Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography/Atlantis

ATLANTIS (ή Άτλαντίς νήόος: Eth. Άτλαντίνοι, Procl. ad Plat. Tim.; Schol. in Plat. Rep. p. 327), the Island of Atlas is first mentioned by Plato, in the Timaeus (p. 24), and the Critias (pp. 108, 113). He introduces the story as a part of a conversation respecting the ancient history of the world, held by Solon with an old priest of Saïs in Egypt. As an example of the ignorance of the Greeks concerning the events of remote ages, and in particular of the Athenians respecting the exploits of their own forefathers, the priest informs Solon that the Egyptian records preserved the memory of the fact, that 9000 years earlier the Athenians had repelled an invading force, which had threatened the subjugation of all Europe and Asia too. This invasion came from the Atlantic Sea, which was at that time navigable. In front of the strait called the Pillars of Hercules (and evidently, according to Plato's idea, not far from it), lay an island (which he presently calls Atlantis), greater than Libya and Asia taken together, from which island voyagers could pass to other islands, and from them to the opposite continent, which surrounds that sea, truly so called (i.e. the Atlantic). For the waters within the strait (i.e. the Mediterranean), may be regarded as but a harbour, having a narrow entrance; but that is really a sea, and the land which surrounds it may with perfect accuracy be called a continent (Tim. p.24, e— 25, a.).

The above passage is quoted fully to show the notion which it exhibits, when rightly understood, that beyond and on the opposite side of the Atlantic there was a vast continent, between which and the W. shores of Europe and Libya were a number of islands, the greatest of which, and the nearest to our world, was that called Atlantis.

In this island of Atlantis, he adds, there arose a great and powerful dynasty of kings, who became masters of the whole island, and of many of the other islands and of parts of the continent And moreover, on this side the Atlantic, within the Straits, they ruled over Libya up to Egypt, and Europe up to Tyrrhenia. They next assembled their whole force for the conquest of the rest of the countries on the Mediterranean ; but the Athenians, though deserted by their allies, repelled the invaders, and restored the liberty of all the peoples within the Pillars of Hercules. But afterwards came great earthquakes and floods, by which the victors in the contest were swallowed up beneath the earth, and the island of Atlantis was engulfed in the sea, which has ever since been unnavigable by reason of the shoals of mud created by the sunken island. (Tim. p. 25, a — d.)

The story is expanded in the Critias (p. 108, e; foil.), where, however, the latter part of it is unfortunately lost. Here Plato goes back to the original partition of the earth among the gods, and (what is of some importance as to the interpretation of the legend), he particularly marks the fact that, of the two parties in this great primeval conflict, the Athenians were the people of Athena and Hephaestus, but the Atlantines the people of Poseidon. The royal race was the offspring of Poseidon and of Cleito, a mortal woman, the daughter of Evenor, one of the original earthborn inhabitants of the island, of whose residence in the centre of the island Plato gives a particular description. (Crit. p. 113, o — e.) Cleito bore to Poseidon five pairs of twins, who became the heads of ten royal houses, each ruling a tenth portion of the island, according to a partition made by Poseidon himself, but all subject to the supreme dynasty of Atlas, the eldest of the ten, on whom Poseidon conferred the place in the centre of the island, which had been before the residence of Evenor, and which he fortified and erected into the capital. We have then a minute description of the strength and magnificence of this capital; of the beauty and fertility of the island, with its lofty mountains, its abundant rivers, its exuberant vegetation, its temperate climate, its irrigation by natural moisture in the winter and by a system of aqueducts in the summer, its mineral wealth, its abundance in all species of useful animals; and the magnificent Works of art with which it was adorned, especially at the royal residences. We have also a full account of the people; their military order; their just and simple government, and the oaths by which they bound themselves to obey it; their laws, which enjoined abstinence from all attacks on one another, and submission to the supreme dynasty of the family of Atlas, with many other particulars. For many generations, then, as long as the divine nature of their founder retained its force among them, they continued in a state of unbounded prosperity, based on wisdom, virtue, temperance, and mutual regard; and, during this period, their power grew to the height previously related. But at length, the divine element in their nature was overpowered by continual admixture with the human, so that the human character prevailed in them over the divine; and thus becoming unfit to bear the prosperity they had reached, they sank into depravity: no longer understanding the true kind of life which gives happiness, they believed their glory and happiness to consist in cupidity and violence. Upon this, Jove, resolving to punish them, that they might be restored to order and moderation, summoned a council of the gods, and addressed them in words which are lost with the rest of this dialogue of Plato.

The truth or falsehood, the origin and meaning, of this legend, have exercised the critical and speculative faculties of ancient and modern writers. That it was entirely an invention of Plato's, is hardly credible; for, even if his derivation of the legend from Egypt through Solon, and his own assertion that the story is "strange but altogether true" (Tim. p. 20, d.) be set down to his dramatic spirit, we have still the following indications of its antiquity. First, if we are to believe a Scholiast on Plato (Repub. p. 327), the victory of the Athenians over the Atlantines was represented on one of the pepli which were dedicated at the Panathenaea. Diodorus also refers to this war (iii. 53). Then, the legend is found in other forms, which do not seem to be entirely copied from Plato.

Thus Aelian relates at length a very similar story, on the authority of Theopompus, who gave it as derived from a Phrygian source, in the form of a relation by the matyr Silenus to the Phrygian Midas; and Strabo just mentions, on the authority of Theopompus aad Apollodorus, the same legend, in which the island was called Meropis and the people Meropes (Μεροπίς, Μέροπες, the word used by Homer and Hesiod in the sense of endowed with the faculty of articulate speech: Aelian, V. H. iii. 18, comp. the Notes of Perizonius; Strab. vii. p. 399: comp. Tertull. de Pallio, 2.)

Diodorus, also, alter relating the legend of the island in a form very similar to Plato's story, adds that it was discovered by some Phoenician navigators who, while sailing along the W. coast of Africa, were driven by violent winds across the Ocean. They brought back such an account of the beauty and resources of the island, that the Tyrrhenians, having obtained the mastery of the sea, planned an expedition to colonise the new land, but were hindered by the opposition of the Carthaginians. (Diod. v. 19, 20) Diodorus does not mention the name of the island; and he differs from Plato by referring to it as still existing. Pausanias relates that a Carian Euphemus had told him of a voyage during which he had been carried by the force of the winds into the cuter sea, "into which men no longer sail; where he came to desert islands, inhabited by wild men with tails, whom the sailor, having previously visited the islands, called Satyrs, and the islands Σατυρίδες" (i. 23. § 5, 6); whom some take for monkeys; unless the whole narrative be an imposture on the grave traveller. Another account is quoted by Proclus (ad Plat. Tim. p. 5) from the Aethiopica of Marcellus, that there were seven islands in the Outer Sea, which were sacred to Persephone, and three more, sacred to Pluto, Amman, and Poseidon; and that the inhabitants of this last preserved from their ancestors the memory of the exceedingly large island of Atlantis, which for many ages had ruled over all the islands in the Atlantic Sea, and which had been itself sacred to Poseidon. Other passages might be quoted, but the above are the most important.

The chief variations of opinion, in ancient and modern times, respecting these traditions, are the following. As to their origin, some have ascribed them to the hypotheses, or purely fictitious inventions of the early poets and philosophers; while others have accepted them as containing at least an element of fact, and affording, as the ancients thought, evidence of the existence of unknown lands in the Western Ocean, and, as some modern writers suppose, indications that America was not altogether unknown to the peoples of antiquity. As to the significance of the legend, in the form which it received from the imagination of the poets and philosophers, some have supposed that it is only a form of the old tradition of the "golden age"; others, that it was a symbolical representation of the contest between the primeval powers of nature and the spirit of art and science, which plays so important a part in the old mythology; and others that it was merely intended by Plato as a form of exhibiting his ideal polity: the second of these views is ably supported by Proclus in his commentary on the Timaeus, and has a great deal to be said in its favour. As to the former question, how for the legend may contain an element of fact, it seems impossible to arrive at any certain conclusion. Those who regard it as pure fiction, but of an early origin, view it as arising out of the very ancient notion, found in Homer and Hesiod, that the abodes of departed heroes were in the extreme west, beyond the river Oceanus, a locality naturally assigned as beyond the boundaries of the inhabited earth. That the fabulous prosperity and happiness of the Atlantines was in some degree connected with those poetical representations, is very probable; just as, when islands were actually discovered off the coast of Africa, they were called the Islands of the Blest. [Fortunatae Insulae.] But still, important parts of the legend are thus left unaccounted for; its mythological character, its derivation from the Egyptian priests, or other Oriental sources; and, what is in Plato its most important part, the supposed conflict of the Atlantines with the people of the old world. A strong argument is derived also from the extreme improbability of any voyagers, at that early period, having found their way in safety across the Atlantic, and the double draft upon credulity involved in the supposition of their safe return; the return, however, being generally less difficult than the outward voyage. But this ailment, though strong, is not decisive against the possibility of such a voyage. The opinions of the ancients may be gathered up in a few words. Proclus (ad Tim. p. 24) tells us that Grantor, the first commentator on Plato, took the account for a history, but acknowledged that he incurred thereby the ridicule of his contemporaries. Strabo (ii. p. 102) barely mentions the legend, quoting the opinion of Poseidonius, that it was possibly true; and Pliny refers to it with equal brevity (vi. 31. s. 36). But of far more importance than these direct references, is the general opinion, which seems to have prevailed more or less from the time when the globular figure of the earth was established, that the known world occupied but a small portion of its surface, and that there might be on it other islands, besides our triple continent Some statements to this effect are quoted in the preceding article [Atlanticum Mare]. Mela expressly affirms the existence of such another island, but he places it in the southern temperate zone (i. 9. § 2). Whether such opinions were founded on the vague records of some actual discovery, or on old mythical or poetical representations, or on the basis of scientific hypothesis, can no longer be determined; but, from whatever source, the anticipation of the discovery of America is found (not to mention other and less striking instances) in a well-known passage of Seneca's Medea which is said to have made a deep impression on the mind of Columbus (Act ii. v. 375, et seq.): —

"Venient annis saecula seris,
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
Laxet, et ingens pateat tellus,
Tethysque novos detegat orbes;
Nec sit terris ultima Thule."

In modern times the discussion has been carried on with great ingenuity, but with no certain result. All that has been said, or perhaps that can be said upon it, is summed up in the Appendix of Cellarius to his great work on ancient geography, De Novo Orbe, an cognitus fuerit veteribus (vol. ii. p. 251 — 254). and in Alexander von Humboldt's Kritische Untersuchungen uber die historische Entwickelung der geographischen Kenntnisse der neuen Welt, Berlin, 1826.

One point seems to deserve more consideration than it has received from the disputants on either side; namely, whether the stories of ancient voyagers, which seem to refer to lands across the Atlantic, may not, after all, be explained equally well by supposing that the distant regions reached by these adventurers were only parts of the W. shores of Europe or Africa, the connection of which with our continent was not apparent to the mariners who reached them after long beating about in the Atlantic. By the earliest navigators everything beyond the Straits would be regarded as remote and strange. The story of Euphemus, for example, might be almost matched by some modern adventures with negroes or apes on the less known parts of the W. coast of Africa. It is worthy of particular notice, that Plato describes Atlantis as evidently not far from the Straits, and allots the part of it nearest our continent to Gadeirus, the twin brother of Atlas, the hero eponymus of the city of Gades or Gadeira (Cadiz) If this explanation be at all admissible (merely as the ultimate core of fact round which the legend grew up), it is quite conceivable that, when improved knowledge had assigned the true position to the coasts thus vaguely indicated, their disappearance from their former supposed position would lead to the belief that they had been swallowed up by the ocean. On this hypo- thesis, too, the war of the Atlantines and the Greeks might possibly refer to some very ancient conflict with the peoples of western Europe. [ P. S. ]