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Gunnar Rudberg: Atlantis and Syracuse

by Anna S. Afonasina ΣΧΟΛΗ Vol. 8 Issue 2 (2014)

Bibliographical data:
Anna S. Afonasina, Plato and Atlantis – A review of: Gunnar Rudberg, Atlantis and Syracuse – Did Plato’s Experience on Sicily Inspire the Legend? A Study on Plato’s Later Political Writings, translated by C. Murphy, edited by Th. C. Franke, 2012, in: ΣΧΟΛΗ Vol. 8 Issue 2 (2014); pp. 249-256.

Russian original (PDF):

Rough translation into English (by Google Translator, no warranty):

Tomsk State University, Russia

ABSTRACT: The book by Gunnar Rudberg is dedicated to the well-known and exciting legend on Atlantis. The author carefully considers different opinions, starting from late antiquity and finishing with the beginning of the twentieth century. The main question that he proposes to answer is: Did anything in reality correspond to the Plato’s story or it must be taken as a pure invention by the Athenian philosopher? Did he invent the island with this unique political structure or took some polis as a prototype? Having considered various hypotheses proposed by the scholars from Antiquity to the present times, he himself suggests that at the time of Plato the Sicilian Syracuse could be such an example and concludes that this city had become Plato’s prototype.

KEYWORDS: Plato, Critias, Timaeus, Atlantis, Sicily, Syracuse.

The work was carried out as part of the program to increase the competitiveness of Tomsk State University.


Gunnar Rudberg's book Atlantis and Syracuse. A Study of Plato's Later Political Works ”was written in 1917 and published in Eranos - Acta Philologica Suecana (1917, no. 17, pp. 1–80). The book was known only in Swedish. In 2012, at the initiative of the philological journal “Eranos” and relatives of G. Rudberg, a translation into English was carried out. [Not true. The initiative came from Thorwald C. Franke]

The book consists of five chapters in Roman numerals and sections in spaces. In the first chapter, the author from a philological point of view examines the sources, primarily the introductory part of Timaeus and Critias, and sets the task to determine which of the early studies may be useful. He briefly recounts the content of the legend of Atlantis from Timaeus and Critias, and reminds the reader that both dialogues are placed in a dramatic relationship with the State.

In the second chapter, G. Rudberg proposes to collect different opinions about Atlantis into large groups, based on their proximity, in order to shed light on the contradictions in the question of Atlantis and in the studies devoted to it. It is clear that Atlantis became an object of interest immediately after the death of Plato. G. Rudberg does not agree with Berger's opinion that Aristotle denied the existence of the island (a quote from Strabo (XIII, 598) speaks in favor of this). Proclus in his Commentary to Timaeus was convinced that this story was true and cited Egyptian prophets and still preserved inscriptions on the columns as witnesses. “It seems to me,” writes G. Rudberg, “that it was most reasonable to accept that Strabo believed in the existence of Atlantis, but presented everything as just a poem.” Strabo accompanies this place with ironic commentary. Serious Pliny also has doubts about Atlantis. Marcellus (whom Proclus mentions) in Ethiopia speaks of the island of Poseidon far in the west. Among the platonists, of course, there were those who, like Krantor, believed in the literary accuracy of history, while others saw this as only a fantasy, not based on reality, but symbolizing something that actually happened, despite the fact that Plato himself declared Atlantis as a real story. As a symbol, the story of Atlantis was considered by Jamblichus and Sirian. Amelius considered the Athena – Atlantis pair to be a symbol of antagonism between fixed stars and planets. In conclusion of the section, our author gives the views of Origen, Noumenius and Porfiry.


Further, G. Rudberg turns to the opinions of various thinkers of the 16th – 19th centuries who accepted Plato’s version of Atlantis unconditionally and believed that the island existed, but sank into the sea. Most of them found traces of Atlantis in the Azores, Madera, Canaries and the islands of Cape Verde. But Buffon defended the idea that the Azores, America and Ireland are the remnants of Atlantis. Another researcher went further and defended the view that the remains of the Platonic Atlantis could be the Moluccas (as part of the Malay archipelago), Australia and New Zealand. Other remnants of Atlantis were even masses of dirt that collected in the Sargass Sea region, floating on its surface and are supposedly the remains of plants of a sunken island. The presence of copper and tin, the plain, protected from the northern winds, the use of colored stones in the construction of buildings, etc. draws Atlantis closer to the Mediterranean region throughout the Aegean to Egypt.

G. Rudberg also notes the opinions of those who placed Atlantis in other places on earth, regardless of the facts. So, for example, Kozma Indikoplov in Topographia Christiana is convinced that the story described by Plato is just a modification of what Moses told about the original place of human origin. The Atlanteans were antediluvian race, ten kings are ten tribes, and the flood itself was the disaster that destroyed Atlantis, etc.

The discovery of America led to new speculation about Atlantis, namely that America is part of the sunken continent. In 1561, Wilhelm de Posel attempted to carry out a theory about the Mexican etymology of the word Atlantis - in the Nahuatl language (which is part of the Uto-Aztec language family) the word Atl is 'water', and Atlan is 'water boundary', coast . Stallbaum (Stallbaum) in his 1838 edition of Plato found an even more fantastic similarity between Atlantis and America, and was convinced that the Egyptians knew about America. G. Rudberg gives only a link to his commentary in this publication and does not explain the essence of this similarity. Alexander von Humboldt believed that the Phoenicians remembered America, and these dark echoes of memory could be preserved in the Platonic story. Knötel (Knötel, Atlantis und das Volk der Atlanten, 1893) saw a similarity between the “Atlantic” and Central American cultures.

Continuing the biblical analogy, Baer (Baer, Essai historique et critique sur les Atlantiques, 1762) believed that Atlantis was a Jewish country, and the surrounding sea was the Red Sea, around which the children of Israel walked; the catastrophe that happened, in his opinion, is a vague recollection of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The 18th-century French philosopher Delisle de Sales built a complex system to explain how the ancient world was populated; Atlantes first lived in the Caucasus, from where they migrated in different directions. Thus, it combines Atlantis with the Homeric Ogigia, which was located in the Mediterranean and was larger than Outer Libya and Asia Minor.

Gildén believed that Plato wrote about Atlantis with all seriousness, and what we have in front of us is an example of modern geographical thought to Plato, which he borrowed from the Pythagoreans during one of his travels. From a historical point of view, writes G. Rudberg, these assumptions that the story of Atlantis was brought from Egypt to Greece not by Solon, but by Plato, or in general that this tradition comes not from Egypt, but from some other place, and remain random enough.


Further, G. Rudberg goes on to consider several examples of reading the story of Atlantis in a historical context. For example, Christ (Christ, Der Kritias ein historischer Roman) believed that the basis of the Platonic "epic in prose" was hieroglyphic texts from Karnak, which tells about a large confederation of people in the west of Libya and on the islands of the western Mediterranean (Sicily, Sardinia, where even the Achaeans were included).

At the same frequency (as G. Rudberg puts it) is Emil Svensén, Ord och Bild, who claims that the Greeks misunderstood the expression “Pillars of Hercules”; the phrase “beyond the pillars of Hercules” for the Egyptians simply meant in the north of the Mediterranean Sea and in the south of Europe, while the Greeks placed it further, and it turned out that Atlantis sank into the sea, since there were no traces of it. Svensen interprets the war as a battle between "people from the northern islands" who were a threat to Egypt from the west and who received help from Athens. He suggests that the attack on Egypt took place under the rule of King Merenptah (the pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, who ruled around 1212–1202 BC, from the 19th dynasty; reviewer comment) by the Libyan king, who runs a huge coalition of European navigators . In addition, he is confident that the disaster on the island of Thira led to the emergence of the Egyptian tradition of the destruction of Atlantis. And Solon and Plato both misunderstood this message.


Another, even more important, interpretation is an essay by the English archaeologist K. T. Frost (Frost, The Critias and Minoan Crete, 1913). He abandoned all attempts to find the disappeared island. On the other hand, he is convinced that the tradition was really Egyptian and came to Greece thanks to Solon. The historical core of the story of Atlantis, in his opinion, was the fall of the Minoan naval power and the Bronze Age culture in Crete. The legend of Atlantis is an Egyptian way of retelling in the first place a political, and not some other catastrophe on Crete, an island that lies west of Egypt. And the problem with the pillars of Hercules is solved as follows: no need to get attached to the Greek name; it is just a rough translation for poetic purposes; the relationship of Atlantis with the Egyptian word keft is a good choice that has given rise to thoughts of a vast ocean and prehistoric battles between gods, giants and titans. Secondly, the Egyptians were not seafarers, for them the Cretan kingdoms and Minos were far in the west, overseas (which is reflected in the word Keftiu). But Solon’s contemporaries knew much more and, thanks to the Phoenicians, had an idea of the sea, which extends much further. For them, the far west was beyond the Herculean pillars. Frost is trying to make believable the idea that the above events can be explained in this way, since Egypt’s connection with Crete was broken after the fall of Cretan civilization, and later generations simply did not know who Keftiu was. Solon, when he began his unfinished poem, significantly transformed the facts, leaving the honor of the victory of the island power only to Athens and changing the order of events, placing the main battle before the catastrophe (the destruction of Knossos).

G. Rudberg himself considers this hypothesis to be quite strong, but this is only at first glance, since it does not solve the problem. He criticizes this position on several points, in particular, for example, it remains unclear why Solon had to change the facts, and what is the natural connection of Atlantis and Crete, etc.

Further, he considers the opinions that Atlantis is just a poetic image, because this tradition began to develop quite early and the echoes of it can already be heard at Posidonius. G. Rudberg writes that the Egyptian origin of the legend of Atlantis, of course, should be discarded. "Atlantis can only drown" in the boundless sea of poetic fantasy. " - It was a kind of poetry that grew on fertile soil in this and subsequent times (meaning the period after Plato and late Antiquity, reviewer comment), and Atlantis was followed by a mass of similar poems that are available to us in meager fragments preserved by later historians , bibliographers, etc. (Diodorus, Elian, etc.); such poetic countries are the continent of Meropius at Theopomp, the Cimmerian city of Hekatei, the Panchean country of Egemer in his Hiera anagraphé and Heliopolis Jamblich. ”

Listing the positions of different scientists and thinkers, G. Rudberg does this, in my opinion, somewhat messy. It would seem that the name of one researcher has already sounded and his position is clear, but he returns to him again to clarify some detail or place him in a particular group of researchers, for example, those who consider the story of Atlantis a poem and those who Saw its historical and geographical grounds. There is a feeling that the story went in the second round.

He also lists the names and opinions of researchers who solve the problem of possible influences on Plato by Homer or Hippodamus of Miletus. Opinions are considered that Atlantis is a symbol of Athens during their highest heyday, and the Greco-Persian wars became a catastrophe. In this regard, different parallels are drawn. For example, the description of the crowd in the port (Critias 117e) is compared with the description of Piraeus (Laws 704–708). Others (Kern, whose position has already been voiced and is reproduced here again, but from a different perspective) place Atlantis in the region of Eleusis, and the poem about Atlantis itself is an echo of the ancient legend of the Eleusinian war, an event that is sometimes believed to have happened shortly before the Persian War . Atlantis is also compared to the ancient Persian city of Ecbatana.


The third chapter begins with a statement that we can no longer dwell on the listing of opinions. The main conclusion is that the stories of Atlantis in Critias and the introductory section of Timaeus are a poetic invention of Plato. G. Rudberg also casts doubt on the idea that the legend of Atlantis is an Egyptian tradition and provides several reasons to support this. He parses a series of errors that clearly show that it is time to stop perceiving the story of Atlantis as a real story. He points to Plato's careless chronology. For example, considering in detail the sequence of events and the age of their participants (Tim. 21a), G. Rudberg notes that Plato takes too long a period of time for only three generations. This, according to G. Rudberg, is explained by the fact that Plato originally wrote the novel, and not the family archive. A number of examples, including philological observations and a comparison of passages from Herodotus and Timaeus, allow us to conclude that the story of Atlantis is Plato's own invention. What has become a real prototype for the Platonic state? In the next section, G. Rudberg tries to find the answer to this question.

Section Four. One of the authors mentioned by G. Rudberg - Susemihl - believed that Plato meant Persia when he wrote about the enemy of the Athenians. But Plato disguised this idea, not only transferring enemy forces from east to west, but also saying that it was a naval army, not a ground army. Here G. Rudberg proposes to partially reconsider this point of view and consider not the powerful Persia, but Syracuse during the reign of the tyrant Dionysius, to be a prototype of Atlantis. This satisfies two criteria at once: both the country in the west and the sea power. G. Rudberg believes that Plato during his first visit to Syracuse in 387 BC. e. was struck by the power and prosperity of this city, its military successes and influence on its neighbors. He compares literary and archaeological sites, but he does not forget to warn the reader that we should not count on a complete resemblance. He draws attention to the location of the capital of Atlantis and Syracuse, the special patronage of Poseidon in relation to Syracuse, parses smaller geographical details. Very remarkable, in my opinion, is a comparison of the bedroom of Dionysius the Elder with the device of Atlantis. From the description of Cicero it is known that Dionysius, for security reasons, surrounded his bed with a wide moat through which the plank was thrown. It was enough to turn it to “close the door”. Mr. Rudberg recalls that at the beginning of the story of Atlantis, Poseidon creates an island and surrounds the central hill with water ditches in order to protect his young bride. Critia 116a refers to quarries from which stone was delivered for the construction of the city. G. Rudberg here also sees a resemblance to Sicily - with its famous quarries in Latomia near Syracuse.


Another notable part of the story of Atlantis is the description of the sanctuary of Poseidon (166c). In this regard, G. Rudberg recalls two magnificent Doric temples in Syracuse on the island of Ortigia - the temple of Athena (well preserved due to the fact that a Christian basilica was later built inside it) and the temple of Apollo dating from the middle of the VI century BC. e. Cicero has preserved a description of twenty-seven beautiful paintings, double doors decorated with gold and ivory, the head of the Gorgon with gold ornaments, which Verres stole, which gives an idea of the external and internal decoration of these temples. G. Rudberg believes that Plato, seeing all this wealth, should have been greatly impressed by visiting these temples, which became the basis for the description of the temple of Poseidon in Atlantis.

Plato describes Atlantis as rich in statues, and in Syracuse, as is known from the stories of various ancient authors, one could see many beautiful statues of the gods.

Further, G. Rudberg asks the question: why is the description of the palace in Atlantis so short and devoid of details? The answer can be very simple if we take into account that the prototype was Syracuse. This is due to the fact that Dionysius the Elder, unlike other rulers, did not live in Ortigia in a luxurious palace, but in Isthm, and security was valued more than comfort.

In the description of Atlantis, an important role is played by the description of water sources. G. Rudberg recalls the many springs around Syracuse, and even in Ortigia there is such a spring with fresh water, the Arethus fountain. The following is a comparison of the ports of Atlantis and Syracuse. And finally, fortifications and city fortifications are compared. Then comes a detailed description of the massive walls surrounding Syracuse during the time of Dionysius the Elder and built by his order. This description ends with the conclusion that Syracuse in the IV century BC. e. gave Plato more material than Athens.

In addition, G. Rudberg reserves Plato the right to fiction and notes elements of fantasy (this applies to military equipment, unusual rituals, which are discussed at the end of Critias, etc.). Concluding the review of coincidences, G. Rudberg draws attention to another plot, namely, the degeneration process in Atlantis. The material for comparison is Plato’s letters, in particular the seventh and second, which indicate that during his second visit to Syracuse he noticed a decline in morals and social instability.

In order to confirm the correctness of his reasoning, G. Rudberg considers the dating of the dialogues of Plato. It is important for him to show that Critias and Laws are the latest dialogues. In this regard, he discusses the method of dating dialogs for calculating stylistic features, considering, however, its ambiguous. At the end of the section, he concludes that linguistic and factual coincidences in Critias and the Laws regarding Atlantis can indeed be established, which should indicate the simultaneity of their creation.


In the next section, G. Rudberg suggests addressing the Seventh Letter of Plato. First, he discusses the issue of its authenticity, gives a number of opinions for and against. He himself insists on its authenticity. He is most interested in the fact that in the Seventh Letter we find a lot of coincidences with Critias, especially in the part that deals with Atlantis. Then again comes a list of these matches. The main idea around which the whole narrative revolves is that visits to Syracuse had a huge, maybe even decisive influence on Plato's later works, and various philological observations make it possible to understand the paths along which the philosopher went to his Atlantis.

The attachment includes two maps of Syracuse and a taxonomy of Atlantis hypotheses. At the end there is a small curriculum vitae about Gunnar Rudberg himself and an editorial epilogue listing references and reactions to this book in other works.

In general, the book is quite interesting. A review of the literature on this topic at the beginning of the work makes it possible to quickly get acquainted with the entire literary tradition devoted to the theme of Atlantis. The very idea of comparing Atlantis and Syracuse is presented quite convincingly. Of course, Syracuse did not sink, but that is why the whole story should not be taken literally.        Contents Overview
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