I’ve known for a long time that Plato discusses Atlantis and its fall. However, I never knew the context. After watching some videos on Atlantis theory, I decided to grab a copy of Timaeus and Critias and have a look at what Plato actually says about the city.
Plato says that Atlantis was a city built on desires by the God Poseidon and his son Atlas. It sat on an island in the Atlantic and was made of concentric circles. This city grew to be a powerful empire but was destroyed by earthquakes and floods.
Of course Plato says a lot more than that. So in this article, I’m going to delve deeper into what he actually says about Atlantis. This will include as many details as possible with references back to the text in parentheses.
When did Atlantis sink?
Critias states that Solon, one of the seven sages, went to Egypt (21c). We know this to be around 600 BC because Solon was a friend and distant relation to Critias’ great-grandfather, Dropides. Timaeus and Critias was penned in around 360 BC by Plato.
The Egyptian priests told Solon the story of Atlantis and stated this happened 9,000 years prior to Solon’s visit (23e – 24a). Therefore, we can guess that Atlantis was destroyed in around 9,600 BC (or BCE).
Where is Atlantis according to Plato?
According to Plato, Atlantis sat within the Atlantic ocean beyond the Pillars of Heracles. The Egyptians told Solon that Atlantis advanced from the Atlantic. They also said that in these days the Atlantic was navigable – suggesting that in the days of the Egyptians it was not.
It’s important to note that Critias called Libya and Asia islands (24e). These islands and others plus a wider continent surrounded the Atlantic ocean.
They also call the Mediterranean a sea but also a lake with a narrow entrance. This means to access the Atlantic they via boat – the main means of long distance travel in the ancient world, they would have to sail through the Pillars of Heracles and then around into the Atlantic.
Beyond the island, the Atlantean kings controlled a vast empire. This was said to include the Atlantic, its surrounding continent, Libya, and as far north as Tyrrhenia (Etruria – ie. the Etruscans) (25a-b).
What was the nature of Atlantis?
Atlantis sat on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. The island included a wide plain spanning the middle of the island with a raised hill about 50 stades from the coast. This hill contained two springs – one hot and one cold.
The rest of the island included mountains to the northwest. It had three types of rock differentiated by their colour – red, black, and white. Furthermore it was abundant with metals including gold, silver, and orichalc. No one really knows what the latter is or if it ever existed.
Atlantis’ plain was fertile and could sustain crops including cereals herbs, and fruits. It was also home to a diverse range of wildlife including elephants.
How was Atlantis founded according to Plato?
According to Critias, the Gods divided the world between them. Poseidon was granted the island of Atlantis. There he saw Cleito, a human girl of marriageable age.
Her parents were Evenor and Leucippe and they lived on the raised hill at the center. Wanting her, Poseidon had intercourse with her and sired five sets of male twins. Before doing this, he organized Atlantis by creating concentric circles of alternating land and water around the hill. There were two rings of land and three rings of sea.
Poseidon then divided the island into 10 districts and allotted each one to one of his sons. These were:
Critias believed each of these sons ruled over their districts with their children going on to do the same in a long, unbroken line. This included developments to the city such as connecting it to the sea via a canal.
Of the names, only two are said to be of note by Critias. The first is Atlas – he of the maps and holding up the world, who gave his name to Atlantis, the Atlantic, and the Atlas Mountains in Morocco (just south of the Pillars of Heracles). The other was his twin Gadirus who gave his name to Gadira (Cadiz, an old name for Hispania).
How big was Atlantis?
Atlantis sat 50 stades from the sea (115d), connected by a canal of that length which was 300 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The city itself was made of rings of land and sea as we saw above.
First, before we go saying how big everything is reported to have been, we need to work out how big a stade is. A Greek stade is 606 feet or 185 meters. However, it’s worth noting that there are Egyptian stades too. Here’s a comparison of the two:
Greek (Ptolemaic-Attic) – 606 ft or 185 meters
Egyptian-Phoenician – 685 ft or 209 meters
Therefore we can suggest that the distance between Atlantis and the sea (50 stades) was either 5.7 miles (9.22 km) or 6.48 miles (10.42 km). Let’s look at the dimensions of Atlantis according to Plato:
- The Central Island – 5 stades in diameter (0.57 mile or 0.92 km)
- Inner ring of water – 1 stade in breadth (0.11 mile or 0.17 km)
- Middle ring of land – 2 stades in breadth (0.22 mile or 0.34 km)
- Middle ring of sea – 2 stades in breadth (0.22 mile or 0.34 km)
- Outer ring of land – 3 stades in breadth (0.33 mile or 0.51 km)
- Outer ring of sea – 3 stades in breadth (0.33 mile or 0.51 km)
In Egyptian stades this would be:
- The Central Island – 0.64 mile or 1.42 km
- Inner ring of water – 0.13 mile or 0.21 km
- Middle ring of land – 0.26 mile or 0.42 km
- Middle ring of sea – 0.26 mile or 0.42 km
- Outer ring of land – 0.39 mile or 0.63 km
- Outer ring of sea – 0.39 mile or 0.63 km
In addition, the outer city was surrounded by a wall which was 50 stades from the outer ring of sea all around the city in a circle. Between the circle and the wall were densely packed houses for common folk.
Therefore it can be calculated that the diameter of the full city of Atlantis was 127 stades. This is the central island plus two breadths of each circle including the outer settlement area up to the wall on each side.
Greek: 27 stades = 76,962 ft (23,495 m) or 14.6 miles (23.5 km)
Egyptian: 27 stades = 86,995 ft (26,543 m) or 16.5 miles (26.5 km)
This means, according to Critias, that Atlantis was a sizeable city. This width means it was roughly the same size as Madrid though no doubt with a smaller population due to a lack of high rises. The buildings were made with mixed stone, so were of many colors.
Why did Atlantis sink?
This was supposedly a time of a war between Athens and Atlantis. However, the book ends with Zeus preparing to deliver divine retribution on Atlantis. The reason, according to Plato for this punishment was degeneration.
This degeneration came from mixing divine blood with mortal Earth blood. To Plato this meant losing a divine adherence to laws and virtues. Instead more base motives took over.
However, earlier in the Timaeus (25c-d), Critias states that Atlantis fell after its failed attempt to enslave all those who lived within the straight (ie. the Mediterranean) and was beaten back by Athens alone who preserved the freedom of all.
What happened to Atlantis?
We do know, however, the shape of the retribution. Critias gives the story in more depth in Timaeus (25d) and less detail in Critias (108e – 109a). The whole destruction of Atlantis happened over night.
First there were violent earthquakes and floods. Then the people of the city disappeared into the earth and the city sank into the sea. Finally mud swept over the city making the waters unpassable as they were too shallow.
Who survived Atlantis?
Critias (110d) states there were survivors, but these were unlettered mountain people who knew the names of the people of Atlantis. However, they did not know many details of them or their virtues.
In Timaeus (22d), Critias goes further when outlining the nature of disasters and who tends to survive them. This is a fascinating account whereby an acknowledgement of celestial bodies and the movement of the Earth mix with myth (110c).
He states that various things (asteroids/comets etc..) collide with the earth causing fire, thunder, earthquakes and floods. It’s quite funny how in our time of science convincing some people of this is so difficult.
Critias then goes on to note that in normal life the peoples of the mountains are poorer and struggle. Natural events tend to affect them more. No doubt Critias is also thinking about their lack of written culture and philosophy.
However, he goes on to note in the times of mass disasters – particularly during floods, the cultured people by the sea and by the rivers are destroyed. The people of the mountains on the other hand survive and thrive.
How did Atlantis relate to Athens?
According to Critias (24d – 25d), Athens was one of several non-Atlantean and free civilizations within The Straits (the Med). Others include Asia and Egypt for example.
These civilizations resisted Atlantean expansion though in the end, according to the Egyptian priests, only Athens remained. It stood tall and defeated Atlantis, which soon after sank.
Socrates and Critias are clear in Timaeus that they are looking for a counterpoint to Socrates’ defence of Athens as the perfect state. Critias offers up Atlantis as this opponent and Socrates agrees it will do fine (26d – 27a).
Plato’s use of Atlantis as a morality tale
As I said above, it is important to understand the context in which Timaeus and Critias was written. This text is a morality tale which pits the perfect city (Athens) against its polar opposite (Atlantis).
Plato’s ideas of the perfect city rest on The Republic (better translated as The State) and in his Laws. In fact, book III of the Laws deals with divine retribution. It’s postulated that Plato abandoned Timaeus and Critias in favor of Laws instead.
In this spirit, we can divide the books into a series of comparison points:
- Foundation morality
- Athens: Create philosopher-warriors
- Atlantis: Appetive to sate desires
- Natural resources
- Athens: Landlocked with fertile land – self-sufficient
- Atlantis: An island which needs to import its stuff
- Material wealth
- Athens: No gold or silver
- Atlantis: Abundant materials including gold, silver and orichalc
- Societal nature
- Athens: Simple, unified people
- Atlantis: Exotic and diverse mixture
- Political nature
- Athens: constitutional democracy
- Atlantis: absolute monarchy subject to written laws
This means that Atlantis within the context of Timaeus and Critias is deliberately constructed as a means to oppose Athens. It is possible that Critias really did hear a story about Atlantis facing off against Athens which was modified to Plato’s needs in order to discuss his perfect, utopian state.
It is also possible that Solon’s story was changed over generations to be more of an Athens vs the evil empire or that Solon himself made this modifications to the Egyptian story to make it more understandable.
However, it seems more likely that there was an existing myth as told by Solon about a city in the Atlantic sinking under the sea. This was then repurposed by Plato for the above motives.
Are any of Plato’s words on Atlantis true?
This is the truly controversial part because this moves Atlantis from the parable or the philosophical example to myth, legend, and potential reality. I will briefly cover it now – yes, some bits may be true, but this will be for the next few articles in this series.