour to the young Clinias in his unsuccessful encounter with sophistry. The excerpt (Euthydemus 280b-281e) is too light on notes, particularly in comparison with other sections of the book, although most of the other passages that constitute the chapter are well annotated (particularly the selection from the Gorgias [i.e., 466a-468e, on the powerless tyrant]).

A concluding chapter would have enhanced the book. It ends abruptly at Chapter Five, which is followed by a small inclusion (three pages) of Further Reading (which is useful and clear), a Glossary and Index. The latter two are somewhat sparse, particularly the Index, which consists of one page and is lacking in some important entries (such as Aristotle; Eros / eros; symposium / Symposium; and physis—all of which appear many times throughout the book).2 Perhaps the last section of Chapter One, 'The legacy of Socrates,' (pp. 24-27) would have been better placed as part of a conclusion. This could have addressed the numerous artistic portrayals of Socrates throughout the book, some of which were not exactly well placed (such as the plate on p. 95 that depicts Socrates and Plato working together in a manuscript from c.1250).3

Despite these problems, the book fulfils the requirements of the Cambridge series and would make a useful text in classes on Classical Athens and its cultural and philosophical environs (more so, ultimately, than in a course on ancient personalities such as Socrates).4 The book, and indeed the series, is a particularly welcome addition to the resources of teachers who are increasingly confronted with the unwieldy information their students access from unreliable websites and are in need of well-written, clear introductory material that provides reliable information and accurate, contemporary translations of ancient sources.


1.   The numerous works of art depicting Socrates, previously mentioned as a strength of the volume, would make excellent discussion points in undergraduate classes on the nature of Classical Reception Studies.
2.   The Index is also incomplete when it comes to certain words; e.g., daimon occurs more than listed in the Index (including an important reference on p. 61 [referenced in the Index under 'divine sign—see also daimon,' which is not exactly clear]) and appears as daimonic as well; Aspasia; wisdom ('knowledge' being aligned to 'wisdom' in the Index is also unhelpful).
3.   The discussion 'box' that accompanied the artwork, which deals with the philosophical relationship between Socrates and Plato vis-√†-vis Plato's record of the historical Socrates also seems out-of-place in a chapter on the Laches and would have been better placed in Chapter One.
4.   Essentially because what emerges from Johnson's book is not so much Socrates as a personality but Socratic philosophy amid the microcosm of Athens in the Fifth Century.

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