Home » Atlantis: the debrief » Who is Critias?


Written by Graham | Created: Friday 23rd August 2019 @ 1127hrs | Revised: Friday 18th September 2020 @ 2335hrs

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Requesting further information on the character Critias.

Present: Interrogator (Second Class) Корень, interrogating, and Agent Г.


*lights cigarette and takes a long, satisfying drag*
Wait... you're allowed to smoke inside?
Of course I am. This is the 1980s. Everyone was doing it back then. Don't you watch television?
... I...
... anyway, out previous discussion finished... *leafs through papers in a file* ah, yes. Critias.
*ahem* tell me about this Critias.
First question. You note that Plato presents Critias as the man with the knowledge about Atlantis...
... from which you imply that the story correctly should be ascribed to this character, Critias, rather than Plato?
I do indeed.
... and, given Critias'... less than stellar performance as a narrator, his claims to be speaking truth ought to be doubted?
So it is not Plato himself who is endorsing the accuracy of the information?
Well, I wouldn't say that Plato is writing history here, certainly. He was, after all, a philosopher.
I am afraid I am not convinced these words are those of Critias rather than Plato.
That's a valid opinion.
However, it must be borne in mind that the teaching of Socrates - who left no writings in his own name - must be reconstructed from the sources who deal with his life and career. Of these, Plato (notwithstanding an honourable mention for Xenophon) is by far the most important.
So the material ascribed to him by Plato can be treated as though they are those of Socrates himself, surely the same logic must also be applied to the other characters who feature in the dialogues? That Plato was writing in imitation of the styles of these characters, and voicing opinions he thought (or even knew) to be theirs?
Hmmm... I shall have to take that upstairs. Well, I guess the next obvious place to go is to find out more about the man. Who was he?
That's a good question. Since the time Plato was writing until quite recently, it was largely supposed that the Critias who narrates the tale of Atlantis was the Athenian politician of the latter half of the 5th century BC.
This man was the cousin of Plato's mother Perictione and the legal guardian of her brother Charmides (after whom an earlier dialogue of Plato's was named). Both Critias and Charmides were among the leaders of the narrow oligarchy which arose in the wake of the settlement imposed upon Athens by the victorious Spartans after the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.
The Spartans named Critias as one of the five ephors (an ephor being high official in the Spartan constitution), before he became a leading light in the "Thirty," with his former ward Charmides leading the "Ten," a faction which governed Athens' port of Piraeus on behalf of the Thirty.
During his reign of terror, Critias' opponents had a handy knack of turning up dead. Theramenes - a veteran of an earlier oligarchy, that of the "Four Hundred" of 411-410, and one of the founders of the Thirty - and many other opponents of Critias met a grisly end. In the case of Theramenes, this was done via a show trial with Critias as prosecutor. Critias may also have had his former ally Alcibiades assassinated in Thrace in 403. Critias was eventually killed fighting bravely against the pro-democratic forces led by Thrasybulus in May of that year.
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.
All in all, not a very nice man. Certainly one who felt the corrupting lure of power and personal aggrandisement.
Enough with the counter-revolutionary sentiment. I note that you said "until quite recently." Is there another theory as to the identity of the Critias of the dialogues?
Indeed. A number of scholars, starting with Warman Welliver in the first half of the 20th century, noted that this Critias was almost certainly far too young to have been the grandson of Critias son of Dropides, from whom he claimed to have heard the account of Solon's journey to Egypt and his hearing of the tale of Atlantis there.
Really? Why is this?
This is mainly due to chronology. You see, Dropides, the father of the elder Critias, was a close friend of Solon and, according to the Athenian Constitution of Aristotle, succeeded him in the office of archon (each archon served for one year). Aristotle's chronology, as understood and refined by modern classicists, would place the archonships of these men in the 590s, nearly two centuries before the career of the man previously identified as the narrator.
Thus, it has become fashionable to add another two generations between Critias the son of Dropides and Critias the son of Callaeschrus (of 404 BC). With this in mind, many modern scholars suppose that the narrator Critias was the grandfather of Critias the son of Callaeschrus. This proposed narrator is sometimes referred to as "Critias III," with "Critias II" being the son of Dropides and "Critias IV" the tyrant of 404 BC.
Furthermore, Critias III has been identified with a certain Critias son of Leaïdes, a candidate for ostracism some time in the 480s.
And what do you make of this? What is your view?
Personally, I lean towards the earlier view (and one to which a number of contemporary scholars still subscribe), which makes Critias IV the narrator in the dialogues.
Well, I am unconvinced by the arguments in favour of Critias III. This appears to be based upon a chronological need which may not have been important to Plato.
You mean the difference in age between Solon and Critias IV?
I'd also add that there is little reason (apart from the chronology) to believe that the Critias who narrates the story of Atlantis is not the same man as the Critias who appears in the Charmides, a discussion of beauty with Charmides as the object of admiration. This accords well with a statement by Xenophon (who, along with Plato, is the major source for Socrates' life and teaching). It is in the Memorabilia [1.2.29-30] and concerns Socrates' mocking Critias for his pursuit of the handsome Euthydemus, with Socrates comparing Critias to "a little pig scratching itself against a rock."
Hardly conclusive.
True, but the Timaeus and Critias give us no reason to suspect that the Critias mentioned there was not the same man.
Anyway. What else do we know about Critias IV?
Well, as a young man, he was given the right sort of education for an aristocrat of the day and played the flute to a high level.
He may also have been a talented athlete: a [Critia]s son of Callaeschrus is mentioned on an inscription prosaically-titled IG 13 1022, which records two victories at both the Isthmian and Nemean Games in 438 BC.
Yes. I mention the brackets as the first six letters of the name are an educated guess.
Tell me more.
Your wish is my command.
That wasn't a wish. It was a command.
You love your commands, you KGB/Stasi/Securitate etc. interrogator types.
We love torture chambers too. Want to see one... up close and personal?
*ahem* right... *giggles and shuffles nervously* Well, the next we hear about Critias, he's being rumoured to have played a part in the desecration of the herms in 415 BC...
Is that supposed to mean something to me?
... I was about to explain that the herms were statues which marked boundaries in ancient Attica (the region where Athens is located).
The main instigator of this sacrilege was said to be Alcibiades, who I mentioned before. He was a leading associate of Socrates whose constant shifting of allegiances was an important factor in the last decade of Athens' war with Sparta.
Alcibiades' promises of Persian support were important in securing the overthrow of the democratic system in favour of the "Four Hundred" in 411 BC. What Critias was doing during this time is unclear, but he 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.
Furthermore, a report attributed to Theramenes, recorded by Xenophon, 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."
This last notice doesn't seem to make much sense given that, when he was back in Athens with Spartan support in 404, he was complicit in the overthrow of democracy once again.
Critias' rather haughty attitude towards the common folk...
He was a reactionary? I was beginning to like him too.
... is evident in another quote from Xenophon's Memorabilia [1.2.37], in which he denounces Socrates' enjoyment of the company of tradesmen, such as "tanners, craftsmen, and bronze workers."
What else do we know about this fascist?
Well, for one, we know nothing about any penchant for mincing around wearing military get-up, pompous parades and making an idol of the state.
Er, what?
Sorry, I meant to say "fascist" is probably not appropriate. Bandying it around as an insult does a disservice to those who suffered under fascism and its derivatives in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond.
Any chance you could just answer the question?
Or not? After all, I'm just itching to use these new thumbscrews we just got from Research and Development.
Okay, okay. Critias was known to be a sophist, who were men skilled in speechmaking who were called upon as lawyers (as, in the case of Critias for example, at the trial of Phrynicus).
A lawyer? No wonder people don't believe in Atlantis.
A number of other writings were also attributed to Critias, including plays. One of the surviving fragments (which has also been attributed to the famous tragedian Euripides) is striking in its atheism: -

[...] 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.

Striking indeed. With his conclusions about the gods being an invention, coupled with a penchant for shedding blood, truly a man after Comrade Stalin's own heart.
Of course, before you get carried away, it must be borne in mind that Athenaeus, writing some centuries later, 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]).
Another Critias?
Allegedly. Though I see no reason to suspect that "our" Critias was not responsible for at least some of the writings associated with his name.
And Critias III, the son of Leaïdes? Do we know anything more about him?
Hmmm... not really. His name only survives on pottery shards. From the context, though, we can infer that he was potentially allied to the family of Pisistratus, which ruled Athens as tyrants in the 6th century.
Pisistratus, along with two of his sons, were tyrants of Athens, yes.
Well, onward we go, to the glorious socialist future.
You've told me about Critias III and IV. What about I and II?
Well, I mentioned that Critias the son of Dropides, "whose family has been commemorated in the panegyrical verses of Anacreon, Solon, and many other poets" [Charmides 157e], who aged about 90 allegedly told a group of boys including the ten-year-old narrator Critias about Solon's travels to Egypt, is Critias II...
Ah, yes. I recall.
... while Critias I is an earlier archon of Athens, currently dated to about 600 BC. The Parian Marble, a chronological inscription dating from about 263 BC, states that, during his archonship, the famous poetess Sappho was exiled from her home island of Lesbos for Sicily.
Any relation?
Hmmm. Possibly an uncle of Dropides. To further muddy the waters, the Parian Marble also mentions Dropides as archon when Terpander of Lesbos introduced his innovative lyre-playing. This event is dated to 381 years previously, thus about 644 BC.
All very interesting.
For now, though, I suggest we adjourn. I need to eat. And buy more cigarettes.
Any chance of a cheese and onion sandwich? And to stretch my legs?
You know, I could really use a bathroom break right about now.
At least uncuff me so I can tie a knot in it.
Um... he left already?
Hello? Anyone?
*sigh*... I guess I'll just sit here then.