Sunday, October 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Stephen G. Miller, The Berkeley Plato: From Neglected Relic to Ancient Treasure. An Archaeological Detective Story. Berkeley, Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 176; 56 p. of plates. ISBN 9780520258334. $50.00.
Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge


1. The 'BP' story: Aristocles of Athens' grandson, some say, nicknamed Plato from the gymnasium, founded one called the Academy, hit on wise words, and, 'perhaps in his fifties or early sixties' was remembered as macro-bearded aristo and be-ribboned winner of a good bloke through a 'real time' portrait. Sculpted by Silanion. Set up in his HQ c.370-65 B.C. by Mithradates the Persian. (You must not forget those bibbons, Best Beloved.)

A herm-portrait in Parian marble, one piece plus added shoulders, was taken from the statue's head c.120-60 CE, with headband retaining twin ribbons draped down clavicle and pec; ears asymmetric, left well-damaged as sporting prowess, right slanting backwards toward the top; accompanying dicta incised below, as with Seven Sages and other celeb ensembles:

αἰτία ἑλομέ
νῳ: θεὸς
ψυχὴ δὲ πᾶσα

(Alternatively, the herm copies an original herm-portrait that never was full-figure: specially carved for the Academy's gymnasiarch, as such.)

Commissioned for Hadrian's 'Academy' at the Villa Tiburtina or a close successor, perhaps Favorinus' doing, visitor to Athens and author of a De Platone, our classy herm with snazzy lettering long withstood weathering outdoors; it was closely copied in antiquity in Pentelic marble to beef up some showy mansion near Tivoli. That copy was dug up there in 1846, inscribed 'Platon ktl', acephalous but shaft cut for dowel to attach head. The epigraphic field is virtually identical with BP, only 'cruder' in execution. But no ribbons. It remains in the Palazzo Municipale.1

The Parian 'original' lay buried, encrusted on front of shaft and head, scarred undersoil, and the lettering's red paint oxidized, before disinterment and eventual emergence on the nineteenth-century market, unprovenanced. Before that, post-encrustation, the shallow socket for the genitalia was plastered flat and the shaft braced to a wall through a rough socket gouged into the back of the left shoulder.

Pirro Ligorio's dodgy 1550s sketch of assorted herms for a never-published Varronian Imagines-style book (prelims now in Naples and Turin) includes a rough Plato head and upper shaft, just jotting in name, filiation and city: in the 1560s, Ligorio moved to Rome as papal architect, overseeing the Teatro Belvedere's hemicycle of statuary and portrait-herms, including a Plato: his drawing includes ribbons, as flagrantly curlicued as his Greek is botched. No sooner installed than dislodged, by change of Pope, our herm should have been off with the rest to the Capitoline; but Plato 'never made it' there (p.33).2

Prof. of Classical Archaeology and Curator of the Museum of Casts at Cornell (1891-7/8), Alfred Emerson, Prof. of Classical Studies at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1897-9), was booked in through Benjamin Wheeler, Prof. of Comparative Philology and Greek at Cornell (1886-9) and Prof. of Greek at the ASCSA (1895-6), then President of UCal at Berkeley (1899-1919), to advise benefactress Mrs. Hearst on classical acquisitions from Europe. The teenage-bride, widowed in 1891, was setting about developing the Berkeley campus, including the 1899 women's gymnasium and (Hearst) Hall, and the 1901 Museum of Anthropology.

This very year, J.J. Bernoulli reports (Griechische Ikonographie vol. 2:23), of the headless Tivoli herm in the Palazzo, 'Der Kopf scheint eine Binde getragen zu haben, wie man aus den noch erhaltenden Enden derselben schliessen muss' (p.29 and n.61). This sounds like garbling with the Parian version, but if so, sans tête, so this may have already suffered disassembly in enhancement for sale: in Italy, or else by the Pacific, head was deliberately sundered from shaft by a wedge-shaped instrument and an iron pin glued into sockets chiselled into both components, at some point before the head was severed for a late-nineteenth-century hydrofluorous bath, which cleaned but 'melted' its surfaces, and obscured the join to shaft, before they were re-adhesived together.

In summer 1902 Emerson purchased the Parian 'terminal figure' with a marble Roman matron, from the Roman dealers Fratelli Iandolo @3,000 lire. Said prize was immediately shipped over to San Francisco, via NY, to become 'inv.8-4213' at the Berkeley Museum, then up on Parnassus Heights: in a lecture that winter, Emerson presented the 'inscribed herma of pseudo-Plato', and a stark unsourced note in the inventory book remarked 'Pertinence of head is not certain'. Hearst Hall burned down in 1922, and Citizen Kane's last major gift to UCal became the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Memorial Women's Gymnasium, 1925-7. The Museum collections transferred to campus in 1931. The Tivoli version's epigraphy was drawn for a 1960s doctoral monograph on classical inscriptions held in Berkeley collections, presenting the Parian inscription, separated from the head, which 'couldn't be found', as a fake. In 1966 a new edition of the Museum inventory both located and collocated the head.

In the early 1970s, M began a lifetime career as Berkeley's dirt archaeologist summering at Nemea, and in time ancient Greek athletics specialist. Late in the 1970s he could have been found in the basement under the Women's Gym pool, where he came across the Parian herm in store as that 'modern fake'.

In 2002 he needed a decent pic of Plato for his Ancient Greek Athletics (p.240:fig. 241 is the BP head) and revisited the 'neglected relic', down in the basement with myriad anthropological artefacts. The Oakland, then the L.A., Times broke the story of his mission to vindicate this 'ancient treasure' in 2003;3 the Demokritos Laboratory for Archaeometry authenticated marble chips from both ends of the neck as spectroscopically verified translucent Parian stone; and the 'independent art conservation scientist' John Twilley gave the piece a week's once-over in 2005.

The outcome is the present book, finished in 2008, production costs met from pots including the S.G. Miller Retirement Fund; Twilley's report is App.B. The emeritus and quondam Director of the ASCSA delivered a parallel children's book that year: Plato at Olympia.4 And BP was well-reviewed at BMCR 2010.10.08.

Sure as eggs, responses to questions raised in the book and aired in the review swamped M: Hadrianic or Antonine date? Further enlightenment on BP in the Nineteenth Century? Do Emerson's papers illuminate the acquisition?5 When/where was BP decapitated? Who gave the head the acid bath? Clarification on confusion in the scholarship between Tivoli Plato and BP? Asymmetric ears in ancient portrait sculpture? Puffy, battered, but well short of cabbage, ears ditto? More on round-ended ribbons for athletes? Range and status of the square omicron and theta, of the sigma with elongated central horizontal?6 Double-incision technique in epigraphic glyptics? Iconographers interested? Gnomologists of ancient philosophers? And their biographemes?

2. But the 'archaeological detective's story' belongs next. This branch of fiction always turns on the sleuth's ichneutic acumen, demanding means, motive, and opportunity. We pretty well know what M says he was doing down beneath the Women's Gym -- 'excavating in museums' -- and his book details how the crime was uncovered... and just how he pulled it off.7

For why? Portraits of Plato '(always in Roman-period copies) are at best stiff and lifeless, and at worst ugly'; M wanted one that was 'more appropriate' (p.xiv). The stand-by (inscribed) Berlin type is 'rather unsatisfactory' (p.35), whereas BP 'certainly looked attractive enough to use' (p.xiv): it 'comes closer to having a finely shaped nose than the other[s]' (p.37). In short, 'What's more', expatiated M in 2003, 'it provides a glimpse of what Plato really may have looked like. .. Not as a famous philosopher, but as a just and virtuous citizen, .. at Plato's own definition of the good citizen. ... The BP 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. ... 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'. And the ribbon, the aptness of the 'round-end' ribbon for an 'appropriate' Plato, is where sportnik M weighs in mightily on the theme of athletes festooned on their victory lap (pp.40-5, figs.33-45). 'Plato' gets us onto his involvement with athletics and gymnasium (pp.45-55), to climax with the last lap of the Republic (621d), where 'if we lead the good, the just, the wise life, at the end of the race we will be victorious and go on our final victory lap, our periagermos, to collect our ribbons'.

In biographist hermeneutics, of course, Plato overcomes physique with psychic physic: misconceived initial naming8 for habitudo corporis focussed on athletic triumph plus elation at carminum confidentia is forcibly displaced by true aspiration through Socratic intervention: ex eius mentibus expulisset et uerae laudis gloriam in eius animum inserere curasset (Apul. De Plat. 1.1-2). And of course Plato, qua Platonist, must frown our way: he is unmoved non-mover, he is phenomenal unreal image; this is philosophy as imagery.

The dicta tell us, too, that the good name of this 'good citizen' is bound up in browbeating viewers into wrestling with the wit of his wisdom. Sum up Platonism in one sound-bite? Impossible. Try two, a double whammy, try dialogue between two mouthfuls.9 Play off pietism against truism and their dialectical counterparts principium and demonstratum, and bromide versus banality will open onto interactive reevaluation of intellectual projects, between titanismo and heartbeat tattoo-texts, Republic (10.617e) and Phaedrus (245c6): lapidary kuklos, αἰτία ἑλομένῳ: θεὸς ἀναίτιος plus pregnant equivocation: ψυχὴ δὲ πᾶσα ἀθάνατος.10

Firstly, down on the herm they provoke by juxtaposition, ever so slightly indicating by their deviancy (dative for genitive ἑλομένου , and insertion of the particle δὲ) that re-consideration is requisite in loco. In particular, insertion of δὲ links the mots as a syntagm, sequence, two-stage double-take: something Plato never wrote -- before. Read the Myth of Er, microtheme of the whole Republic, just where the Prophet shuts up with his frightener for every one busy being born: 'You're down to your choosing, not god's doing'; and then CONTINUE, IF YOU CAN (AND YOU CAN), to the next point, to the opening up11 of Phaedrus' Sage's man(t)ic proof that love is our blessing from god: 'For every x, if x is soul, then x is immortal'.

In between them there should wave irony our way the bridging super-interpunction of Plato's lunchbox and everyman's: Phaedrus' paragraph of 'strict proof' parody caricaturing Alcmeon's12 attempt to trap being someone by definition, introduces a revelation so crazy it was prefaced with the impossible health warning that 'clever can't cred. it, but wise can', whether or not this applies mainly to this initial attempt to blazon 'logic', which gets abandoned after a para with a hefty 'enough of that', and plunges instead into illustrative horse-parade of beings ... à la Er's Prophet's paddock, Lethe-side. Yet Phaedrus' barmy opening shot of an aphorism does lead on into the midsummer-madness sermon: τὸ γὰρ ἀεικίνητον ἀθάνατον ..., just as Republic's dative ἑλομένῳ leads into the next sentence's narrative instantiation of the Prophet's heralded moment of choice: ἀναιρεῖσθαι ... τῳ δὲ ἑλομένῳ ..., with ἑλομένῳ again at 619b3, before that finale with the post-myth, saving paragraph from Socks, if we'd only credit him, reckoning right the ἀθάνατον ψυχὴν (622c3), and win those eventual ribbons. Ready next to advance to go, we run straight into Phaedrus' ab initio sally into deconstructing both that and each/all ψυχὴ ...ἀθάνατος. Here, beyond the final curtain of Republic's revelation, 'begins' the 'arche-primciple', the 'primal rule' that everything needs something and everything else to need and be needed, including, virtually-impossibly, the axiomatic bedrock of being and of thinking-speaking it -- or not.

I wonder how many readers me(e)t the Myth of Er as 'selection' before facing Phaedrus; which of us gets through impassive Republic to the end, and then goes back/on to Socrates' Bacchic freak-out and argument, set to 'carry off the victory-prize for showing love is heaven-sent' (245b)?

I believe the purloined letter of this case shows at p.38, 'I believe ...'.13 But what sport! Really, the sleuth's first set of moves, conclusion, and sophistophobic motive take some swallowing, but this is a super Parian life-parable about the ubiquitous reach of classicist ichneutics, so load up those flowers and prepare to pelt. Then, how about those answers?

Table of Contents:

vii-xvi Front papers
1-4 History of acquisition and the first century in California
5-9 Description of the artifact
9-12 Pertinence of the head
12-16 The inscription
16-25 The Seven Sages
25-9 The Tivoli Plato
29-33 The Berkeley Plato and the Renaissance
34-7 Portraits of Plato
37-40The Berkeley Plato and the Akademy
40-5 Ribbons
45-53 Plato and ribbons
53-5 Why Plato and ribbons
55-6 Conclusion
57-68 Appendix A The square-omicron and square-theta portrait herms from Tivoli
69-75 Appendix B By John Twilley: Mechnical and scientific analysis
77-81 Bibliography
83-92 Indexes
(n. p.) Color plates 1-9
(n. p.) Black-and-white figures 1-99


1.   If only (p.27) Disney's unprovenanced Cambridge Plato head in the Fitzwilliam Museum could show us a join to the Tivoli shaft. Anyone up for spectroscopy?
2.   The present 'Plato' in the Capitoline collections is a dreadful botch job of a re-cut and cobble, 'clearly based on the Ligorio drawing' but 'not what Ligorio drew' (p.33).
3.  For this version, see:, with flash slideshow: 4.    Boy Plato strives to become an Olympian, not some philosopher dude. 'Plato turned out to be my nemesis; his philosophical language was beyond me', M told the launch -- glad to have gotten turned on to excavation. 5.    Photos, notebooks, and correspondence in: The Emerson Family, Papers, c.1840s-1976: New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library Manuscripts and Archives Division ( 6.    As in the lettering of the cohort of portrait-herms recorded by Ligorio from near Tivoli: pp.16-25 and App. A's strenuous tabulations of. M concludes that BP 'has every claim to belong to the family of the Seven Sages, but ... cannot be closely associated with the Tivoli examples' (p.25). We stagger through a whole arsenal of epigraphic minutiae without one glimpse of the precisified lettering. 7.    The Berkeley Plato is in the northwest section of the Hearst gallery, under 'Ancient Cultures' in the exhibit 'From the Maker's Hand: Selections from the Permanent Collection', at least through 2011. 8.    J.A. Notopoulos, 'The name of Plato', CPh 34 (1939) 135-145. 9.    Rep.617e is much-cited (e.g. Max.Tyr.Or.41.5, Chalcid.chap.154, Plotin.Enn., cf. Apul.De Plat.1.12.205) and Phaedr.245c6 is not uncited (e.g. Tertull.De resurrect.carn.4, cf. Apul.De Plat.1.9.199). But in tandem ...? 10.    πᾶσα as 'every' and 'all', omnis/tota: G.R.F. Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas (1987:123-5) 'an intended ambiguity if ever there was one'. And 'collectively/individually': R. Burger, Plato's Phaedrus. A Defense of the Philosophic Art of Writing (1980:51). 11.    δεῖ οὖν πρῶτον ...: ἀρχὴ δὲ ἀποδείξεως ἥδε•. 12.    J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers (1979:114-20). 13.    '... that we see that good citizen in the BP'. Quoted Greek fouls up; translation lapses on p.22; Cicero called noone deus nostra (p.53).


  1. I assume this is a parody of a John Henderson review of a book on the Berkeley Plato by Stephen Miller.

  2. Reading a J.H. "review" is like doing the cryptic crossword, only less fun.


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