Atlantis is a fascinating fixture of mythology that lies at a strange intersection of history and conspiracy. It is part of an allegorical island nation that menaced Athens in a story told by Plato in just one small conversation. Atlantis has become a point of constant speculation for over 2,400 years. Learn the history of how Atlantis came to captivate the modern imagination.

Plato’s timeline

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The only reference to Atlantis in a historical context comes from two of Plato’s works, Timaeus and Critias. Plato describes a guest named with knowledge of the story of Atlantis in Timaeus, and Critias is dedicated to the description of Atlantis.

The description of the lost city is based on an account from a Greek statesman named Solom, who is reporting series of events relayed by an Egyptian priest about 300 years prior. The priest shares the story of the fall and subsequent sinking of the Atlantean Empire about 9,000 years before, which puts the sinking of Atlantis at a date around 9600 BC, considering that Plato lived from about 424–348 BC.

Description of the lost city

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Despite the popular conception as the "lost city", in Plato’s description, Atlantis is a lost landmass. It is a large island outside the Strait of Gibraltar, or the Pillars of Hercules, as Plato describes the area. The island is comparable in size to the island of Great Britain and is described by Plato as being the size of Libya and Asia Minor combined.

The city of Atlantis itself would have been an architectural marvel for its time. It is described as having three concentric circular moats and a complex system of canals and bridges connecting the different parts of the city.

The Atlanteans are described as a warlike people, who immediately before the sinking of their island had conquered large swaths of Libya, Egypt, and Europe, enslaving all the people in their wake. They were stopped and driven back to their island home by the Athenian military forces. As soon as they returned, violent earthquakes and tsunamis consumed the island and caused it to sink into the Atlantic.

Plato’s description of the home and history of Atlantis start and stop there, but the story of Atlantis did not.

A point of contention

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Plato’s description of Atlantis caused contention from the moment it was put to paper. Crantor, a student of Xenocrites, who was a student of Plato, thought the story had a historical basis and was to be taken at face value. Crantor reported that he had traveled to Egypt, where he was shown hieroglyphics that demonstrated the truth of the story.

However, Aristotle, a highly esteemed student of Plato, was confident that Plato had invented the fable to teach the allegory, perhaps basing it on recent conflicts such as the Thera Eruption, the Trojan War, or the Sea People’s invasion.

The New World

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The issue lay dormant for centuries, until the discovery of the Americas and the New World by European explorers in the 15th century. Authors concluded that this New World was the landmass Plato had called Atlantis, and literature was published as such. Sir Thomas Moore wrote Utopia, which placed Atlantis somewhere inside the New World, and Sir Francis Bacon also referred to the Americas as Atlantis in The New Atlantis.

Later, in the middle and late 19th century, the uncovering of ancient Maya and Aztec ruins reignited the debate over whether ancient Atlanteans had existed in Mesoamerica. American author Ignatius L. Donnelly published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1883. This book claimed that Atlantis had been a continent in the middle of the Atlantic that had been not only been the genesis for cultures in North and South America, Africa, and Europe, but also the location of biblical sites that had not yet been located.

Modern history of Atlantis

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As the theory of continental drift became accepted in the 1960s, it became clear that it would not be possible for a continent to sink into the Atlantic Ocean in recent geologic history, and the popularity of Atlantis theories waned. Despite that, people still search for the potential inspiration for the story.

One of the most common locations hypothesized to be a potential inspiration for Atlantis is the island of Santorini in the Mediterranean. The island was home to a Minoan civilization before it was destroyed in a catastrophic volcanic event, and stories of this may have inspired the allegory.