BERKELEY -- UC Berkeley classics professor Stephen Miller had just finished writing a book about athletics and intellectuals in ancient Greece and for its cover he wanted to find a good illustration of Plato -- a prime example of what he was writing about. Not only had the Greek philosopher been one of civilization’s foundational thinkers, he’d been a pretty good wrestler as well.
Miller flipped through various museum catalogs and the best image of Plato seemed to be a bust at the Altes Museum in Berlin. The portrait, though, wasn’t flattering: The philosopher’s head was shaped like a shovel and his beard hung in dreadlocks. Then Miller remembered having come across a bust of Plato years before, stored away at Berkeley’s Hearst Anthropology Museum. He went to inspect the sculpture, which had long ago been relegated to the basement.
Something immediately caught Miller’s eye: Carved on the shoulders were ribbons, just like the ones awarded to the winners of ancient athletic competitions. It was the first time Miller had seen such a decoration on a Plato likeness. The bust itself had finer features and a more noble bearing than the Berlin statue. But the one scholar who had examined it years before had branded it a modern forgery.
Miller, however, was intrigued. He spent the next year researching the sculpture and is now convinced that not only is it authentic but also that it is the finest extant portrait of the philosopher. Plato died in 347 BC, and no images are known to exist from the time he was alive.
“We have the best surviving image of Plato,” Miller said. “That’s pretty thrilling.”
Miller presented his findings recently in a talk at the university and seemed to win over most of his colleagues. But, so far, no other outside scholars have examined the sculpture to back up Miller’s claim.
Among the things that convinced Miller of the bust’s genuineness was the fact that scientific tests showed the marble was from the Greek island of Paros. That quarry ceased to produce marble in the late Roman period.
“This sheds completely new and unexpected light on the portraits of Plato,” said Andrew Stewart, another UC Berkeley professor and the Hearst museum’s co-curator of Greek and Roman sculpture. “It propels our head to the forefront. There’s a maxim in archeology: The past is always changing. And that’s what Steve’s proved.”
Not everyone is convinced. G. Max Bernheimer, the director of antiquities for Christie’s auction house, said the marble may be Parian, but the bust could still be a forgery. From the Renaissance to modern times, Bernheimer said, forgers have taken old stone, such as broken marble columns, and sculpted fake pieces out of it.
“It’s not conclusive by any means,” he said. “But I’d love to see it.”
Bernheimer said a number of factors have to be taken into consideration, including artistic style, surface weathering and polishing, as well as the tools used to sculpt the bust.
John Twilley, one of the leading experts on ancient sculpture, likened his work to modern forensic science, where clues would help determine the age of a piece.
“Most of the evidence one could find is negative evidence, things that would not have been done in Greek or Roman times,” he said.
Technically, the sculpture is a herm, which is a commemorative stone pillar topped with a bust, often used as a signpost in ancient Greece. It has seen better days. Over the years, the statue had been toppled and pitched face first into dirt and water. At one point the head was removed and bathed in acid, cleaning it but also dulling the details and giving the philosopher’s face a glazed look.
Twilley said the chemical cleansing of the bust could make it difficult to determine its age, but not impossible. “The thing that might remain after that would be, perhaps, the coarse tool marks that were not finished off with as much care,” he said.
Not a great deal is known of the sculpture’s origins. About a hundred years ago, newspaper heiress Phoebe Hearst dispatched classical scholar Alfred Emerson to Rome to buy up enough antiquities to fill a museum. In 1902 Emerson purchased the herm from a well-known dealer and included it in a shipment of 88 cases that he sent to California. Emerson’s only comments on the artwork were hardly gushing. “Provenance of head is not certain,” he noted.
No one paid much more attention to the sculpture until 1966 when one R.J. Smutney, a Berkeley graduate student, included the wording carved on the herm’s pedestal for a monograph about Greek and Latin inscriptions around campus. By then, the head had been misplaced and Smutney declared the pedestal a fake.
Almost 40 years later, Miller wandered into the basement. At some point in between, the head had been found and reattached. Miller took a practiced look at the herm. He wasn’t a newcomer to ancient artifacts, having spent many years at digs in Greece during his career. His instincts told him that the herm might be genuine.
“The more I looked, it became clear that there was no good reason for it to be a fake, and several good reasons for it to be real,” he said. “If it’s a forgery it was a very inventive forger.”
To help establish authenticity, Miller sent marble samples from the head and pillar to a lab in Athens, which confirmed the marble turned was from the quarry on Paros.
Then he turned to the inscription. The lettering was caked with encrustation, over traces of miltos, a red pigment used to make the text stand out on ancient sculptures. The lettering on the base includes quotes from two of Plato’s works, “The Republic” (“Blame belongs to the one who chooses. God is blameless.”) and “Phaedrus” (“Every soul is immortal.”). The same text appears on another herm found at Tivoli in 1846 and now displayed in that city’s town hall. That suggested that one is a copy of the other (or, perhaps, both were copies of a lost prototype). Miller estimated the Berkeley herm was created in Hadrian Rome sometime around AD 118-138.
The Tivoli herm, however, didn’t have any ribbons. Miller started rereading all of Plato’s work for clues. On a plane to Athens in December, he was going through a copy of “The Republic” in both Greek and English when he had a eureka moment at the end of the book.
“Pursue justice with wisdom in every way,” the book concludes, “so that we will be friends to ourselves and to the gods, while we remain here and afterward when we receive our reward, just as the victors in the games do their prizes.”
Their ribbons, in other words.
“You don’t have to be the first person to see something; just the first person to understand it,” said Miller, whose book, “Ancient Greek Athletics” (Yale), is scheduled to be published this winter.
Miller has had the thrill of discovery a couple of times in his career. In 1970, he was part of a team that found a famous stone in Athens that Socrates stood on to declare an oath. Another time he was digging in Nemea when he discovered a large vault in the ruins of a stadium that turned out to have been an Olympic locker room with graffiti from ancient athletes still on the walls.
“Maybe I’m missing something that proves me dead wrong, but I don’t think so,” he said. “Ten years from now, this could turn out to be the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
Miller said he will submit an article to the Swiss journal of classical archeology Antike Kunst arguing that the Berkeley herm is the finest existing portrait of Plato. “The Berkeley face, I would suggest, does come closer than the other examples to the few details we are told about his appearance: good looks, nice eyes, fine nose,” he noted in a campus talk. “More than that, however, I believe that we are entitled to see in the Berkeley face a man of modesty, benign introspection, and even the sort of introversion appropriate to one who withdrew from the world into the Academy.”
Miller’s research prompted the Hearst Museum to put the bust on display last month, a hundred years after it arrived at Berkeley. Soon, no doubt, other scholars will want to examine the herm to determine for themselves whether it is real or a fake. But Miller thinks he’s done enough research to at least satisfy himself that the Berkeley Plato is for real.
Looking at the herm yet again one day, Miller ignored the “Do not touch” sign to point out the fine crystallization on the marble, the details of the Greek lettering, the patterning of the hair.
Then he noticed something else. The caption describing the herm was slightly off center. “It’s not square,” he announced. “It’s an eighth of an inch off.”
Miller looked at the display lights illuminating the bust. He frowned and noted that the lights needed to be readjusted. “He has even more character in the right light,” Miller said.
Staff writer J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this report.