There is great interest in developing rechargeable lithium batteries with higher energy capacity and longer cycle life for applications in portable electronic devices, electric vehicles and implantable medical devices. Silicon is an attractive anode material for lithium batteries because it has a low discharge potential and the highest known theoretical charge capacity (4,200 mAh g(-1); ref. 2). Although this is more than ten times higher than existing graphite anodes and much larger than various nitride and oxide materials, silicon anodes have limited applications because silicon's volume changes by 400% upon insertion and extraction of lithium which results in pulverization and capacity fading. Here, we show that silicon nanowire battery electrodes circumvent these issues as they can accommodate large strain without pulverization, provide good electronic contact and conduction, and display short lithium insertion distances. We achieved the theoretical charge capacity for silicon anodes and maintained a discharge capacity close to 75% of this maximum, with little fading during cycling.