Plato’s Account of Atlantis

Plato’s Atlantis

The history of Atlantis begins with oral traditions in Ancient Greece. Atlantis was mentioned once before in Greek literature before Plato by the philosopher Proclus (410-485 BC). Proclus wrote that the historian Marcellus (266-208 BC) described how several islands in the Atlantic Ocean had preserved traditions from their submerged island where Poseidon, the brother of Zeus, ruled. Proclus believed that the island of Atlantis was once part of Ethiopia. However, the misidentified islands may have been the Canaries or the Azores.

Plato’s Timaeus and Critias (1977) are the only independent sources on the history of Atlantis. According to Plato’s two accounts, Atlantis was destroyed about 9,000 to 10,000 years ago and warred with Athens. Though the Athenians forgot about this war, the priests of Saïs in Egypt recounted its events to Solon in about 600 BC, who later informed Plato. Plato describes Atlantis as wealthy, maritime, and located to the west possessing natural resources like metals, gems, vegetables, and herbs. There were ten kings that ruled Atlantis, all decedents of Poseidon, who was married to Cleito, a mortal woman. Atlantis was destroyed by the corruption of its inhabitants through natural forces, earthquakes, and floods.

Plato’s Critias claims that Plato is telling a true story. At one time, Atlantis had power as far as Egypt and Italy, and after the Athenians defeated the Atlanteans, both were susceptible to earthquakes and floods. However, Crantor (335-275 BC), the first commentator on Plato and Syrianus, accepted the story as truth, and Pliny the Elder (23-79), who wrote the thirty-seven volume Natural History. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, rejected the story of Atlantis as truth and taught it as allegorical. It is argued that Plato created the philosophical account of Atlantis to teach his students about the greatness of Athens and Greek life.

The strife between Athens and Atlantis 10,000 years ago demonstrates the conflict between Persia and Greece that was occurring at the time of Plato. For Plato, Atlantis becomes a story that tells the origins as well as the possible demise of Athens. Atlantis has also been identified with the ruins of the Minoan culture of Crete, which was destroyed by a volcano around 1500 BC. Similar to the description of Atlanteans given by Plato, Minoans were island dwellers, had fine houses, thriving maritime commerce, and were skillful shipbuilders. There is only one major inconsistency with ascribing Atlantis to Thera in that the Island of Thera does not lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the west.

According to Plato, Atlantis was located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as a large island surrounded by smaller islands. When these islands sank into the ocean, it created mud and murk in the water. In Plato’s time, the Atlantic Ocean was believed, in part at least, to be no longer navigable. Periplus of Scylax of Caryanda (300 BC to 200 BC) also notes difficulty navigating the Atlantic Ocean because of mud and seaweed. In about 515 BC, Scylax was sent by the Persian king, Darius I of Persia, to explore the course of the Indus River and returned by sea after thirty months.

Atlantis was also placed with the island of Ogygia. In Greek mythology, Ogygia is a fabled island controlled by the nymph Calypso. It was a tree-covered, dark, depressing land where the temperature was cold, and the beasts were frightening. Both the Isles of Blest and Ogygia is located beyond the Pillars of Hercules, today known as the Straights of Gibraltar.

Further Reading