It was about 95 degrees in Athens when we set off to find what I consider to be one of the most important archaeological sites of the Classical period. The Acropolis and the Agora are amazing, but we were in search of a site off the beaten path — the Academy of Plato.
The Academy was the first institution for higher learning in the Western world. Plato founded the Academy upon his return to Athens in 387 BC, after twelve years of traveling following the execution of his mentor, Socrates. Built in a garden on the outskirts of the city, the Academy taught science and philosophy. Aristotle spent 20 years there before founding his own school. In all, the Academy existed for 900 years before it was finally shuttered under Roman rule.
Plato lived out his life there. It’s where he would’ve penned some of his most influential works — The Republic, Symposium and Phaedo. It’s where one of history’s greatest thinkers would’ve spent hours wandering under the shade of the olive trees pondering the mysteries of the universe. And it was a place I, a student of Plato’s teachings, was determined to find.
Following the free tourist map we picked up at the airport, we hopped on the Metro from our hotel in the Monostiraki neighborhood and took it one stop to Colonus.
Just northwest of the bustling tourists crowding the Parthenon and the Plaka, we found a quiet neighborhood with no signs of life. Four and five stores flats rose on either side of narrow side streets. Most of the shops appeared to be out of business and several construction sites were quiet, even though it was a Tuesday afternoon.
Down Platanos Street, we were told we would find the site of the Academy twenty minutes on foot from the Metro station. As one eerily silent road led to the next, Stephanie started to worry that we had been misinformed.
The road led to a pigeon-filled plaza presided over by a small church. Not ancient, but nice. Old Greek men in hats sat drinking coffee in the shade of umbrellas nearby. In a corner of the square, we discovered a small brown sign. In Greek and English, it read, “Plato’s Academy.”
Despite hearing numerous times that the site was free and open to the public, a padlocked iron gate blocked our way in. A set of stairs led down to a patch of ancient marble. The whole place was maybe 30 or 40 feet square. It was hemmed in on all sides by modern buildings, a tennis court and a playground. Graffiti tags were everywhere. As far as archaeological sites in Athens are concerned, it was disappointing.
I was angry that the Academy was in such a poor state. I blamed the Ministry of Culture for abandoning their duties to protect such an important ruin. How could they let it fall into such disrepair? How could they just lock it up when it was meant to be a place where all could come to learn?
“Maybe locking it up is the best way to protect it,” Stephanie suggested. I nodded.
We took a few photos. I posed under the sign, visibly upset, holding my copy of The Trial and Death of Socrates from college. Then, we left in search of dinner. Early the next morning, we boarded our plane home and I thought that was the end of the story.
I was wrong.
When I started writing this blog, I decided to retrace our route from the train station on Google Maps. As I dragged my cursor down Platanos Street toward the church, I noticed something — a large park west of where we’d found the Academy. Google was doing a poor job of translating what it was, but I understood enough of the Greek words to know that our map had been incorrect.
About a 10-minute walk from the little square was a 2,500-year-old collection of buildings and paths nestled in a green park dotted with olive trees. What Stephanie and I couldn’t see from the ground is obvious from space. We were about a kilometer off-target.
So, I went back to our photos. There, clear as day now, but invisible to me in the moment are three words on the sign I’m standing beneath. They are almost obscured by stickers and spray paint, but they say “Ancient Road to.” What we found was not Plato’s famous Academy, but a portion of the road that used to connect it to the polis of Athens.
In Plato’s dialogue Euthypro, Socrates berates a man for his arrogant belief that he knows more about piety than the gods. I think Socrates would’ve pointed out my arrogance in my inability to see the obvious because I was sure I had found the Academy.
My map was wrong and I was foolish enough to believe it. As Socrates and Plato would point out, you can’t understand the truth until you realize that you know nothing.
We may not have found the actual site of Plato’s Academy, but at least we do have a compelling reason to return to Athens now and maybe that’s exactly the right way to end a trip — by wanting nothing more than to go back and see everything you missed the first time.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer and globetrotter in Tacoma, WA. He and his wife recently returned from their honeymoon in Greece.