Home » Atlantis » The identity of Critias and Plato's dating of Solon


Written by Graham | Created: Saturday 19th September 2020 @ 2328hrs | Revised: Saturday 17th October 2020 @ 2353hrs; Friday 1st January 2021 @ 1149hrs

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The prevailing dating of Solon's career in the early part of the 6th century BC has had ramifications for the identity of Plato's Critias. This page looks at an alternative identification with the oligarch's grandfather.

Additionally, the logic underpinning the date for Solon is examined, with an alternative scenario proposed.


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?


To answer that, we must turn to the date of Solon. This 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, 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.