First described by Plato, Atlantis and its catastrophic downfall is one of popular science's most enduring controversies - the original location of the vanished civilisation is still hotly debated. Dr Iain Stewart investigates the myth of a lost city.
Quite why a story written 2,500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato continues to capture the public imagination is a mystery in itself - a mystery fed by countless books, films, articles, web pages, and now a Disney cartoon. It has spawned a rich populist sub-culture (much of it internet-based) which pits the passions and imaginations of committed 'Atlanteans' against the orthodox analysis of the scientific mainstream.
Part of the contemporary appeal of the Atlantis story has no doubt been fed by scientists. Historians, archaeologists and geologists have also entered the debate to contest the various literary, historical or geographical elements of the story. Currently - following Bernhard Zangger's new book presenting the archaeological case for Troy as the true inspiration for Atlantis - we have the BBC Horizon documentary 'Helike - The Real Atlantis' staking the same claim for the Classical Greek city of Helike. Atlantis, it seems, remains a very bankable media product.
So what do we actually know about Atlantis and its demise?
So what do we actually know about Atlantis and its demise? The answer is not much. Plato's story comes to us from two short pieces, Tinnaeus and Critias, believed to have been written in the decade or so before his death in 348 BC. In these, he presents an apparently true account of an ideal society that existed many millennia before the Classical Greek times in which he was writing.
According to Plato, Atlantis was a great island (larger than Libya and Asia combined) in the Atlantic Ocean, but its control extended beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' into the Mediterranean as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia (Italy). Its powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings arose directly from Poseidon, god of sea and of earthquakes, though this divine and heroic lineage gradually became diluted by mixing with mortal stock.
The resulting degeneration of this noble civilisation led it into a war with its former ally, Athens, and culminated in its cataclysmic destruction, which Plato dates as 9,000 years previously. Of the destruction itself, Plato simply notes, 'Some time later there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your life [ie, Athenian] fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished'.
While the bulk of Plato's account of Atlantis details its physical and political layout, its location and the nature of its destruction warrant only a few hundred words. It is a meagre foundation for the weight of subsequent theories and speculations on which the modern controversy is based.
The real Atlantis
The modern archaeological search for Helike, and its likely discovery onshore beneath the modern coastal plain, is recounted in BBC Horizon's 'Helike - The Real Atlantis'. However, it is the programme's contention that the real legacy of the disaster was the birth of the Atlantis myth that is likely to have the most resonance with wider audiences.
The destructive force and the vicinity of the great cultural centres of the Greek world, undoubtedly made the earthquake at Helike a momentous scientific event. It led to Aristotle formulating his theory that earthquakes and accompanying seismic sea-waves were the physical product of contrary meteorological conditions rather than supernatural actions, a theory subsequently accepted for more than 1,800 years.
...ordinary Greeks probably didn't speculate on the origins of the mythical Atlantis; they were too busy surviving its reality.
It must have also made had a major impact on Aristotle's contemporary, Plato - born around 427 BC, and in his mid 50s when Helike was lost. The destruction in a single night of the revered city of Poseidon by an earthquake and seismic sea-wave and its disappearance into the sea bear the main hallmarks of Atlantis's sudden demise.
Other hallmarks can be found in the accounts of the two great earthquakes that preceded it, however. With the great Spartan earthquake of 464 BC that ushered in the frenetic wars between Sparta and Athens, and the seismic sea-wave that ripped apart Atalante island in 426 BC under the shadow of these warring superpowers, most of the ingredients for Plato's obliteration of Atlantis are there.
At the end of a century that had witnessed one of the most violent earthquake storms to have affected the ancient world, ordinary Greeks probably didn't speculate on the origins of the mythical Atlantis; they were too busy surviving its reality.