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Atlantis was a Real Place
A Discussion by Dan Crisp

Part 1: Where to Look


For years, I well knew that the Greek island Santorini was a caldera, the remains of the volcano Thera after it exploded three and a half thousand years ago; that it had been the hub of a bustling Mediterranean trade network; and that Thera has been identified with the legendary Atlantis by many researchers for many years. What I learned only recently from a TV documentary was that before the famous eruption it was already a caldera, with a central, populated island surrounded by a natural, circular harbour. This made the equation with Atlantis all the more compelling, so I decided I would like to read Plato's dialogues for myself, to see how easily they could be interpreted as referring to Thera.

In this short essay, my focus is on what Plato actually says about the location of Atlantis in his dialogues, Timaeus and Critias; on whether they paint a logically consistent picture and, if so, of what.

I have used the Benjamin Jowett translations of Timaeus [Tim.] and Critias [Crit.] which are freely available on the Internet. Extracts are in italics, my insertions are in [square brackets]. (I have quoted passages out of order and not attempted to introduce any line or paragraph numbering to refer back to their original locations: the dialogues are not so long that the quotes are hard to find.) Jowett's commentary shows he is thoroughly sceptical about Atlantis and this view may well have coloured his translation - which suits me fine because the conclusions will be more valuable than those drawn from a "favourable" translation.

I'm with Koudriavtsev [visit] in downplaying the importance of the word "island" in the dialogues. The terms "island", "land" and "whole country" are used somewhat loosely and allowing for various translations, mistranslations and shifting perspectives through the ages, we should be prepared to relax our grip on the modern interpretations of these words. Let us assume Plato is talking about a "place", a "land", an "empire" - and see where this leads us.

The story of Atlantis occurs within an account of ancient Athens, given as part of a public address hosted by Socrates to a theatre audience celebrating a festival of Athena. There were three speakers: first Timaeus, who gives a discourse on the origins and constitution of the universe and mankind; next Critias, who recounts the noble deeds of the long-forgotten Athenian citizens (having given a taster before Timaeus gets going, to check that Socrates and the audience wish to hear the rest); and, finally, Hermocrates, who presumably picks up the theme of political history and social development from where Critias leaves off. Unfortunately, most of Critias and all of Hermocrates is lost.

The unit of measure most used is the stadium, whose definition was somewhat variable, but usually 600 Greek feet. If we assume 600 feet or 185 metres, we won't be far wrong.

Critias tells how the story came to be passed down to him and why the illustrious Solon himself did not have the opportunity to publicise what he had learned form the Egyptians. Solon's trip is estimated at 600 BCE and, hence, the war and the destruction of Atlantis was said to have been in 9600 BCE: a date we now understand to have been in the midst of the end of the last Ice Age.

This 9600 BCE date is given for both the foundation of the city of Athens (1000 years before Sais was founded in Egypt, whence the records come) and the war with Atlantis. Some writers suggest this is a problem, that a fledgling state would not be in a position to combat a powerful aggressor. But to expect 9000 years to be a precise figure would be asking too much! It is reasonable to interpret 9000 years as "closer to 9000 than either 8000 or 10000": anything from about 8500 to 9500 - a span of, perhaps, 1000 years. That is to say, there is ample slack in the date to allow for significant progress and economic development of the Athenian state between foundation and going to war. After all, they were not alone in the world, making up everything from scratch: Critias describes a world of city states and bustling international trade.

If earlier scholars were as ignorant of the Ice Age and the effects of its close as we think Plato must have been, then it is easy to understand why it was widely held that Plato made up this "history" as part of the exposition of his political philosophy. Certain parts of the dialogues do look contrived, but, since no doubt Plato drew together ideas from various sources and connected them with his own narrative, we should be allowed to ignore the suspect parts without devaluing the rest. In any case, we have only about a quarter of Critias' story (if the length of Timaeus is anything to go by): it would be churlish to deride Plato when there is so little to go on. I will proceed on the assumption that Plato believed he was relating a true account.

It is worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, Atlantis was not destroyed by the gods because the people had become debased. It is clear that their defeat in the war was to be the Atlanteans' punishment - they were to improve, not disappear:

Such was the vast power which the god settled in the lost island of Atlantis; and this he afterwards directed against our land for the following reasons... Zeus, the god of gods, who rules according to law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honourable race was in a woeful plight, and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into their most holy habitation... And when he had called them together, he spake as follows -- [Critias breaks off here and the remainder of the dialogue is lost.]

Furthermore, the destruction and disappearance of Atlantis did not mark the end of the war. Rather, the terrible destruction took place at an unspecified time, "afterwards". It could have been years later, but still in the region of eleven and a half thousand years ago.

The Location of Atlantis

In the following paragraphs, I have set out Plato's clues to the location of Atlantis and the conclusions we can draw from them, working from the more general to the more specific.

Histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean. [Tim.]

Europe, to its Ice Age inhabitants (eleven and a half thousand years ago), was not Europe as we know it, but we can assume this means the northern Mediterranean shores at the very least. Similarly, Asia refers, at the very least, to the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps all of the Middle East; but certainly not to the entire continent to the east that we are familiar with.

There is much discussion of the difference between what we know as the Atlantic Ocean and what it meant in the time of Plato. As we will see, Critias is clear about this.

This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country [Egypt] and yours [Greece] and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country... generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars. [Tim.]

Atlantis was evidently far from being the only civilisation at the time.

The region that Egypt and Greece occupy together - which is effectively a cul-de-sac, naturally delimited by a single point - is the Mediterranean. The "straits", or "pillars", therefore refers straightforwardly to what we know as the straits of Gibraltar or the pillars of Heracles. It has been suggested that the pillars are at the Bosporus, also on the edge of the Mediterranean, on the way into the Black Sea; but Egypt and Greece being "inside" these straits, while the region around or beyond the Black Sea counts as the Atlantic Ocean, can not be reconciled even with the view of the world we credit to Plato and his contemporaries.

Those ancient people identified themselves as living on the Mediterranean, as opposed to living in Europe or Africa ("Libya"), or east of Iberia, or anything like that. Indeed, just as "inside this room" only refers to what is in the room or on the walls and not to any adjoining rooms or areas that can be reached by passing through, so "inside the pillars" refers to the islands and shores of the Mediterranean and not to the surrounding inland areas, etc. The sea was no doubt central to their existence and it is no surprise that the shores they inhabited were more important than the continents they fringed. (The Atlanteans, too, were only interested in the coastal regions: they did not go to war against continental Europe or Africa. Perhaps an "island" was anywhere reached by boat, because the land route was difficult, impossible or just ignored.)

Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them. [Crit.]

The pillars of Heracles are a critical landmark in distinguishing the two areas. For this to make sense, Atlantis must be close to the pillars: coastal western Europe, coastal western Africa or mid-Atlantic Ocean. Nowhere else - continental Europe or Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Antarctica - matches the description here.

In referring to two complete hemispheres, we might say "above the Equator" and "below the Equator". But we would not say "the people north of the Equator" and "the people south of the Equator" if we meant Colombians and Ecuadorians. Similarly, "north of the Thames" and "south of the Thames" might well refer straightforwardly to parts of London or the Home Counties; but, although technically correct, that would not be a suitable to way to refer to Scotland and France.

The scale of the distinction or boundary we are trying to draw matches the scale of the areas we are trying to identify.

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. [Tim.]

The scale and location of the empire are suggested here: Atlantis controlled a number of coastal areas and/or islands; some inland areas of the nearest continent, or the one it fringed - which must have been Europe or Africa; surely Europe being the one Critias would most naturally refer to as "the continent"; Mediterranean shores from the pillars of Heracles eastwards, up to Italy (Tyrrhenia, Tuscony) on the European side side; and along to Egypt on the African side.

Again, the implication must be that Atlantis was not very far away on the other side of the pillars.

Can we really credit the idea that an Atlantis located in South America or Antarctica (as some theories hold) could sensibly occupy these regions inside the Mediterranean - about the identities of which, as far as I know, the scholars do not argue? If the enormous areas between South America or Antarctica and the Mediterranean were the provinces of Atlantis, surely they would merit a grander description than "several other islands and parts of the continent".

Note that "Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles" might suggest that the parts of Libya outside the columns - Morocco, Western Sahara... - were not Atlantean territories. If so, Atlantis must have been to the north, or a genuine island in the ocean.

As has been already said [in Timaeus], they held sway in our direction [towards Greece] over the country within the pillars as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia. [Crit.]

The pillars referred to are indeed those at the straits of Gibraltar. Egypt and Greece were in the eastern Mediterranean; so coming towards them but only reaching as far as the edge of Egypt and Tyrrhenia can only mean coming from the western end of the Sea. If the pillars were really to the north, south or east, or between Egypt and Greece, one or both would have been inside the Atlantean territory.

The reverse direction, back to where they can from, is from Greece past Tyrrhenia; and from within Egypt past its western border (the side that borders the rest of Libya): that is, decidedly, westwards. Atlantis was therefore generally to the west of the pillars, in or on the Atlantic Ocean.

The "Atlantic Ocean" Critias refers to is indeed the Atlantic Ocean as we know it.

End of Part I

All the clues so far make it clear that when Critias says "straits of Heracles" and "Atlantic Ocean", he is referring to the features as we known them (There is no extra dimension of mystery because the true locations of these places are not properly known).

Everything points to Atlantis being not far to the west of the straits, which means only the North Atlantic and the western European and African shores are still in the frame. In Part II, we'll examine further, more specific clues and get closer to our goal.

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