Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.40

Christopher Gill, Plato’s Atlantis Story. Text, Translation and Commentary.   Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press, 2017.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 9781786940155.  £19.95 (pb)​.  

Reviewed by Carol Atack, St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford (


Perhaps the paradigmatic example of a literary creation that has escaped its creator is Frankenstein’s monster, who broke free from Mary Shelley’s novel and found a home in film and the popular imagination.1 But Plato’s Atlantis offers a comparable example of the same phenomenon. This doomed ancient civilisation, now lost beneath the waves, has likewise come unmoored from its source texts, and found its place in the modern cultural imaginary; but unlike Shelley’s novel, now one of the most assigned texts for US college students, Plato’s original creation, contained in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, remains little read or taught, but a puzzling appendix to Plato’s cosmology, expounded in the remainder of the Timaeus. 2 The search for the ‘real’ Atlantis, and for the environmental disaster that destroyed it, has become a historical and archaeological operation rather than a philosophical one.

Gill aims to rectify this neglect of Plato’s text by making it more accessible to students, both those learning classical Greek, and those reading texts in translation; he notes that it ‘contains an unusual combination of dialogue, exposition, narrative and description’, and is ‘an intriguing Greek prose text of moderate length’ (p. vii). He has refreshed his previous student edition of the work, published in 1980 by the Bristol Classical Press and now out-of-print, to accommodate and survey the burgeoning scholarly work on the dialogue, with a more comprehensive introduction and commentary, as well as a new translation, a vocabulary list, maps, and the usual indexes. He also provides ample references to further reading and resources in a thorough bibliography, updated to 2016. Throughout, Gill demonstrates how the appeal of the text lies in its generic mixture and responsiveness to other ancient texts, as well as its fascinating depiction of an imaginary society. He makes no assumptions about prior knowledge of Plato’s texts, including a thoughtful introduction to the workings of the dialogue form shown in this text (pp. 4-9).

Gill begins by reminding readers that there is one source and one alone for the Atlantis story, and that is Plato’s text (pp. 1-2). In reconnecting Plato to his creation, he follows the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, whose structuralist reading of the Atlantis myth has had huge influence since its publication in 1964, and whose later work on the reception history of Atlantis provides helpful insights into why the myth was so powerful in the era of exploration and colonisation, and inspired responses such as Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopia New Atlantis.3 Gill’s book was conceived as a companion to Vidal-Naquet’s work (it is noted in the introduction to the latter); it even has the same cover image, the ‘Labyrinto d’Acqua’ from the Ducal Palace in Mantua, long seen as a depiction of Atlantis.

While Vidal-Naquet’s analysis has dominated subsequent work, Gill, in his introduction, pushes back against his directly political and Athenocentric reading of the text. Gill acknowledges the importance of Athens, but points to the differences between Critias’ initial summary in the Timaeus, which is closely tied to Athenian foundation myth, and the expanded version in the Critias, which Gill suggests is a more ‘even-handed’ (30) analysis and better delivers on Socrates’ request for a description of the ideal city in action (Ti. 19b-20c), which was after all a request for an animated model, not a history. He points to the more abstract differences between Athens and Atlantis, for example that between unity and plurality, as evidence that Plato’s intent is analytical and philosophical. Of course, Plato’s critique of Athenian democracy centred on its plurality, on the dominance of the multitude, so both readings can co-exist. But Vidal-Naquet, in recounting the reception of Atlantis by Plato’s readers later in antiquity, criticises them for their lack of emphasis on Plato’s politics. Gill is well-placed to take a balanced view, having considered both politics and philosophical questions raised by the texts in his previous publications, but his summary here leans towards the philosophic readings that would be endorsed by later Platonists with their predominantly metaphysical interests.4

Our understanding of the context of Plato’s political thought, his use of myth, and his interactions with his contemporaries has developed. Gill points to the ‘more convincing view’ that ‘Plato uses myth as an alternative means of carrying forward philosophical enquiry and speculation’ (38). That most perplexing question for Plato scholars, the relationship of Critias’ account of primaeval Athens—its war with Atlantis and the destruction of both cities—to Timaeus’ account of the history of the cosmos, has received detailed attention from Thomas Johansen and Sarah Broadie.5 Gill introduces all these directions in scholarship, while remaining neutral on some questions; he suggests that some might find Broadie’s view that the dialogue takes place in a non-historical setting ‘too bold to accept’ (7), but concurs with her view that whoever the speaker Critias is, we are intended to think of him in terms of Plato’s uncle, the Critias who was one of the Thirty Tyrants. For Gill, this ambiguous identification reflects the dialogic context (pp. 18-20). Critias’ identity is ‘ambivalent’, and so is Socrates’ response to his proposed speech, in his description of it as ‘all important’ (pammega, Ti. 26e5).

With details like this, Gill equips his readers to enter into a productive scholarly engagement of their own with Plato’s text. He shows how the two dialogues contain slightly different takes on the Atlantis story and its background, echoing the discrepancies between the previous day’s discussion of an ideal city, summarised at the start of the Timaeus and motivating Critias’ introduction of Atlantis (Ti. 17c-19a), that matches some features of the Republic’s Kallipolis but not others. Some of these discrepancies are also explored in a recent article which re-floats the idea that the Critias is a spurious addition to the Platonic corpus, a problem with which Gill does not engage, but given the peculiarities of the Critias deserves consideration.6

A further service that Gill provides is his survey of the scholarship on the dialogue. He has previously promoted the work of French scholar Jean-François Pradeau, whose monograph on the Atlantis story demonstrated Plato’s use of historiographical sources, and particularly the structural relationship of the account of Atlantis in the Critias with Herodotean historical and ethnographic surveys.7

Gill’s translation of the introduction to the Timaeus (17a-, and of the Critias in its entirety, is elegant and readable while staying close enough to the Greek to be useful as an aid to translation. Gill structures the text into subsections, helping readers orientate themselves. However, in line with his decentring of political themes in the text, Gill’s handling of political vocabulary is not always as precise as it might be. At 119c1, for example, he translates archai as ‘powers’ when it probably leans towards its narrower political meaning of ‘offices’, paired as it is with timai, for which Gill has the elegant ‘positions of honour’.

The translation is followed by the Greek text, using the same section divisions, each introduced with a brief summary. The Greek text is then sub-divided into shorter chunks, typically two or three Stephanus lettered subsections, followed by the commentary text. While the commentary contains much useful detail, its presentation is less than ideal, with text and commentary running on so that sections of text and commentary are not necessarily on the same spread. There are no useful running heads, so one has to use the marginal Stephanus numbers to find one’s place in the text and commentary (although these do make the commentary useable for readers sticking to the translation). These editorial and production choices are a shame, as they make the book more difficult to use for its intended purpose; passage and commentary on facing pages would have been much more useful for the classroom.

Overall the commentary does a good job of elucidating difficult phrases, providing background information, and showing the links between the text, Plato’s other work, and the literary traditions on which Plato draws. It provides some help with translation of difficult constructions, particularly conditionals and occasionally but not always explaining their details, with references to what are presumably the grammars and textbooks Gill used for language teaching, principally Abbott and Mansfield, and Reading Greek. More explicit quotation of ancient texts would be useful, given that Plato’s text abounds in references and allusions, whose impact depends in turn on readers’ recognition of Plato’s manipulation of the tropes of Athenian historiography and rhetoric, and the use of myth in those genres.

While Gill points out many connections, and gives references, he often leaves readers to follow up references for themselves. Given the intended audience for the book, the quotation of key passages of Herodotus, or a more detailed précis, would have been helpful. For example, on p.159 Gill comments on the description of Atlantis’ city plan (Critias. 115c4-116a1) with its concentric rings, noting the similarities to Ecbatana and Babylon, as described by Herodotus (Hdt. 1.98, 1.179-81). But he omits the point of Plato’s allusion, the monarchical efforts of Deioces in establishing his rule over the Medes, although he does make explicit a later reference in Herodotus to Xerxes’ construction efforts (Hdt. 7.23-5, 33-7), and the Athenian connection in the layout and construction of the Piraeus. There are occasional repetitions – at both p.108 and p.137, for example, the reader is sent to consult Pradeau’s monograph for more information on Plato’s use of Herodotus book 2.

Throughout his career Gill has both produced important work on these texts, and promoted the work of others, notably that of Vidal-Naquet and Pradeau. This student text is no mere pendant to that work, but a useful summation and update for those for whom it is already Plato’s Atlantis story, as well as an introduction for those who do not. ​


1.   Shelley, M.W. (1998) [1823], Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. M.K. Joseph (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
2.   Plato’s Republic and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are both in the top five assigned texts for US college courses, as reported by the Open Syllabus Explorer.
3.   Vidal-Naquet, P. (1964), 'Athènes et l'Atlantide. Structure et signification d'un mythe platonicien', REG, 77, 420-44; English translation in Vidal-Naquet, P. (1986) The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World, trans. A. Szegedy-Maszak (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press). Vidal-Naquet, P. (2005) L'Atlantide: Petite Histoire d'un Mythe platonicien (Paris: Les Belles Lettres), Vidal-Naquet, P. (2007) The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato's Myth, trans. J. Lloyd (Exeter: University of Exeter Press). Susan Bruce, ed., (2009) Three Early Modern Utopias: Thomas More, Utopia; Francis Bacon, New Atlantis; Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
4.   For example Gill, C. (1977), 'The Genre of the Atlantis Story', C Phil, 72 (4), 287-304, Gill, C. (1979), 'Plato and Politics: The Critias and the Politicus', Phronesis, 24 (2), 148-67.
5.   Johansen, T.K. (2004) Plato's natural philosophy: a study of the Timaeus-Critias (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); Broadie, S. (2012) Nature and Divinity in Plato's Timaeus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
6.   Rashed, M. and Auffret, T. (2017), ‘On the Inauthenticity of the Critias’, Phronesis, 62 (3), 237-54.
7.   Pradeau, J.-F. (1997) Le Monde de la Politique: sur le récit atlante de Platon: Timée (17-27) et Critias (Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag). ​

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