Charred Scroll Tells Lost Secrets of Plato

Advanced techniques help to virtually unwrap papyrus scroll buried by Mount Vesuvius
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 30, 2024 7:01 AM CDT
Charred Scroll Tells Lost Secrets of Plato
David Blank, professor of Classics from University of California, looks through a microscope at an ancient papyrus at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015.   (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

Read for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, an ancient papyrus scroll buried in ash after the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius describes the final hours and burial place of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It's an "extraordinary outcome that enriches our understanding of ancient history," Graziano Ranocchia, a papyrologist at the University of Pisa who led the team that deciphered the scroll, said in a presentation at the National Library of Naples. He described the previously unknown narrative of Plato, a disciple of Socrates and mentor to Aristotle, spending his final hours listening to an enslaved Thracian girl play the flute, per the Guardian. According to the account, Plato was battling a fever, yet had enough energy to critique the musician for a "scant sense of rhythm," per the Independent.

Plato, known for creating the legend of Atlantis, died in Athens around 348BC and was buried at his Academy of Athens, the world's first university, which was destroyed in 86BC. But the scroll goes into more detail, suggesting he was laid to rest in a private garden near the Academy's shrine to the muses, per Gizmodo. It also claims he was sold into slavery on the island of Aegina either in 404BC, when Spartans conquered the island, or in 399BC, immediately after the death of Socrates, rather than "in 387BC during his sojourn in Sicily at the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse," Ranocchia said. The scroll is one of many to emerge from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum (Ercolano), near Pompeii, thought to have been owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law.

Ranocchia said sections were deciphered using "the most advanced imaging diagnostic techniques." Researchers used infrared and ultraviolet optical imaging, thermal imaging, tomography, and computer vision—a field of artificial intelligence—to virtually unwrap the scroll as part of a project still being completed. Just 30% of the text, about 1,000 words, has been deciphered so far, per Live Science. "For the first time, we have been able to read sequences of hidden letters from the papyri that were enfolded within multiple layers, stuck to each other over the centuries," said Ranocchia. The text is "History of the Academy" by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara, who died in 30BC. "It is the oldest history of Greek philosophy in our possession," Ranocchia said. (More discoveries stories.)

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