The most famous Platonic myth. It is included in the Timaeus and the Critias and relates the existence of mythical Atlantis, its conflict with ancient Athens and its sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The myth

The myth is related by the famous Athenian oligarch Critias to the other participants of the dialogue, Socrates, Timaeus and Hermocrates. The narration takes place in two parts: it begins in the introduction of the Timaeus and is resumed in the unfinished Critias. Critias claims to have heard this story as a child from his grandfather, like the latter had heard it from Solon. For his part Solon heard it from Egyptian priests, when he visited the Egyptian city Sais and its priests wished to relate to him the nine thousand year old feats of his Athenian ancestors, long-forgotten in Greece in Solon’s time.

Atlantis was a gigantic island, “larger than Libya and Asia together” (Timaeus 24e), situated in the Ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Under the auspices of Poseidon an important civilisation was developed on the island, drawing its strength from the just distribution of power between its ten hereditary kings (descendants of Poseidon, regularly affirming their deal with Poseidon by ritually sacrificing a bull), and enjoying excessive wealth thanks to the fertile soil and rich underground of the island, but also thanks to the commerce it developed through its great naval expansion (Critias 117e).

At the apex of their power the Atlanteans came to live in incredible luxury, while maintaining a huge army that included over a million soldiers, ten thousand war-chariots, twenty-four thousand horses and twelve hundred war-ships (Critias 119a-b). It was at that time that they decided to enslave the entire world. Their ships invaded the Mediterranean, they defeated Egypt and they would have taken over the rest of the known world, had it not been for the resistance of ancient Athens. Abandoned by all their allies, the Athenians defeated the invaders and freed the nations that had been enslaved. Their victory is attributed to their just form of government, which is nothing but a miniature of the ideal Platonic republic. Ancient Athens is a city regulated by good laws, relying exclusively on its own territory and its ground military force; it is not characterised by an extrovert stance and expansive aims, it is divided in classes that co-exist peacefully and carry out their own tasks, and it honours its founding gods, Athens and Hephaestus.

The brave feat of ancient Athens has been forgotten, because, according to the Egyptian priest, Greeks are not used to keeping written archives, resulting in the loss of continuity with their past and in always living in the present -- “O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children” is the priest’s renowned interjection (Timaeus 22b). Thus, the floods often occurring in and desolating coastal areas make Greece lose awareness of the past. Regarding Atlantis, it seems Zeus decided to punish its people’s arrogance and their virtue’s degeneration (Critias 112b-c) and so “one grievous day and night befell them and the island of Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and vanished” (Timaeus 25d).

Historicity of the myth

No ancient story has incited the imagination of posterity as much as the story of Atlantis. Plato’s account is so impressive, detailed and plausible, that it was considered from early on as some kind of historical evidence. The divine Plato, in his supreme authority, seems to be the sole witness to an ancient story, whose basic principles are true, as Critias and Socrates explicitly state in the Timaeus (20d, 26e). Hence, from later antiquity to the present countless pages have been written in search of determining the identity, the exact place and time of lost Atlantis’ existence. After the dominance of Christianity, the myth’s dissemination was helped by the similarity of Plato’s account to the Bible’s references to the Cataclysm, but also by the expansion of the known world through the new commercial roads to the East and, of course, through the discovery of America, which proved that an unknown continent existed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Atlantis was claimed to be located in Palestine, India, the Spanish islands, Sweden or in America, and the myth of the ancient Atlanteans nurtured various strains of nationalism in modern times.

The attempt to connect the sinking of Atlantis to the Thera eruption in the mid second millennium BCE, which led (according to one account) to the decline of the Minoan civilisation, also failed to gain acceptance -- since, once more, the question remains open regarding the reason for Plato’s placing of Atlantis in the homonymous ocean.

However, one who is familiar with Plato’s astounding story-making abilities realises that the search of lost Atlantis will remain a chimera. Yet what remains to be sought is a satisfactory interpretation for the myth being set in this specific context.

Interpretations of the myth

Placing the Atlantis story in the introduction of the Timaeus is doubtlessly a difficult interpretive problem. Why would Plato begin an important cosmological dialogue with this particular myth? Indeed, there seems to be no direct relation between the myth and what follows. Ancient commentators tend to offer an allegorical interpretation of the myth, seeking some hidden metaphysical ground: behind the conflict between Athens and Atlantis Amelius detected a conflict between fixed stars and planets, whereas Porfyrius and Origen detected a conflict between good and bad daemons. In the same line Proclus offers the most interesting interpretation by connecting Atlantis to the Unlimited and ancient Athens to the Limit; such an interpretation finds support in Plato's account but also in the cosmological myth in the Statesman, to which Proclus makes reference and in which mention is made of the "infinte sea of dissimilarity" [άπειρον πόντον της ανομοιότητος] (273d).

However, a political reading of the myth seems more likely. If the Timaeus is the first part of a trilogy, which the Critias continues and the Hermocrates (which was never written) would conclude, then the introduction to the Timaeus can be considered as an introduction to the entire trilogy, a trilogy starting from the formation of the universe and leading to human cities and their conflicts. Ancient Athens, threatened by a barbaric intruder, naturally brings to mind the Athens of the Marathon, who successfully opposed the Persians all alone. Moreover, Plato's account recalls Herodotus' narration, a point that has been noted by commentators since antiquity. Plato wishes to display the greatness of the imaginary city of ancient Athens, but also that of the real Athens of the Marathon, thus indirectly juxtaposing the latter to the Athens of the Peloponnesian War's end, i.e. to the dramatic time of the four protagonists' discussion.

In this line of interpretation one can also locate Vidal-Naquet's charming reading of the Atlantis story, according to which a comparative evaluation of two periods of historical Athens is to be found behind the conflict between ancient Athenians and Atlanteans. The comparison is drawn between the land-based and coherent Athens of the Marathon and the naval and instable Athens of Pericles; between the closed Athens of stable institutions and the open Athens of commerce and democracy that was based on constant naval expansion. This suggestion is in line with Plato's political views, but also with the selected protagonists for the trilogy, since oligarch Critias is related to the dissolution of democracy and Hermocrates is the one who would punish the Atheneans' aggressive arrogance. Vidal-Naquet's reading has found wide support in recent years.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Naquet, P.VNaquet, P.V. ed. . Le chasseur noir. Παρίσι, 1981.
  • Gill, C. "The Genre of the Atlantis Story." Classical Philology 72 (1977)
  • Gill, C. Plato: The Atlantis Story. Μπρίστολ, 1980.
  • Pradeau, J-F. Le monde de la politique.Sur le recitatlante de Platon. Sankt Augustin, 1997.
  • Ellis, R. Imagining Atlantis. Νέα Υόρκη, 1998.
  • Rivaud, A. Platon, Timee, Critias. Παρίσι, 1925.
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