Transmission Critias Solon Dating Solon Socrates Timaeus and Hermocrates Amynander Was Plato present?

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Who were Critias, Timaeus, Socrates, Hermogenes and Solon? How does Plato describe the transmission of the story of Atlantis?

The Timaeus and Critias were among the latest of Plato's dialogues, written in about 360 BC. The late Slobodan Dušanić provides a plausible scenario for their composition in response to the crises facing Athens at a slightly later time of 356-355, namely the Social War (in which Athens' "allies" in the Second Athenian Confederacy rebelled) and the Sacred War (fought over the famous shrine at Delphi). In particular, the impeachment of Plato's associate Timotheus during the period likely gave rise to the use of Critias, with his fondness for legal terminology, as a narrator. In terms of the date of the festival at which the dialogues are set, the most commonly-argued date is at a festival in honour of Athena, commonly identified as the Panathenaea, in around 421 BC, with Zdravko Planinc a notable dissident, suggesting instead a setting at the Plynteria of 407 BC, with the participants eagerly awaiting the return of Socrates' and Critias' ally Alcibiades, himself a former intimate of Socrates.


  • after the war between Athens and Atlantis 9,000 years before Solon's visit to Egypt, the story was passed down, ostensibly orally, for at least 1,000 years, until the founding of Saïs by Athena.
  • at some point during these 8,000 years, the full account of Athens' heroic campaign against Atlantis was written down in Saïs.
  • during his visit to Saïs, Solon has an audience with the priests, led by one of great age, who furnishes him with an outline of the story.
  • upon his return from his ten-year voluntary exile from Athens, Solon begins to write a poetic account of Athens' war with Atlantis, but is unable to continue due to internecine strife, possibly associated with events leading to the rise of Solon's kinsman Pisistratus to the office of tyrant.
  • Solon passes on what he has learnt, as well as his written notes, to his close friend Dropides, who in turn bequeaths them to his son Critias.
  • many years later, when he is about 90 years of age, Critias tells the story of Atlantis to a group of boys including his grandson Critias, then aged about ten, at the Cureotis, a ceremony for boys involving recitation and part of the Panionian festival known as the Apaturia.
  • Critias the younger, in turn, suddenly remembers the story at a convenient time and is able to provide the details to the assembled company of Socrates, the astronomer and Pythagorean Timaeus of Locri and the Syracusan statesman Hermocrates.



Simply put, the Critias of the dialogues is to be understood as a character summoned by Plato for his own use. In my view, however, the most likely figure for Plato to base Critias of the narrative upon was Critias, an Athenian relative of Plato's who waxed mighty during the Spartan-imposed oligarchy which briefly snuffed out the Athenian democracy after the Peloponnesian War. This oligarchy ruled during 404 and 403 BC.


  • Critias the son of Callaeschrus was born in about 460 BC.
  • as a young man, he received the best education then available and was noted for his ability with the flute.
  • an inscription, IG 13 1022, records two victories at the Isthmian and Nemean Games in 438 BC by a certain [Critia]s son of Callaeschrus, which is suggestive of Critias' athletic prowess.
  • Critias also dabbled in non-political writing, producing a number of plays, including the Sisyphus, a fragment of which (if not a misidentified work of Euripides) states that: "a wise and clever man invented fear (of the gods) for mortals, that there might be some means of frightening the wicked [...] covering up the truth with a false theory."
  • at some point, Critias became the ward of his youthful cousin (and later close ally) Charmides. Charmides was the younger brother of Perictione, the mother of Plato, emphasising the close relationship between these two men.
  • Critias' relationship with Charmides appears as a theme in Plato's Charmides, which correlates with statements from Xenophon's Memorabilia, in which Socrates mocks Critias' lust for Euthydemus by comparing it to "a little pig scratching itself against a rock" [1.2.29-30], which suggests that Critias' interest in young men was somewhat above and beyond the norm.
  • Critias was rumoured to have played a part in the infamous desecration of the herms (statues which marked boundaries in ancient Attica, where Athens is located), whose main instigator was another associate of Socrates', the mercurial Alcibiades.
  • Critias' stance on the oligarchy of the "Four Hundred" in 411 BC is unknown. This was achieved through Alcibiades' promises of Persian support. What is known is that Critias posthumously prosecuted one of the group's leaders, Phrynicus, after the restoration of democracy in 410. Ironically, this Phrynichus was the leader of the extreme wing of these oligarchs (a role Critias would play more successfully seven years later), opposing the more moderate faction led by Alcibiades and including Theramenes.
  • Xenophon records a report attributed to Theramenes which places Critias in Thessaly at some point between 406 and 404 BC (Critias was in exile at the time). Whilst there, he was working with a certain Prometheus to bring about a democratic revolution and "arming the Penestae (a class of hereditary serfs in Thessaly) against their masters."
  • after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, the victorious Spartans appointed Critias as one of five ephors (a high official in the Spartan constitution) in Athens.
  • soon afterwards, Critias established a new oligarchic constitution, becoming of of the "Thirty," who governed the state, appointing his ward Charmides as one of the "Ten," a faction which governed Athens' port Piraeus on behalf of the Thirty.
  • Critias emerged as something of an Athenian Robespierre, instituting a reign of terror, which saw multiple executions, including that of Theramenes, a veteran of the 411 BC oligarchy and a fellow member of the Thirty.
  • it was this penchant for violent reckonings which cost Critias and his allies the support of Plato, according to the Seventh Letter (the most likely of Plato's letters to be regarded as actually having been written by Plato): initially sympathetic to the oligarchy, which featured men of his own noble class (and included relatives such as Critias and Charmides), he soon became disillusioned by Critias' cohorts' actions, citing their demand that Socrates go to apprehend a man condemned to execution as a special bugbear. This experience was enough to deter the young Plato from entering politics.
  • another possible victim of Critias' tyranny was his former associate-turned-enemy Alcibiades, who was assassinated in Thrace in 403 BC.
  • Critias was eventually killed fighting bravely against the pro-democratic forces led by Thrasybulus in May of that year.


Modern scholars dealing with the career of the Athenian lawgiver Solon have pinpointed the date at which he was active to some point in the 590s. This has led to a rejection of the traditional view that the Critias who narrates the story of Atlantis was the Athenian oligarch of 404-403 BC - who was regarded as the grandson of Critias the son of Dropides, for example, by Diogenes Laërtius in his biography of Plato [3.1] - and a suggestion that two generations have dropped out, meaning that the grandson of Critias the son of Dropides (often referred to as Critias II) was the grandfather of the oligarch (Critias IV).

Furthermore, some external evidence of the existence of this "Critias III" has been found in the form of pottery shards dating to the 480s, which mention a certain "Critias son of Leaïdes" as a candidate to be expelled from Athens, most likely for his real or perceived anti-democratic sympathies.

But how likely is it that an obscure character such as this, who was forgotten by Diogenes' day, should be seen as a more plausible candidate for Plato's character? Is this just an attempt to circumvent the chronology?


There are a number of occasions in the Timaeus and Critias when the truth of the account of Athens and Atlantis is stressed. On all but one of these occasions, the speaker making the claim is Critias, who also narrates the story. Indeed, so adamant is Critias that what he is saying is a true recollection of the story told to his predecessor Solon by the Egyptian priests that even so great an authority as Plato's mentor Socrates is prepared to suspend his disbelief [Tim. 26e].

The big question is... should we take Critias' claims at face value?


As a narrator - at least in the incomplete text of the Critias which has survived - Critias falls short of his stated purpose, which is to show Socrates' ideal city in a state of war. A few references to wars between those on either side of the Pillars of Heracles and Athens' position of leadership among the Greeks, as well as their desperate last stand when abandoned by their allies aside, there is no real sense of Athens in battle or of the ebb and flow of the war. No pitched battles are described in any detail. Rather, Critias appears to get lost, enamoured as he appears to be with his description of Atlantis and the goings-on therein. He is also highly unreliable, contradicting himself on a number of occasions: -

He cannot decide whether the 9,000 year figure refers to the founding of Athens (a statement attributed to an ancient Saïte priest) [Tim. 23de] or the war against Atlantis [Crit. 108e].

He cannot decide if his knowledge of these events is derived from memory alone or not. In the Critias, he pointedly invokes Mnemosyne [Crit. 108d], the muse associated with memory, as, by his own admission in the Timaeus, he "had forgotten too much" [Tim. 26a] - which prevented him from speaking up about this remarkable parallel to Socrates' city the previous day - but adds that Dropides had notes written by Solon which he studied as a child in addition to what he heard [Crit. 113b].

Also, in spite of his apparent confidence in the truth of the matter he describes, Critias is at pains to base his description on the foundations lain by Timaeus' creation story and Socrates' ideal state [Tim. 27ab], declining the opportunity to give his speech before Timaeus despite having already introduced Atlantis despite Socrates' eagerness to hear of it.

Another important point to consider is the depiction of Critias is consistent with his being a sophist, a group of lawyer-orators for whom Plato had little time. The infamous Critias of 404-403 BC was so well-known for both speechmaking and the writing of constitutions that, some centuries later, Athenaeus felt the need to mention a tradition which held that there were two men by this name: he suggests that the non-political writings of Critias were the work of a different man by the name, with the member of the Thirty only authoring "the Well-balanced Constitutions" (Deipnosophistae [4.184d]) - this latter interest being perhaps best attested the Platonic dialogue which bears his name.



Solon was one of archaic Athens' most prominent political figures, and is generally held to have lived between c.638 and c.558 BC. He was born on the island of Salamis, the son of Execstides, a descendant of Codrus, Athens' tragic last king. His mother was remembered as being a cousin of an early associate, Pisistratus, who later became tyrant.

Despite being an aristocrat, Execstides was a man of only moderate means, and Solon himself eked out a career as a merchant. During this period, Solon's birthplace was the subject of a drawn-out dispute between Athens and Megara. Diogenes explains that, after a series of reverses, the Athenian government made espousal of a renewal in the fighting a capital crime, whereupon Solon, with the support of Pisistratus, coaxed the Athenians into an action which would gain control of the strategic island. Pausanias [10.37.6-7] also credits Solon with the stratagem which defeated the rebel city of Kirrha during the First Sacred War (though this is a late and almost certainly spurious tradition, with the original deviser of the stratagem being Nebros, an ancestor of the physician Hippocrates).

pedeis ("plainsmen") and paralioi ("men of the coast"), led by Lycurgus son of Aristolaïdes and the Alcmaeonid Megacles respectively. A third party, the diakrioi or hyperakrioi ("hillmen"), led by Pisistratus, also emerged as a significant force and was composed of the poor of upland areas, as well as creditors whose debtors had had their debts cancelled by a reform of Solon's design. Solon returned only briefly to try to oppose Pisistratus' attempts at securing absolute power, but, proving unsuccessful, Solon went into self-imposed exile on Cyprus, where he died shortly afterwards.


The date of Solon's career is established by reference to a number of sources, foremost among them being the Athenian Constitution, which was written by the great philosopher Aristotle or one of his immediate disciples. This is the earliest extant document which furnishes an absolute chronology for the career of Solon: -

  • Solon's lawgiving is placed 31 years before Pisistratus became tyrant
  • Pisistratus was in and out of power over a period of 33 years, being succeeded after his death by his son Hippias for 16 years
  • three years after the overthrow of Hippias, Cleisthenes began his reforms, which led to the world's first democracy, about 18 years before the battle of Marathon in 490 BC

Some fine-tuning of these data and we arrive at T.J. Cadoux's date of 594/3 for the date of Solon's supposed archonship (with Dropides succeeding him in office in 593/2), with Solon's dating further constrained by a notice in the work of Phaenias of Eresus on the island of Lesbos, a man with close ties to the Lycaeum (Aristotle's school), who placed Solon's death during the archonship of Hegesias, the year after Pisistratus first assumed power. Thus, if we follow Aristotle and Phaenias, Solon was dead by about 560 BC.

However, when we survey other sources on the career of Solon, things do not add up.


Around 425 BC, almost a century before the Athenian Constitution was being written up, the historian Herodotus was putting the final touches to his great work, which is our earliest extant source on Solon. Herodotus associates the Athenian statesman with a number of major and minor figures from across the ancient Mediterranean: Amasis of Egypt; Croesus of Lydia; and the Cypriot Philocyprus. These connections have major implications for Solon's date: -

Amasis - or Ahmose II - seized control of Egypt from Wahibre in about 570 BC.

Croesus succeeded his long-reigning father Alyattes about a decade after Amasis took power.

Philocyprus' son Aristocyprus is recorded as having met his end in battle with the Persians during the Ionian Revolt, thus in about 497 BC.


More pertinently, the work of Heracleides Ponticus, a Greek from Pontus in Anatolia, appears to have contained many references to Solon which suppose a date more in line with that of Herodotus than the chronology of Aristotle and Phaenias, potentially his colleagues at the Lycaeum. Heraclides, significantly, had earlier studied at Plato's school, the Academy, and left such an impression that, according to the much later Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda, Plato left him in charge while he left for Sicily at about the time when he was writing the Timaeus and Critias.

Molly Miller, who worked on trying to find a solution to these discrepancies, highlighted a number of statements from later authors about Solon's career which she traced back (with varying degrees of confidence) to Heraclides: -

The mothers of Solon and Pisistratus were cousins and Solon was Pisistratus' erastês (an ancient Greek term which means an older man who was both lover and mentor of an adolescent). Pisistratus may have played a role in Solon's famous campaign on the island of Salamis (and the Athenian Constitution confirms that Pisistratus, like Solon, campaigned against Megara, who were Athens' opponents on Salamis).

Pisistratus used Solon as an example during the earlier part of his rule (which was actually something of a golden age in Athens, belying the later characterisation of the tyrants of the period). Heraclides may also have said that Solon advised Pisistratus when he was asked to do so.

Solon did not die a year after Pisistratus took power as Phaenias would have us believe, but lived for a considerable period afterwards. Heraclides may even have suggested that Solon survived to meet Thespis, whose akmê (most productive period) was between 536 and 532 BC.

Given these data, transmitted as they were from Heraclides, a close associate of Plato, I would aver that it is not too great a stretch to suppose that these were well known at the Academy, perhaps even something like an "official position" on the matter.


An interesting quote from the Middle Platonist Plutarch - who was no fan of Herodotus, being the man who, more than anyone, contributed to depiction of Herodotus as the "father of lies" - wrote a defence of Solon's encounter with Croesus as historical in his Life of Solon [27.1]: -

As for his interview with Croesus, some think to prove by chronology that it is fictitious. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, and is so worthy of his magnanimity and wisdom, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement.

Clearly, the work of the chronographers - who emerged at around the same time as Herodotus, as seen in the works of man like Hippias of Elis (who produced a list of Olympic victors) and Hellanicus of Lesbos (who made use of a list of priestesses of Hera at Argos as a basis for reckoning relative dates), as well as the anonymous compilers of the Athenian list of archons from about 425 BC - was not universally accepted.


One last subject to consider is the dating of Anacreon's presence in Athens according to Plato. There is a reference in the Charmides to the family of Critias the son of Dropides being praised by Solon and Anacreon [157e], with Socrates flatteringly adding that the family's abilities marked them out as heirs to Solon [155a]. A scholar's note on the Prometheus Bound adds that Anacreon went to Athens out of love for a certain Critias.

Now, given that Critias of the Thirty was born in about 460 BC, and was about ten when told of Atlantis by the elder Critias, whose age is estimated at about 90, Critias the son of Dropides would have been born in around 540 BC. Plato has Anacreon brought to Athens by Hipparchus, the "eldest and wisest of Pisistratus' sons" and a noted patron of the arts [Hipparchus 228c]. This could easily have occurred around the same time as Thespis was working, affording Anacreon the opportunity to cultivate a romantic relationship with the young Critias, say, during the 520s.

Thus, regardless of the actual date of Solon or the correct relationship between Critias the son of Dropides and Critias the son of Callaeschrus, I believe that the evidence from Plato and those associated with the Academy he founded is highly suggestive of a belief in a later, Herodotan dating for Solon's career, which leads me to conclude that the Critias of the dialogue is indeed intended as Critias the son of Callaeschrus.



As is the case with many of Plato's other dialogues, the compère is his teacher Socrates. As Socrates left no body of written work, modern historians are reliant on the extant depictions of him in the Platonic corpus, as well as the work of the soldier-historian Xenophon (like Plato, writing retrospectively, though giving a markedly different portrait of the seminal philosopher), as well as allusions in the work of the comic playwright Aristophanes. Indeed, one of the major issues for academics focusing on the development of ancient Greek philosophy is the "Socratic problem," namely deciphering which of the opinions expressed by the character Socrates as depicted in Plato's dialogues are those of Socrates as opposed to Plato's own.

Socrates was born in around 470 or 469 BC in the Deme Alopece, the son of a Sophroniscus (who was perhaps a sculptor by trade, an occupation into which his son followed him) and Phaenarete. He had a half-brother, Patrocles, born to Phenarete, who remarried after Sophroniscus' death in about 450 BC. He married Xanthippe, who appears to have been of a higher social class to her husband, and had three sons - Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus - who were likely still children at the time of their father's execution. He was a member of the tribe of the Antiochis. Socrates served in the Athenian military: Plato [Apology 29e] claims that Socrates participated in the battles of Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium.

Embarking on his philosophical career, Socrates developed a role as a μύωψ ("gadfly"), pricking the Athenian populace into action, "arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long" [Apology 30e-31a]. This Athenian gadfly attracted a wide retinue of followers from the Athenian elite and further afield. Diogenes lists seven of Socrates' most important students. Alongside Plato and Xenophon are Antisthenes and Aeschines of Athens, Euclid of Megara (who Plato visited at the age of twenty-eight), Aristippus from Cyrene and Phaedo of Elis. Alongside these seven, other noteworthy confederates were the mercurial Alcibiades, hero-cum-villain of the latter phase of the Peloponnesian War, as well as Critias the Oligarch. These last two associates caused many Athenians to become suspicious of Socrates, particularly after their part in the destruction of the herms in 415. In addition, several of Socrates' students founded philosophical schools of their own: Plato's Academy at Athens; the Megaran school; the Cyrenaics; and the Elean-Eretrian school. Additionally, Antisthenes is regarded as a founding father of the Cynics.

Socrates was also active in the political sphere: in the wake of the battle of Arginusae (406 BC), Socrates resisted popular demands for a collective trial of the victorious generals, who had neglected to pick up shipwrecked and deceased Athenian sailors in favour of pursuing the remainder of the defeated Spartan fleet, successfully resisting threats to block the impeachment of the generals until his presidency ended, gaining him the enmity of a number of powerful figures. During the reign of the Thirty Tyrants (404-403 BC), among whom Critias was prominent, he was condemned to death having refused to transport Leon of Salamis back to Athens for execution. Plato's Seventh Letter [324d-325a] states that one of the reasons for his parting company with the Thirty Tyrants - to whose rule he was originally amenable or at least neutral - was this attempt to have Socrates executed. Additionally, Diodorus Siculus [14.5.1-3] records an attempt by Socrates and two others to prevent the arrest of Theramenes, who had protested the heavy-handed nature of the rule of the Thirty. He eventually met his end in 399 BC for "refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own" (presumably in reference to his personal tutelary daemon), and "corrupting the young." Both Plato and Xenophon depict the great philosopher's last days. Despite the pleas of his supporters, Socrates refused to countenance escape, instead accepting his fate. He died by hemlock poisoning. Robin Waterfield suggests that, from a reference in Plato's Crito, it is possible to infer that Socrates saw himself as a scapegoat whose death would cure the ills which had beset Athens.

In his Clouds, the comic playwright Aristophanes parodies Socrates as an argumentative idler, introduced sitting in a basket suspended in mid-air, "so that my rarefied mind can fuse with the rarefied ether," worshipping clouds in lieu of the gods and instructing his students in the ways of avoiding having to part with cash. Though by no means meant to reflect reality, Aristophanes does supply a number of details which seem to correlate well with Plato's own depiction of Socrates. He has an interest in musical tunings, develops tripartite systems - and there are even echoes of Socrates' homoerotic suggestions in the Charmides (though parodied to the point of absurdity) in his insistence that Strepsiades enter the "Think Tank" naked, as some sort of initiation. Socrates is also lampooned in the Birds [1280-1283, 1553-1555] and the Frogs [1491].



Timaeus is depicted as a follower of Pythagoras from the city of Epizephyrian Locris in Calabria, the southernmost region of the Italian mainland. As there are no surviving references to this Timaeus outside of Plato, many scholars consider him a fiction. Various theories are proposed as to who Plato might have based him on: the Italian Pythagoreans Philolaus (with whose work Plato was familiar) and Archytas of Tarentum (who aided Plato in his escape from Dionysius II). Dušanić believed that the name was a reference to the aforementioned Timotheus of Athens, with their mutual enemies forming the basis (along with Dionysus II and his cohort Philistus) of the ten archons of Atlantis to some extent.

Timaeus' home city may well have been chosen for its associations with Dionysius II, whose mother came from the city and which he would terrorise after matters in Syracuse came to a head in 357 BC and Dionysius was removed from power and replaced for a short time by Plato's friend Dion. Dion came to be regarded as a rather high-handed ruler, propped up by foreign troops in his pay, and was removed from office in relatively short order. Additionally, Dion had been banished by Dionysius prior to all this, due in no small part to his conspiring with the Carthaginian enemies of Syracuse.


Hermocrates was a key figure in Sicilian politics during the latter half of the 5th century BC. He was a steadfast opponent of the Athenians, mentioned extensively in Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, and was instrumental in the defeat of the disastrous Sicilian Campaign launched by Athens during that conflict. One interesting notice we have of Hermocrates from later times is a punning statement by Plutarch [Life of Nicias 1.3], which depicts him as divinely inspired to wreak vengeance on Athens for the desecration of the herms (in which Critias was implicated): -

... by the mutilation of the "Hermae," Heaven indicated to them in advance that by the hands of Hermocrates the son of Hermon they were to suffer most of their reverses during the war.

Hermocrates was also important for his political ambitions. He eventually met his end during fighting in the streets of Syracuse subsequent to his attempt to become tyrant, and he can thus be seen as the founding father of the Syracusan tyranny which Plato attempted to guide. His erstwhile lieutenant and son-in-law would eventually secure that position: he was Dionysius I, with whom Plato had some dealings. His son in turn was Dionysius II, whom Plato, along with Dion, unsuccessfully attempted to fashion into the ideal "philosopher-king."



In historical Athens, the cult of Cecrops was served by a family of Eupatrids, the Amynandridae, who took their name from their eponymous founder, an obscure figure by the name of Amynander. Thus, the inclusion of an Amynander, seemingly so casually, in the account represents an invocation of the very foundations of Athenian society, reiterating what Critias has to say at the Apaturia. It is thus highly meaningful that a boy by this name appears alongside the younger Critias at the Apaturia, where he presses the elder Critias for more information on Solon's poem about Atlantis, as well as espousing Solon's poetic talent [Tim. 21b-d]. The name Amynander is somewhat obscure, with the only historical character bearing it being a king of the hemibarbarian Athamanians (also known as Amynas by Polybius [Histories 4.16]), attested in the works of Strabo [9.4], who details his activities in northern Greece during the early 2nd century BC. The name comes from the Greek word ἀμύνω meaning "to keep off, ward off" or "to fight for/in defence of a" (used in the latter sense by Plato's contemporary Xenophon [On Hunting 9.9]), which means that the name of this minor figure in the Timaeus may have been included as a cypher for the redoubtable nature of the paleo-Athenians' upper class and their exploits in the defence against the Atlantean forces.


Well, notwithstanding the fact that Plato is writing a philosophical dialogue and not an account of something that happened to him decades previously, this question certainly deserves an answer.

The only real potential clue is the identity of the fifth participant, who was indisposed due to illness and did not attend the discussion [Tim. 17a]. This may be a reference to Plato: Plato's non-appearance at the deathbed of Socrates is explained as being due to illness according to the title character in the Phaedo [59b]. Other than that, the chronology presents various difficulties. Plato's birth is usually placed in 428/7 BC, which would make him a child at the time of the discussion if the 421 date is used. If Planinc's alternative is preferred, it is, of course, possible, as Plato was very likely a member of Socrates' circle by that date. However, Debra Nails suggests that Plato was born as late as 424/3 BC, which would render even this date difficult.

Sir Graham