More than 1,000 words, accounting for 30% of the text, have emerged from the carbonized papyrus of Herculaneum, containing the History of the Academy by Philodemus of Gadara (110-40 BCE), thanks to the technological approach of innovative research methodologies used in the GreekSchools project.

This project is coordinated by Graziano Ranocchia from the University of Pisa in collaboration with the Institute of Cultural Heritage Sciences (Cnr-Ispc), the Institute of Computational Linguistics “Antonio Zampolli” (Cnr-Ilc) from the National Research Council, and the National Library of Naples, where this papyrus is kept, having been burned after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, along with many others.

The project aims to both study the conservation status of these artifacts and to publish an updated edition, thanks to the application of imaging techniques and philological methods, of the Catalogue of the Philosophers by Philodemus, the oldest history of Greek philosophy we have. This includes the History of the Academy, which contains a wealth of exclusive information about Plato and the development of the Academy under his successors.

The charred papyrus containing the indications of Plato's grave
The charred papyrus containing the indications of Plato’s grave. Credit: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche

Compared to previous editions, there’s now an almost radically changed text, implying a number of new, concrete facts about various academic philosophers. Through the new edition and its contextualization, scholars have reached unexpected deductions with interdisciplinary relevance for ancient philosophy, Greek biography and literature, and the history of books, says Graziano Ranocchia.

Some previous integrations have been replaced, some previously fragmented passages have been integrated or reread. The increase in text corresponds roughly to the discovery of ten new medium-sized fragments of papyrus. The new readings often rely on new, concrete facts about Plato’s Academy, Hellenistic literature, Philodemus of Gadara, and ancient history in general, adds Kilian Fleischer, the editor of this valuable papyrus in the context of the project.

Among the most significant revelations, it is noted that Plato was buried in the garden reserved for him (a private area intended for the Platonic school) of the Academy in Athens, near the so-called Museion or sacred sanctuary of the Muses. Until now, it was only known that he was generally buried in the Academy.

Plato's School, by Paul Buffet (1904)
Plato’s School, by Paul Buffet (1904). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It is also revealed about the same philosopher that he was sold as a slave on the island of Aegina, probably in 404 BCE, when the Spartans conquered the island, or alternatively in 399 BCE, shortly after Socrates’s death. It was previously believed that Plato had been sold as a slave in 387 BCE during his stay in Sicily at the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse. In another passage, in a dialogue between characters, Plato is depicted disparagingly commenting on the musical and rhythmic skills of a barbarian musician from Thrace.

The GreekSchools project also aims to develop methods for investigating manuscripts by applying the most advanced imaging techniques currently available (infrared and ultraviolet optical imaging, molecular and elemental imaging, thermal imaging, tomography, digital optical microscopy, etc.), states Costanza Miliani of the Cnr-Ispc.

Staff from this Institute, from Cnr-Scitec, and from other European research centers, using mobile equipment from the Molab platform belonging to the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS), are applying non-invasive techniques to opisthographic and stratified papyri to read inaccessible text on the reverse or hidden within multiple layers.


Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche

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