Emily Wilson The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Profile Books, 2007)
This is a superb book. I picked it up by chance and have been gripped. Socrates, 'the Jesus Christ of Greece' as Shelley dubbed him, comes to most philosophers via Plato. Emily Wilson, a classicist, provides a lively overview of the numerous Socrates that have existed for different thinkers at different times. These include the hen-pecked master of self-help platitudes described by his pupil Xenophon, the absurd figure that appears in Aristophanes' The Clouds, the tyrant-loving chatterbox despised by Plutarch, the man of integrity admired by Voltaire and Diderot, the drunken reveller in the Monty Python song who was 'a bugger when he's pissed,' and the unthreatening and decidedly un-socratic Socrates of Phillip's Socrates' Café (less gadfly, more nice bloke - see my previous post on this). Along the way she makes astute interpretations of images of Socrates' death including the famous painting by David and even analyses the medical effects of different types of hemlock to determine whether Plato's description of Socrates' progressive loss of feeling in the Phaedo is a santised version of what must have happened (the answer is probably not).
Wilson provides plausible explanations of why the Athenians were so ready to execute Socrates. His political views (anti-democratic, apparently pro-tyrant), his associations (with those who had acted impiously), his irritating arrogance, and possibly his public humiliation of his accusers, these are the background to the charges of corrupting the youth, and neglecting the gods of Athens. She also provides the social and political background to Socrates trial, and a succinct overview of his philosophical stance as Plato portrays it. But the real strength of the book is Wilson's ability to characterise the numerous Socrates that have existed throughout history in an elegant and economical style that is engaging, stimulating, and at times profound. Highly recommended.