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Written by Graham | Created: Thursday 8th October 2020 @ 1106hrs

Atlantis is described in some detail by Plato. This essay furnishes an overview of its major characteristics.

Ranged against the peoples of the Mediterranean so long ago was the advanced island-based empire of Atlantis, which is described as being "larger than Libya and Asia together" [Tim. 24e; Crit. 109e]. The presence of a major landmass made "it [...] possible for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean" [Tim. 24e-25a], with the rulers of the island eventually "bearing rule over many other islands throughout the sea, and holding sway besides [...] over the Mediterranean peoples as far as Egypt and Tuscany" [Crit. 114c], as well as a tract of the opposite landmass [Tim. 25a]. The island was resource-rich and "furnished most of the requirements of daily life, - metals, to begin with, both the hard kind and the fusible kind, which are extracted by mining" [Crit. 114e]. There were vast tracts of forest and plentiful wildlife. Atlantis "contained a very large stock of elephants" [Crit. 114e]. Agriculturally, Atlantis provided a number of crops, identified by the translator W.R.M. Lamb as "the vine; corn; the olive, or coco-palm;" "[p]erhaps the pomegranate, or apple;" and "[p]erhaps the citron" [notes on Crit. 115ab].


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Plato provides a potted history of Atlantis, beginning with the rise to power of a ruling family initially based on the island's central plain, who come to divide the island into ten. Much of Plato's description of this vast island concentrates on this plain, said to be "[b]ordering on the sea and extending through the centre of the whole island" [Crit. 113c], and possessed of "a level surface and was as a whole rectangular in shape, being 3000 stades (555 km or 346.99 miles using a stade of 185 metres1; 532.8 km or 333.1067 miles using a stade of 177.6 metres) long on either side and 2000 stades (370/355.2 km or 239.34/220.71 miles) wide at its centre, reckoning upwards from the sea" [Crit. 118a] which, "all along the island, faced towards the South and was sheltered from the Northern blasts" [Crit. 118b]. At the centre of the plain, some 50 stades from the sea, there was a small mountain where the founders of the royal house, Evenor and Leucippe, lived with their daughter Cleito [Crit. 113cd].

After her parents died, Poseidon fell in love with Cleito and enclosed the mountain in three concentric rings of water, siring five sets of twin sons who became the founders of Atlantis' ten royal houses [Crit. 113d-e ff.]. The elder of the first pair was Atlas, who became the first high king and received the area around the central island of Cleito, and in whose honour the island was named [Crit. 114a-b]. The second member of the pair was "Eumelus in Greek, but in the native tongue Gadeirus," who ruled over "the extremity of the island near the pillars of Heracles up to the part of the country now called Gadeira after the name of that region" [Crit. 114b]. Pseudo-Apollodorus [2.5.10], probably following the archaic poet Stesichorus (roughly contemporary with Solon) associates the name "Gadira" with the island of Erytheia, scene of Heracles' tenth labour, which is described as "near the ocean." The region in question is most likely to be the area of the early Phoenician colony on a small island, now attached to the land and part of the Spanish city of Cádiz, though an Agadir also exists in Morocco. Erytheia is also the name of one of the Hesperides, daughters - in some sources - of the Titan Atlas. The other twin sets of archons were named: Ampheres and Evaemon; Mneseus and Autochthon; Elasippus and Mestor; and Azaes and Diaprepes.


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The residual function of a western axis mundi also appears in Crit. 118b, where the mountains surrounding the plain are said to have been "celebrated as surpassing all that now exist in number, magnitude (μέγεθος) and beauty." This also accords well with Herodotus' "Mount Atlas" - known to the natives of that region as the "Pillar of Heaven" - and, to an extent, echoes Homer's statement about the trees of Calypso's island home of Ogygia, which "rose to the sky" [Odyssey 5.239b]. Atlas himself is depicted by Homer "support[ing] the great columns (κίονας αὐτὸς μακράς) that separate earth and sky" [Odyssey 1.52-54], which differs significantly from the classic view of him supporting the heavens himself. Plato, of course, has his own twist: the description of Cleito's hill as "a mountain that was low on all sides" [Crit. 113c] is the opposite of what one would expect for an axis mundi.


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Plato [Tim. 24e; Crit. 108e] twice indicates that Atlantis was "larger than Libya and Asia," 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 bearing his name, 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.
- Herodotus, Histories [4.44].

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. 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.


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One of the best-known features of Atlantis is its capital city, enclosed within a series of perfectly-circular rings of land and water. Plato describes their creation through the agency of Poseidon, who wished to create a home for himself and the Atlantean Cleito that was off limits to the rest of the inhabitants of the island.

[T]o make the hill whereon [Cleito] dwelt impregnable [Poseidon] broke it off all round about; and he made circular belts of sea and land enclosing one another alternately, some greater, some smaller, two being of land and three of sea, which he carved as it were out of the midst of the island; and these belts were at even distances on all sides, so as to be impassable for man; for at that time neither ships nor sailing were as yet in existence.
- Plato, Critias [113de].

Likely prototypes for this arrangement of concentric circles of land and water, which Poseidon created in the early stage of Atlantis' history, have been identified in Herodotus' descriptions of Ecbatana, the seven-walled capital of the Medes [1.98] and - in terms of the moats - the same author's account of Babylon [1.178], with potential influence from Carthage's mothon, a circular military harbour, if this was in existence during Plato's day.

Poseidon's labours mark the beginning of Atlantean history proper and neatly bookend with Zeus' truncated decree [Crit. 121bc], aimed at correction. The Atlanteans' presumed failure to mend their ways led to the νῆσος ἱερὰ's destruction, which, coinciding with phenomenon akin to an earthquake liquefaction, additionally claimed the lives of Athens' soldiery. The irruption of the sea and submergence of the Atlantic island, coupled with a chthonic event, would be most likely regarded as Poseidon's work, thus he is the most likely culprit for the end of his descendants [cf. Odyssey 14.159-187].


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And Poseidon himself set in order with ease, as a god would, the central island, bringing up from beneath the earth two springs of waters, the one flowing warm from its source, the other cold, and producing out of the earth all kinds of food in plenty.
- Plato, Critias [113e].

One of the signal characteristics of Plato's Atlantis is this existence of two springs bearing warm and cold water on its central acropolis. These were: -

[...] of abundant volume, and each kind was wonderfully well adapted for use because of the natural taste and excellence of its waters; and these they surrounded with buildings and with plantations of trees such as suited the waters; and, moreover, they set reservoirs round about, some under the open sky, and others under cover to supply hot baths in the winter; they put separate baths for the kings and for the private citizens, besides others for women, and others again for horses and all other beasts of burden, fitting out each in an appropriate manner. And the outflowing water they conducted to the sacred grove of Poseidon, which contained trees of all kinds that were of marvellous beauty and height because of the richness of the soil; and by means of channels they led the water to the outer circles over against the bridges.
- Plato, Critias [117a-b].

In his 2013 essay Locations of Mythical Exile, the Croatian classicist Tomislav Bilić lists two occurrences of juxtaposed hot and cold bodies of water, both of which postdate Plato. In his biography of the religious figure Apollonius of Tyana [1.6], Philostratus makes mention of the Asbama, a spring near Apollonius' home town: -

Now there is near Tyana a well sacred to Zeus, the god of paths, so they say, and they call it the well of Asbama. Here a spring rises cold, but bubbles up like a boiling cauldron. This water is favorable and sweet to those who keep their paths, but to perjurers it brings hot-footed justice; for it attacks their eyes and hands and feet, and they fall the prey of dropsy and wasting disease; and they are not even able to go away, but are held on the spot and bemoan themselves at the edge of the spring, acknowledging their perjuries.

Towards the end of antiquity, Priscianus speaks about a sacred fountain associated with Cadmus and Harmonia's exile in Illyria, which Bilić suspects "has a complex mythical background and belongs properly to some early concept of the Adriatic as the Land of Bliss," adding that "the abode of the serpentine hero from Thebes seems to be located in the West, which is a close parallel with the western abode of serpentine Typhon, Ophion, or Cronus himself." The "Sacred fountain, at the same time unnaturally cold and miraculously hot" would then be properly located in the furthest west. As Bilić notes elsewhere: "[a]mong the earliest accounts of the western exile is presumably Cronus' banishment to the Adriatic. It could be claimed that Cronus and Rhea were associated with the Adriatic in an age when the Greeks considered it the western edge of the known world, this being the earliest layer of their mythical geographyc."

In terms of precursors for the idea of twin springs, the most notable is undoubtedly the tributaries or sources of the Scamander river, yielding hot and cold water, depicted at Troy in the Iliad [22.147-152], of which the first is described as surrounded by smoke as if produced by a fire, while the other remains numbingly cold even in summer. These fountains are located close to the wall (Hector and Achilles pass by during the famous scene leading up to their fatal duel) and nearby are located water tanks fashioned in stone.

A second group of Homeric springs, though without any difference in temperature, is found within the garden of the Phaeacian king Alcinous in Homer's Odyssey [7.129-131]. Here, "there are two springs in the orchard, one flowing through the whole garden, while the other runs the opposite way, under the courtyard sill, near where the people of the city draw their water, towards the great house," with another spring noted in a grove sacred to Athena nearby [6.292-294]. Coincidentally, the name of the Phaeacians' former home of Hypereia is also the name of a spring in Thessaly mentioned in the Iliad, where it is on one occasion paired with a second spring, Messeïs [6.457], while Hypereia is placed within the land ruled by Euaemon, alongside "Asterium and the white towers of Titanus" [2.734-737].

The spring in the grove of Athena is made up of poplar trees, which also appear in other descriptions of sources of water from the Odyssey: poplars stand around a cave from which a stream emerges on the small island facing the harbour on the island of the Cyclopes [9.141-143] and poplars are one of the species forming the woodland around the cave inhabited by Calypso on Ogygia [5.64], close to which "four neighbouring springs, channelled this way and that, flowed with crystal water" [5.70], as well as appearing at the edge of the island where they "rose to the sky" [5.239], reminiscent of the "trees of all kinds that were of marvellous beauty and height because of the richness of the soil" in the sacred grove of Poseidon on the Atlantean acropolis [Crit. 117b]. The water management and tree plantations noted in the Critias [117a-b] bear a strong resemblance to the descriptions of Ogygia and Scheria in the Odyssey. Additionally, a wild fig-tree is mentioned in the Iliad just prior to the two fountains.Also located in the furthest west, the Roman writer Pomponius Mela [3.102] mentions two springs possessed of strange and miraculous powers on the Fortunate Isles, here identified with the Canary Islands. The section is worth quoting in full: -

Opposite the sandy part, the Fortunate Isles abound in spontaneously generated plants; and with various ones always producing new fruit in rapid succession, the islands nourish people who want for nothing [cf Crit. 115a-b, 118e], and whose islands are more blissfully productive than others are. One of the islands is primarily famous for the uniqueness of its two springs: those who have sipped the one laugh to death; the cure for those so affected is to drink from the other.

This passage is similar to Theopompus' two rivers of the western extreme of the outer continent in the Meropis: "there are two rivers in this place, one of pleasure, the other of grief; and that along each river grow trees of the bigness of a plane-tree. Those which grow up by the river of grief bear fruit of this nature; if any one eat of them, he shall spend all the rest of his life in tears and grief, and so die. The other trees which grow by the river of pleasure produce fruit of a contrary nature, for who tastes thereof shall be eased from all his former desires: if he loved any thing, he shall quite forget it; and in a short time shall become younger, and live over again his former years: he shall cast off old age, and return to the prime of his strength, becoming first a young man, then a child, lastly, an infant, and so die." This duality reflects the dual nature of the two major cities of the continent as described by Theopomus: warlike Machimus and lawful Eusebes.

In the real world, Pausanias discusses the opposite natures of two Arcadian rivers, the noxious Styx (whose implications are self-explanatory, given that this stream shares its name with the dread river of the underworld) [8.17.6-18.6], and the Alyssus, which reportedly possessed curative powers [8.19.2-3], and ran near a complex of medical baths [8.18.7-8].

Perhaps one of the other potential sources for the temperature differential associated with the springs on the Atlantean acropolis can also be found in the underworld, specifically Homer's description of Odysseus in the land of the dead beyond Oceanus, where he comes to "a rock where two roaring rivers join the Acheron, Cocytus, which is a tributary of the Styx, and Pyriphlegethon" [10.513-514]. As the name suggests, the Pyriphlegethon was, in stark contrast to its gloomy underworld peers, envisaged as being a river of flame. Plato pairs it with the Cocytus in the Phaedo where the Pyriphlegethon forms a lake of mud and water similar in some respects to the shallow and muddy nature of the Atlantic as a result of the sinking of the island. Bilić also notes "Orphic" sources: "[a]cording to the ‘Orphic’ Gold Leaves, there are two springs in Hades: first, the one on the left hand side with a white cypress growing beside it, which is to be avoided; and a second, called the fountain of Mnemosyne, whose cool water the initiates should drink." Mnemosyne is the fountain of remembrance and is thus clearly drawn into opposition with the fountain of Lethe, mentioned by Plato in the "Myth of Er" [Republic 10.621a], which causes the souls of the deceased to forget their past lives during the process of metempsychosis. Plutarch, in the De sera numinis vindicta [22], which is probably modelled on the Er myth, describes the underworld journey of one Thespesius of Soli, in which he encounters demons surrounding three pools: "[m]oreover, he said, there were certain lakes that lay parallel and equidistant one from the other, the one of boiling gold, another of lead, exceeding cold, and the third of iron, which was very scaly and rugged."

It is also worth pointing out that, in Egyptian cosmology, the Nile emerged from the boundless waters of the Nun via two qrtj ("caves") on the island of Elephantine (a.k.a. Abu or Yebu). Jan Assmann associates the inundation, which has its origins in the cave, with the efflux of Osiris after his murder by Seth, with the Elephantine region associated with Osiris' wounded leg. E.A. Wallis Budge associated Elephantine with Kns.t, a location which is nowadays normally placed in Nubia, and which is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts [Unas 254.280] in striking terms: -

Ha! Your fields are in fright, o jAd-star,
before the pillar of stars,
when they have seen the pillar of Kenset (a country), the Bull of Heaven.
How the herdsman of the bulls is overwhelmed with awe before him!


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The mythical orichalcum (ὀρείχαλκος, literally "mountain copper") is featured in a number of works from as early as the Homeric Hymns. In the second hymn to Aphrodite [Homeric Hymns 6.9], the goddess has earrings made from the metal: -

They clothed her with heavenly garments: on her head they put a fine, well-wrought crown of gold, and in her pierced ears they hung ornaments of orichalc and precious gold.

Pseudo-Hesiod [Shield of Heracles 122] mentions it as featuring on the eponymous object and the metal is also mentioned in the work of the lyric poets Stesichorus [Fr. 260: a type of copper mentioned by S. and Bacchylides] and Ibycus [Fr. 282(a): this intriguing allusion describes Cyanippus or Zeuxippus is likened to Troilus "as gold already thrice-refined to orichalc"]. As Plato states that orichalcum is a metal of "that kind which is now known only by name but was more than a name then" [Crit. 114e] suggests that the abundance of orichalcum, "which sparkled like fire" [Crit. 116c], on the island is another mythological feature.


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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. 118c-d) 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. 117a-b]. Other major building projects included walls, many lined in various metals [Crit. 116b-c, 117e], shipyards, a race track, bath houses and reservoirs and houses built with the island's characteristic black, white and red stones to portray the people's aesthetic values. 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.

Monument Length Width Depth
The Ditch 10,000 stades
1850/1776 km or 1149.54/1103.56 miles
1 stade
185/177.6 m or 606 ft 11.5 in/582 ft 8.1 in
1 plethrum
30.83/29.6 m or 101 ft 1.8 in/97 ft 1.4 in
The Canal 50 stades
9.25/8.88 km or 5.75/5.52 miles
3 plethra
92.5/88.8 m or 303 ft 5.7 in/291 ft 4.1 in
100 podes
30.83/29.6 m or 101 ft 1.8 in/97 ft 1.4 in
The 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
The Road 11 stades minimum
2.035/1.95 km or 1.26/1.21 miles
1 plethrum
30.83/29.6 m or 101 ft 1.8 in/97 ft 1.4 in
The 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 3,600 stades in circumference
666/639.36 km or 413.83/397.28 miles
Maximum depth was 50 fathoms (πεντηκοντόργυιος)
92.5/88.8 m or 303 ft 5.7 in/291 ft 4.1 in
The Suez Canal 193.3 km or 120.11 miles 205 m or 673 ft 24 m or 79 ft
The Panama Canal 77.1 km or 48 miles 33.53 m or 110 ft 12 m or 39.5 ft maximum draft
The Corinthian Canal 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. 121a-b].

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. 119a-b], 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. 22c-d].


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The royal palace of Atlantis is centred upon a temple to Poseidon and Cleito, ringed with a wall of gold, commemorating the place where their union produced the ten archons. Plato goes on to describe a temple of Poseidon (likely identical with this), in which the statue of the god, reaching to the roof of the edifice, stood upon a chariot pulled by six winged horses and surrounded by a hundred nereids on dolphins (rather than the more conventional fifty of Plato's day). The temple was surrounded by the ever-increasing number of statues dedicated by the archons and, significantly, private men of means (persumably of a mercantile bent). Poseidon's grove, watered by the twin springs, contained all manner of trees of prodigious size. All of this suggests a critique by Plato of religion being reduced to ostentatious display, without a firm grasp of its real meaning. The merchants - bringing in a wide array of goods and riches - and the archons - beneficiaries of great wealth - thus enter a vicious cycle, leading to the degeneration of Atlantis' culture.


Whilst each of the rulers had absolute power in their own portion of the island, relations between the ten families were strictly governed by a code of law: according to Crit. 119c, "their authority over one another and their mutual relations were governed by the precepts of Poseidon, as handed down to them by the law and by the records inscribed by the first princes on a pillar of orichalcum, which was placed within the temple of Poseidon in the centre of the island." The ten kings are obliged to meet in the royal city alternatively every four and five years to discuss any breaches of the law, before hunting one of the bulls left free in the area of the temple with "staves and nooses but with no weapon of iron" [Crit. 119e], sacrificing the victim and allowing the blood to run down the pillar as an offering before engaging in sacred ceremonies described in 119e-120c. 120c-d outlines the obligations: "that they should never take up arms against one another, and that, should anyone attempt to overthrow in any city their royal house, they should all lend aid, taking counsel in common, like their forerunners, concerning their policy in war and other matters, while conceding the leadership to the royal branch of Atlas; and that the king had no authority to put to death any of his brother-princes save with the consent of more than half of the ten."

Thomas Rosenmeyer notes that the meetings between the ten archons points to the existence of a magnus annus of nine years, which "may well be related to the period of 9,000 years featured elsewhere in the dialogue." Rosenmeyer suggests that the alternation is based on reckoning systems such as the Olympiad, which "consisted of 49 and 50 months alternately," and states that the magnus annus concept also had Greek roots: "the magni anni of 19 and 59 years [were] mentioned in fifth-century writings." 9,000 years would be a magnus annus of nine thousand-year journeys of the soul through the underworld [Republic 10.615a], and the reference in the Phaedrus [248e], which features a 10,000 year circuit of the soul (i.e. ten separate incarnations) is not incompatible: Rosenmeyer notes that "[t]he figure 9 itself appears to be the result of subtracting 1 from the decad," drawing a comparison with the magni anni mentioned in sources dating to the century before Plato's career.


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Atlantis boasted a considerable military, which was put to constructive use in the subjugation of northern Africa and western Europe. 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. 119a-b]. "[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 [7.894], as well as the number of ships on which the Achaean forces embarked for Troy, listed in the famous "Catalogue of Ships" [Iliad 2.494-759], 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 statesDepending on different definitions, modern forces with the ability to outmatch Atlantis in terms of manpower are the People's Liberation Army (People's Republic of China), the United States Armed Forces, Indian Armed Forces, Russian Armed Forces and the Korean People's Army (DPR Korea). 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" [Crit. 112d] Athenian guardians 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. 117c-d 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; 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 at 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.


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At an indeterminate period of its history, as the generations passed, Atlantis became increasingly overbearing and decadent, prompting Zeus to try corrective measures, before eventually the island continent was destroyed. Perhaps the first step in the decline from their previous place of honour is the bridging of the circles of water [Crit. 115c] - though, alternatively, this would have to be accomplished early to enable Poseidon's children to assume their responsibilities as regional archons. Over the course of time, the Atlanteans, and the Atlantid kings in particular, became exceedingly rich [Crit. 114d; 121a]. Previously, they had "thought scorn of everything save virtue and lightly esteemed their rich possessions" [120e], though eventually, "as each king received it [i.e. the palace] from his predecessor, he added to its adornment and did all he could to surpass the king before him" [Crit. 115cd], the greedy appetites of the so-called human element in their nature (i.e. those associated with οἱ πολλοί) won out and "they lost their comeliness, through being unable to bear the burden of their possessions, and became ugly to look upon, in the eyes of him who has the gift of sight; for they had lost the fairest of their goods from the most precious of their parts; but in the eyes of those who have no gift of perceiving what is the truly happy life, it was then above all that they appeared to be superlatively fair and blessed, filled as they were with lawless ambition and power" [Crit. 121b], prompting Zeus to take drastic action in an attempt to correct them [121bc]. Unfortunately (or - perhaps - by design), the text breaks off just as the divine thunderer is about to describe his plans.

The story is taken up in the Timaeus, wherein Critias states that: "the island of Atlantis [...] was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down" [25d] as part of what seems like a global catastrophe: simultaneously, "the whole body of [Athens'] warriors was swallowed up by the earth" [ibid.], as "the action of a single night of extraordinary rain [...] crumbled it [i.e. the expanded Athenian acropolis] away and made it bare of soil" [Crit. 112a], due to earthquakes occurring simultaneously to the Atlantean flood event. This had been preceded by other "portentous earthquakes and floods" [Tim. 25c], and represents the "third of the disastrous floods which preceded the destructive deluge in the time of Deucalion."

In short, Plato paints a picture of a society in stark contrast to the static Athenians. Unlike their nemeses, the Atlanteans put great store in major public works and vie to outdo the accomplishments of their predecessors. To suggest that this is due to an acquisitive nature is an oversimplification, especially in light of Plato's characterisation of the Egyptians too as a trading people. The Egyptians share with the Ur-Athenians a culture which remains the same generation after generation, and Herodotus' account of the statues of Egyptian high priests - all of which are practically identical and fashioned in wood - is opposed to the increasingly ostentatious statuary of the Atlantean leaders. A close parallel to the success of the Atlanteans is that of democratic Athens, which was also the scene of great public works, particularly under the aegis of Pericles, where the proceeds of the Delian League (the treasury of which was, after 454 BC, transferred from Delos to Athens) in the 5th century and, later, the Second Athenian Confederation were channelled into Athenian coffers, leading to the resentment of the city's allies and opportunities for its enemies. The destruction of Atlantis thus serves as a stark warning for the Athenians of Plato's day to avoid the path of ὕβρις which led to Atlantis - and 5th century Athens - getting its comeuppance, and to take heed of the ways of their own illustrious ancestors, content and happy in their own land. The lack of success met by Plato's appeal is abundantly clear: Athens, in panic, withdrew from - and subsequently saw her allies defeated in - the Third Sacred War in the 340s, and the city's autonomy was extinguished in the wake of a Greek alliance's defeat by Philip II of Macedon at Chaeronea in 338 BC.

Atlantis, however, remains a compelling idea for many people. The last word, about why Atlantis still maintains its grip on the popular imagination whilst the ancient Athenian state opposing it and much of Plato's other work is forgotten, we leave to the incomparable Lyon Sprague de Camp, whose Lost Continents remains to this day perhaps the finest overview of Atlantis in the popular imagination: -

In addition, many a fiction-writer, striving to compose an entertaining story and at the same time to show the triumph of good over evil, has ended up by creating a fascinating villain and a stuffed shirt of a hero. Plato fell into just this trap. Athens, his hero, turns out a bleak, dull sort of place while his villain Atlantis has fascinated men for centuries with its glamor. Even Plato himself succumbed to the seductions of Atlantis, for he gave it nearly three times the space in Kritias that he did Athens.