One of the most misunderstood archaeological sites in Athens today may be the 4th-century BC ?Academy? of Plato. The Classical Greek thinker?s school of philosophy and learning, one of the earliest organized schools of higher education known in the Western world, was founded about 387 BC and continued even after his death in 347 BC. Its final demise came in 85 BC, when Philo of Larissa, the Academy?s last head, departed Athens ? apparently in mourning and disgust after the Roman general Sulla?s brutal takeover and widespread destruction of the city during the previous year.
Philo died in 83 BC with no successors, thus sealing the Academy?s fate. Centuries later, at least by the early 5th century AD, Neoplatonists revived the Academy but it did not last as long as the original: Justinian I, the emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, enacting strict new government regulation, caused its closure in AD 529 as part of his campaign to suppress paganism.
The history of Plato?s Academy may be well known today but still a mystery is where this school was actually located. In antiquity, the Academy consisted not of a building but a district, about 1.5 kilometers outside the northwestern city gates of Athens. In Greek, this area was called the ?Hekademeia? after a local hero Hekademos ? from whose name the English word ?academy? can also be traced. According to the Roman-era historian Plutarch, extensive measures were taken by the Athenian statesman Cimon, in the second quarter of the 5th century BC, to improve and develop the Academy district.
Cimon diverted water from the nearby Kifissos River, as well as possibly from the Iridanos River in a pipeline extending northwestward from the city center. The Academy was reached via a road from the Dipylon Gate in the Kerameikos area, the sides of which were lined with Athenian state graves, including that of Pericles. In the late 5th century BC, Thucydides observed that Athens? ?public burial-place… is [located] in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls…?
Plutarch also refers to the Academy?s pleasant environment when he writes on Cimon?s public benefactions: ?He was the first to beautify the city with the so-called ?liberal? and elegant resorts which were so excessively popular a little later, by planting the marketplace with plane trees, and by converting the Academy from a waterless and arid spot into a well-watered grove, which he provided with clear running-tracks and shady walks.? So respected was this district of ancient Athens and its namesake Hecademos that the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War, ?although they often invaded the country and ravaged it unsparingly (…) never touched the place called the Akademia? (Plutarch, Theseus 32). Eventually, after 387 BC, the Academy became famous for another well respected local figure ? Plato.
Philosophers in antiquity seem to have preferred to frequent public stoas and athletic facilities, including gymnasia and palaestrae, where they might find potential students who gathered there for sport and military training.
Aristotle, Plato?s student between 367 and 347 BC, later formed his own school, the Lyceum, based in a pastoral gymnasium complex on the opposite side of Athens ? above the Ilissos River adjacent to the present-day Byzantine Museum. Plato?s school, however, was never located in a gymnasium. Plato instead met with his followers in his own house and garden, on property he had inherited from his well-to-do Athenian family.
Archaeologists seeking the location of Plato?s Academy, with excavations sponsored by the Academy of Athens (1929-40) and the Greek Archaeological Society (1955-70s), have made many important discoveries, including sections of a wall and an inscribed boundary stone distinguishing the core area of the Academy district; a square, 4th-century BC peristyle building of unknown function; a large, late-Hellenistic, early-Roman gymnasium equipped with possible tables for students; and hundreds of slate writing tablets. Today, the peristyle building, which dates to Plato?s era, lies hidden beneath a paved, neighborhood square in which stands a marble bust of the philosopher.
The foundations of the subsequent gymnasium, on the other hand, which had no direct connection with Plato, can still be seen ? within a pleasant, shady park reminiscent of the ancient precinct?s original wooded environment. Pausanias, the 2nd-century AD Roman traveler, also saw a gymnasium in this area (although perhaps a different one from that exposed today) and ?not far from the Academy… the monument of Plato.?
Plato?s property ? the actual site of his school ? lay apart from the walled Academy precinct, somewhere between the currently visible gymnasium and the low hill to the northeast, Hippios Kolonos. Maps drawn as early as the late 18th century record this understanding of the area?s ancient topography. Today, however, some confusion can arise for visitors, who will find misleading, decades-old signs posted by the Culture Ministry that identify late Hellenistic and early Roman foundations as belonging to ?Plato?s Academy.?
In addition, these archaeological remains, some of the most important for Athens? heritage as the birthplace of Western learning, now lie completely neglected except by the occasional gardener. Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.
The late-Hellenistic, early-Roman gymnasium visible today may have been the site of the Platonic Academy in its final form ? destroyed by Sulla when he ravaged the district and felled its trees in 86 BC ? but it was never the base of Plato?s own Academy nearly three centuries earlier. The exact place where Plato resided and met with his students represents one of the great archaeological puzzles waiting to be solved. In the meantime, the Academy area and the site of Aristotle?s Lyceum deserve more informative, conscientious curatorship that ultimately will benefit both local communities and foreign visitors inspired by ancient Greece.
(This article was first published in Athens Plus on 10/7/2010.)