‘... in a single day and night of misfortune,
the island of Atlantis disappeared
into the depths of the sea.’
-- Plato, 360 B.C.
-- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001), opening caption
... under the assault of a harsh day and night, the whole of your (Athens’) military body sank beneath the earth.The popularity of the Atlantis story comes and goes in waves. It was big in the 1990s, but in the years since 2001 it has had a quiet patch: conspiracy theorists have had other things on their minds. You might think that would still be the case now. But it seems to be making a little bit of a comeback: I suspect it’s because of the current trend to bundle all manner of fringe theories into a single politicised bundle -- flat-earthism, pizza shops, chemtrails, uranium, Atlantis, you name it.
-- Plato (for real), Timaeus 25d (trans. M. Anderson)
Just yesterday among my alerts I was vaguely distressed to see a Reddit thread where someone was arguing for the reality of Atlantis -- in the middle of a thread full of all manner of deranged misinformation -- and even the main voice raised against the Atlantis-hunter was giving far more credence to his/her arguments than any sensible person should. A range of other seemingly-sensible-but-also-dead-wrong theories were also floating around in that thread too.
So, why not? Let’s do Atlantis.
|Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001)|
A story about
Our sole source is Plato, writing around 360 BCE. The story is spread between two of his dialogues, Timaeus (20d-25d) and Critias (108d-121c). Timaeus is a direct continuation of a much longer conversation in Plato’s Republic, and Critias is a continuation of the Timaeus. The storyteller is Critias, a prominent politician of the late 400s. Here’s the gist:
Long ago, in 9600 BCE, the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea lived in harmony. Then everything changed when the Atlanteans attacked. Only Athens, the finest and best-governed city in the world, could stop them. Athens single-handedly beat off the invaders, who came from a huge island just beyond the strait of Gibraltar, at least half the size of the lower 48 states of the USA. Afterwards, over the course of millennia, the Atlantean civilisation kind of faded away. But Athens was more resilient and survived.A tad different, isn’t it? If you look back at the quotations at the top of this post you’ll see something similar going on there. Two important points to make here:
- It is not a story about Atlantis, it’s about Athens.
- The story is not about a continent sinking. It’s about a plucky little city, with 10,000 fighting men (Critias 112d) and the ideal philosophical constitution, successfully fighting off a large and aggressive power from Outside.
Why is Plato telling a story about Athens single-handedly saving the world? Well, around 360 BCE it so happened that a large and aggressive power from Outside -- Macedon -- was starting to get involved in Greek affairs, and there was one plucky little city, where Plato happened to live, and which happened to be the main Greek power that is still independent of Philip II of Macedon, and made serious attempts of its own at empire-building in the 370s and 350s ...
In this light it makes perfect sense for Critias, or rather Plato’s Critias, to be telling a story that casts Athens as the saviour of the Hellenic world, able to resist any threat, no matter how large.
Of course at that date, and probably to the end of his life, Plato presumably had no idea just how far Macedonian influence was going to end up spreading ... but let’s not criticise him for being a poor fortune-teller.
|Map of the main city of Atlantis, as described by Plato Critias 115d-116a and 117d-e. Plato gives exact distances in stadia; in the legend I’ve adopted the rate of 185 metres to the stadion. The outermost canal around the citadel is 27 stadia in diameter (ca. 5 km).|
Critias and his ‘sources’The Republic dealt with the organisation of the ‘ideal’ state; the story in the Timaeus is about a time when Athens actually was that ideal state. The aims of the Critias are a bit harder to judge, because the text breaks off partway through.
But Timaeus 20d-22a gives us the ‘chain of evidence’, so to speak. Critias explains that he got the story from his grandfather, also named Critias; old Critias got it from his father, Dropides; Dropides got the story from his good friend Solon; Solon got the story while travelling in Egypt; Egyptian priests got the story from having lots of Really Old Things floating around.
Two of these figures need a bit of background. Solon was a famous reformer, poet, philosopher -- one of the so-called ‘Seven Sages’ -- and traveller. There are other legends about his meetings with various contemporary figures, like the story in Herodotus about his conversations with the Lydian king Croesus about who was the happiest of all people. He was believed to have played an important role in the formation of the Athenian constitution, and was universally revered.
Critias, Plato’s storyteller, was a notoriously hawkish politician active in the late stages of the Peloponnesian War. But he was more than that: he was a brutal thug, widely loathed as a betrayer and mass murderer. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 BCE, the victorious Spartans established a government in Athens under a group called the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, with Critias as their ringleader. The Tyrants abused their power and murdered somewhere between 5% and 15% of the male citizen population to seize their property for themselves. (This is one of those rare times when comparisons to Hitler actually make sense.)
But wait, there’s more. Critias had also led an attempted anti-democratic coup d’état in 411. He was suspected of being involved in an infamous vandalism of state and religious property in 415 (‘the mutilation of the Herms’) to sabotage the city’s morale immediately before a major military operation. Socrates’ links to Critias, and other people involved in these misdeeds, were almost certainly the true motivation behind his own trial in 399 (that’s what we find in the only 4th-century reference to the trial that isn’t written by one of Socrates’ fans: Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173).
Imagine a story where Hitler reveals secrets from thousands of years ago, which had been passed down secretly in his family, and which one of his ancestors had got from Goethe himself. Goethe in turn had got these secrets from a funny little old man who interpreted some ancient Sumerian tablets for him. Does that sound plausible?
That’s pretty much the situation we’ve got with the Atlantis story. It would certainly have sounded just as farcical to Plato’s contemporaries as the Hitler-Goethe story does to us.
FloodsIn the 300s BCE, some Greek thinkers based in Athens believed that the sea beyond Gibraltar was unnavigable because it was all shallow mud. In reality that’s completely untrue, of course. But that’s the belief we find in Plato (Timaeus 24e, 25d) and Aristotle (Meteorology 354a.22-3): evidently someone had given a false report of the region, which took a long time to get corrected.
(This wasn’t a universal Greek belief: there’s a report of people sailing beyond Gibraltar in Herodotus 4.43, for example.)
This ‘muddy Atlantic’ piece of truthiness is the context for the sinking of Atlantis in Plato’s story. Here are the relevant bits:
... your city (Athens) once successfully resisted a ... power that bestirred itself from out of the Atlantic sea. At that time the sea there was navigable, for there was an island before the mouth that your people call the Pillars of Herakles, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined ...
-- Plato Timaeus 24e
The island Atlantis likewise sank beneath the sea and vanished, wherefore even now the sea in that area is unnavigable and unexplored, for there is an impediment of mud just beneath the water produced by the settling of the island.So bear in mind that the sinking of Atlantis is, at root, Plato’s backstory for a natural phenomenon that doesn’t actually exist.
-- Plato Timaeus 25d
Aside from that, popular imagination has the sinking of Atlantis as a single cataclysmic event: the island drops into the sea, or a colossal tsunami swallows the whole land for good in one go. This is not at all what Plato describes.
What Plato actually describes is a series of many catastrophic floods over the millennia, each of which destroyed civilisation not only in Atlantis but everywhere (Timaeus 22c-23c; Critias 109d-e, 111a-b) -- except Egypt. Each flood wipes out all civilisation in that era, and only ‘the illiterate and uncultivated’ survive; this is supposedly why no one recalls events that far back, except in Egypt, which according to the story is protected by its unique geography. The greatest of these periodic floods was supposedly the mythical flood of Deucalion.
It just so happens that in the course of these occasional disasters, Athens always reemerged from the waters, and so survived to the present day. Atlantis, whose chief city was in the middle of a vast coastal plain a bit bigger than California, did not.
This is also the context for Aristotle’s more serious discussion of the mud that supposedly blocks off the Atlantic:
The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where theres is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. ...This is just a couple of pages before his reference to the mud that makes the Atlantic unnavigable. This discussion is a few decades later than the Timaeus, but it looks to be inspired by the same material. Plato’s reasons for specifying a period of 9000 years; the periodic floods, including Deucalion’s flood; and Atlantis itself -- all these things become a lot clearer in light of Aristotle’s discussion.
But the whole vital process of the earth takes place so gradually and in periods of time which are so immense compared with the length of our life, that these changes are not observed, and before their course can be recorded from beginning to end whole nations perish and are destroyed. ...
[W]e must take the cause of all these changes to be that, just as winter occurs in the seasons of the year, so in determined periods there comes a gerat winter of a great year and with it excess of rain. But this excess does not always occur in the same place. The deluge in the time of Deucalion, for instance, took place chiefly in the Greek world and in it especially about ancient Hellas, the country about Dodona and the Achelous, which has often changed its course.
-- Aristotle Meteorology 351a.19-25, 351b.8-13, 352a.28-b.1 (trans. E. W. Webster)