Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 18

Triremes of Atlantis [370-354 B.C.]

In one day and night of terror all your fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, just as the island of Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared.

—Plato

WHEN PEOPLE OF LATER AGES LOOKED BACK AT THE REVIVAL of Athens’ Golden Age, the figure of Plato dominated the scene. The philosopher possessed the most towering intellect that the city, or perhaps any city, ever produced. Like Thucydides before him, Plato saw the quest for sea rule as the defining issue of Athenian politics and history. In time he became the navy’s most articulate and vehement opponent, though only in his writings, not in the Assembly.

Plato liked to trace things back to their beginnings, but his revisionist view of Athenian history differed widely from the version recited by the jingoistic demagogues. Theseus’ heroic action in ending the tribute payments to Minos took a darker turn in Plato’s vision: “It would have been better for them to lose seven youths over and over again rather than get into bad habits by forming themselves into a navy.” He also disputed the popular belief that Themistocles, Cimon, and Pericles had been benefactors of the people. “Yes, they say these men made our city great. They never realize that it is now swollen and infected because of these statesmen of former days, who paid no heed to discipline and justice. Instead, they filled our city with harbors and navy yards and walls and tribute and such-like trash.”

Part of Plato’s hostility to the navy was inherited, part was personal. His uncle Critias had been the powerful arch-oligarch who led the government of the Thirty Tyrants, so Plato grew up among men opposed to democracy and the “naval mob.” In his teens he became a disciple of Socrates, most of whose disciples came from aristocratic and oligarchic families. Antagonism to the popular majority was natural in a young man whose uncle had been killed during the restoration of democracy led by Thrasybulus, and whose beloved teacher had been condemned to death by a jury of his fellow citizens. After these two tragedies, Plato left Athens to study the lore and customs of distant cities, voyaging southeast to Egypt and west to Sicily. It was on one of these voyages that he had suffered the insult at the hands of a Spartan commander that his friend Chabrias avenged at the battle of Naxos. On his return to Athens, Plato established a school at a grove of the hero Akademos on the Sacred Way, the world’s original “Academy.”

Despite his abhorrence of the navy, Plato’s famous Socratic dialogues were full of ships and the sea. To Plato, a man’s will was the steering oar of his soul; a quick-tempered man was like an unballasted ship, easily swept away; and the passing of a human life was like a boat slipping from its moorings and drifting from shore. He even described his vision of the cosmos in nautical terms: “This light is the girdle of the heavens, like the girding cables of a trireme, and in the same way it holds together the entire revolving vault.”

How, according to Plato, did the gods govern the first humans? “They did not use blows or bodily force, as shepherds do, but governed us like steersmen from the stern of the ship, holding our souls by the steering oars of persuasion.” What is his mission as a philosopher? “To frame the shapes of lives according to the modes of their souls. Thus figuratively laying down their keels, I try rightly to consider by what manner of living we shall best navigate our vessel of life through this voyage of existence.” Why will a philosopher never become the head of state in a democracy? “The true steersman must give his attention to the time of the year, the seasons, the sky, the winds, the stars, and all that pertains to his art if he is to be a true ruler of the ship. He does not believe that there is any art or science of seizing the steering oars, with or without the consent of the others.” Plato used the venerable metaphor of the ship of state to demonstrate the folly of democratic rule. How could it be right or even safe for inexperienced passengers to share equal votes with the captain? These were not academic questions. When Plato was in his seventies, Athens was confronted with a crisis at sea that threatened to revive all the city’s most dangerous imperialistic instincts.

The demise of Spartan power had abruptly knocked away the cornerstone on which the Second Maritime League had been founded. The charter of the alliance proclaimed the league’s purpose: to protect the allies from Spartan aggression. Why then should it continue to exist after the fall of Sparta? Pericles had managed to keep the Delian League together even after concluding peace with the Great King. Now the Athenians of a later generation decided to hold on to their naval hegemony with or without a Spartan menace to justify it. Fortunately for them, marauding fleets of pirates or Thessalians or Thebans almost annually stirred up trouble in the Aegean. The raids endangered trade and shipments of grain and thus obligingly provided Athens with a pretext for maintaining the league. As so often happens in empire building, an apparent enemy proved a valuable friend.

The allies were still haunted by the specter of the old oppressive Athenian Empire, with its imperial tribute and bloody massacres. Despite the Assembly’s original pledge to promote liberty and justice, it was drifting in the direction of empire once more. Ignoring the league’s charter, the Athenians installed governors and garrisons in certain cities and islands, just as in the bad old days. Because the Assembly continued to send expeditions to sea with insufficient funds to pay the crews, Athenian generals had to raid the territories of neutrals and even allies. Blatantly Athenians interfered in the internal politics of other states and increasingly employed the navy on missions that had nothing to do with the league.

This rising tide of abuses almost washed out the benefits that the league still provided to its members and to the Greeks at large. The Athenian navy policed the seas, kept down piracy, and protected small allies against aggression from powerful neighbors. Athenian maritime courts offered fair and speedy judgments to all. And the Athenians were carrying out all these duties and services without the steady income from tribute that had sustained them in the days of the empire.

To ensure that Athens would be able to finance its fleet without recourse to tribute, a citizen named Periander proposed a major financial and administrative reform of the trierarchy. Periander himself knew the burden of outfitting and maintaining a trireme: at the time when he made his proposal, he was serving as joint trierarch on a ship with the appropriate name of Hegeso (“Leadership”). His reform called for enrolling no fewer than twelve hundred Athenians as potential contributors for the trierarchic fund. Most would never command at sea. Periander’s new list was based solely on wealth and even included heiresses. The twelve hundred were to be grouped into sixty boards called symmoriai (“joint contributors”). The Assembly voted the proposal into law, and from then on it sent out fleets of sixty ships, calling up one trireme from each of Periander’s new symmories.

With all their failings, the Athenians had learned as much from the sufferings they inflicted on others as they had from their own. It was inconceivable that the Assembly in the time of Plato would have voted to kill or enslave entire populations as their forebears had done in the time of Socrates. The city had gone far to purge itself of hubris. Ironically, its own liberal spirit encouraged rebellions and enemy attacks. The allies did not love the Athenians, but neither did they fear them.

The storm broke fourteen years after the final peace with Sparta, when Byzantium joined the islands of Chios, Rhodes, and Cos in seceding from the league. Their mutiny provoked Athens to send out sixty triremes under Chabrias. Almost two decades had passed since he faced the Spartan fleet at Naxos, but the veteran had lost none of his fire. When the rebel fleet refused to come out of Chios Harbor and fight, he ordered his steersman to force an entrance. The Athenian trierarchs in the other ships hesitated, and as the enemy swarmed in around him, Chabrias was cut off. A rebel rammed his flagship. As water poured through the breach, the rowers scrambled overboard, followed by the archers and marines. All swam toward the main Athenian force that was hovering outside the harbor mouth. Chabrias stood on the foredeck in full armor, apparently unaware that only his ship had advanced and that his own men had abandoned him. He fought on while his trireme slowly sank: one old warrior—but an Athenian!—against an entire fleet. Once the enemy leaped across to the foredeck, Chabrias was quickly overwhelmed and killed. The Athenians conceded defeat, having lost exactly one ship and one man.

From this wretched beginning the War with the Allies or “Social War” went from bad to worse. As news spread of Athens’ humiliation at Chios, the rebellion gained momentum. Naval squadrons of the former allies rampaged through the Aegean, raiding, destroying, and threatening islands along the grain route. The Assembly sent out another fleet of sixty triremes under a group of generals that included Timotheus, Iphicrates, Menestheus, and a former mercenary commander named Chares. They met the rebel fleet at a place called Embata. Chares attacked while the other generals stayed on shore. A storm had blown up with high winds and dangerous seas. On their return to Athens, Chares accused the other three generals of failure to do their duty. Timotheus was fined a staggering one hundred talents, the largest fine in Athenian history. After their trials the accused generals either withdrew from active service or left Athens never to return.

As if they were bent on self-destruction, the Athenians had let the greatest generals of the age slip through their fingers like water. Meanwhile the Byzantines were in a position to close the Bosporus, and the Great King threatened to send three hundred triremes into the Aegean to support the rebels. A crisis had been reached. Envoys arrived at Athens from Chios and the other mutinous cities to discuss the future. Some demagogues urged the Assembly to continue the struggle. Would the Athenians choose peace and renounce their imperial ambitions? Or would they battle on, as so many generations of their ancestors had done? The great thinkers of the Academy and the Lyceum were in complete accord: the quest for sea rule was threatening to destroy Athens.

The Assembly bowed to the inevitable. Considering the magnitude of the forces opposing them in the War with the Allies, as well as their own shortage of funds and commanders, it had little choice. Athens officially recognized the independence and autonomy of Chios, Byzantium, Rhodes, and Cos. In so doing it left the door open for other allies to secede from the Second Maritime League. The War with the Allies had lasted only two years and cost very few lives, but its outcome was bitter. Athenians had often experienced and recovered from failure; they were unaccustomed to shame.

During the alarm stirred up by the War with the Allies, Plato and other men of his generation were moved to put their fears and recommendations in writing. The peace movement found an advocate in Isocrates, teacher of rhetoric at the Lyceum. At twenty-one Isocrates had sat in the Assembly and listened to Alcibiades and Nicias debating the Sicilian expedition. He had turned thirty in the year of the battle of the Arginusae Islands and the trial of the generals. Now eighty-one, Isocrates offered his advice in an oration called “On the Peace.”

“I say that we should make peace,” he proclaimed, “not only with the citizens of Chios, Rhodes, Byzantium, and Cos, but with all mankind.” Sea rule was a virulent sickness. As proof, Isocrates pointed to its devastating effect on the once-mighty Spartans. Their ancestral constitution had endured with rocklike solidity for more than seven centuries, only to be dashed to ruin by three decades of naval imperialism. Thalassocracy was a hetaira or whore of the highest class, equally attractive and equally deadly to all comers.

Xenophon, another luminary in the Athenian renaissance, sent a letter to the Athenians from his self-imposed exile in Corinth. It was published under the title “Poroi” (“Revenues”). During his half century away from Athens, Xenophon had written a completion of Thucydides’ history, as well as an account of his march through the Persian Empire with the Greek army known as the Ten Thousand. His soldiers’ cry of Thalassa! Thalassa! (“The sea! The sea!”) rang in the imagination of every reader. Xenophon loved order and practical wisdom. To fill the city’s coffers without preying on allies, he recommended the creation of a new kind of navy: a merchant marine. The Athenians should invest in a fleet of freighters that could be leased out like the mines and other public property. Shipowners whose business benefited the state would be encouraged to stay at Athens by such amenities as new hotels at the Piraeus and front-row seats at the theater. In the end the Athenians accepted Xenophon’s advice to reopen the silver mines at Laurium, but the merchant marine remained no more than a gleam in the old campaigner’s eye.

At about the same time that Isocrates and Xenophon were advocating an end to maritime empire, Plato embarked on a set of dialogues that would put the insatiable quest for sea rule in a cosmic context. In the dialogues Timaeus and Critias he recounted the story of a war between an imperial naval power and a small but valiant state that relied entirely on its army. The naval power had a capital city built on and around a hill that stood five miles from the sea. Its ships were served by three circular harbors of graduated size. The smaller harbors accommodated the immense fleet of triremes while the largest harbor was filled with merchant ships that brought the wealth of the world to the port. A long wall with towers and gates surrounded the harbors and the central citadel. There were cisterns for water, and the region was cut up in a rectangular grid.

The people who ruled this maritime empire had good land of their own, but in their greed and arrogance they set out to take over others, including neighboring islands and the continent beyond. In the end they controlled the waters and coasts of half the Mediterranean. So much good fortune eventually led to a fall from grace. As Plato put it, “They appeared glorious and blessed to those who could not recognize true happiness. Yet at the very same time they were in fact full of greed and unrighteous power.”

The proud and wealthy city of the sea met its nemesis in the forces of a land power that lived in simplicity, virtue, and righteousness. The people of this other city had no use for seafaring or trade. The state was governed by an elite class of fighting men—and in fact the women of this class were as warlike as the men. They lived apart from the lower classes and did no work with their hands, constantly vigilant for the safety of the state. The fighting men held all possessions in common and even built communal dining halls for their meals. Their courage and virtue had made them leaders of other Greeks, who followed them willingly.

All appearances to the contrary, Plato was not rewriting the history of the Peloponnesian War. He did not name his maritime empire Athens; nor were the noble warriors who opposed it Spartans. On the contrary, he claimed that the land power was really primeval Athens as it had been “before the deluge,” while the sea power was a lost continent or island called Atlantis. His account of the war between Atlantis and Athens combined myth and history into a gigantic allegory on the evils of sea power.

Plato presented his allegory in a Socratic dialogue. Socrates has joined three friends for conversation on the day of the Panathenaic festival. Among them are Plato’s uncle Critias and, of all people, the Syracusan patriot Hermocrates, who masterminded his city’s resistance to the armada from Athens. The one thing that these two historical figures had in common was their opposition to the Athenian navy. The subject of their conversation with Socrates is the ideal city, which was also the subject of Plato’s earlier dialogue theRepublic. Socrates says that a static description is not enough: he wants to see their ideal state in action, struggling for survival. At this Hermocrates chimes in with a happy thought. Critias should repeat a story that he told on the previous day when Socrates was absent: the tale of early Athens, a truly ideal state, and its daring resistance to the power of Atlantis.

Critias explains that this story, unknown to other Greeks, was told to him by his grandfather, who heard it from the lawgiver Solon, who in turn learned it from Egyptian priests at a temple in the Nile delta. These Egyptians knew more than Solon himself about Athens’ origins. “Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your city in our histories. But one exceeds all the rest in greatness and valor. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, to which your city put an end.”

Ten thousand years ago, according to Plato’s story, a gigantic island called Atlantis lay in the ocean beyond the Pillars of Heracles, bigger than Asia and Africa put together. From Atlantis it was possible to cross westward to other islands and ultimately reach the mainland on the far side of the ocean. When the gods divided the world among themselves, Poseidon claimed Atlantis. On the island’s southern side was a rectangular plain that stretched three hundred miles along the coast and two hundred miles inland. Encircling mountains protected the plain from the harsh north winds, making it an earthly paradise. Poseidon married a local girl named Cleito. To protect his bride, he surrounded a hill near the sea with three rings of water. The couple named the first of their ten sons Atlas, and the island was called Land of Atlas or Atlantis after him, just as the surrounding ocean was called the Atlantic. Poseidon allotted a portion of the island to each son, but Atlas ruled them all. The Atlanteans were great delvers in the earth, digging mines for clay and metal ores as well as quarries for building stone.

The people were also seafarers. Poseidon’s three rings of water became circular harbors. Though Atlantis was rich, it imported goods and luxuries from abroad. The Atlantean navy boasted twelve hundred triremes, housed by pairs in double slipways cut into the rock. Nearby was storage space for the naval gear. The central plain of the island was divided into sixty thousand districts by a crisscrossing grid of canals. Each district was required to furnish four men for service in the Atlantean trireme fleet, along with two hoplites, two slingers of missiles, three slingers of stones, and three javelin throwers. Atlantis was first and foremost a state organized for war.

In the beginning the Atlanteans were noble and long-lived, but with time and affluence the race degenerated. Zeus decided to punish their hubris. With their great fleet the Atlanteans had already seized the neighboring islands. Now, goaded by Zeus, they launched an armada against the peoples of the Mediterranean. None could withstand them. The navy and army of Atlantis conquered the African coast as far as Egypt, and Europe as far as central Italy. At last their forces confronted the soldiers of Athens, leaders of a Greek alliance.

While Poseidon had taken possession of Atlantis, Athena and her brother Hephaestus had claimed the territory of Attica as their portion. Attica was small by comparison to Atlantis, but it had a perfect climate, good soil, and abundant natural resources. Faced with the Atlantean armada, the Greek allies abandoned the Athenians, who fought on alone. Thanks to their strength, valor, and military prowess, the Athenians finally defeated the Atlanteans in battle. They liberated all the countries that had been enslaved, and the world’s first maritime empire came to an end. But the story told by the Egyptian priests did not end here. Violent earthquakes and floods engulfed the fighting men of primeval Athens; the same disaster swallowed up Atlantis, which vanished from sight.

No trace of the Atlantis story has been found in other ancient writings, Greek or Egyptian. In creating his lost continent of Atlantis, Plato included details that linked this archetypal maritime power to the thalassocracies known to contemporary Greeks. From the Crete of the first sea ruler, King Minos, Plato borrowed an elaborate cult of bull sacrifice. The number 1,200 given for the island’s trireme fleet recalled not only Periander’s recent creation of 1,200 new trierarchs at Athens, but also the catalog of Agamemnon’s 1,184 ships for the Trojan War and Xerxes’ grand armada of 1,207 for the invasion of Greece. The circular harbor surrounding a circular island conjured up the image of Carthage, and the Atlanteans’ obsession with luxuries, Corinth. Again like Atlantis, both Athens and Syracuse used double shipsheds to house their triremes. As for the earthquake and tidal wave that submerged Atlantis, they recalled the recent disaster at Helike, when a great wave engulfed the Spartan triremes commanded by Pollis and destroyed the last vestige of Sparta’s naval power.

PLATO’S ATLANTIS

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A similar historical disaster may have suggested the name that Plato gave to his island-continent. He had been born at the time when an earthquake in the Euboean Gulf split the little island of Atalante in two; the resulting tsunami picked up an Athenian trireme moored on the shore and threw it far into the town. From “Atalante” it was a short step to a description of a North African tribe called “Atlantes” that was recorded in the history of Herodotus, as well as the Atlas Mountains and Atlantic Ocean (all of which had been given their names long before Plato invented Atlantis). So using details from myth, history, geography, and his own fertile imagination, Plato fashioned an ancient thalassocracy to stand as the forerunner of all later naval powers, and devised for it a tragic fate as a warning to all its successors. Naval power breeds hubris, and the gods punish hubris with destruction.

More than anything else, however, the story of Atlantis was an allegory of Athens. With wishful thinking, Plato pulled apart the city of his own day, disentangling the realm of Poseidon and triremes from the “true Athens” of Athena, Hephaestus, and traditional virtues. In setting his true Athens in opposition to Atlantis, the philosopher expressed his dream that Athens’ better self might overcome the seductive temptations of maritime wealth and power. Atlantis embodied everything that was wrong with Athens, and its destruction was a warning to the Athenians of Plato’s own time.

Later Greeks forgot Plato’s moral purpose and plunged into a hunt for Atlantis on maps or in ancient history. Could Atlantis really have been Troy? Or perhaps the island of Scheria, home of the seafaring Phaeacians in Homer’s Odyssey? Eventually the myth of Atlantis floated free of Plato altogether and became world famous. The location of Atlantis became a topic of intense interest and debate for enthusiasts who had never read a word of the Timaeus or Critias. The lost continent was identified with the volcanic island of Thera, with Minoan Crete, with Helgoland in the North Sea, even with Bimini in the Bahamas. Plato’s pupil Aristotle, however, seems to have classified Atlantis, not among places of real history or geography, but among poetic creations. Aristotle’s pronouncement on such works of the imagination may have applied specifically to Atlantis: “He who created it, destroyed it.”

But Aristotle was mistaken. Atlantis was real and clearly visible from the Acropolis. To visit it, one had only to follow the line of the Long Walls down to the sea and enter the Piraeus, noisy hub of shipping and maritime enterprise. After climbing around the shoulder of Munychia Hill and descending through Hippodamus’ grid of streets, one reached the edge of Zea Harbor and the double shipsheds, the home of the Athenian navy. Centuries later the remains of the Navy Yard would glimmer through the water of the harbor, submerged by the rising sea and subsidence of the land.Here lay the heart of Plato’s dark vision. This was Atlantis.

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