In the Herculaneum papyri, Plato's last hours: feverish and irritated by music. Burial located


By John

The sweet notes of a flute played by a woman originally from Thrace should have made the last hours of Plato's life lighter, but the famous Greek philosopher did not like them at all: although feverish and on the verge of death, he was lucid enough to criticize the barbaric musician for her poor sense of rhythm, before the eyes of a Chaldean guest from Mesopotamia. Revealing this unpublished scene from over two thousand years ago are the newly deciphered passages of the Herculaneum papyri that survived the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD

In all, a thousand words, new or read differently, which for the first time even made it possible to precisely locate Plato's burial, which took place in the Academy of Athens in the garden reserved for him, near the so-called Museion or sacellum sacred to the Muses. An extraordinary result that enriches our knowledge of ancient history, as explained by papyrologist Graziano Ranocchia of the University of Pisa when presenting the medium-term results of the 'GreekSchools' research project at the National Library of Naples.

The study, financed by the European Research Council (ERC), is conducted with the Institute of Cultural Heritage Sciences (ISPC) and the Institute of Computational Linguistics (ILC) of the National Research Council (CNR). «Thanks to the most advanced diagnostic imaging techniques we are finally managing to read and decipher new parts of the texts that until now seemed inaccessible», underlines Ranocchia.

The most fascinating discoveries emerged from the papyrus containing the “History of the Academy” by Philodemus of Gadara. The increase in the deciphered text, equal to 30% compared to the previous edition of 1991, corresponds approximately to the discovery of 10 new medium-sized papyrus fragments. In addition to clarifying Plato's death, the text also reveals that the philosopher was sold into slavery on the island of Aegina perhaps already in 404 BC, when the Spartans conquered the island or, alternatively in 399 BC, immediately after his death. of Socrates. «Until now – the papyrologist points out – it was believed that Plato had been sold into slavery in 387 BC during his stay in Sicily at the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse».

But the surprises don't end there. Several new readings provide new insight into the circumstances of the corruption of the Delphic oracle by the academic philosopher Heraclides Ponticus. The name of Philo of Larissa is also corrected to 'Filionè (student of the grammarian Apollodorus of Athens and the stoic Mnesarchus), who died at the age of 63 in Italy during an influenza pandemic. The joint work of papyrologists, philologists, historians and physicists continues, opening up new research perspectives.

«For the first time we were able to read some sequences of letters from the papyrus which were hidden within multiple layers, which remained attached to each other after the unrolling done in the past centuries with a mechanical technique which caused the dislocation of entire fragments of text”, adds Ranocchia.

This “huge leap in quality” was achieved by combining two innovative techniques, optical coherence tomography and infrared hyperspectral imaging, thanks to a mobile laboratory provided by Nottingham Trent University. «The multiple layers represent a dramatic problem for the reading of almost all the scrolls that were unrolled, approximately 1,560 out of the 1,840 total that survived the eruption of Vesuvius», recalls Ranocchia.

«These serious stratifications distort a large part of the texts, making it impossible to edit them. Finally being able to identify these layers and virtually relocate them to their original position to restore the continuity of the text means gathering an enormous amount of information compared to the past. The work, however, is still in its early stages: we will only see the real impact in terms of knowledge in the coming years.”