Where better to set a sword-and-sandal romp through Greek myth than the lost city of Atlantis? Watching the new BBC1 drama along with the Twitter stream, though, there seemed to be some disquiet from those who wanted accurate treatment of Greek myth and history. Newspaper features, such as Bettany Hughes’ preview in the Telegraph, pointed to real history behind the Atlantis story. But should we look for the real myth or the accurate history of this imaginary city? Or just enjoy the ride?
The idea of an inaccurate treatment of myth is quite problematic, as is the idea of the real history of Atlantis. Myths exist through retelling and repurposing, as ‘work on myth’, in Hans Blumenberg’s description. And the origins of the Atlantis myth in particular, as opposed to the more general mytheme (mythical element) of the destruction of a civilisation by punitive gods, emphasise and question this process. The Atlantis story is part of Plato’s critique of the use of mythical and historical examples in political argument by his contemporary rivals such as Isocrates, who used myths of Athenian heroes to provide examples of how to be virtuous and live the good life.
The story of Atlantis is told as part of the complicated dramatic setting of the Timaeus, in which the main focus is the long speech by the Timaeus that sets out Plato’s cosmology. Socrates and his guests are gathered to celebrate the Panathenaea, the most important patriotic festival in the Athenian religious calendar, dedicated to the city’s patron goddess Athena. The guests agree to speak in response to Socrates’ description of the ideal political arrangements for a city (suspiciously similar to the city in Plato’s Republic), and his desire to see that model brought to life through narrative.
Before the philosopher Timaeus begins to speak, Critias the Athenian (we’re meant to recognise Plato’s notorious relative, one of the Thirty tyrants, here), starts to tell a story about the early history of Athens, passed down in his family ever since an ancestor heard Solon tell the story. Solon had learned it in Egypt, from a priest whose records stretch back before the time when primeval Athens was destroyed by a great cataclysm, just as war was breaking out with the great imperial power of Atlantis…
The lesson that Plato’s Solon brings back to Athens is that the Athenians are ignorant about their past, and the myths they tell themselves about their heroic kings and ancestors are dim echoes of the true and greater story, which Plato’s characters will provide. The lesson for Critias’ audience in the dialogue is much disputed; the myths that Athenians loved are challenged. The lesson for Plato’s philosophical readers is even more complex; how does this story of gods and cities relate to the complicated cosmology and history of the universe that Timaeus has presented? We don’t even get the full story; while the Timaeus and Critias contain the background and preliminaries, including an ethnology of Atlantis that could come straight from Herodotus (as Jean-François Pradeau has shown), the text breaks off before the military narrative of the battle between the cities begins, leaving Socrates, who wanted to hear a story of his ideal city in action, and other readers disappointed.
That Atlantis is a kind of anti-Athens was shown by Pierre Vidal-Naquet in his classic structuralist analysis of the myth (originally published in 1964, now reprinted in his collection The Black Hunter). Atlantis is the city that Athens could have been if Poseidon, not Athena, had won the contest to be the city’s patron. Like Pericles’ Athens, Atlantis is a naval power; indeed, the unstable element of water is far too important in the city with its canals and dockyards. Athens depended on its silver mines (as well as tribute) to fund its navy and wars, while Atlantis’ source of wealth is ‘mountain-copper’, a mysterious precious metal. Atlantis’ kings are descended from Poseidon, but the divine element of their natures is becoming diluted. Atlantis is a mythical description of everything Plato thought was wrong about Athens and Athenian political philosophy.
So Plato’s Atlantis story is itself a disruptive re-purposing of established mythical elements, made in the interests of a specific political argument. The irony is that this attempt to subvert Athens’ patriotic myth has become so successful that it has become detached from its original context and taken on a life of its own. That Plato himself rejected most Greek myth as misleading misinformation about the gods adds to the amusement here.
The Atlantis story gained great appeal in the early modern period, when the rediscovery of Plato’s political philosophy coincided with political change and geographical exploration, leading to encounters with other civilisations, and evidence for great former civilisations. The unknown island as political utopia became a favourite format for political theory – most famously in Thomas More’s Utopia – and the story of Atlantis became merged with these. That Plato’s creation was a satirical dystopia was one element that did not transfer into popular culture; the austere and rather Spartan primeval Athens, the part that Plato regarded as a utopia or at least a good model, seems to have had less popular appeal.
How does the new BBC series fit into this? It playfully merges a wealth of mythical elements, but that’s just what Plato himself was doing in inventing Atlantis in the first place. For example, one Athenian myth that Plato enjoyed playing with (notably in the Phaedo) was that of Athens’ king Theseus, who saved the city by killing the minotaur, a plot that found its way into the opening episode of Atlantis. The links between Athens and Atlantis have re-emerged in the retelling. And that is what makes myth so good to think with.