The site of the Academy is situated outside the city walls, west of the Dipylon Gate. The area of the Academy attained great fame in 387 BC when, having returned from his first visit to Italy, Plato established his celebrated school in the area of the gymnasium.

Location of the Academy

On the basis of written sources, the site of the Academy is situated outside the city walls, west of the Dipylon Gate, next to Cephissus River and close to the hillock of Hippios Colonus. Cicero and Livy mention that the Academy was located at a distance of 1.5 km from Athens, at the edge of the Demosion Sema (the city’s public graveyard), created on the verges of the monumental road that led through Dipylon.

Archaeological discoveries made in the 20th century in the site that was recently officially dubbed Akademia Platonos (Plato’s Academy) have confirmed these distances. The precise site of the Academy has been pinpointed following pre-WWII (1929-1940) excavations conducted by the architect Panagiotis Aristophron, a Greek expatriate from Egypt and an admirer of Plato, under the supervision of archaeologist Konstantinos Kourouniotis in cooperation with the Academy of Athens. These excavations brought to light almost all of the antiquities surviving in the archaeological site of the Academy. In 1966, a boundary marker was discovered in situ in this area; it bears the inscription {ΗΟ}ΡΟΣ ΤΕΣ ΗΕΚΑΔΗΜΕΙΑΣ, and has been dated to c. 500 BC, thus confirming the location and appellation of the Academy as early as the Archaic period.

From 1955 to 1963 excavations were carried out by the Academy under the direction of archaeologist F. Stavropoulos, while in 1962 the area of the Academy was officially brought under the purview of the Archaeological Service, whose efforts to promote and beautify the 150-acres declared archaeological site are ongoing.

The site’s history

The name Akademia or Hekademeia is linked to its original owner, the Athenian hero Academus or Hecademus. Name itself, however, also means a deme that is εκάς (=far) from the city. It is likely that the place name is earlier than the hero, whose myth was apparently invented to explain it. The settlement of the Academy probably belonged to Athens from a very early age, although it is situated far from it.

Tradition connects the first period of the Academy with the Peisistratids, who during the second half of the 6th century BC rendered the area an important religious center of Athens and saw to its beautification, setting up altars and statues, like the one at the entrance to the gymnasium, dedicated to the god Eros; they also demarcated the area by constructing an enclosure, which became known as the Wall of Hipparchus, and became proverbial for its extravagant cost. By the 6th century BC a gymnasium apparently operated in the Academy, but the area had a stronger religious than educational character.

During the 5th century, the sacred grove of the Academy was dedicated to Athena, and her sanctuary contained the twelve sacred olive trees, which produced the sacred oil offered as a prize to victors in the Panathenaea. There was also the temenos (sacred precinct or shrine) of Zeus Morios, while other gods and heroes were also venerated, like Hermes and Hercules. An imposing altar was jointly dedicated to Prometheus and Hephaestus. Using the flame of this altar they used to light the torches athletes held in their hands in torch races (Paus. Ι.30.2); these races were held in honor of the war dead, who were buried alongside the Dromos leading to the Academy, i.e. in the Demosion Sema. Following the Persian Wars, in the 5th century the Athenian state continued to attend to the area; Cimon (Plut. Cimon 13.7) planted trees and provided a water supply for the Academy, turning it from a religious center to a gymnasium, open to all citizens.

By the late 5th century, the Academy’s gymnasium, like other gymnasia, was undergoing a transformation, developing apart from an athletic also into an intellectual centre. Sophists and philosophers, among them Socrates, frequented the facilities of the gymnasia and expounded their ideas to the youths exercising there.

Foundation of Plato’s Academy

The area of the Academy attained great fame in 387 BC when, having returned from his first visit to Italy, Plato established his celebrated school in the area of the gymnasium. According to Diogenes Laertius, in a privately owned garden he established the Mouseion and an Exedra (lecture-hall) for teaching. The school acquired such renown that it became identified with the area’s name. Later, he built his house close to Hippios Colonus (Diog. Laert. 3.5.7). In 347 BC Plato was buried in the Academy, after 40 years of teaching.

Through his successors, the Academy continued to function as a philosophical school after the philosopher’s death. Speusippus, a successor of Plato in the Academy, dedicated statues depicting the Graces in the Mouseion. The Persian Mithridates, an admirer of Plato, set up a statue of the philosopher in the sanctuary of the Muses; it was a work of the prominent 4th century sculptor Silanion. In c. 230 BC Lacydes, a philosopher and scholarch of the Academy, donated to the school a garden, known as the Lacydeion.

The main mission of the Academy was to provide students with philosophical and scientific instruction. It functioned like an association of intellectuals of the era. The site of the Academy suffered two great destructions. It was burned by Philip V of Macedon in 200 BC, and in 86 BC Sulla felled the trees in the groves of the Academy and the Lyceum to provide timber for siege engines during the siege of Piraeus. This second destruction was probably crippling, because when Cicero visited the Academy in 76 BC the site was in ruins. Apparently Plato’s school continued to operate under the direction of eminent philosophers, but not in its original site. In the 6th century AD, following Justinian’s decree, the Philosophical School of the Academy was closed down, along with all the other schools of philosophy in Athens.

Excavational data

Excavations have revealed traces of human habitation in the area of the Academy since prehistoric times. The so-called “Sacred Residence” stands out in the Geometric era – it yielded significant finds and has been considered a place of worship of the hero Academus, although this identification has come under heavy criticism, as current evidence do not warrant such an interpretation. There are traces of temples dating to the Archaic period -clay metopes and antefixes from that era- as well as building material found incorporated in later structures.

Sections of the monumental road of the Demosion Sema, leading through the Dipylon Gate to the Academy, have been unearthed and its width has been confirmed to measure 39-40 m in width.. No part of Hipparchus’ infamous wall, which in the Late Archaic period surrounded the Academy, has been unearthed thus far.

Two complexes stand out in the area and belong to the facilities of the famous gymnasium of the Academy: the so-called Gymnasium or Palaestra and the square peristyle building, known as the Square Peristyle.

The Gymnasium or Palaestra was found north of the church of Agios Tryphon and is a large rectangular structure, exhibiting the features of a palaestra. It is comprised of a rectangular courtyard surrounded by stoae. The north side of the building is better preserved and the arrangement of its rooms is rather interesting, as it resembles the corresponding side of the Palaestra in the Lyceum’s gymnasium, unearthed in the plot at Rigilis Street.

To the northeast of the gymnasium a curious, large square peristyle structure has been unearthed; it occupies the building block defined by the modern streets of Monastiriou-Euclidou-Platonos-Tripoleos. The building measures 40x40 m. Its construction suggests that it featured columns with a regular intercolumniation. The Square Peristyle has been identified by some scholars as the Academy’s Classical era palaestra; others believe it is the Peripatos, i.e. part of Plato’s school. This building has been dated by the excavators to the third quarter of the 4th cent. BC, yet following a re-examination of excavational data it appears to be later, and should be dated to the Late Hellenistic era.

The German architect Hoephner has recently identified the Square Peristyle with the Academy’s palaestra, and the Gymnasium with the Museum, i.e. Plato’s school. He believes that the large room in the north part of the so-called Gymnasium housed the rich, as it has been recently proven, book collection of the Platonic school’s library. He claims the same for the corresponding room in the Lyceum’s palaestra. The narrow corridors flanking the central room, a common feature of the two structures, were probably employed as bookcases.

Current excavational data indicate that the suburb of the ancient Academy extended beyond the conventional boundaries of the modern declared archaeological site of the Academy.

Author: Eutychia Lygouri-Tolia
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