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Philosopher's gardens and Plato's Academy, Athens

Soon, however, people were not satisfied with the public gymnasium. Precisely at the time of that great change in the life of Attic citizens, that strengthening of their municipal life, we are told that members of the higher class were no longer content to hold their practices and to meet one another in the public gymnasiums, or to use the public baths. So they began to separate from the Demos, and to set up their own private gymnasiums and baths. The philosophers were in the forefront of this movement, perhaps from the comprehensible reason that public places were too noisy for their meetings and too liable to be disturbed by crowds. We hear first about Plato, whose name is closely connected with the Academy, where to begin with he used to teach, that he moved his school into his own garden. He possessed a piece of ground quite close to the gymnasium, and made it over to the school; it was in their possession for centuries, until in A.D, 529 the Emperor Justinian annexed it. It was called the Academy just the same after this change, and so was the gymnasium: thus the name applies to the school as well. The garden must have included several buildings. There is talk of an Exedra and a Museum. Plato himself and several leaders of schools lived there entirely: under one of them, Ptolemon, the pupils made for themselves little arbours or huts so as to live quite close to the Exedra and the Museum.  One generation later Epicurus bought a large piece of ground for eighty minas within the walls of the city close to the lately built Dipylon gate, with a view to making a very fine garden for himself and his scholars. 

In lofty contempt for outsiders he withdrew here with all his pupils, men and maidens.  Pliny in a sort of way ascribes to him the invention of the town garden; but in a polemic against a despised sect he makes use of the fact that it was within the walls that Epicurus had his garden. He desires to impress on the Romans, who in his day under the name of gardens owned large pleasure-parks, that they were taking as example this Master of Leisure (magister otii), because, he continues, " hitherto it has not been the custom to bring the country into the town.” Unfortunately we have no information about the garden of Epicurus.

At the same period Theophrastus made a garden, which he bequeathed to his school, “for friends who will meet there and discuss philosophy.”  Theophrastus garden was close to the Lyceum, and Theophrastus annexed this after Aristotle (who once taught there) had left, naming him as his successor. From the will we learn that in this place there was a sanctuary of the Muses, and a hall containing maps for teaching geography, and also a statue of Aristotle; further, that a second hall just as fine was to be built, and that Praxiteles had been commissioned to make the statue of Nicomachus which was to be put there. He entrusted the care of the houses, the garden and its walks, and the memorial that he desired to have erected, to his philosophical slave Pomphylus.

Gradually it became the custom that every head of a school which seemed important enough should have his own garden. King Attalus I presented to Lacydes at the Academy a garden afterwards named Lacydæum. Ludan, who found all the philosophers mindful of their gardens, said it was a shame that Socrates should go short. So he makes out that in the Isles of the Blest he is rewarded for his services with a garden, which he calls a Paradise. This garden Socrates calls the Academy of the Dead, and there he is wont to parley with his friends.

How much it became the fashion in the time of Theophrastus for rich men to make playing-grounds, or a palæstra, is shown by a joke of his about the “Pleasure-seeking man”; this person offers to the philosophers his little palæstra, and then at their meetings he walks in last, so that everyone may say to his neighbour, “There is the owner”.

It is true that ever since the Peloponnesian War, when the oligarchy was more strongly opposed to the democracy, as its unruliness increased, there had been a falling off of enthusiasm for gymnastic sports. At any rate this was so among the rich and important citizens, whether they carried on the sports in their private places and avoided the public ones, or whether in Greece the “Games man” was retreating more and more into the background. In either case we understand the accusation brought by Andocides, the orator and leader of the prosecution, against Alcibiades, that he was a corrupter of youth and a destroyer of the gymnasium.

Here also in these gymnasiums with their sanctuaries, their tombs, their walks well supplied with seats and statues, their stadiums, and their hippodromes with avenues of trees, we ought to look for the beginning of garden craft in Greece. It is true we can only grasp its import by passing beyond Hellenistic conditions to the garden’s highest development in the splendour of the Roman villa. Only there, where beside the immediate cult of the Hellenistic garden in the literary circle that centred round Cicero in the classical period, do we find a conscious harking-back to the garden of a Greek philosopher—only there can we see with perfect clarity the real Greek elements of a later horticulture.


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
A representation of Aristotle and Plato discussing philosophy
in a garden, from St Francisco  at Evora