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Plato’s burial place revealed in Vesuvian scroll

Lorenzo Tondo, Plato’s final hours recounted in scroll found in Vesuvius ash, The Guardian, 30 April 2024

Newly deciphered passages outline Greek philosopher’s burial place and describe critique of slave musician.

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius by Pierre Jacques Volaire. The scroll was read thanks to the ‘most advanced imaging diagnostic techniques’. Photograph: Peter Barritt/Alamy.

Newly deciphered passages from a papyrus scroll that was buried beneath layers of volcanic ash after the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius may have shed light on the final hours of Plato, a key figure in the history of western philosophy.

In a groundbreaking discovery, the ancient scroll was found to contain a previously unknown narrative detailing how the Greek philosopher spent his last evening, describing how he listened to music played on a flute by a Thracian slave girl.

Despite battling a fever and being on the brink of death, Plato – who was known as a disciple of Socrates and a mentor to Aristotle, and who died in Athens around 348BC – retained enough lucidity to critique the musician for her lack of rhythm, the account suggests.

A papyrus scroll that was buried beneath layers of volcanic ash.
A papyrus scroll that was buried beneath layers of volcanic ash. Photograph: National Research Institute.

The decoded words also suggest Plato’s burial site was in his designated garden in the Academy of Athens, the world’s first university, which he founded, adjacent to the Mouseion. Previously, it was only known in general terms that he was buried within the academy.

In a presentation of the research findings at the National Library of Naples, Prof Graziano Ranocchia, of the University of Pisa, who spearheaded the team responsible for unearthing the carbonised scroll, described the discovery as an “extraordinary outcome that enriches our understanding of ancient history”.

He said: “Thanks to the most advanced imaging diagnostic techniques, we are finally able to read and decipher new sections of texts that previously seemed inaccessible.”

Marble statue of Plato
The scroll recorded the burial place of Plato as his designated garden at the Academy of Athens. Photograph: Nevena Tsvetanova/Alamy.

The text also reveals that Plato was sold into slavery on the island of Aegina, possibly as early as 404BC when the Spartans conquered the island, or alternatively in 399BC, shortly after Socrates’ passing.

Ranocchia said the ability to identify these layers and virtually realign them to their original positions to restore textual continuity represented a significant advance in terms of gathering vast amounts of information.

He said the work was still in its nascent stages and the full impact would only become apparent in the coming years.

The scroll was preserved in a lavish villa in Herculaneum and discovered in 1750, and is believed to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.

Over the years, scholars have tried to decipher the scrolls found in this villa, known as the Villa of the Papyri.

Domenico Camardo, an archaeologist at the Herculaneum conservation project, compared the impact of the AD79 eruption on Herculaneum, an ancient Roman beach town close to Pompeii, to the dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during the second world war.

Such was the heat of the pyroclastic surge produced by Vesuvius – believed to have been between 400C and 500C – that the brains and blood of victims instantly boiled.