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Eastern Mediterranean

Echoes of Plato's Atlantis

by Dr Iain Stewart, BBC Ancient History, 1 October 2001



First described by Plato, Atlantis and its catastrophic downfall is one of popular science's most enduring controversies - the original location of the vanished civilisation is still hotly debated.

Quite why a story written 2,500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato continues to capture the public imagination is a mystery in itself - a mystery fed by countless books, films, articles, web pages, and now a Disney cartoon. It has spawned a rich populist sub-culture (much of it internet-based) which pits the passions and imaginations of committed 'Atlanteans' against the orthodox analysis of the scientific mainstream.

Part of the contemporary appeal of the Atlantis story has no doubt been fed by scientists. Historians, archaeologists and geologists have also entered the debate to contest the various literary, historical or geographical elements of the story.

So what do we actually know about Atlantis and its demise?

The answer is not much. Plato's story comes to us from two short pieces, Tinnaeus and Critias, believed to have been written in the decade or so before his death in 348 BC.

In these, he presents an apparently true account of an ideal society that existed many millennia before the Classical Greek times in which he was writing.

According to Plato, Atlantis was a great island (larger than Libya and Asia combined) in the Atlantic Ocean, but its control extended beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' (the Straits of Gibraltar) into the Mediterranean as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia (Italy).

Its powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings arose directly from Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, though this divine and heroic lineage gradually became diluted by mixing with mortal stock.

The resulting degeneration of this noble civilisation led it into a war with its former ally, Athens, and culminated in its cataclysmic destruction, which Plato dates as 9,000 years previously.

Of the destruction itself, Plato simply notes, 'Some time later there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your life [ie, Athenian] fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished'.

While the bulk of Plato's account of Atlantis details its physical and political layout, its location and the nature of its destruction warrant only a few hundred words.

It is a meagre foundation for the weight of subsequent theories and speculations on which the modern controversy is based.



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