The hunt for the lost city of Atlantis has proven a long and arduous one, with many loose threads and dead ends. No wonder, of course, as it didn’t exist. No city by the name of Atlantis has ever existed above the waves, and none has been punitively smote by gods so that it sank beneath them.
To the despair of generations of antiquarians, most scholarly opinion squares the story of Atlantis away as a thought experiment conceived by the Greek philosopher Plato. Yet since its ascent to modern myth in the late 19th century, there’s been little decline in its hold over the popular imagination.
But the legendary island was introduced to the historical record as an allegory. What was its purpose in Plato’s writings? When was it first understood as a real place? And what’s the story of Atlantis that has proved so compelling?
What is the story behind Atlantis?
The dialogues of Plato, Timaeus-Critias, include accounts of a Greek city-state founded by Neptune, the god of the sea. A wealthy state, Atlantis was supposed to be a formidable power. It was “an island, which, as we said, was once larger than Libya and Asia, though by now earthquakes have caused it to sink and it has left behind unnavigable mud”.
Although it was once a utopia governed by moral people, its inhabitants lost their way to greediness and failed to placate the gods. For their vanity and failure to properly appease the gods, the divine powers destroyed Atlantis with fire and earthquakes.
Plato’s thought experiment
This story derives from the text Timaeus-Critias by Plato and his contemporaries, the only ancient source for the story. Though there were historians in his day, Plato was not one of them. Instead, he was a philosopher employing the story of Atlantis as part of a Socratic debate to illustrate a moral argument.
Often neglected from retellings of the story is the role of Athens, where Plato lived, which is forced to defend itself from the antagonistic Atlantis. Plato had previously outlined an ideal city. Here, this hypothesised constitution is cast back in time to imagine how it might fare in competition with other states.
Atlantis is introduced in the first instance with his character Socrates inviting others to participate in a simulation exercise, saying, “I’d like to hear from someone an account of our city contending against others in typical inter-city contests.”
Plato introduced Atlantis to his audience as a proud, impious people. This is in contrast to their reverent, god-fearing and underdog opponents, an ideal version of the city of Athens. While Atlantis is damned by the gods, Athens emerges dominant.
Thomas Kjeller Johansen, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, describes it as “a story which is fabricated about the past in order to reflect a general truth about how ideal citizens should behave in action.”
A long time ago, far, far away…
The appearance of Atlantis in the philosophical dialogue at all is as good evidence as anything else to suggest it was not a real place. But cautious of being taken too literally, Plato locates the duel between Athens and Atlantis in the distant past, 9,000 years ago, and in a place beyond the familiar Hellenic world; beyond the Gates of Hercules, understood as a reference to the Strait of Gibraltar.
This is thousands of years before Athens is founded, not to mention it developing a large population, empire and army. “It is constructed as a story about the ancient past,” writes Johansen, “because our ignorance of ancient history allows us to suspend disbelief in the possibility of the story.”
So where is the lost city of Atlantis?
We can pinpoint exactly where the lost city of Atlantis was located: the Akademia of Plato, just beyond the city walls of Athens, sometime in the mid-4th century BC.
The persisting myth
It’s possible that local stories of flooded neighbourhoods inspired Plato’s experiment — the ancient world was familiar with earthquakes and floods — but Atlantis itself did not exist. The widespread understanding of continental drift may have led ‘Lost Continent’ theories to wane, but the island’s legend has taken far greater purchase in popular history than Plato’s ruminations on moral conduct.
Though both Francis Bacon and Thomas More were inspired by Plato’s use of Atlantis as an allegory to produce utopian novels, some writers in the 19th century mistook the narrative for historical fact. In the mid-1800s, the French scholar Brasseur de Bourbourg was among those who proposed a relationship between Atlantis and Mesoamerica, a sensational hypothesis which suggested ancient, pre-Columbian exchanges between the New World and the Old.
Then in 1882, Ignatius L. Donnelly published an infamous book of pseudoarchaeology titled Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. This identified Atlantis as the common ancestor of all ancient civilizations. The popular notion that Atlantis was a real place, inhabited by technologically advanced Atlanteans who worshipped the sun chiefly springs from this book, the source of many of today’s prevailing myths about Atlantis.
What cities are underwater?
A city by the name of Atlantis may never have existed above, or beneath, the roiling sea, but there have been multiple cities in history that did find themselves subsumed by the ocean.
In the early 2000s, divers off the north coast of Egypt discovered the city of Thonis-Heracleion. It was an important maritime and trading centre in the ancient world. The port town was known to ancient Greek historians and was Egypt’s major emporion until it was superseded by Alexandria, located 15 miles to the south-west, in the 2nd century BC.
Thonis-Heracleion straddled islands in the Nile Delta and was intersected by canals. Earthquakes, rising sea levels and the process of soil liquefaction eventually brought about the end of the city in the late 2nd century BC.
Pavlopetri, a city of ancient Laconia in Greece, succumbed to the sea around 1000 BC. Its ruins, which embrace buildings, streets and resemble a complete town plan, have been dated to 2800 BC. Meanwhile, on England’s south coast, the medieval town of Old Winchelsea in East Sussex was destroyed by huge flooding during the storm of February 1287.