The Academy is best known for the school of philosophy and learning that Plato founded in the gymnasium there, in approximately 385 BC.
Before the Akademeia was a school, however, even before Cimon enclosed its precincts with a wall (Plutarch Life of Cimon xiii:7), it contained a sacred grove of olive trees outside the city walls of ancient Athens (Thucydides ii:34). The archaic name for the site was Hekademeia, which by classical times evolved into Akademeia and was explained, at least as early as the beginning of the 6th century BCE, by linking it to an eponymous Athenian hero, a legendary "Akademos". The site was sacred to Athena and other immortals; it had sheltered religious cult since the Bronze Age, cult that was perhaps associated with the hero-gods, the Dioskouroi (Castor and Polydeukes), for the hero Akademos associated with the site was credited with revealing to the Divine Twins where Theseus had hidden Helen of Troy. Out of respect for its association with the Dioskouri, the Spartans would not ravage these original "groves of Academe" when they invaded Attica (Plutarch, Life of Theseus xxxii), a piety not shared by the Roman Sulla, who axed the sacred olive trees in 86 BCE to build siege engines.
Among the religious observations that took place at the Akademeia was a torchlit night race from altars within the city to the Promemeikos altar in the Akademeia. Funeral games also took place in the area as well as a Dionysiac procession from Athens to the Hekademeia and then back to the polis (Paus. i 29.2, 30.2; Plut. Vit. Sol. i 7). The road to Akademeia was lined with the gravestones of Athenians.
The site of the Academy was rediscovered in the 20th century; considerable exzcavation has been accomplished. The Church of St. Triton on Kolokynthou Street, Athens, occupies the southern corner of the Academy, confirmed in 1966 by the discovery of a boundary stone dated to 500 BCE.
The Platonic Academy is usually contrasted with Aristotle's own creation, the Peripatetics.
Famous philosophers entrusted with running the Academy include Arcesilaus and Proclus.
The emperor Justinian closed the school in AD 529. Its remaining members looked for protection under the rule of Sassanid king Khosrau I. Some members found sanctuary in the pagan stronghold of Harran, and their students contributed to the Arab Renaissance.
Raphael painted a famous fresco depicting "The School of Athens." (detail illustrated at Academia.)
Because of the tradition of intellectual brilliance associated with this institution, many groups have chosen to use the word "Academy" in their name. These groups include the Royal Academy of the United Kingdom, the United States Naval Academy, the fictional Starfleet Academy , and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In addition, the generic term "the academy" is sometimes used to refer to all of academia, which is sometimes considered a global successor to the Academy of Athens.
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