The original story of the lost island of Atlantis comes to us from two Socratic dialogues called Timaeus and Critias, both written about 360 BCE by the Greek philosopher Plato.
Together the dialogues are a festival speech, prepared by Plato to be told on the day of the Panathenaea, in honor of the goddess Athena. They describe a meeting of men who had met the previous day to hear Socrates describe the ideal state.
A Socratic Dialogue
According to the dialogues, Socrates asked three men to meet him on this day: Timaeus of Locri, Hermocrates of Syracuse, and Critias of Athens. Socrates asked the men to tell him stories about how ancient Athens interacted with other states. The first to report was Critias, who told how his grandfather had met with the Athenian poet and lawgiver Solon, one of the Seven Sages. Solon had been to Egypt where priests had compared Egypt and Athens and talked about the gods and legends of both lands. One such Egyptian story was about Atlantis.
The Atlantis tale is part of a Socratic dialogue, not a historical treatise. The story is preceded by an account of Helios the sun god's son Phaethon yoking horses to his father's chariot and then driving them through the sky and scorching the earth. Rather than exact reporting of past events, the Atlantis story describes an impossible set of circumstances which were designed by Plato to represent how a miniature utopia failed and became a lesson to us defining the proper behavior of a state.
According to the Egyptians, or rather what Plato described Critias reporting what his grandfather was told by Solon who heard it from the Egyptians, once upon a time, there was a mighty power based on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. This empire was called Atlantis, and it ruled over several other islands and parts of the continents of Africa and Europe.
Atlantis was arranged in concentric rings of alternating water and land. The soil was rich, said Critias, the engineers technically accomplished, the architecture extravagant with baths, harbor installations, and barracks. The central plain outside the city had canals and a magnificent irrigation system. Atlantis had kings and a civil administration, as well as an organized military. Their rituals matched Athens for bull-baiting, sacrifice, and prayer.
But then it waged an unprovoked imperialistic war on the remainder of Asia and Europe. When Atlantis attacked, Athens showed its excellence as the leader of the Greeks, the much smaller city-state the only power to stand against Atlantis. Alone, Athens triumphed over the invading Atlantean forces, defeating the enemy, preventing the free from being enslaved, and freeing those who had been enslaved.
After the battle, there were violent earthquakes and floods, and Atlantis sank into the sea, and all the Athenian warriors were swallowed up by the earth.
Is Atlantis Based on a Real Island?
The Atlantis story is clearly a parable: Plato's myth is of two cities which compete with each other, not on legal grounds but rather cultural and political confrontation and ultimately war. A small but just city (an Ur-Athens) triumphs over a mighty aggressor (Atlantis). The story also features a cultural war between wealth and modesty, between a maritime and an agrarian society, and between an engineering science and a spiritual force.
Atlantis as a concentric-ringed island in the Atlantic which sank under the sea is almost certainly a fiction based on some ancient political realities. Scholars have suggested that the idea of Atlantis as an aggressive barbarian civilization is a reference to either Persia or Carthage, both of them military powers who had imperialistic notions. The explosive disappearance of an island might have been a reference to the eruption of Minoan Santorini. Atlantis as a tale really should be considered a myth, and one that closely correlates with Plato's notions of The Republic examining the deteriorating cycle of life in a state.
- Dušanic S. 1982. Plato's Atlantis. L'Antiquité Classique 51:25-52.
- Morgan KA. 1998. Designer History: Plato's Atlantis Story and Fourth-Century Ideology. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 118:101-118.
- Rosenmeyer TG. 1956. Plato's Atlantis Myth: "Timaeus" or "Critias"? Phoenix 10(4):163-172.