If the writing of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato had not contained so much truth about the human condition, his name would have been forgotten centuries ago.
But one of his most famous stories—the cataclysmic destruction of the ancient civilization of Atlantis—is almost certainly false. So why is this story still repeated more than 2,300 years after Plato's death?
"It's a story that captures the imagination," says James Romm, a professor of classics at Bard College in Annandale, New York. "It's a great myth. It has a lot of elements that people love to fantasize about."
Plato told the story of Atlantis around 360 B.C. The founders of Atlantis, he said, were half god and half human. They created a utopian civilization and became a great naval power. Their home was made up of concentric islands separated by wide moats and linked by a canal that penetrated to the center. The lush islands contained gold, silver, and other precious metals and supported an abundance of rare, exotic wildlife. There was a great capital city on the central island.
There are many theories about where Atlantis was—in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Spain, even under what is now Antarctica. "Pick a spot on the map, and someone has said that Atlantis was there," says Charles Orser, curator of history at the New York State Museum in Albany. "Every place you can imagine."
Plato said Atlantis existed about 9,000 years before his own time, and that its story had been passed down by poets, priests, and others. But Plato's writings about Atlantis are the only known records of its existence.
POSSIBLY BASED ON REAL EVENTS?
Few, if any, scientists think Atlantis actually existed. Ocean explorer Robert Ballard, the National Geographic explorer-in-residence who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, notes that "no Nobel laureates" have said that what Plato wrote about Atlantis is true.
Still, Ballard says, the legend of Atlantis is a "logical" one since cataclysmic floods and volcanic explosions have happened throughout history, including one event that had some similarities to the story of the destruction of Atlantis. About 3,600 years ago, a massive volcanic eruption devastated the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea near Greece. At the time, a highly advanced society of Minoans lived on Santorini. The Minoan civilization disappeared suddenly at about the same time as the volcanic eruption.
But Ballard doesn't think Santorini was Atlantis, because the time of the eruption on that island doesn't coincide with when Plato said Atlantis was destroyed.
Romm believes Plato created the story of Atlantis to convey some of his philosophical theories. "He was dealing with a number of issues, themes that run throughout his work," he says. "His ideas about divine versus human nature, ideal societies, the gradual corruption of human society—these ideas are all found in many of his works. Atlantis was a different vehicle to get at some of his favorite themes."
The legend of Atlantis is a story about a moral, spiritual people who lived in a highly advanced, utopian civilization. But they became greedy, petty, and "morally bankrupt," and the gods "became angry because the people had lost their way and turned to immoral pursuits," Orser says.
As punishment, he says, the gods sent "one terrible night of fire and earthquakes" that caused Atlantis to sink into the sea.