Category: Archaeological sites

The circle of Plato: mosaic from Pompeii

The mosaic from Pompeii which is known as the “Circle of Plato" depicts seven men in mature age - philosophers, for whom there have been proposed several identifications. Most scholars believe that the central figure of the composition is Plato.

The mosaic of the Seven Philosophers, or “Circle of Plato”, as it is better known, was discovered in 1896. The mosaic was constructed between the 1st century. B.C. and 1st century. A.D. in the villa of T. Siminius Stephanus in Pompeii. The work is considered a copy of an older prototype, most probably a painting. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that an identical mosaic of seven philosophers had been found in Sarsina in the Northern Umbria region in Italy. The mosaic from Pompeii is considered that it reflects more accurately the original, since in the mosaic of Sarsina there have been observed omissions and simplifications of certain iconographic themes.

The mosaic of Pompeii is approximately square and surrounded by a frame with floral ornaments together with theatrical masks. The scene represents seven male figures of mature age in the foreground, while in the background behind them it is depicted a landscape that is consisted of an epistyle to the left, a sun dial and a tree in the center, and a citadel wall in the upper right corner. The subject of the scene is probably the discussion of some astronomical theory, since in the middle of the scene a celestial sphere is depicted with engraved circles mounted in a small box-like furniture. The philosophical nature of this scene confirms the presence of the tree that refers to philosophical Garden. An interesting detail about the chronology of the scene is that the sun dial has been depicted in accordance with the form it had in the 4th c. B.C. as a hollow segment of a sphere on which are etched twelve spaces corresponding to the twelve hours of the day. The place of the scene is beyond doubt Athens, a city predominantly connected with the philosophy, a hypothesis that is confirmed by the symbolic representation of the Acropolis in the upper right corner of the mosaic, a convention of Athenian art already established by the early 4th c. B.C.

The most widely accepted interpretation of the shene is that it depicts the Academy of Plato. From the seven figures of the mosaic, six of them are students, and one is Plato himself. Although there is no absolute certainty which of these figures is Plato, most scholars agree that he can be identified with the third man from the left, sitting below the tree. This position in the scene seems to be of high importance as it is located in the center of the group, and the at the same time in center of the mosaic. His garment is in dark color and draws the viewer's attention. Also unlike the other forms that surround him are merely contemplative mood, the figure of the "Plato" seems to be speaking, or perhaps lecturing. It is perfectly aligned with the tree- a sacred olive tree full of fruit, associated with the goddess of wisdom, Athena- so that it almost creates the impression that the tree grows from him. Maybe it is a conscious symbolism chosen by the artist to show that Plato was the root of knowledge and the founder of the Academy.

A key element of the understanding of the scene that has not yet been convincingly interpreted the movement of the left hand of the central figure holding a stick and pointing at the direction of the celestial sphere, but also pointing at a dark elliptic surface close to right foot. It has been interpeted as a sandal Carol Mattusch, or according to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples it is a geometrical figure Plato is drawing, while according to K. Joplin perhaps it is a shadow on the ground, which has been depicted almost as white in colour in front of "Plato’s" feet so that this dark surface can be clearly distinguished from the ground. The shadow that may serve as an allegory of some kind, and this detail probably has big importance for the interpretation of the entire composition. Of special interest is the figure at the left end of the scene wearing a pale yellow garment and a diadem. Only the man in yellow and the man in black seem to speak, forming a second pole of interest in the composition.If we believe that this mosaic depicts the cycle of Plato, then the figure on the left could probably be the student of Plato and great philosopher Aristotle. It has also been proposed the identification of the figure at the right end with Theophrastus, on the grounds that the darker tone of the crown suggests a younger age, as Theophrastus was about 13 years younger than Aristotle, and the presence of a small pile of stones next to him that might be a reference to his work De Lapidibus (On Stones).

The National Archaeological Museum of Naples proposed for remaining figues (besides “Plato”) the following identifications: The first man on the left is probably Heraclitus, the second Lysias, the penultimate figure from the right Xenokrates, and the last one Aristotle, who holds in his hands a scroll.

G.W. Elderkin in his 1935 article notes that the number of philosophers depicted in the mosaic led many scholars to consider it as an illustration of the seven philosophers. The seven sages of antiquity was also the subject of discussion in Athens of the 4th c. B.C. Plato in Protagoras mentions the following names: Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Cheilon. Other lists include different names, such as the tyrants of Athens Pisistratus and Periander of Corinth. Elderkin argues that view of the Parthenon had the Peripatetic philosophers of the Lyceum which lied on the south slope of Lykabbetus close to the river Ilissos, and identifies the figure with the yellow dress and diadem with the protector and Peripatetic philosopher of Athens at the end of the 4th century. B.C., Demetrius Faliraeus. C. Mattusch based on the interpretation that the central figure shows with his stick at the globe suggests the identification of the group with great astronomers of antiquity such as Thales, Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Democritus, Eudoxus, Euctemon, Callipus, Meto, Philippus, Hipparchus, or Aratus. However Mattusch believes that the number of figures could be a connection to the Seven Sages, which doesn’t exclude the presence of Plato in this group, since this catalogue has changed several times in history.

Author: Konstantinos Lazaridis
  • Elderkin, G. W. "Two Mosaics Representing the Seven Wise Men." American Journal of Archaeology. 39.1 (1935)
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