In a recent film, Professor Richard Freund from Hartford University in Connecticut explains his use of deep-ground radar, digital mapping, and satellite imagery to find the best candidate for Atlantis in Spain’s Donaña National Park, north of Cadiz. Plato, our principal source on the myth of Atlantis, claimed that it had been destroyed in around 9000 BC by a natural disaster, most likely – Professor Freund contends – a tsunami.
But what exactly did Plato have to say about Atlantis? The first of two extended references to Atlantis is contained in the Timaeus, the only Platonic dialogue available to Latin readers in the early Middle Ages. At the beginning of the Timaeus, Socrates runs through a speech that he gave on the previous day. The speech is about the institutions of the ideal state, which are, or closely resemble, those of the Republic. Socrates asks to see this ideal state set in motion with an account of how it might engage in a conflict with its neighbours. In response to Socrates, Hermocrates asks Critias to relate a tale that he heard from his grandfather, who heard it from his father, who heard it from Solon, who heard it from an Egyptian priest in Saïs on the Nile Delta. According to this Egyptian priest, Athens was first founded nine thousand years ago, at which time she was the fairest, best-governed, and most god-like of all cities. The citizens of this Ancient Athens accomplished many great deeds, but their greatest deed of all was to fend off an unprovoked invasion by Atlantis, an island empire that lay beyond the pillars of Heracles, and that was larger than all Libya and Asia put together. Following Athens’ victory over the Atlanteans, the earth was ravaged by earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of misfortune Athens fell to the ground and Atlantis sank into the sea.
The second extended reference to Atlantis is contained in the Critias. The Critias was designed to be the second part of a trilogy, preceded by the Timaeus and succeeded by the Hermocrates. Unfortunately, the latter was never written and the Critias was left unfinished, literally breaking off in mid-sentence. According to Critias, whereas the gods Hephaestus and Athena had obtained Attica, Poseidon had obtained the island of Atlantis. Poseidon fell in love with the mortal Cleito who dwelt together with her parents Evenor and Leucippe in a low mountain near a fertile plain in the centre of the island. To secure his love, the god enclosed the mountain with rings of various sizes, two of land and three of sea. Here Cleito bore him five pairs of male twins. The eldest sibling, Atlas, was made king of the centre island, and the other nine siblings were made kings of other parts of the island. As their relations were regulated by the injunctions of Poseidon, the ten kingdoms remained at peace. Critias describes in great detail the fabulous riches of Atlantis amongst which fruit trees and forests, herds of elephants, and minerals including the legendary precious metal orichalcum. With these fabulous riches, the Atlanteans built temples and palaces, harbours and docks, bridges and canals, aqueducts and baths, and a very large standing army with ten thousand chariots and twelve hundred ships.
For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, [the Atlanteans] were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold or other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.
However, the virtue of the Atlanteans began to weaken,
…when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power. 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, which, being placed in the centre of the world, beholds all created things. And when he had called them together, he spake as follows – [The dialogue ends, literally in mid-sentence.]
Adapted from Plato’s Shadow