Decoding Plato

I met with the world’s leading Atlantologist to separate fact from myth.

Plan of Atlantis mock-up.
A vision of Atlantis.

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Géza Maróti via Creative Commons

Stavros Papamarinopoulos could’ve been a character in a John le Carré novel. He had arranged for us to meet at an empty suite of offices belonging to his economist friend in the unfashionable port city of Patras. This had required me to ride a bus for four hours from Athens. Papamarinopoulos is a professor of geophysics at the University of Patras. He is also the world’s most respected Atlantis expert.

It was a sunny Mediterranean day, and through the open windows we received the cicada buzz of motorbike traffic and a hint of a breeze from the Ionian Sea a few blocks down the hill. “I’m going to ask you a question,” Papamarinopoulos said, leaning forward over the conference table where we sat at opposite ends. “Who defined science?”

“Plato did, in the Phaedrus,” I said. I didn’t mention that I’d learned this about two hours earlier while reading one of Papamarinopoulos’ essays on the bus from Athens, but I suspected that he knew. In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates explain how a subject can be isolated then divided into smaller chunks and analyzed until it becomes understandable.

“Very good! Since you know that, you know at least part of the personality of Plato.” He pronounced the name Plah-toh, which seemed to give it even more gravitas than usual. “Plato also defined mythology. He differentiated between genuine and fabricated myths. It is advisable then to ask if Atlantis is a genuine or a fabricated myth.”

The word myth is slippery because it has multiple meanings. The most common one, at least among nonspecialists, is something that is generally perceived to be true but is actually false (such as when Kermit explains in The Muppet Movie that contrary to popular belief, a person can’t get warts from touching a frog). What Papamarinopoulos calls a fabricated myth is an invented story, the sort of tale that Plato in the Republic refers to as something “for children to listen to.”

The definition of myth that matters to folklorists (and Atlantologists like Papamarinopoulos) is this: a very old story, often containing supernatural elements, that explains an event or phenomenon from the distant past. These sorts of myths often include real historical truths, such as the Trojan War myth told by Homer in The Iliad, which led the 19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann to the ruins of Troy in Turkey. Among Papamarinopoulos’ accomplishments was conducting seismic surveys to prove that a fantastic-seeming story from Herodotus—that the Persian king Xerxes had ordered his men to dig a canal across the Mount Athos peninsula wide enough for two warships to pass each other—was true. This is what Papamarinopoulos calls a genuine myth. Plato, in addition to stating several times that the Atlantis story is true, also says that “the fact that it is no invented fable but genuine history is all important.”

The most vivid and memorable elements of Plato’s Atlantis story are those that describe the rise and sudden fall of a mysterious lost civilization: its huge navy, its concentric rings of land and water, its gold-plated temples, its catastrophic watery end. Papamarinopoulos took a hard look at what Plato said about Atlantis’ largely forgotten enemy: Athens. “In the Republic, Plato presents an imaginary Athens,” he told me, referring to the philosopher’s ideal state. “But in the Critias”—one of the two dialogues in which Plato tells the Atlantis story—“he presents a real Athens.” The Athens in the Atlantis tale, he added, “is proved as a reality by geological and archaeological science.”

Proved is a pretty risky word to use in relation to Atlantis. It is interesting, though, how Plato piles up what seems at first to be a lot of irrelevant detail about Athens in the Atlantis story. He describes how the Acropolis had once been the site of a fortified Mycenaean castle, very different from the Golden-Age collection of stone temples and buildings we see today. In those ancient times, the narrator Critias explains, warriors spent winters living communally in simple structures located on the north side of the rock outcropping. These soldiers drew water from a single spring that “provided an ample supply of good water” but was choked off when a massive earthquake hit Athens. That quake was accompanied by torrential rains that swept most of Greece’s fertile soil into the sea, leaving behind “the mere skeleton of the land.” Written language died out, because when “the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors … are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who … live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea.”

Until fairly recently the Athens half of Plato’s tale has been almost completely ignored by Atlantologists. Yet Plato’s precise descriptions of the ancient Mycenaean city—the evidence of which had been buried for several centuries at the time he wrote and of which no written records remain—have been shown to be remarkably accurate. In the 1930s the archaeologist Oscar Broneer was excavating at the Acropolis when he located a subterranean spring that had evidently been smothered by the debris from an earthquake. Relics found in the bottom of the spring dated to around 1200 B.C. Mycenaean-era housing similar to that used by Plato’s ancient warriors has also been uncovered on the northern slope of the rock, exactly where he placed it in the Critias.

This meant one of two things, Papamarinopoulos said. Plato either invented uncannily precise details about Mycenaean-era Athens, which was extremely unlikely, or he was passing along truthful information that had been passed down to him orally. Therefore, according to Papamarinopoulos, at least half of the Atlantis story was based in fact. “It has maybe some inaccuracies, some exaggerations, but the core of this information has been proved. To ignore this 50 percent is completely unscientific.”

Papamarinopoulos argued that most Atlantis doubters, poisoned by their bias, have subsequently been led astray by laziness. Such people “take for granted Atlantis as a gigantic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said, exasperated. This was a result of their perfunctory reading of Plato’s work in ancient Greek. Papamarinopoulos argued that the search for Atlantis hinges on Plato’s use of the ancient Greek word nesos, almost always translated as “island.”

“I know ancient Greek,” he told me, leaning back in his chair. “I read and I write ancient Greek. In the sixth century B.C.”—when the Atlantis story was supposedly heard for the first time—“nesos had five geographic meanings.” He began to count off on his fingers. “One, an island as we know it. Two, a promontory. Three, a peninsula. Four, a coast. Five, a land within a continent, surrounded by lakes, rivers, or springs.” By this definition, not only would Hawaii qualify as a nesos; so would Utah, Florida, California, and Minnesota. The land bridge I’d crossed on the bus from Athens that morning was an even clearer example. The name Peloponnesus, arguably Western history’s most famous peninsula, literally means “Island of Pelopos.”

“So if Atlantis wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic, where was it?” I asked.

“Who were the Atlanteans? Plato gave one name to a coalition of different nations that came and invaded the eastern Mediterranean. We have the names of these people written in hieroglyphics in Medinet Habu, in a victorious granite stele.” Medinet Habu is one of the archeological treasures of Egypt. It was built as the mortuary temple of the great pharaoh Ramses III, who reigned from roughly 1186 B.C. to 1155 B.C. Its walls contain some of the most spectacular hieroglyphics in existence. Papamarinopoulos believed that these invaders, generally referred to by historians as the Sea Peoples, had come from a giant nesos that was not an island but a giant peninsula—one encompassing all of mainland Europe west of Italy.

“If you follow Plato, you go exactly to the Iberian Peninsula because this is where the text leads you. Literally! He describes a valley that is flat and elongated, surrounded by mountains. These mountains are the Sierra Nevadas and Sierra Morenas. The valley has the same position and orientation. It fits exactly with Plato’s description. Like a puzzle piece.”

This hypothesis also matched perfectly with another detail from Plato, that Atlantis had been located “opposite the Pillars of Heracles,” usually assumed to be the Straits of Gibraltar. As for a nesos sinking under the sea, the area certainly had a history of seismic activity. One wave caused by the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake has been estimated at 30 feet tall—comparable to the height of 2011’s devastating Fukushima tsunami. “Those are the extraordinary floods that followed the extraordinary earthquakes,” Papamarinopoulos said. “So whatever was there in the coast was in a day and night destroyed. That is the catastrophe that destroyed Atlantis.”

One part of Plato’s text, however, had always confused me. Atlantis, he wrote, was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbor, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent.

“Plato did not use the word ocean; he called it a panpelagos, an infinite sea,” Papamarinopoulos said. “When he goes into the hypothetical crossing of the panpelagos, then you have a continent.” Contrary to popular belief, Plato never uses the word continent to describe the vanished Atlantis. But he uses for the first and only time three adverbs to describe the boundless continent across the panpelagos: totally, correctly, and truly. “If you go west of Atlantis,” Papamarinopoulos said, “you find—totally, correctly, and truly—a gigantic land. And it is your country.”

I stopped scribbling in my notebook midsentence and looked up. “What? Plato was talking about America?”

Excerpted from Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City by Mark Adams. Out now from Dutton.