Cover of Why Socrates DiedChock full of war stories and athletic exploits, and populated by glamorous, semi-legendary figures – Pericles, Alcibiades, Lysander – Why Socrates Died is the kind of book that you might imagine prepubescent boys sneaking away from solicitous tutors to read in their turn-of-the-century treehouses. For all the Boys’ Own adventure qualities of the book, though, its author has a sober purpose in mind: reassessing a notorious court sentence itself long thought to have been a crime.

Socrates’ condemnation and execution “have spread ripples of puzzlement and indignation down the centuries,” and the judgement of history has been “that a noble man was put to death in a fit of folly by the ancient Athenian democracy.” But history’s verdict may have been unsound, and Robin Waterfield wants a retrial. In the spirit of Socrates himself, Waterfield takes up the task of probing into our unexamined doxa concerning the philosopher’s fate.

His strategy is to explore the political context of the court case. In practice, this means a 100-page account of the Peloponnesian War, with barely a mention of the philosopher himself, which those readers who don’t already count themselves as Greek-geeks may find passes in a bit of a blur. But Waterfield certainly makes his case compellingly. Socrates’ trial took place just four years after the restoration of democracy upon the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, and a mere five years after Athens lost its war with Sparta. This loss was largely blamed on the treachery and hubris of Alcibiades and his fellow pro-Spartan oligarchs; Socrates was guilty by association, counting both Alcibiades and Critias (ringleader of the Thirty Tyrants) among his former pupils.

It is unsurprising, Waterfield argues, that the fragile infant democracy was nervous of anyone who might seem to be a sympathiser of the oligarchs. The situation was aggravated, in Socrates’ case, by his own political philosophy: Socrates was a political elitist, a proponent of aristocracy (in its classic sense of “rule of the best”) – but at such a precarious moment for the Athenian democracy, differentiating an aristocratic ideal from a tyrannous or oligarchic one may well have looked like nitpicking to those charged with prosecuting him.

Unfortunately it is here, when it comes to examining Socrates’ philosophy and its role in his downfall, that this book is at its least satisfying. Picking apart Socrates’ own views from those of his acolytes is a notoriously difficult task. But for a book devoted to the death of a philosopher, Waterfield’s investigation is just a little light on ideas and their impact. Without a more thorough understanding of Socrates’ unconventional tenets on religion, politics and pedagogy, we aren’t in any position to judge the legitimacy of the charges brought against him. That those accusations were politically motivated – and, given the times, not beyond comprehension – Waterfield masterfully demonstrates. But was Socrates actually guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth? More than two millennia on, the jury’s still out.

Why Socrates Died is published by Faber