The Academy was a public gymnasium in northwest Athens. Plato taught there, and the Academy remained the centre of Platonic philosophizing until the first century bc. Hence the term ‘Academy’ came to be used to designate Plato’s school; members of the school were called ‘Academics’. (And hence, ultimately, the modern use of the words to describe intellectual institutions and their members.)
The word ‘Academy’ originally had a topographical reference. A mile and a half northwest of the Athenian agora, along the Ceramicus road, there was a public gymnasium and wrestling square set in a spacious park. Like most gymnasia, the Academy contained an exedra – a sort of open-air lecture theatre. Here Plato talked and taught philosophy. He set up a shrine to the Muses in the park; and he acquired a house, with a little garden, in the neighbourhood, where his friends and pupils congregated. A contemporary comic poet imagines a group of students assembled in the garden earnestly attempting to produce a definition of the pumpkin.
Plato’s house was used by his successors until the time of Polemo (in the late fourth century bc), whose pupils lived in huts in the garden; and Platonists continued to teach in the Academy until the beginning of the first century bc. But after that time there seems to have been no special relationship between Platonism and the geographical Academy.
The word ‘Academy’ was readily transferred from the concrete to the abstract: it came to designate the school or institution which Plato established and which his successors conserved. The nature of the institution is imperfectly known; but it is clear that there was a head, or ‘scholarch’, who was (at least sometimes) elected to office; that there were senior and junior members; and that there were discussions, lectures and dinners. Yet the Academy was not an embryonic university: there were no degrees and no administration block.
On Plato’s death in 347 bc, his nephew Speusippus led the school. He was followed by Xenocrates Polemo and Crates. In about 265 bc Arcesilaus assumed the scholarchate and turned Platonism down the sceptical path which it followed for almost two centuries. Of later scholarchs the most engaging and the most celebrated was Carneades. In 88 bc, when Athens was in the grip of war, the scholarch Philo of Larissa decamped to Rome. It seems likely that Philo was the last Platonist geographically connected to the Academy. But philosophy is above mere geography, and Platonism survived and flourished until the end of the ancient world. Modern authors will refer to later Platonists as Academics: the nomenclature is inaccurate, the inaccuracy venial.
Ancient writers, remarking upon apparent changes in the intellectual drift of the school, would speak of a plurality of Academies. The most generous listed five: the Old Academy, which lasted from Plato to Polemo; the Middle Academy, founded by Arcesilaus; the New Academy, inaugurated by Carneades; a fourth Academy under Philo; and a fifth under Antiochus. The Academics did not necessarily endorse these divisions. Thus Cicero , himself professing an Academic scepticism, simply distinguished between the Old Academy from Plato to Polemo and the New Academy from Arcesilaus onwards; and Philo notoriously maintained that there had only ever been one Academy.