Plato twice indicates that Atlantis was "larger than Libya and Asia" [Tim. 24e, Crit. 108e], which suggests that the island was huge, a point reiterated by the size of the Atlantean military. Again, it is necessary to ignore the temptations created by modern geography and to try to analyse what the terms "Libya" and "Asia" indicated in Plato's day.
As noted, whilst the term "Libya" was formerly applied to the entirety of Africa bar Egypt, Herodotus defines Asia as a much more restricted area than the modern conception of the continent. He notes that "the Egyptian Nile and the Colchian Phasis (or according to others the Maeotic Tanaïs and Cimmerian ferry) [...] have been fixed upon for the boundary lines" [4.45] of Asia in the west, whilst, to the east: -
Beyond the tract occupied by the Persians, Medes, Saspirians, and Colchians, towards the east and the region of the sunrise, Asia is bounded on the south by the Erythraean sea, and on the north by the Caspian and the river Araxes, which flows towards the rising sun. Till you reach India the country is peopled; but further east it is void of inhabitants, and no one can say what sort of region it is. Such then is the shape, and such the size of Asia.
For Herodotus, then, Asia can be said to have included Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau and north-western India. As such, in terms of its size one can perhaps imagine it as being roughly analogous to the contemporary Persian Empire. Europe is by far the largest continent in Herodotus' scheme and it "undoubtedly extends as far as both the other two" continents [4.45].
It is worth considering a couple more statements from Herodotus. Scylax of Caryanda, the purported author of the Periplus, sailed for "thirty months" from the mouth of the Indus to Necho's port in the Erythraean (i.e. Red) Sea [4.44], from where a Phoenician expedition had earlier set out to circumnavigate Africa, returning in the third year, a voyage extended by their spending the summer ashore, sowing and reaping corn [4.42].
Thus all Asia, except the eastern portion, has been found to be similarly circumstanced with Libya.
From this discussion, we can draw the following conclusions. Atlantis must be seen as being located close to southwestern Spain outside the Pillars of Heracles, which must therefore be identified with the Straits of Gibraltar. Efforts to locate Atlantis within the Mediterranean are doomed to fail due to a lack of space therein for an island "larger than Libya and Asia," despite the restricted understanding of Asia in Plato's time in comparison with the modern definition of the continent.
For Plato's part, he occasionally associates Asia with the Persian Empire [Lysis 209de, Menexenus 239d; also in the dubious Alcibiades 121ac], as well as Egypt [Tim. 24b]. The Cretan rulers Minos and Rhadamanthus are also referred to as being from Asia [Gorgias 523e], though this is likely due to their mother Europa being from Phoenicia.
In spite of the presence of islands within reasonable distance of the area (especially the Madeira archipelago) and the probability of former islands present near the Straits (e.g. the Spartel Bank), none of these are of the requisite size. Additionally, geology precludes the former existence of an island of the magnitude and topography which Plato ascribes to Atlantis in the correct location and the development of this discipline has disproven the possibility of a major island further off the coast during the period when the Atlantean civilisation could have evolved.
It can be posited quite plausibly that there is some measure of exaggeration in the description of the size of the island of Atlas (as well as other translations being put forth for the passage in question) - but Plato is specific about the size of the central plain: -
[T]he part about the city was all a smooth plain, enclosing it round about, and being itself encircled by mountains which stretched as far as to the sea; and this plain had a level surface and was as a whole rectangular in shape, being 3000 stades long on either side and 2000 stades wide at its center, reckoning upwards from the sea. [Crit. 118a].
The following table compares these dimensions (using a medium estimate for the precise length of a stadion, a stadion in this instance measuring 185/177.6 metres or 606 ft 11.5 in/582 ft 8.1 in) with two Atlantic islands: Ireland (relevant as the "Holy Island" mentioned in the account of Himilco the Carthaginian) and Madeira (the closest to the Strait of Gibraltar). Two pertinent Mediterranean islands - Sicily (the largest) and Crete - are also included: -
|Length and width
|570.52/547.6 by 380.28/365.07 km or
354.58/340.4 by 236.39/226.93 miles
|Up to 216,957/199,912 km2 or
|486 by 275 km or
302 by 171 miles
|84,421 km2 or
|55 by 22 km or
34 by 14 miles
|741 km2 or
|280 by 180 km or
170 by 110 miles
|25,708 km2 or
|260 by 60 km or
160 by 37 miles
|8,336 km2 or
To conclude, then, while the "larger than Libya and Asia" quote is likely to be put down to Plato having Critias laying on a thick helping of hyperbole, the central plain was considerably larger than Ireland! Indeed, it approaches the scale Ireland's eastern neighbour, the home of a wretched, miserable folk, which has a surface area of 209,331 km2 or 80,823 mi2.
Even were this the total extent of the portion granted to Atlas and his descendants, "which was the largest and best" [Crit. 114a], the total area of cultivable land available to the ten rulers and their retainers must have been far larger still - notwithstanding the significant tracts of the island which were mountainous [Crit. 118ab].
All in all, then, the island of Atlas was a very large island indeed.
During the course of the island's history, the Atlanteans made impressive advancements in many fields and carried out significant public works, the most significant being the construction of a huge ditch encircling the central plain ("it was dug out to the depth of a plethrum and to a uniform breadth of a stade, and since it was dug round the whole plain its consequent length was 10,000 stades" - Crit. 118cd) and a vast canal between the city and the sea ("beginning at the sea, they bored a channel right through to the outermost circle, which was three plethra in breadth, one hundred feet in depth, and fifty stades in length; and thus they made the entrance to it from the sea like that to a harbor by opening out a mouth large enough for the greatest ships to sail through" - Crit. 115d). Navigation, blacksmithing, armoury, quarrying and mining were developed, the last two contributing to the development of the earthworks and harbours beneath the central island [Crit. 116b]. The circles of water were bridged, with aqueducts constructed beside the bridges to facilitate the outflow of water from the hot and cold springs on the central island [Crit. 117ab]. Other major building projects included walls, many lined in various metals [Crit. 116bc, 117e], shipyards, a race track, bath houses and reservoirs and houses in the island's black, white and red stones. The focal point of the central island was a glorious temple to Poseidon and Cleito.
Clearly, the people of the island were carrying out public works on a vast scale. It is worth comparing the dimensions of the circuit of the plain and the canal between the city and the sea with other monuments depicted in ancient literature. Two such comparanda can be noted in Herodotus' Histories, namely: the excavation of Lake Moeris and its adjoining canal (now known as the Bahr Yussef) by the eponymous pharaoh [2.149], elaborated upon by Diodorus Siculus [1.51.5]; and the canal designed to facilitate navigation between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, begun by Necho II and developed further by Darius [2.158]. Three modern constructions, the Suez, Panama and Corinthian Canals, are also included. Comparable in size to the ditch is another endeavour, the Grand Canal in China, which represents the combined efforts of that nation over the course of two millennia.
1850/1776 km or 1149.54/1103.56 miles
185/177.6 m or 606 ft 11.5 in/582 ft 8.1 in
30.83/29.6 m or 101 ft 1.8 in/97 ft 1.4 in
9.25/8.88 km or 5.75/5.52 miles
92.5/88.8 m or 303 ft 5.7 in/291 ft 4.1 in
30.83/29.6 m or 101 ft 1.8 in/97 ft 1.4 in
|Atlantis great wall
|398.98 stades in circumference
73.81/70.86 km or 45.86/44.03 miles
Area enclosed was 127 stades in diameter
23.5/22.56 km or 14.6/14.02 miles
|11 stades minimum
2.035/1.95 km or 1.26/1.21 miles
30.83/29.6 m or 101 ft 1.8 in/97 ft 1.4 in
|Canal of the pharaohs
|125 miles or "four days' sail"
|W.W. How and J. Wells note "[t]he remains of the canal at Belbês show that it was some 50 yards wide and 16 to 17 feet deep; cf. vii. 24 (the Mount Athos canal) for the breadth - 'two triremes abreast'."
|Lake Moeris and the Bahr Yussef
|Lake Moeris was 3,600 stades in circumference
666/639.36 km or 413.83/397.28 miles
The Bahr Yussef is some 15 miles in length
|Maximum depth of Lake Moeris was 50 fathoms (πεντηκοντόργυιος)
92.5/88.8 m or 303 ft 5.7 in/291 ft 4.1 in
|193.3 km or 120.11 miles
|205 m or 673 ft
|24 m or 79 ft
|77.1 km or 48 miles
|33.53 m or 110 ft
|12 m or 39.5 ft maximum draft
|6.35 km or 4 miles
|24.6 m or 81 ft (top);
21.3 m or 70 ft (bottom)
|90 m or 300 ft maximum channel depth
Given that Necho's canal-building endeavour cost 120,000 lives, and the lack of any notice of futuristic technology or supernatural assistance, the public works of the Atlanteans, which were of an order of magnitude exponentially greater than Necho's, would surely have resulted in a seven-figure death toll, displaying a callous disregard for the welfare of the community as a whole on the part of the Atlantean government. Thus, it is to be assumed that these developments took place at a late stage of Atlantean culture [cf. Crit. 121ab].
The people of Atlantis also develop a sophisticated irrigation and transport system on the plain to the north of their great city: every hundred stades, a canal, between the mountains and the trench, a hundred feet wide enabled materials to be conveyed by boat from the hinterland to the city. In terms of agriculture, "they cropped the land twice a year, making use of the rains from Heaven in the winter, and the waters that issue from the earth in summer, by conducting the streams from the trenches" [Crit. 118e].
Overall, the picture given by Plato suggests that the Atlanteans enjoyed a similar technological level to the Greeks of his day: the mention of triremes [Crit. 115e] and hoplites [Crit. 119b], both of which emerged in the late archaic period, coupled with the implication that iron was available to the people of Atlantis [Crit. 119e], are indicative of a similar culture to that of the Classical Greeks. The only feature harking back to earlier times is the mention of chariots amongst the forces of Atlantis [Crit. 119ab], which can perhaps be put down as a conscious archaism to give the account an epic sheen. The inference from this is that civilisations attained a similar level of technological acumen on a regular basis, before being overthrown by a natural disaster [Tim. 22cd].
Rather than being constituted as a separate caste or class, as in Athens and Callipolis, the Atlantean military was raised from among the common people. The armed forces of the island were divided into a muster from each locality. On the plain, there were 60,000 allotments (κλῆρος) of 10 stades by 10 stades, with the rest of Atlas' portion of the island raising troops in districts (τόπος) and villages (κώμη) assigned to the allotments under a designated chief (ἡγεμών). Each ἡγεμών was obliged to furnish: one sixth of the gear for a chariot; two horses for a καταβάτης, a fighter who leaps from horseback to fight, and another man; two hoplites (ὁπλίτης); two archers (τοξότης); two slingers (σφενδονήτης); three light-armed slingers (γυμνής δὲ λιθόβολος); three javelin men (ἀκοντιστής); and four sailors (ναύτης). In total, the region controlled by the capital city of Atlantis [τῆς βασιλικῆς πόλεως] boasted 1,200 ships (νήιος - triremes are also mentioned at 115e) with 240,000 sailors and 10,000 chariots, with two horses and men [Crit. 119ab]. "[T]hose of the other nine," however, "varied in various ways."
The stated size of the Atlantean fleet compares with Herodotus' account of the Persian fleet which invaded Greece, given with precision as 1,207 [7.89], as well as the number of ships on which the Achaean forces embarked for Troy, listed in the famous "Catalogue of Ships" [2.494-759] from the Iliad, a total of 1,186.
Even if the numbers given in the account (without suggesting similar troop numbers from each portion of Atlantis) are taken as representing the island's armed forces as a whole, the numbers are quite staggering. Crit. 119ab lists some 720,000 infantrymen and 140,000 cavalrymen. Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, in their overview of the size of ancient armed forces, know of no fighting force in the ancient world of a similar magnitude, though cite "General Percy-Sykes' analysis of Xerxes' army [which] suggests that the total force, including support troops, numbered a million men!" Nevertheless, Herodotus [9.32] only estimates the Persian force at Plataea as being 300,000 strong with around 50,000 Greek allies. Diodorus [11.30.1] suggests 500,000 Persian troops. Even today, only a select few of the world's richest and most populous states have more personnel under arms that what is claimed as the size of the Atlantic island's armed forces.
Clearly, for such an unprecedented military adventure to be repulsed by "about 20,000" Athenian guardians [Crit. 112d] represents the latter state's greatest glory, eclipsing even the famous triumph at Marathon and its many mythological precursors. As such, the tale of this conflict conforms well to the idea of a charter myth. Put into the context of the Republic, the Atlantis myth may well be the warrior class' equivalent to the "noble lie."
In addition, there are hints that a standing army of sorts existed, mainly to protect the king and archons: Crit. 117cd discusses the spearmen barracked in the city - 117d says that "the most trustworthy of [them] all had dwellings granted to them within the acropolis round about the persons of the kings." The word δορυφορικαὶ, used for these men, is used in The Republic [8.567d and 9.575b] to describe the bodyguards of tyrants.
Added to this is the statement at Crit. 119c ("[e]ach of the ten kings ruled over the men and most of the laws in his own particular portion and throughout his own city, punishing and putting to death whomsoever he willed") which is highly suggestive of the arbitrary nature of kingship in Atlantis vis-à-vis the populace, a situation highly dependent on the good judgement of the kings to ensure its good functioning.
Corollary with the increased military presence is a lust for conquest, leading to the expansionist phase.
Alongside the increased focus on the military (θυμοειδές, the part of the soul governing matters of honour) is incremental mercantile traffic, with Plato noting the plethora of "ships and merchants coming from all quarters" [Crit. 117e, a situation critiqued in the Laws 4.705e; cf 114d], suggesting an additional coming to the fore of the impulses associated with the third part of the soul, ἐπιθυμητικόν, which would lead to the sanctification of duplicity and, together with the conquests, control of foreign markets.
Ignoring their much-diluted divine heritage and giving themselves over to their "human" side, the rulers of Atlantis become less and less akin to Plato's ideal and more greedy and ostentatious, whilst the legal system, open to abuse by unscrupulous rulers, gave them the means to quell any opposition which would likely arise from mass conscription to public works programmes. All in all, Atlantis is modelled as a society ripe for corruption, with all social and legal systems vulnerable to misuse and abuse by any would-be tyrants arising from the line of Atlas.