The picture we have for the figure of Plato has been formed by a number of Roman era copies that seemingly echoe the now lost portrait of the philosopher, the work of sculptor Silanion. The main feature of Plato’s portrait is the wide forehead, short hair, long beard and the serious contemplative expression on his face.

The figure of Plato is reflected in a variety of Roman copies, the original of which dates back in the mid-fourth century BC. From Diogenes Laertius, historian of the 3rd century AD we are informed that the Persian Mithridates, erected a statue of Plato in the Academy with the inscription: Mithridates the Persian, son Orontobates dedicated to the Muses this image of Plato, that was made by Silanion. (3.25 and 3.28)

The Roman copies that reflect Plato’s form are often divided by scholars into two main groups: the so-called "Main Type" and the "Type of Basel-Holkham Hall». The difference between the two types lies in the different handling of the crown. While in the Main type the hair tufts are symmetrically disposed on and around the forehead, forming a frame, and their surface is almost smooth, in the second type tufts have mass, falling slightly to the front and give an overall impression of a greater plasticity of the head. Both of these types seem to originate from the same archetype, certainly a copy itself too, but perhaps it reflects largely the original work of Silanion, the only portrait of Plato that we know of from literary sources.

In the Main type they belong among others: the marble head of the Munich Glyptothek, the marble head in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen, the herm (mistakenly inscribed as Zenon) in the Museum of Clement and Pius in the Vatican, the herm in the Collection of Antiquities in the State Museums of Berlin, a bronze bust in the State Art Collections of Kassel, the marble head of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the marble head of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. In the "Basel-Holkham Hall Type» it belongs the marble head in the art collections of Holkham Hall in England, and the head in the Archaeological Museum in Basel.

The picture we have today for the work of Silanion is perhaps best reflected in a Roman copy of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, which is exposed in the Glyptothek in Munich. The portrait is distinguished for the broad forehead, the eyes- close to one another; and the serious and thoughtful expression of the face. The philosopher is represented in mature age, but not old. Her hair is cropped on, the tufts are arranged symmetrically above and around the forehead and the beard is rather long for a man of his age.

An interesting variant of the main formula is the inscribed herm of the philosopher in the Berlin Museum, with a very long beard arranged in thick tresses, with fleshy lips and coarse facial features. A small bronze bust of the philosopher in the State Collections of Kassel, only fifteen centimeters high, enriches considerably our understanding of the original Plato portrait. This version has an aquiline nose, erect head, and the mantle falling over the nape of the neck and the shoulders. Plato is portrayed as a mature man, but not elderly. His hair is trimmed into even, fairly short locks. His beard is long and carefully tended- a common element of all copies. The only clear signs of age are the sharp creases radiating from the nose and the loose, fleshy cheeks.

A common feature of all copies is the serious facial expression, which is created primarily by the two horizontal lines on the forehead and from the puckered eyebrows, forming two short vertical lines above the bridge of the nose. Wrinkles are sometimes etched deeper, and sometimes their presence is merely hinted, as in the copy of Munich, though in any case this form constitutes a widespread pattern in portraits of intellectuals in the 4th century. BC

However, serious facial expression is not necessarily an iconographic convention related only to the portraits of intellectual citizens. Similar expression have mature men in grave stelai, and also in a series of anonymous portraits of Athenian citizens. Perhaps the portrait of Plato is subordinated to a much wider formula, the depiction of a good Athenian citizen of that era. Or perhaps the effect is bidirectional, and the image of Plato could be the one that greatly affected the imaging model of Athenian citizens. In a number of anonymous portraits of that time we can see a strong resemblance to the portraits of philosophers and poets. A portrait of an old man in Copenhagen, for example, once part of a grave stele, recalls the portrait of Plato so closely that one could almost ask if this were the philosopher's own tomb monument. Furthermore, this is not a unique instance; other heads on gravestones recall the portraits of Aristotle, Theophrastus and Demosthenes.

In our study whether the image of Plato through these Roman copies truly reflects the look of the philosopher and in what degree, we should also include a reference of Athinaios to the comic poet Ehippus, contemporary of Alexander the Great, who is mocking Plato by saying that one of Plato’s pupils had cropped hair and a long beard. (11.509 cd) These characteristics are met in all Plato’s Roman copies, and we can assume that the appearance of Plato refers more to the image of a noble Athenian citizen, possibly with sophisticated sleek appearance; a feature that perhaps puts him closer to the aristocratic class.

Certainly we must not overlook the fact that the expression of the face, and as well as the handling of the hair and beard had a different meaning for the viewer of the statue in the late 4th century BC, and a different meaning for today’s viewer, who also has the opportunity to observe the sculpture at close range.

Unfortunately, no copy of the body belonging to the statue of Plato has yet come to light, though we may assume that it was somewhat similar to that of Socrates, as reflected in a statuette in the British Museum. The philosopher is depicted standing wearing a himation draped over his body; in his left hand he is holding the excess fabric draped over the shoulder, while with the right hand he grasps an overfold at the height of his waist. Like that of Aristotle and other philosophers of the Classical period, Plato's teaching style involved much physical movement (Diogenes Laertius, 3.27).

Author: Konstantinos Lazaridis
  • Pollitt, J.J. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • R.R.R., Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture. Λονδίνο, 1991.
  • Boardman, J. Greek Sculpture. The Late Classical Period. Thames & Hudson, 1995.
  • Zanker, P, The Mask of Socrates. The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity. Μπέρκλεϋ Οξφόρδη, 1996.
  • Buschor, E. Das Hellenistische Bildnis. München, 1984.
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