Category: Works of Plato

Incunabula Latin Translations of Works by Plato

These are the individual publications in Latin translation of Plato’s Dialogues (authentic and spurious) and Letters, which were prima typographicae incunabula, that is, printed before 1500, in Italy mainly but also at Deventer in the Netherlands, in Paris, Leipzig, Louvain and Mainz. In addition to these editions, there are also Latin translations of the Dialogues included in compilation editions, as well as in treatises on Platonic teaching, which were written directly in Latin by Cardinal Bessarion, Marsilio Ficino and Paulus Niavis.

The method of translation from Greek to Latin

The proper method of translation into Latin of the ancient Greek authors, not least Plato, was set forth by the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, who taught in the Studio of Florence from 1399, and is known as “transferre ad sententiam” (transfer to thought). This method was followed by his student Uberto Decembrio, when he embarked on the Latin translation of Plato’s Republic, with his mentor’s assistance (1400-1403). However, the person who distinguished himself in the Latin translation of Platonic works is the formidable Leonardo Bruni, who also speaks of the difficulties he encountered in his effort to keep true to the original while following the grammatical dictates of the Latin language.

Incunabula editions

There are five individual publications of Dialogues by Plato: Gorgias, Axiochus, Hipparchus and Theages. The first to circulate was Bruni’s Latin translation of Gorgias, by an unknown printer working in Florence or Bologna, with the cognomen “printer of Johannes Barbatia”, c. 1475 (Census P 775). Axiochus was printed initially in Deventer, in the framework of a spiritual community of Platonic character formed in accordance with the teaching of Geert Groote, whose members called themselves “Brethren of the Common Life” (Fratres Vitae Communis). The Latin translation was edited by Rudolphus Agricola, student of George of Trebizond in Italy, a representative of the humanist movement of the North and incumbent of the chair of Latin and Greek at the University of Heidelberg from 1477. The book was printed by Richard Paffraet, c. 1480 (Pol. 3192). The translation of the work in the edition printed in Louvain by Johann Paderborn c. 1483 (HC 4768), with no mention of editor, must also be by Agricola. His translation of Axiochus was re-published for the last time, in Mainz, by Peter von Friedberg in 1495 (BMC I 49). The only other autonomous edition of a Dialogue of Plato includes Hipparchus and Theages, in the translation by the hierophant of Platonism, Marsilio Ficino, again printed in Deventer, by Jacobus de Breda c. 1500 (HC 13064).

Plato’s Letters (Epistulae) were translated by Bruni and first printed in Paris, in the workshop installed in the basements of the Sorbonne by the chancellor of the university Guillaume Fichet and which operated from 1470 (Census P 773). They were printed by the three press operators in the printing house, U. Gering, M. Grantz and M. Friburger, c. 1474, instead of the scheduled Latin edition of Cardinal Bessarion’s work In calumniatorem Platonis, which was to be introduced as official university textbook of the Sorbonne. The Epistulae were re-published in Leipzig by Paulus Niavis, c. 1490, and were printed by Konrad Kachelofen (BMC III 632). Niavis (c. 1460-1517) was a renowned German paedagogue, Latin master in the school at Chemnitz and an advocate of humanist ideas.

In the mid-1480s, the Complete Works (Opera Omnia) of Plato were published in the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, as well as his writings on Platonic philosophy: Platonica Theologia and Compendium in Timaeum. The Platonis Opera Omnia was printed in Florence at the workshop of Francesco de Alopa, from May 1484 until April 1485 (BMC VI 666). Ficino was responsible for editing the publication, but the final manuscript passed through the hands of eminent philologists of his age: D. Chalcocondyles (mainly), G. Vespucci, G. B. Buoninsegni, B. Scala and Politian (Poliziano). Ficino gives this information in his Preface, but what he does not admit in his text is that he used unabridged passages from Latin translations by Bruni, not only of the Epistulae but also of Criton, Phaedrus, et al. There are also indications that for the Republic Ficino relied on the translation signed by Chrysoloras and Decembrio. Even though the edition of the Opera Omnia was published in 1,500 copies, it was republished in Venice in 1494, by Andrea Torresani (ΒΜC V 465).

The Platonica Theologia de immortalitate animae represents the pinnacle of the Platonic literature penned in the Renaissance. It is a defence of the immortality of the soul, which was a bridge uniting Platonic teaching with Christian doctrine. Concurrently, Ficino exposits the basic principles of natural philosophy, according to which a “cosmic psyche” dictates everything in the Universe. The work was printed only once before 1500, by Antonio di Bartolommeo Miscomini (BMC VI 637).

Ficino’s Compendium in Timaeum links, in a way, the first Latin translations and the Commentarii in Timaeum by Cicero and by Calcidius. It was accepted by humanists as corresponding to the biblical Genesis, and the Demiurge to whom Plato refers as corresponding to the Creator in the Old Testament. The work was printed only once before 1500, in Florence, by Francesco de Alopa (H 7077). In the same year (1496), Alopa printed another work by Ficino, entitled Commentaria V perpetua in Platonem (BMC VI 669).

Plato’s Charmides and Doctrines and Proverbs were only included in compilation volumes. The dialogue Charmides was translated into Latin by Politian and included in the publication of the Platonic corpus, which was edited by Alexander Statius and printed in the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in 1498 (BMC V 559). The edition includes also other translations by Politian of ancient authors (Herodian, Alexander of Aphrodisias and Plutarch). Even though Politian was not a philosopher, but the greatest Hellenist philologist of his day and of the fifteenth century generally, he was particularly interested in Plato’s oeuvre also through the Latin translation of Epictetus’ Manual (Enchiridion), concerning metaphysics and the cultivation of philosophy. Having read meticulously the works of Plato and the Manual of Epictetus, he felt that he had acquired the necessary knowledge to rise to the level of grammaticus. He set about analysing the Manual’s recommendations, paraphrasing also certain parts of it. Politian refers repeatedly to sources of the Stoics: Protagoras, Phaedrus and Alcibiades. Having read Proclus, he made reference also to Timaeus, while he utilizes Calcidius’ Commentarii in Timaeum for rendering specific philosophical terms and Latin equivalents: for example, the translation of “matter”.

Before any printed Latin translation of a Platonic work appeared, Cardinal Bessarion’s important dissertation, written only in Latin, Adversus calumniatorem Platonis, circulated in Rome in 1469. It was printed by two German architypographers, C. Sweynheim and A. Pannartz, in three hundred copies (BMC IV 7). This is a publication that belongs in the controversy between supporters of Plato and supporters of Aristotle, as to the philosopher’s primacy, which was kindled in the West from the time George Gemistus (Plethon) wrote De Differentiis (On the Difference between Aristotle and Plato), which seems to represent his seminars in Mystras and in Florence. In this dispute, Bessarion, although profoundly Platonic, played a conciliatory role between the Greek men of letters active in Italy, as well as those Italians who became embroiled in the disagreement. More than any of his contemporaries, Bessarion tried to interweave Platonic with Aristotelean philosophy, endeavouring to demonstrate that their theories are identical, even if they are projected in different ways and phrases: “I honour Aristotle, and I love Plato”.


In the dissemination of Plato’s teaching during the Renaissance and until 1500 a decisive role was played by the Academia Platonica that operated under Ficino’s guidance in Florence from 1454, and the printed Latin translations of Plato’s Dialogues, but mainly the publication of the Platonis Opera Omnia, which gave an overall picture of his oeuvre. No Platonic text in Greek was printed before 1513, when Marcus Musurus edited at the printing press of Aldus Manutius the editio princeps of the Platonic corpus.

Author: Konstantinos Sp Staikos
  • Goff, F.R. Census = Incunabula in American Libraries. A third census of fifteenth-century books recorded in North American collections. 1973, New York.
  • BMC I-XII = Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum. London, 1908-1985.
  • Claudin, A. The First Paris Press. An account of the books printed for G. Fichet and J. Heynlin in the Sorbonne 1470-1472. London, 1897.
  • Hain, L. Repertorium bibliographicum in quo libri omnes ab arte typographica inventa usque ad annum MD, typis expressi ordine alphabetico vel simpliciter enumerantur vel adcuratius recensentur, 2 vols. Stuttgart/Paris, 1826-1838.
  • Copinger, W.A. HC=Supplement to Hain’s Repertorium Bibliographicum, Part I. London, 1895.
  • Polain, M.L. Catalogue des livres imprimés au quinzième siécle des bibliothèques de Belgique. Bruxelles, 1932.
  • Kristeller, P.Ο. "The Platonic Academy of Florence." Renaissance News XVI (1961)
  • Labowsky, L. "Bessarione." DBI 8 (1967)


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