Ada Caruso’s study of the archaeology of Platonic philosophy in Athens from Plato to Proclus negotiates some difficult and disputed ground. Acknowledging the elusiveness of any certainty, from either the ancient sources or the physical remains, with regard to the locations and the structures where Plato and then his successors taught, she nevertheless does what can be done to reconstruct a history that does justice to both literary evidence and what archaeologists have uncovered. The nature and reliability of the evidence vary considerably over the nearly 900 years she covers, and the study is accordingly divided into three sections: 1) Fourth to First Century BCE (29-117, supplemented by an appendix, 197-213), 2) First to Fourth Century CE (119-153) and 3) Fifth Century CE. (155-190). Each of these sections is subdivided into 1) Historical Framework, 2) Literary Sources, and 3) Archaeological Material, with a final discussion of all of the above.
The Academy itself is one of the monuments that Athenian archaeology has (in part under the aegis of today’s Academy of Athens) aspired most fervently to recover. After some inconclusive work early in the 20th century, systematic excavation in the area identified as the Academy by (somewhat conflicting) ancient sources began in 1929 and continued until interrupted a decade later by war, occupation, and then civil war, to be resumed only in 1955. Systematic excavation in the area ended in 1963, but perhaps the most unequivocal find was not made until a few years later, in November of 1966, when work by the electrical power company (ΔΕΗ) recovered in situ not far to the east of the earlier excavations a boundary stone of the “Hekademeia”, dated (based on letter forms) to ca. 500 BCE (57, 86). During the 1950s commercial removal of soil (five or six meters of overlay produced by millennia of flooding of the nearby Cephissos) endangered and may have destroyed some of the evidence the archaeologists were seeking (83). Publication of the excavations was at best incomplete.
It is thus about fifty years since the excavations ended (and twenty since the area was opened as an archaeological park, after the long-protested appropriation and destruction of about a hundred houses ) and the available information has not substantially changed. D. G. Kyle summed up the state of affairs in 1987: “Overall, then, archaeology has shown evidence of early cult associations, an elaborate late gymnasium, and building remains and reused material of uncertain function…from the intervening period.”1 Caruso engages this unpromising material and constructs from it a narrative of Plato’s Academy, discretely qualifying or displacing existing narratives as she goes. At every stage lurk thorny questions hotly debated by scholars, and she offers, on the whole, fair and carefully reasoned accounts of these debates. In the remainder of this review I shall address a few of these, with the emphasis on Caruso’s new conclusions.
Did Plato actually live and teach in the Academy (and if so, was it in the “cd. ginnasio” or in some other structure within the confines of the area consecrated to the hero) or only near the Academy? Certainly the school of Plato and his successors has been designated by the name of the hero’s property since antiquity, and the location itself has been thick with the imagined presence of the founder and later scholarchs at least since Cicero, in 79 BCE, made his nostalgic visit to the recently war-damaged and deserted site ( De fin. V, 1-2). Still, the communis opinio, based on Diogenes Laertius III, 5-7 (reinforced, as Caruso insists, by Konrad Gaiser’s reading of PHerc 1021 T 12-14),2 has long been that after teaching briefly in the gymnasium of the Academy, Plato shifted his activities to a garden παρὰ τὸν Κολωνόν, where he built a mouseion that remained the location of the school for some time thereafter (44 with n. 97).3 This is a complicated matter, and the lacunose Herculaneum papyri seem only to make matters worse. It is enough to point out here that this is one of very few points where Caruso’s argumentation is disappointing.4 Attractive though it undoubtedly is, for a study largely based on the architectural remains in the archaeological park, to have at least the certainty that that park includes the location of the school of Plato, we simply have to live with uncertainty on this point. True, the alternative models offered by diverse sources are messier: Plato and the Platonists have to move in and out of the Academy and back in again, and the timing and motivation for these moves are certainly unclear. But even Plato and his followers are likely to have lived messy lives.
Beyond this sticking point, Caruso’s first section is the only credible discussion of the excavations at the Academy known to this reviewer. Much time is devoted to qualifying the enthusiastic and hyperbolic claims of the original excavators, and few definite gains are posted. This is perhaps unfortunate, but realistic and a genuine contribution. It is certainly true that the “square peristyle” is a better candidate than the “so-called gymnasium” for both a gymnasium and a venue for philosophical teaching (96-100, 114). The discussion, moreover, of the legal and economic realities that might have made it possible for the school to acquire property, and then to retain that property for centuries (even property within the sacred space of the hero’s temenos) productively challenges received ideas on this matter (32-42).
The second section covers the period from the abandonment of the Academy (when in 88 BC the last [?] scholarch, Philo of Larissa, and perhaps others from the school had the good sense to move to Rome, about two years before Sulla came to punish Athens), up to the relatively well documented period of the Athenian “Successors” of Plato of the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Given the impossibility of specifying where Athenian Platonists may have taught during this period, Caruso concentrates on the evidence for the use of public space by philosophical teachers, on inscriptions naming philosophers and specifically Platonists, as well as on recovered portraits of Plato. This is the time when Marcus Aurelius’ subsidies created an imperial “university” in Athens, but the physical realities of that institution are as elusive as its organization. Still, Caruso is able to reach the interesting conclusion that “l’insieme di tutti i dati raccolti induce a considerare le pendici sud [of the Acropolis] come probabile teatro della scena intellettuale ateniese tra il I e il III sec d. C.” (149). In the Academy itself, what archaeological evidence exists for the period is consistent with the silence of the sources.
Similar problems plague the reconstruction of the physical realities of Platonic teaching in fifth-century CE Athens (Section Three). As is often the case, excavators have been anxious to claim what specificity they could for the structures they uncover, and a cool-headed overview at a comfortable distance in time is welcome. Caruso’s sifting of the arguments for and against the identification of the “cosidetta” House of Proclus is admirable. The “Successors” may well have taught in their own house (the edict of 425 against the use of public space by those who claimed to be professors [ ursupantes sibi nomina magistrorum ] may be relevant). There are, however, equally attractive contemporary houses just down Dionysius the Areopagite Street that satisfy as well or better the topographical givens in Marinus’ Life of Proclus 29. If one of these houses (or the one nearer the Odeon of Herodes Atticus that has been called the House of Proclus) was in fact both the home and the school of the fifth- and sixth-century “Successors”, this might explain why Justinian’s edict of 529 was not directed at any specific institution: “…questa, molto probabilmente, non esisteva” (163). Meanwhile, in the Academy, the “cd. ginnasio” seems to have reached its greatest glory thanks to 4th-century renovations,5 just in time for the final succession of scholarchs, beginning with Plutarch of Athens. The excavator, Ph. Stavropoullos, made a connection between this renovation and the 5th-century Platonists, but Caruso doubts this scenario, seeing (quite credibly) in the Academy, for Proclus ( Mar. Vit. Proc. 36), only a “significativo luogo di memoria” (189).
Caruso’s book is both ambitious and learned. Her command of the secondary literature, including the Greek archaeological publications, is remarkable. If her summaries of the intellectual developments are sometimes a little thin, 6 the core of her project relates to the “fisicità” of Athenian Platonism (158), and her elucidation of that physical context is an important contribution to the historical topography of Athens and to our ability to relate the teaching of Platonic philosophy to that topography.
1. D. G. Kyle, Athletics in Ancient Athens. Mnemosyne Suppl. 95 (1987), 72.
2. Philodems Academica Supplementum Platonium 1, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt: frommann-holzboog, 1988, pp.187-8.
3. Mouseia are a subject on which Caruso has considerable expertise, having written her 2010 doctoral dissertation on them (101, n. 107).
4. She presents this misunderstanding as the result of an error in the interpretation of Diogenes Laertius, an error that she traces back in the topographical literature to Wachsmuth in the 19th century, and which has influenced virtually all thinking about the location of Plato’s Academy (with the apparent exception of that of the excavators of the site) ever since, down to and including Lynch and Glucker. I’m afraid that the problem can’t be resolved as easily as she claims. Moreover, her notion of Plato studying, as a youth, alongside Cratylus, in the school of Heraclitus (!) on the slopes of the Kolonos Hippios (44-5) fails to advance her argument. I suppose she has in mind another Heraclitus, rather than ὁ σκοτεινός (presumably dead a half century before Plato’s birth), and this might be plausible, except for the fact that Aristotle’s evidence ( Met. 987a) is essential here and he leaves no doubt as to which Heraclitus influenced (though he certainly did not teach) Plato.
5. Cf. Kyle, cited above, note 1.
6. Such passages as n.1 on p. 121 are vulnerable to this criticism, and summary observations on the biographies of philosophers can be glib: Plotinus was forty when he came to Rome and so cannot be said to have spent “quasi tutta la vita” there (125). The evidence of Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus for Platonist activity in mid-third-century Athens (where Porphyry studied with Longinus and others) seems significantly underexploited (cf. 125) and I know of no reason to think that his period of study in Athens was short or that he “andò presto” off to Rome: Porphyry says, after all, that he was thirty when he arrived there to study with Plotinus ( Vit. Plot. 4).