Atlantis ( Ἀτλαντὶς νῆσος, “island of Atlas”) is a fictional island mentioned within an allegory on the hubris of nations in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias, where it represents the antagonist naval power that besieges “Ancient Athens”, the pseudo-historic embodiment of Plato’s ideal state (see The Republic). In the story, Athens repels the Atlantean attack unlike any other nation of the (western) known world, supposedly giving testament to the superiority of Plato’s concept of a state. At the end of the story, Atlantis eventually falls out of favor with the gods and submerges into the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite its minor importance in Plato’s work, the Atlantis story has had a considerable impact on literature. The allegorical aspect of Atlantis was taken up in utopian works of several Renaissance writers, such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Thomas More’s Utopia. On the other hand, 19th-century amateur scholars misinterpreted Plato’s account as historical tradition, most notably in Ignatius L. Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Plato’s vague indications of the time of the events—more than 9,000 years before his time—and the alleged location of Atlantis—”beyond the Pillars of Hercules”—has led to much pseudoscientific speculation. As a consequence, Atlantis has become a byword for any and all supposed advanced prehistoric lost civilizations and continues to inspire contemporary fiction, from comic books to films.
While present-day philologists and historians accept the story’s fictional character, there is still debate on what served as its inspiration. The fact that Plato borrowed some of his allegories and metaphors—most notably the story of Gyges—from older traditions has caused a number of scholars to investigate possible inspiration of Atlantis from Egyptian records of the Thera eruption, the Sea Peoples invasion, or the Trojan War. Others have rejected this chain of tradition as implausible and insist that Plato designed the story from scratch, drawing loose inspiration from contemporary events like the failed Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415–413 BC or the destruction of Helike in 373 BC.
Some ancient writers viewed Atlantis as fiction; others believed it to be real. The philosopher Crantor, a student of Plato’s student Xenocrates, is often cited as an example of a writer who thought the story to be historical fact. His work, a commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, is lost, but Proclus, a Neoplatonist of the 5th century AD, reports on it. The passage in question has been represented in the modern literature either as claiming that Crantor actually visited Egypt, had conversations with priests, and saw hieroglyphs confirming the story or as claiming that he learned about them from other visitors to Egypt. Proclus wrote:
As for the whole of this account of the Atlanteans, some say that it is unadorned history, such as Crantor, the first commentator on Plato. Crantor also says that Plato’s contemporaries used to criticize him jokingly for not being the inventor of his Republic but copying the institutions of the Egyptians. Plato took these critics seriously enough to assign to the Egyptians this story about the Athenians and Atlanteans, so as to make them say that the Athenians really once lived according to that system.
The next sentence is often translated “Crantor adds, that this is testified by the prophets of the Egyptians, who assert that these particulars [which are narrated by Plato] are written on pillars which are still preserved.” But in the original, the sentence starts not with the name Crantor but with the ambiguous He; whether this referred to Crantor or to Plato is the subject of considerable debate. Proponents of both Atlantis as a myth and Atlantis as history have argued that the word refers to Crantor.
Alan Cameron argues that it should be interpreted as referring to Plato, and that when Proclus writes that “we must bear in mind concerning this whole feat of the Athenians, that it is neither a mere myth nor unadorned history, although some take it as history and others as myth”, he is treating “Crantor’s view as mere personal opinion, nothing more; in fact he first quotes and then dismisses it as representing one of the two unacceptable extremes”.
Cameron also points out that whether he refers to Plato or to Crantor, the statement does not support conclusions such as Otto Muck’s “Crantor came to Sais and saw there in the temple of Neith the column, completely covered with hieroglyphs, on which the history of Atlantis was recorded. Scholars translated it for him, and he testified that their account fully agreed with Plato’s account of Atlantis” or J. V. Luce’s suggestion that Crantor sent “a special enquiry to Egypt” and that he may simply be referring to Plato’s own claims.
Another passage from Proclus’ 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 Hades, 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 who believed in the existence of Atlantis were Strabo and Posidonius.
The 4th-century 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.