Atlantis was real and sooner or later we will find it.
Lost cities and lost continents have fuelled people’s imaginations for hundreds of years. Among these lost places, none loom larger than the island of Atlantis. Many amateur explorers have tried to locate this legendary island. Atlantis, imagined as a technologically advanced civilization, has been appropriated by countless modern authors and artists, and has found its way into comic books (e.g. Aquaman) and movies (e.g. Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
But did Atlantis ever really exist?
The story of Atlantis is found in two ancient Greek texts, both written by the Athenian philosopher Plato (428/7 to 348/7 BC): Timaeus and Critias. Are there any sources that predate Plato? We have fragments of a poem called Atlantis, created by Hellanicus of Lesbos, who lived in the second half of the fifth century BC. But this poem, of which we have only scraps, is genealogical and appears to focus on the daughters of the Titan Atlas.
Regarding the island of Atlantis, there are no ancient sources that predate Plato, which in and of itself should set off alarm bells. And, of course, both of Plato’s texts are philosophical discussions, not historical treatises.
Critias talks about Atlantis
In Timaeus, Socrates had given a speech the day before on the ideal state, and Timaeus, Critias, and Hermocrates have gathered to discuss matters related to this speech with Socrates. From the outset, then, we are dealing with a philosophical treatise on the ideal state.
It is Critias who tells the story of Atlantis. He claims it was originally told by Solon, who in turn had heard it from Egyptian priests when he had visited them in the Nile Delta. The priests there treat Solon like a bit of an ignoramus and mock the fact that the Greeks have forgotten so much of their history. This is a clear indication that what follows should be taken with a grain of salt.
The story that Critias relates tells of a “mighty power” that waged war “against the whole of Europe and Asia”. The aggressor in this was Atlantis, which lay in the Atlantic Ocean and “was larger than Libya and Asia put together”, and which ruled over the entire island, as well as “several others”. Atlantis also controlled parts of the continent, including “Libya” (Africa) up to Egypt, and even parts of Europe, “as far as Tyrrhenia” (Etruria).
It was Athens, “leader of the Hellenes”, that had finally put an end to this war:
But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.
Timaeus then continues the dialogue and tells of the creation of the universe at the hands of a divine Craftsman (“Demiurge”). All of these elements of the dialogue tie back to Socrates’ original speech on the ideal state: Timaeus describes how the universe is an ordered place, and Critias’ description of the war against Atlantis pits Athens, “leader of the Hellenes”, with the suggestion that order triumphed over chaos.
Critias adds further details
Plato’s Critias is closely related to Timaeus and was the second in a trilogy. Critias is, however, unfinished, and the third instalment, Hermocrates, was probably never written. Critias expands on Timaeus by recounting the story of how Atlantis tried – and failed! – to conquer the Athenians.
Critias adds a great deal of detail to the story of the war against Atlantis that was introduced in Timaeus. Critias explains that the war happened 9,000 years ago, which would date it to somewhere between 9,400 and 9,300 BC. Critias gives an origin story for Atlantis, saying that the sea-god Poseidon had been allotted the island, fathered part of the population, and so on. He also describes what Atlantis looked like, down to the buildings and the fountains, and what types of warriors were part of Atlantis’ armies.
The lengthy description of Atlantis makes clear that this was a civilized island, comparable to Athens, which was a large, well-ordered city. The point is a moral one that is made towards the end of what we have left of Critias. The people of Atlantis are said to have been virtuous; Critias even claims that they “despised everything but virtue”. But over time, as the divine blood of Atlantis’ inhabitants “became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture”, their baser natures emerged. Athens triumphs against Atlantis. As Slobodan Dušanić wrote a long time ago (1982, p. 26):
The most obvious message of Atlantis is ethical: a small but just city triumphs over a mighty aggressor.
Right before the text breaks off, Critias describes how Zeus called the other gods to assemble and discuss the matter. We don’t know what was said, but the implications are clear. The gods will ultimately cause the destruction of Atlantis, referenced in Timaeus. The reason for their destruction is that they had lost the virtues that had originally made them great and worthy of admiration.
Looking for Atlantis in all the wrong places
Plato’s dialogues make clear that the story of Atlantis is fiction. There are no sources that predate Plato when it comes to Atlantis, and any reference to Atlantis that postdates Plato always take the Timaeus and Critias as their starting points. Still, this has not stopped scores of amateurs to try and find the “lost continent” of Atlantis, however misguided that may be.
Those who seek Atlantis in the real world always cherry pick, modify, ignore, or explain away those parts of the story that are not convenient to them. Since archaeologists have not found the remains of any advanced civilizations that date back to 9,000 BC, Plato must have had the date wrong. As there’s no evidence for a large sunken island in the Atlantic Ocean – where Plato explicitly claims Atlantis (!) was located – then he must have been confused and probably meant the Mediterranean instead or the Pacific Ocean or whichever other substantial body of water suits the purpose of the investigator in question. Since there is no evidence for an island as large as the ancient continents of “Libya and Asia” put together, Plato must have been mistaken and it was actually a lot smaller.
One popular and particularly illustrative suggestion that completely ignores the source texts is the idea that Plato’s story of Atlantis was somehow based on the eruption of the island of Thera, which is dated to either the seventeenth or sixteenth century BC (see my article on Ancient World Magazine). This hypothesis requires that we: (1) change the name of the island; (2) relocate it to the Aegean Sea; (3) make it vastly smaller than what Plato writes it was, and then; (4) also redate its destruction by nearly eight thousand years!
Finally, those who seek Atlantis generally ignore an important part of Plato’s dialogues, namely Atlantis’ formidable foe, Athens. After all, we know exactly where Athens can be found. The city has been studied extensively by archaeologists and we have an excellent idea of what it looked like at various points in the past. In 9,000 BC, before the advent of farming in Greece (ca. 7,000 BC), it definitely did not look like the bustling metropolis described by Plato, with its farmers, warriors, and craftsmen. In fact, there were no cities in Greece at all back then.
In short, there is no proof that the island of Atlantis was ever more than a fiction, spun from whole cloth by Plato. For the reasons outlined in this article, we rate the claim that Atlantis was real as false.
- Slobodan Dušanić, “Plato’s Atlantis”, L’Antiquité Classique 51 (1982), pp. 25-52.
- Robert L. Fowler, Early Greek Mythography (two volumes, 2000).
- Kathryn A. Morgan, “Plato and the stability of history”, in: John Marincola, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, and Calum Maciver (eds), Greek Notions of the Past in the Archaic and Classical Eras: History without Historians (2012), pp. 227-252.
- Oliver R.H. Thomas, “Charting the Atlantic with Hesiod and Hellanicus”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 160 (2007), pp. 15-23.