Plato’s school was founded about twelve years after the death, in 399 BC, of Socrates. We don’t know what it looked like. It was possibly just a house where he held symposia, as discussions often took place while walking around the park. We do know his school of philosophy was located in what the ancients called a gymnasium or gymnasion.
The English word “gymnasium” refers to a room or building used for exercise. However, in ancient Greece a gymnasion was more like what we’d call a “sports complex” or perhaps a “recreation ground” — a large park with walks, running tracks, wrestling schools, baths, and other buildings. Athletes competing in games such as the Olympics would train there. The grounds contained palaestrae, buildings for training in boxing, wrestling, pankration, and ball games. (A palaestra is a bit closer in meaning to our modern notion of a building called a “gymnasium”.) The word gymnasion is also related to the Greek for “naked” as the youths who exercised there did so in the nude.
Gymnasia, such as the Academy, also incorporated shrines, as they were dedicated to the gods. They were places of learning and conversation, where older men, in particular, would socialize and talk about philosophy and the arts. The Greek Sophists gave speeches in the gymnasia and Socrates could often be found discussing philosophy there with his friends. There were public libraries. Later, philosophical schools such as Plato’s famous Academy appeared.
Plato’s Academy was governed by successive “scholarchs” (heads of the school), for about three centuries. In 87 BC, though, Athens was besieged by the Roman dictator Sulla, who gutted the buildings of the Academy park and cut down the trees to obtain timber for his siege engines. The libraries are also believed to have been looted during this assault with precious stolen books and scrolls being snapped up by wealthy buyers scattered throughout the known world.
Now we believe it’s time to bring Plato’s Academy back to life, in a sense, and revitalize the whole surrounding area, by bringing cultural and philosophical events back to this important historic location. Once again, seekers of wisdom will travel to Athens, and to the Academy suburb, to discuss the dialogues of Plato and the wisdom of Socrates.