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UC Berkeley's portrait of Plato is ancient artifact, not a fake, professor says

topkey  Flash slideshow: Reclaiming antiquity: Plato at the Hearst Museum

– A portrait herm of the Greek philosopher Plato is emerging from a century of obscurity and disrespect to assume its rightful place in ancient history, thanks to the sleuthing of a University of California, Berkeley, classics professor.

Stephen G. Miller today (Wednesday, April 9) publicly outlined his research and scientific test results that he said shows the sculpture purchased for UC Berkeley and brought to its anthropology museum in 1902 is not a contemporary fake.

Additionally, Berkeley's Plato turns out to be a rare depiction of Plato not as a famous philosopher, but as a just and virtuous citizen, said Miller, a specialist in Greek and Roman archaeology and art who leads a UC Berkeley excavation project in Ancient Nemea, Greece.

"We dirt archaeologists," said Miller, "rarely think about excavating in museums, and yet there are discoveries to be made every time we look at antiquities wherever they might be."

The Berkeley Plato's story began in Rome, where classics scholar Alfred Emerson purchased it for Phoebe Hearst-benefactress of the UC Berkeley museum- from a well-known antiquities dealer.

Emerson was dismissive about the herm - a marble bust of Plato and its pedestal - and mentioned it only in passing in a long letter to Hearst about his purchases.

Initial museum catalogue records at UC Berkeley note that the herm's significance was in doubt. But the crowning blow came in 1966, when UC Berkeley graduate student R.J. Smutney, studying Latin inscriptions, inspected the writings on Plato's shaft - it had been separated from the head, which couldn't be found -and declared it a fake.

Miller said today that he can now prove the opposite.

The sculpture, brought by ship and then overland by rail to the museum in 1902, dates back to approximately 125 A.D., Miller said. While it is a copy, it is an elegant replica of a Greek original from about 360 B.C., he said.

What's more, he said, it provides a glimpse of what Plato really may have looked like.

Paul Zanker, Sather professor at UC Berkeley a decade ago, has suggested that previously identified portraits of Plato were unsatisfactory because they attempted to force a prototype into the later mould of "philosopher" types.

"The Berkeley Plato," said Miller, "not only proves that Zanker was on the right path, but it gives us a much sharper and more accurate image of Plato's appearance. It takes us closer to that non-philosopher prototype. What a thrill to think that our contacts with the historical Plato are much more direct now than a few months ago."

Miller said he bases his conclusions on his inquiries into several topics, including:

  • Ribbons that adorn the sculpture
  • Plato's writings and what's known of his life
  • Quotations inscribed on the UC Berkeley Plato
  • The source of the marble and the quarry's known time of use
  • Lettering on the shaft

Miller's investigation of the sculpture began when he sought out the piece stored at the Hearst Museum as part of his research into the ancient Olympics. His longtime excavation work in Greece is at one of the four sites of the original Olympic games.

Miller said he was curious initially because the UC Berkeley Plato is draped with a ribbon over his head and onto his shoulders. This type of ribbon was a preliminary award bestowed upon victorious Olympic athletes, with crowns given later.

The professor, who is writing a book about ancient Olympic athletics, said his early inspection of the UC Berkeley sculpture - ignored, disparaged as a fake, and broken in two - compelled him to further explore the truth.

The ribbons on the UC Berkeley Plato are significant for many reasons, Miller said. One is that modern artists typically have depicted Plato with long tresses, not ribbons.

The ribbons also underscore Plato's known love of athletic competition and visits to Olympic games, his training as a wrestler, his competition at the Isthmian Games, and the ribbons' association with gymnasions - the schools of ancient Greece, the dramatic setting for at least four of Plato's dialogues.

The UC Berkeley Plato also depicts the philosopher with a puffy, deformed lobe on the left ear, and Miller noted that in Plato's "Protagoras," he referred to admirers of Sparta, who bound their hands in order to box so that their consequently deformed ears would be like those of their heroes. The UC Berkeley Plato's bad left ear may indicate the impact of a ferocious swing by a right-handed opponent, Miller said.

Also supporting the case for the UC Berkeley Plato as an antiquity, Miller said, is that the ribbon reflects Plato's belief in a need for the state and the individual to train both the intellect and the body without over-emphasizing either one.

"But the ribbons of the (UC) Berkeley Plato have an even greater pertinence to the man and his work," said Miller. "The Republic," probably written between 380 and 370 B.C., when the philosopher was in his 50s, and largely regarded as Plato's masterpiece, presents Plato's notion of the immortality of the soul.

One quotation inscribed on the base of the UC Berkeley sculpture states, "Every soul is immortal." While Plato first advanced the idea in the "Georgias," he more fully developed the concept in "The Republic," Miller said.

Plato argued that every soul is immortal, and the total number of souls immutable, with lives spent in cycles of 100 years on earth and the next 1,000 years in heaven or hell, depending on the justice and virtue of that first century lived. The first quotation on the UC Berkeley sculpture advises caution in choosing that next soul: "Blame the one who makes the choice, God is blameless." This quotation from "The Republic" reinforces the idea that the UC Berkeley Plato is a copy of a portrait sculpted during or after "The Republic" was written.

"The Republic" ends with an admonition that, if people live their 100-year lives in a just and virtuous manner, they will come to the end like victorious athletes going on their victory lap to collect their ribbons.

"We are looking at Plato's own definition of the good citizen," said Miller.

He reported that tests of samples of the bust and pedestal by the Demokritos Laboratory of Archaeometry in Athens prove that both pieces are Parian marble, the stone of choice for ancient sculptors.

Even more significant, Miller said, is that the Parian quarry ceased production in the late Roman period, and there is not a single example of a Renaissance or early modern forgery or copy of an ancient statue made with marble from the island of Paros.

Heavily encrusted portions of the herm reflect its old age, as does the presence of miltos, a red pigment used in ancient inscriptions to make them more legible, he said. Miltos is found in every inscribed line on the herm, and encrustation has formed over the miltos.

Unique theta and square omicron letterforms on the UC Berkeley Plato also are found on other ancient portrait herms, Miller said.

The UC Berkeley Plato will be on display at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology indefinitely. A Flash slideshow of the herm is online.

"I have been fortunate to experience that thrill of new knowledge several times - the most recent was in an airplane on the way to Rome in December to see other Plato portraits when I read the last few lines of 'The Republic,'" said Miller. " I suddenly knew just how important the Berkeley Plato is. It was the highest flight I have ever had."