BMCR 2020.04.15

Joining the Dots. Plato’s Atlantis in the Central Mediterranean

, Joining the Dots. Plato’s Atlantis in the Central Mediterranean. N.p.: Tony O'Connell (Kindle e-book B07K8S11ZR), 2018. $3.99.

The author of this ebook is a major voice within the international community of Atlantologists: since 2009, Tony O’Connell has run the website, which he wants to be “the most comprehensive source of information regarding the development of Atlantis theories”, and this book may be considered a kind of summa of O’Connell’s own thinking on Atlantis.

After a “Foreword” by the Maltese atlantologist Anton Mifsud, O’Connell’s own “Preface”—which already gives away his central conclusion that Atlantis was “a historical reality, based in the Central Mediterranean in the latter half of the 2ndmillennium BC” [pos.[1] 339])—and an “Introduction” (pos. 342–411), the first substantial chapter (“Background”, pos. 412–439) emphasizes O’Connell’s belief that the transmission of the Atlantis story as outlined by Plato’s Critias is no invention. In support, O’Connell adduces “the late Professor Antonis”[2] who “identified 22 instances…where Plato claimed the story to be true” (pos. 439). There is a fundamental misconception here: as Plato never speaks in his own name in the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, he also nowhere utters any claim about the truthfulness of the Atlantis story. Nobody will ever conflate or confuse the statements of Hamlet with the convictions of Shakespeare—so why should we take the claims made by Critias as representing the convictions of Plato? In the subsection on “Plato” himself (pos. 466–479), O’Connell likewise stresses the philosopher’s “integrity” and “credibility” (pos. 475), and he repeats this claim several times (see, e.g., pos. 987).

In the next chapter (“Plato’s Atlantis Narrative”, pos. 533–782) O’Connell first focuses on the story’s “Hellenised Content” (pos. 546). From the mention of Athens’ first king Cecrops and his successors in Criti. 110ab and from the date 1582 BC given for Cecrops on the Parian Marble, he concludes that “the war with the Atlanteans must have taken place sometime after 1582 BC.” (pos. 595). There is, however, at least one major flaw in this argument: Plato’s Critias does not really say that the war against the Atlanteans was fought in Cecrops’ time—all he says is that “as for the names of Cecrops…and the others…the priests are said to have transferred the greatest part onto those [i.e. the ancient Athenians living nine thousand years before Solon’s time] and thus have described the war of that time”.[3] Thus the war did not take place in the times of Cecrops or his successors but in the times of some older namesakes of them, which renders O’Connell’s dating meaningless.

After briefly considering the “Mythological Content” of the story (pos. 631–668),[4] O’Connell turns his attention to “Translation Difficulties” (pos. 669–684). These he has to assume, of course, because he considers the transmission of the Atlantis story from Egypt to Athens as real. His statement, however, about the allegedly different meanings of “different words for various bodies of salt water; pontos (small), pelagos (medium) and okeanos (large)” (pos. 682) betrays his poor knowledge of Ancient Greek: there is no real difference in meaning between pontos and pelagos—both mean “wide, open sea”.[5]

In the subsection “Plato Believed the Atlantis Story to be true” (pos. 685–733), O’Connell, discussing the passage Criti. 113b, gives a wrong account of its content (besides once again confusing Plato and Critias): Critias does not refer to any “verses of Solon’s incomplete epic poem” here, but only to some written notes about some names Solon allegedly wanted to use in his poem.

The following chapter (on “Modern Atlantis Theories”, pos. 782–936) does not really further O’Connell’s argument. The next chapter surveys modern Atlantis “Sceptics” (pos. 937–1055), whose basic arguments O’Connell then tries to refute (pos. 993–1055), but his counterarguments are not very convincing. He rejects the interpretation that “the Atlantis story is a parable or a morality tale” by arguing, that the Athenians (i.e. the “good guys”) were also wiped out (pos. 1005)—but according to Plato’s Critias, this happened long after the Athenians’ resounding victory and by purely natural causes. Trying to counter the argument that Plato is the only ancient author speaking about Atlantis, O’Connell claims that “there are a few possible pre-Platonic references to Atlantis” (pos. 1023), but does not care to name any. Next, he tries to reject the thesis that “Plato was merely using the Atlantis story to advance his own views of an ideal Greek state” by rather weakly pointing out that “Plato later invented an ideal state, Magnesia, in the Laws to promote his political philosophy”and asking the sceptics “to explain why Plato would have found it necessary to invent a second ‘ideal city’” (pos. 1048–53). Well, why not?

At the beginning of the following chapter (“Evidence”, pos. 1056–1318), O’Connell makes a truly bewildering statement: “The original Greek text [of Plato] is no longer available to us, so we are limited to 15th century Latin translations produced nearly two millennia after Plato’s death”[6]—but, of course, we do have the Greek text; why O’Connell thinks otherwise is a major mystery.

There follows an extensive chapter on “Plato’s Numbers” (pos. 1319–2075), which in general are too high for O’Connell’s taste, and so he looks for a way to dispense with them. After considering various proposals (e.g. replacing solar ‘years’ by lunar cycles = months, or by ‘seasons’ of which the Egyptians had three in a year) he then adopts—without giving reasons for his choice—the two most popular theories (the lunar cycle and the reduction-by-factor-10 theory) to suggest that the war between Atlantis and Athens “took place between 1540 and 1298 BC” (pos. 1431). As additional elements to preclude the dating of Atlantis 9.000 years before Solon, O’Connell adduces the mention of horses (pos. 1433), chariots (pos. 1443), the ceremonial “Azure Vestments” (pos. 1545–1559) worn by the Atlanteans Kings according to Criti. 120a and “Bathymetric Evidence” (1560–1586) concerning the drowning of Atlantis. But all these objections are valid only if one feels compelled to take Plato’s story as a real, historical account.

After re-dating Atlantis, O’Connell turns to re-sizing it. In the subsections “Land Measurement” (pos. 1624–1648) and “The Size of Atlantis” (pos. 1649–1759) he expresses his conviction that the numbers given by Plato are massively overblown; so he feels free “to consider a smaller island, such as Sardinia or Sicily as more credible Atlantis candidates” (1660). For “The Plain of Atlantis” (1760–1796), he arbitrarily reduces all measurements (given in Criti. 118a) by a factor of ten. Tackling “The Ditch” in the next subsection (pos. 1797–1856), he discusses proposals by modern Atlantologists to reduce them (pos. 1811–1822). In the subsection on “ Military Manpower” (pos. 1857–1898), O’Connell inversely criticizes Plato for putting the number of Athenian warriors at only 20,000 (pos. 1862). But that is just the point: that the 20,000 ideal Athenians mentioned in Criti. 112e] can actually defeat a million-man army! The “micro-Atlantis” O’Connell envisions would never have offered the redoubtable enemy whom Plato’s Socrates needs to prove the excellence of the guardians of his ideal state.

In the following chapter (“The Location of Atlantis”, pos. 2076–2392), O’Connell starts by arguing that “Atlantean territory…must have been within a reasonable striking distance from Athens” (pos. 2082)—like, e.g., Southern Italy (pos. 2125). He does not take into account that Xerxes for his invasion of Greece moved large troop contingents across thousands of miles.

Things really get interesting with the next chapter (“The Pillars of Herakles”, pos. 2393–2721): O’Connell rightly considers “the question of the location of the Pillars of Herakles…to be a critical detail in Plato’s account to be resolved in any research for Atlantis” (pos. 2442). The subsection “Which Pillars of Herakles?” (pos. 2441–2500), however, uncovers a central weakness of his argument: he claims that only since 250 BC were the Pillars of Herakles identified with the Strait of Gibraltar and “that no writer prior to Eratosthenes had referred to the Pillars of Herakles being located at Gibraltar” (pos. 2455)[7]—but Herodotus, and before him Hecataeus and Pindar, had already located the Pillars at Gibraltar![8] O’Connell apparently knows nothing about the activities of the Greeks in the far west of the Mediterranean and even beyond the Strait of Gibraltar already in the 6th century BC.[9]

In the subsection (“The Pillars of Herakles—Modern Theories”, pos. 2537–2625), O’Connell (being no professional researcher of Classical Antiquity) again demonstrates how easily he gets things wrong: in pos. 2556, a sentence from Servius (“Columnas Herculis legimus et in Ponto et in Hispania”) is wrongly translated as “through the Columns of Herakles we go within the Black Sea as well as in Spain”. A few lines later (pos. 2570), O’Connell adopts Mifsud’s mistaken dating of the Greek epic writer Apollonius Rhodius (“1st century BC”). For his statement that “sometimes, in Ancient Greek Literature, the Pillars refer to the narrow Strait of Messina between Sicily and the southern tip of Italy” (pos. 2621), he provides not the slightest shred of evidence. His final argument against Gibraltar is the “shoals” alleged to have come into existence after the submersion of Atlantis and which cannot be found in the Atlantic (pos. 2646)—but the Greeks of Plato’s time believed that they were there…[10]

In the chapter “Further Corroboration” (pos. 2722–3156), O’Connell adduces additional geographical details in favor of his Atlantis location. He identifies the mountains mentioned in Criti. 118b with the “Atlas Mountains of North West Africa” (pos. 2857), the north winds mentioned in Criti. 118b with the winter winds assailing the northern coast of Tunisia (pos. 2867) and the phenomenon of “two Annual Crops” (Criti. 118e) as another North African feature (pos. 2946). The “Elephants” (Criti. 114e–115a), “a critical identifier of the location of Atlantis” (pos. 2999), are connected by him with Tunisia (pos. 3038–40, 3060).

In the penultimate chapter (“Who Were The Atlanteans?”, pos. 3157–3272), O’Connell discusses the possible (and by no means new) identification of the Atlanteans with the famous “Sea Peoples” (pos. 3215). He stresses the alleged parallels between the attack of the Sea Peoples and those of the Atlanteans, but is “not entirely convinced”, considering the Sea Peoples only “a useful working hypothesis” (pos. 3263).

The last chapter (“The Destruction of Atlantis”, pos. 3273–3293) gives a survey of Atlantologist theories and then “settle[s] for an earthquake producing liquefaction and the ‘sinking’ of the capital of Atlantis” (pos. 3293). The contents of the following summarizing chapter (“The Dots”, pos. 3294–3388) need not be repeated here.

In the concluding “Epilogue”, O’Connell expects that his construct of a Late Bronze Age Atlantis somewhere in the Central Mediterranean will be confirmed “when the current interglacial period ends”, because then “sea levels will again drop, exposing much of the floor of the Mediterranean” (pos. 3407). Global warming with rising sea levels will probably prevent this scenario from becoming true in the foreseeable future.

All in all, the author has amassed an impressive number of “facts” and theories concerning almost any detail of the Atlantis story. All his efforts, however, cannot conceal the fact that too many stones of his building are simply not solid enough to sustain the edifice: all too often, O’Connell gets facts from Antiquity wrong or ignores others that undermine his suppositions. This, then, is not the way to join the dots to find the “real” Atlantis, which owes its existence only to Plato’s remarkable powers of imagination.


[1] As the ebook has no pagination, I quote the “positions” (i.e. line numbers, here abbreviated as “pos.”) given in the bar in the bottom margin.

[2] He means Antonis Kontaratos, Atlantis: Fact or Fiction, in: St. Papamarinopoulos (ed.), Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on “The Atlantis Hypothesis: Searching for a Lost Land”, Athens 2007, 79–80.

[3] For a detailed explanation of this passage, see H.-G. Nesselrath, Platon, Kritias, Übersetzung und Kommentar, Göttingen 2006, 153–164.

[4] He constantly misspells the name “Cleito” as “Clieto” (also later on: see pos. 2204).

[5] In Hom. Il. 1.350, e.g., pontos is called “limitless“ (ἀπείρονα πόντον), which is surely the opposite of small!

[6] He repeats this, with a slight variation, at pos. 1115: “the oldest text available to us now is a translation of Plato’s Greek made 800 years after it was first written” – he apparently refers to Calcidius’ late antique Latin translation of the Timaeus. But why draw attention to this when we still have Plato’s Greek text?

[7] This is just a summary of the mistaken theory of Sergio Frau, on which see H.-G. Nesselrath, Le colonne d’Ercole: un confine mitologico e il suo significato nell’ antichità classica, in: Eikasmos 22, 2011, 131-149.

[8] For this, see Nesselrath 2011 (as in n. 7), 133–5.

[9] On these activities, see Herodotus 1.163 and 4.152.

[10] On this, see H.-G. Nesselrath, Platon und die Erfindung von Atlantis, München / Leipzig 2002, 25–6.