Home » Atlantis: the debrief » The date of Atlantis


Written by Graham | Created: Friday 23rd August 2019 @ 0952hrs | Reivsed: Monday 5th October 2020 @ 0011hrs


Querying the 9,000 year datum for Atlantis.

Present: Interrogator (Third Class) Ветка, interrogating, and Agent Г.


What do you have to tell me about the date? Is the 9,000 year gap accurate? Was Atlantis a lost Ice Age power?
1. I haven't been on any since... actually, I haven't been on any. An interest in Atlantis is not conducive to being able to talk with girls without acute embarrassment.
2. Well, Plato - or rather Critias - says it is.
3. No.
Thought you were dating Solon? Haha!
Not funny. I'm no necrophiliac.
Right. Your cellmate would beg to differ. Please begin.
What? He's... but he's the only highbrow conversation I get in here.
Let's just say, if it's a two-way conversation, you're getting a shot of haloperidol.
Okay. Well, the Saïte priest, in his speech to Solon, during which he shoves all manner of sunshine up the collective Athenian fundament [e.g. Tim. 23d-e, 24d], claims that Athenian history stretches back some 9,000 years, to a time before Saïs, when Athens eventually stood alone against the full might of Atlantis.
There's a great deal of focus on Athens' temporal pre-eminence over his own civilisation: in her guise as Athena, the Saïte goddess Neith founds Athens a millennium before Egypt. Otherwise, Athens finally defeats Atlantis 9,000 years before the time of Solon (much rests on Critias' reliability as a narrator, which is dubious). Alan Cameron notes much disagreement in the centuries after Plato as to the precise nature of the relationship between Athens and Sais, which Plato notes at Tim. 21e, and cites Proclus Lycaeus, who mentions contemporary jibes about Plato's borrowing his political notions and hierarchical system from the Egyptians. According to Proclus: -

With respect to the whole of this narration about the Atlantics, some say, that it is a mere history, which was the opinion of Crantor, the first interpreter of Plato, who says, that Plato was derided by those of his time, as not being the inventor of the Republic, but transcribing what the Egyptians had written on this subject; and that he so far regards what is said by these deriders as to refer to the Egyptians this history about the Athenians and Atlantics, and to believe that the Athenians once lived conformably to this polity.
- Proclus Lycaeus, On the Timaeus of Plato [1.75-76].

What's that smell? Ah, yes. Déjà vu.
Vous parlez Français?
Er, non plus. Anyway, back to business.
Well, Plato's contemporary and rival Isocrates [Busiris 15] says, of the mythical pharaoh Busiris: "he divided [the Egyptians] into classes: some he appointed to priestly services, others he turned to the arts and crafts, and others he forced to practise the arts of war." Perhaps even more significantly, Plato's student Aristotle [Politics 7.9-10] is convinced of the pre-eminence of Egypt with regards to the caste system: -
You've reheared this!
That's the simple joy of copying and pasting.
Never mind. You'll learn.

And that it is proper for the state to be divided up into castes and for the military class to be distinct from that of the tillers of the soil does not seem to be a discovery of political philosophers of today or one made recently. In Egypt this arrangement still exists even now, as also in Crete; it is said to have been established in Egypt by the legislation of Sesostris and in Crete by that of Minos. [...] It is from this country that the system of common meals has its origin, while the division of the citizen-body by hereditary caste came from Egypt, for the reign of Sesostris long antedates that of Minos.

With regards to the fragment highlighted, the translator H. Rackham notes that it is "[p]erhaps to be read as denying the originality of Plato's Republic," which suggests that Proclus' statement that Plato's work being ridiculed as derivative of Egyptian custom was based on solid evidence. Consequent from this, Plato's timeline for the development of the civilisations of Atlantis and Egypt by Athena-Neith as set out in the Timaeus and Critias can be read as a response to this criticism, in that the Saïte priest is made to declare the primacy of Athens [Tim. 24c], whilst admitting similarities between the two systems [Tim. 24a-b, cf. Herodotus 2.164 ff.] and, indeed, the division of the Athenians by Ion into four distinct castes is similar.
Herodotus [2.164 ff.] also outlines the elaborate caste structure employed by the Egyptians: -

The Egyptians are divided into seven distinct classes: these are, the priests, the warriors, the cowherds, the swineherds, the tradesmen, the interpreters, and the boatmen. Their titles indicate their occupations. The warriors consist of Hermotybians and Calasirians, who come from different cantons [i.e. nomes], the whole of Egypt being parcelled out into districts bearing this name.

Solon's initial speech to the Egyptians, which caused them such humour [Tim. 22a-b], and which led to the priest's revelations about Athens' glorious past, reminds one of Herodotus' statement about the Egyptian response to Hecataeus and himself giving their genealogies [2.143b]. The 9,000 years is thus not especially relevant other than that it is a greater span of time than the 8,000 years separating the dawn of Egyptian civilisation from Solon's meeting with the priest. Plato rightly points out that the Athenians too had ancient traditions of class distinctions (indeed, it could be argued that the tetrapartite system of the Athenians represents a closer approximation to Plato's schema than does the Egyptian model), and is ultimately citing Egyptian authority to refute claims that he derived his scheme from the ancient country on the Nile by providing a precedent for the Egyptian caste system located at Athens itself. As such, Plato's riposte to his alleged critics represents a breathtakingly audacious piece of propaganda.
Also, an identification of, as opposed to influence from, the Sea Peoples or the supposed catastrophic end of Minoan civilisation with Plato's Atlantis mythos requires an alternative reading of the stated 9,000 years, either as an error for 900, or else reading the figure as referring to "lunar years" (months). However, this is also invalidated by Plato: his sole purpose in dating ancient Athens and Atlantis to such a remote time was that they both arose before civilisation appeared in Egypt (selon Plato, 1,000 years thereafter). Atlantis, therefore, can be found neither on Crete nor Santorini. It is surely impossible to arbitrarily reduce Plato's 9,000 years without putting forth a similar reduction to the 8,000 years of Egyptian - at the very least Saïte - history [Tim. 23d-e]. Either to maintain the 9,000 years as indisputable truth or to suggest a reduction based upon the figure smacks of cherry-picking evidence. Also, the invocation of Atlas and Gadeirus, both names associated with far-western locales, among the sons of Poseidon mitigates against the notion that μείζων (Tim. 24e; or μείζω - Crit. 108e), indicating "larger than," is an error for μέσος/μέσον, which would render the relevant passages "in the middle of" and vaguely connect Atlantis to Crete or Thira.
The great Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus was said to have "fixed the number of Spartan citizens at 9,000, each with a plot of land," a tradition related by Plutarch [Life of Lycurgus 16.1], which is probably a prototype of Plato's description of the allotment of the plain of Atlantis [Crit. 118d-119a]. It is also, however, quite probable that this tradition specifying 9,000 allotments postdates Plato as it is not mentioned by writers such as Herodotus, Xenophon or Aristotle. 9,000 is also a significant figure in Athenian history: during the 1st century BC, Cornelius Nepos, in his biography of Miltiades [5], suggested that the Athenian commander had 9,000 Athenian hoplites in his forces which defeated the Persians at Marathon.
Anyhow, the question of the age of Atlantis and Athens is moot: Egyptian civilisation entered its dynastic era shortly before 3000 BC, with evidence of settlement at Athens dating to the Middle Neolithic in the preceding millennia.
But what about the Ice Age?
Ah, that's what we in the trade call... a coincidence.