In Plato's account, Atlantis, lying "beyond the Pillars of Hercules", was a naval power that conquered many parts of Western Europe and Africa 9,000 years before the time of Solon, or approximately 9600 BC. After a failed attempt to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean "in a single day and night of misfortune".
As a story embedded in Plato's dialogues, Atlantis is generally seen as a myth created by Plato to illustrate his political theories. Although the function of the story of Atlantis seems clear to most scholars, they dispute whether and how much Plato's account was inspired by older traditions. Some scholars argue Plato drew upon memories of past events such as the Thera eruption or the Trojan War, while others insist that he took inspiration from contemporary events like the destruction of Helike in 373 BC or the failed Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415–413 BC.
The possible existence of a genuine Atlantis was actively discussed throughout classical antiquity, but it was usually rejected and occasionally parodied by later authors. While little known during the Middle Ages, the story of Atlantis was rediscovered by Humanists in the Modern period. Plato's description inspired the utopian works of several Renaissance writers, like Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis". Atlantis inspires today's literature, from science fiction to comic books and films, its name having become a byword for any and all supposed prehistoric but advanced (and lost) civilizations.
Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written in 360 BC, contain the earliest known references to Atlantis. For unknown reasons, Plato never completed Critias; however, the scholar Benjamin Jowett, among others, argues that Plato originally planned a third dialogue titled Hermocrates. John V. Luce assumes that Plato — after describing the origin of the world and mankind in Timaeus as well as the allegorical perfect society of ancient Athens and its successful defense against an antagonistic Atlantis in Critias — would have made the strategy of the Greek civilization during their conflict with the Persians a subject of discussion in the Hermocrates. Plato introduced Atlantis in Timaeus:
For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, 'the pillars of Heracles,' there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travelers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.The four persons appearing in those two dialogues are the politicians Critias and Hermocrates as well as the philosophers Socrates and Timaeus, although only Critias speaks of Atlantis. While most likely all of these people actually lived, these dialogues as recorded may have been the invention of Plato. In his written works, Plato makes extensive use of the Socratic dialogues in order to discuss contrary positions within the context of a supposition.
The Timaeus begins with an introduction, followed by an account of the creations and structure of the universe and ancient civilizations. In the introduction, Socrates muses about the perfect society, described in Plato's Republic, and wonders if he and his guests might recollect a story which exemplifies such a society. Critias mentions an allegedly historical tale that would make the perfect example, and follows by describing Atlantis as is recorded in the Critias. In his account, ancient Athens seems to represent the "perfect society" and Atlantis its opponent, representing the very antithesis of the "perfect" traits described in the Republic. Critias claims that his accounts of ancient Athens and Atlantis stem from a visit to Egypt by the Athenian lawgiver Solon in the 6th century BC. In Egypt, Solon met a priest of Sais, who translated the history of ancient Athens and Atlantis, recorded on papyri in Egyptian hieroglyphs, into Greek. According to Plutarch, Solon met with "Psenophis of Heliopolis, and Sonchis the Saite, the most learned of all the priests" (Life of Solon). Because of the 500+ year distance between Plutarch and the alleged event, and that this information is not provided by Plato in Timaeus and Critias, this identification is questionable.
According to Critias, the Hellenic gods of old divided the land so that each god might own a lot; Poseidon was appropriately, and to his liking, bequeathed the island of Atlantis. The island was larger than Ancient Libya and Asia Minor combined, but it afterwards was sunk by an earthquake and became an impassable mud shoal, inhibiting travel to any part of the ocean. The Egyptians described Atlantis as an island comprising mostly mountains in the northern portions and along the shore, and encompassing a great plain of an oblong shape in the south "extending in one direction three thousand stadia [about 555 km; 345 mi], but across the center inland it was two thousand stadia [about 370 km; 230 mi]."
Fifty stadia (9 km; 6 mi) from the coast was a
mountain that was low on all sides...broke it off all round aboutHere lived a native woman, Cleito, the daughter of Evenor and Leucippe, with whom Poseidon fell in love and who bore him five pairs of male twins. The eldest of these, Atlas, was made rightful king of the entire island and the ocean (called the Atlantic Ocean in honor of Atlas), and was given the mountain of his birth and the surrounding area as his fiefdom. Atlas's twin Gadeirus, or Eumelus in Greek, was given the extremity of the island towards the Pillars of Heracles. The other four pairs of twins — Ampheres and Evaemon, Mneseus and Autochthon, Elasippus and Mestor, and Azaes and Diaprepes — were also given "rule over many men, and a large territory."
the central island itself was of a stade's breadth [607 feet]
Poseidon carved the mountain where his love dwelt into a palace and enclosed it with three circular moats of increasing width, varying from one to three stadia and separated by rings of land proportional in size. The Atlanteans then built bridges northward from the mountain, making a route to the rest of the island. They dug a great canal to the sea, and alongside the bridges carved tunnels into the rings of rock so that ships could pass into the city around the mountain; they carved docks from the rock walls of the moats. Every passage to the city was guarded by gates and towers, and a wall surrounded each of the city's rings. The walls were constructed of red, white and black rock quarried from the moats, and were covered with brass, tin and orichalcum (bronze or brass), respectively (Critias 116bc).
According to Critias, 9,000 years before his lifetime a war took place between those outside the Pillars of Hercules (generally thought to be the Strait of Gibraltar) and those who dwelt within them. The Atlanteans had conquered the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt and the European continent as far as Tyrrhenia, and subjected its people to slavery. The Athenians led an alliance of resistors against the Atlantean empire and as the alliance disintegrated, prevailed alone against the empire, liberating the occupied lands.
But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down.
Many ancient philosophers viewed Atlantis as fiction, including (according to Strabo) Aristotle. However, in antiquity, there were also philosophers, geographers, and historians who believed that Atlantis was real. For instance, the philosopher Crantor, a student of Plato's student Xenocrates, tried to find proof of Atlantis's existence. His work, a commentary on Plato's Timaeus, is lost, but another ancient historian, Proclus, reports that Crantor traveled to Egypt and actually found columns with the history of Atlantis written in hieroglyphic characters. Plato never mentioned these columns. According to the Greek philosopher, Solon saw the Atlantis story on a different source that can be "taken to hand".
Another passage from Proclus' 5th century AD commentary on the Timaeus gives a description of the geography of Atlantis: "That an island of such nature and size once existed is evident from what is said by certain authors who investigated the things around the outer sea. For according to them, there were seven islands in that sea in their time, sacred to Persephone, and also three others of enormous size, one of which was sacred to Pluto, another to Ammon, and another one between them to Poseidon, the extent of which was a thousand stadia [200 km]; and the inhabitants of it—they add—preserved the remembrance from their ancestors of the immeasurably large island of Atlantis which had really existed there and which for many ages had reigned over all islands in the Atlantic sea and which itself had like-wise been sacred to Poseidon. Now these things Marcellus has written in his Aethiopica". Marcellus remains unidentified.
Other ancient historians and philosophers believing in the existence of Atlantis were Strabo and Posidonius.
Plato's account of Atlantis may have also inspired parodic imitation: writing only a few decades after the Timaeus and Critias, the historian Theopompus of Chios wrote of a land beyond the ocean known as Meropis. This description was included in Book 8 of his voluminous Philippica, which contains a dialogue between King Midas and Silenus, a companion of Dionysus. Silenus describes the Meropids, a race of men who grow to twice normal size, and inhabit two cities on the island of Meropis (Cos?): Eusebes (Εὐσεβής, "Pious-town") and Machimos (Μάχιμος, "Fighting-town"). He also reports that an army of ten million soldiers crossed the ocean to conquer Hyperborea, but abandoned this proposal when they realized that the Hyperboreans were the luckiest people on earth. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath has argued that these and other details of Silenus' story are meant as imitation and exaggeration of the Atlantis story, for the purpose of exposing Plato's ideas to ridicule.
Zoticus, a Neoplatonist philosopher of the 3rd century AD, wrote an epic poem based on Plato's account of Atlantis.
The 4th century AD historian Ammianus Marcellinus, relying on a lost work by Timagenes, a historian writing in the 1st century BC, writes that the Druids of Gaul said that part of the inhabitants of Gaul had migrated there from distant islands. Some have understood Ammianus's testimony as a claim that at the time of Atlantis's actual sinking into the sea, its inhabitants fled to western Europe; but Ammianus in fact says that “the Drasidae (Druids) recall that a part of the population is indigenous but others also migrated in from islands and lands beyond the Rhine" (Res Gestae 15.9), an indication that the immigrants came to Gaul from the north (Britain, the Netherlands or Germany), not from a theorized location in the Atlantic Ocean to the south-west. Instead, the Celts that dwelled along the ocean were reported to venerate twin gods (Dioscori) that appeared to them coming from that ocean.
A Hebrew treatise on computational astronomy dated to AD 1378/79, apparently a paraphrase of an unknown earlier Islamic work, alludes to the Atlantis myth in a discussion concerning the determination of zero points for the calculation of longitude:
Some say that they [the inhabited regions] begin at the beginning of the western ocean [the Atlantic] and beyond. For in the earliest times [literally: the first days] there was an island in the middle of the ocean. There were scholars there, who isolated themselves in [the pursuit of] philosophy. In their day, that was the [beginning for measuring] the longitude[s] of the inhabited world. Today, it has become [covered by the?] sea, and it is ten degrees into the sea; and they reckon the beginning of longitude from the beginning of the western sea.
During the late 19th century, ideas about the legendary nature of Atlantis were combined with stories of other lost continents such as Mu and Lemuria. Helena Blavatsky wrote in her book The Secret Doctrine that the Atlanteans were cultural heroes (contrary to Plato who describes them mainly as a military threat), and are the fourth "Root Race", succeeded by the "Aryan race". Rudolf Steiner wrote of the cultural evolution of Mu or Atlantis. Edgar Cayce first mentioned Atlantis in 1923, and later asserted that it was located in the Caribbean, proposing that Atlantis was an ancient, now-submerged, highly evolved civilization which had ships and aircraft powered by a mysterious form of energy crystal. He also predicted that parts of Atlantis would rise in 1968 or 1969. The Bimini Road, a submerged rock formation that of large rectangular stones just off North Bimini Island has been claimed by some to be evidence of the lost civilization.
It has been claimed that before the time of Eratosthenes about 250 BC, Greek writers located the Pillars of Hercules on the Strait of Sicily, but there is little evidence for this. According to Herodotus (c. 430 BC) a Phoenician expedition had circumnavigated Africa at the behest of pharaoh Necho, sailing south down the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and northwards in the Atlantic, re-entering the Mediterranean Sea through the Pillars of Hercules. His description of northwest Africa makes it very clear that he located the Pillars of Hercules precisely where they are located today. Nevertheless, the belief that they had been placed at the Strait of Sicily prior to Eratosthenes, has been cited in some Atlantis theories.
The continuing industry of discovering Atlantis illustrates the dangers of reading Plato. For he is clearly using what has become a standard device of fiction — stressing the historicity of an event (and the discovery of hitherto unknown authorities) as an indication that what follows is fiction. The idea is that we should use the story to examine our ideas of government and power. We have missed the point if instead of thinking about these issues we go off exploring the sea bed. The continuing misunderstanding of Plato as historian here enables us to see why his distrust of imaginative writing is sometimes justified.Kenneth Feder points out that Critias's story in the Timaeus provides a major clue. In the dialogue, Critias says, referring to Socrates' hypothetical society:
And when you were speaking yesterday about your city and citizens, the tale which I have just been repeating to you came into my mind, and I remarked with astonishment how, by some mysterious coincidence, you agreed in almost every particular with the narrative of Solon. …Feder quotes A. E. Taylor, who wrote, "We could not be told much more plainly that the whole narrative of Solon's conversation with the priests and his intention of writing the poem about Atlantis are an invention of Plato's fancy.
Most of the historically proposed locations are in or near the Mediterranean Sea—islands such as Sardinia, Crete and Santorini, Sicily, Cyprus, and Malta; land-based cities or states such as Troy, Tartessos, and Tantalus (in the province of Manisa), Turkey; and Israel-Sinai or Canaan. The massive Thera eruption, dated either to the 17th or the 16th century BC, caused a massive tsunami that experts hypothesise devastated the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete, further leading some to believe that this may have been the catastrophe that inspired the story. In the area of the Black Sea the following locations have been proposed: Bosporus and Ancomah (a legendary place near Trabzon). The nearby Sea of Azov was proposed as another site in 2003. A. G. Galanopoulos argued that the time scale has been distorted by an error in translation, probably from Egyptian into Greek, which produced "thousands" instead of "hundreds"; this same error would rescale Plato's Kingdom of Atlantis to the size of Crete, while leaving the city the size of the crater on Thera. 900 years before Solon would be the 15th century BC.
The legend of Atlantis is featured in many books, films, television series, games, songs and other creative works. Recent examples of Atlantis on-screen include the television series Stargate Atlantis and the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The first Tomb Raider video game features Atlantis as the basis of its plot and the location for its climactic ending. It is also featured prominently and somewhat philosophically in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's The Illuminatus! Trilogy.