Classic Statue of Plato

(Credit: vangelis aragiannis/Shutterstock)

ROME — In a remarkable discovery, a team of researchers has uncovered the long-lost location of Plato’s tomb, thanks to the cutting-edge analysis of an ancient carbonized papyrus scroll. The scroll, which contains Philodemus of Gadara’s “History of the Academy,” has revealed that the great philosopher was laid to rest in a private garden within the Academy in Athens, near the Museion, a sanctuary dedicated to the Muses.

This monumental finding is just one of the many insights gained from the “GreekSchools” research project, which has applied advanced imaging techniques to decipher over 1,000 new words, constituting 30 percent of the text.

The revelation of Plato’s burial place is a significant milestone in the study of ancient Greek philosophy and the life of one of its most influential figures. Prior to this discovery, it was only known that Plato was buried somewhere within the Academy, but the exact location remained a mystery. The newfound knowledge of his final resting place, a private garden reserved for the Platonic school, sheds light on the reverence and respect accorded to the philosopher by his followers and successors.

The “GreekSchools” project, a collaborative effort led by Graziano Ranocchia of the University of Pisa, in partnership with the Institute of Heritage Science (CNR-ISPC), the Institute of Computational Linguistics “Antonio Zampolli” (CNR-ILC) of the National Research Council, and the National Library of Naples, has been instrumental in uncovering this and other secrets hidden within the carbonized papyrus. The project, which began in 2021 and is set to run for five years and eight months, has received substantial funding from the European Research Council (ERC) to support its groundbreaking research.

Philodemus of Gadara, a philosopher who lived from 110 to after 40 BCE, wrote the “History of the Academy” as part of his larger work, “Survey of Philosophers.” This text is the oldest known history of Greek philosophy in existence and contains exclusive information about Plato and the development of the Academy under his successors. The papyrus scroll containing this work was carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, making it a challenging but invaluable resource for scholars.

Charred papyri
Charred papyri (Credit: CNR – National Research Council)

Thanks to the application of cutting-edge imaging techniques and philological methods, the research team has been able to produce an updated edition of Philodemus’ text. Kilian Fleischer, the editor of the papyrus within the GreekSchools project, notes that compared to previous editions, the text has undergone significant changes, revealing new and concrete facts about various Academic philosophers. The newly deciphered text is equivalent to the discovery of 10 new medium-sized papyrus fragments, offering fresh insights into Plato’s Academy, Hellenistic literature, Philodemus of Gadara, and ancient history in general.

Among the most striking revelations is the location of Plato’s burial. Previously, it was only known that Plato was buried somewhere in the Academy. The text also suggests that Plato was sold into slavery on the island of Aegina, possibly as early as 404 BCE when the Spartans conquered the island or, alternatively, in 399 BCE, shortly after the death of Socrates. This challenges the previous belief that Plato was sold into slavery in 387 BCE during his stay in Sicily at the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse. In another passage, Plato is seen engaging in a dialogue where he expresses disdain for the musical and rhythmic abilities of a female musician from Thrace.

The GreekSchools project aims not only to decipher and contextualize ancient texts but also to develop new methods for investigating manuscripts using the most advanced diagnostic imaging techniques available. Costanza Miliani of CNR-ISPC explains that the project employs optical imaging in the infrared and ultraviolet ranges, molecular and elemental imaging, thermal imaging, tomography, and digital optical microscopy. These non-invasive techniques, applied using mobile instrumentation from the Molab platform, part of the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS), enable researchers to read text that is inaccessible on the verso or hidden within multiple layers of opisthograph and stratified papyri.

The discoveries made by the GreekSchools project offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient Greek philosophy and the life of one of its most influential figures in Plato. By combining the expertise of scholars and scientists from various disciplines and employing cutting-edge technology, the project is shedding new light on the history of ideas and the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world. As the research continues, it is likely that even more secrets will be unveiled, deepening our understanding of this pivotal period in human history and the enduring legacy of the great thinkers who shaped it.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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