Against my better judgment I watched Syfy’s new Greek mythology drama Olympus, despite its bad reviews, and I was prepared for the worst. I was surprised, perhaps due to my low expectations, that it wasn’t as godawful as I had expected. Its story, while clunky, was serviceable enough, though played far too straight-faced seriously for the campiness of the material. The program has not yet made a case for why it should exist, though, since we’ve seen all of the elements that comprise it on other shows: Atlantis, Legend of the Seeker, Beast Master, and other fantasy fare of the last two decades. Its biggest failing is its visual effects. The whole show seems to be shot on green screen, and the digital backgrounds range from unconvincing to painfully fake. For a program that takes its visual cues so heavily from Immortals, it might have benefited from adopting some of that movie’s stylization to give the show visual flair. If, after all, you can’t afford real sets and are using shitty digital backgrounds, it can’t possibly cost that much more to Photoshop some stylish ones, perhaps taking inspiration from black and red figure Greek vases to turn the unreality of digital backdrops into an advantage. Embrace the fake! Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was stylized as can be, but it used that to create an unreal Art Deco style. In short, Olympus really ought to look better than it does, even on a budget.
Well, enough of that. Yesterday I reviewed Mark Adams’s Meet Me in Atlantis, and in doing so, I presented only some of the material covered in the book. There was one point I left out because it really required far too much discussion to add to an already lengthy review, but since Adams has published that section of his book as an article over at Slate magazine yesterday (it is currently the cover story as of this writing), it bears a bit of discussion.
In the book, and its excerpted article, Adams tells us about the claim of Atlantis researcher and geologist Stavros Papamarinopoulos of the University of Patras. He has some unusual ideas, for example that astronomical references in the Odyssey can prove that Odysseus reached Ithaca on October 25, 1207 BCE. Papamarinopoulos believes that Plato’s Atlantis is likely to have existed because Plato was extremely accurate about ancient Athens and therefore must have been correct about Atlantis, too. This is somewhat like arguing that Marvel comics depict New York City mostly correctly and therefore Thor’s Asgard exists, too. Anyway, after dismissing Plato’s date for Atlantis as incorrect, Papamarinopoulos asserts that the Athens described by Plato in the Critias is an accurate depiction of Mycenaean-era Athens, preserving what he says are details unknown to science until the twentieth century, and therefore proves that Plato had access to genuine Mycenaean traditions. As Adams writes of this “50 percent” of the Critias:
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.”
In order to evaluate this claim, we need to start by looking at what Plato makes the character of Critias say about the Athens he said existed 9,000 years before his time. Critias begins by telling of the division of the earth among the gods, and he asserts that at the time of Atlantis the people of Athens conducted war without regard for gender, and both men and women were warriors. There is no evidence for women warriors in Mycenaean contexts. Critias next claims that there were different classes of people, artisans, animal herders, and warriors. This was true of most societies going back to the Neolithic, so this tells us nothing. Critias, however, says that the warriors were communists and took from the people only “necessary” food. This again does not comport to what we know of the Mycenaeans, whose warrior elite were likely not communists to judge from the richness of their burials, nor did they sit lightly atop the social structure to judge from the material goods found in Mycenaean palaces. By contrast, the farming class were communal and shared the land—but not voluntarily. They were forced to do so by the central elite, who controlled and redistributed food.
According to Critias, Greece was once much larger, before a flood submerged much of it. “The land was the best in the world, and was therefore able in those days to support a vast army, raised from the surrounding people.” We know from studying Mycenaean food that agriculture in Bronze Age Greece was marginal, as it was afterward, and prone to disaster. Centralized bureaucrats dictated what crops to grow, and this prevented adaptation to changing conditions, leading to agricultural stagnation and collapse, according to Victor David Hanson, writing in The Other Greeks (University of California, 1999), a history of Greek farming.
After this, Critias describes how great floods have torn away large parts of Attica, leaving only a shriveled remnant. This does not match the known geological history of Greece in historical times, unless you’d like to propose that Plato (unique among Greeks) was aware of the rising sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age, when indeed there was once land where now there is water.
However, Papamarinopoulos focuses most of his attention on the lines devoted to the Acropolis itself, which he sees as exceedingly accurate:
Now the city in those days was arranged on this wise. In the first place the Acropolis was not as now. For the fact is that a single night of excessive rain washed away the earth and laid bare the rock; at the same time there were earthquakes, and then occurred the extraordinary inundation, which was the third before the great destruction of Deucalion. But in primitive times the hill of the Acropolis extended to the Eridanus and Ilissus, and included the Pnyx on one side, and the Lycabettus as a boundary on the opposite side to the Pnyx, and was all well covered with soil, and level at the top, except in one or two places. Outside the Acropolis and under the sides of the hill there dwelt artisans, and such of the husbandmen as were tilling the ground near; the warrior class dwelt by themselves around the temples of Athene and Hephaestus at the summit, which moreover they had enclosed with a single fence like the garden of a single house. On the north side they had dwellings in common and had erected halls for dining in winter, and had all the buildings which they needed for their common life, besides temples, but there was no adorning of them with gold and silver, for they made no use of these for any purpose; they took a middle course between meanness and ostentation, and built modest houses in which they and their children's children grew old, and they handed them down to others who were like themselves, always the same. But in summer-time they left their gardens and gymnasia and dining halls, and then the southern side of the hill was made use of by them for the same purpose. Where the Acropolis now is there was a fountain, which was choked by the earthquake, and has left only the few small streams which still exist in the vicinity, but in those days the fountain gave an abundant supply of water for all and of suitable temperature in summer and in winter. This is how they dwelt, being the guardians of their own citizens and the leaders of the Hellenes, who were their willing followers. And they took care to preserve the same number of men and women through all time, being so many as were required for warlike purposes, then as now-that is to say, about twenty thousand. (trans. Benjamin Jowett)
While Adams quoted a geologist as suggesting the Acropolis might once have been larger, there is no evidence to support Critias’s assertion that it was significantly different in Mycenaean times. Plato was quite likely projecting back from the known fact of frequent landslides on the Acropolis, which he seemingly speculated meant that the hill had once been much bigger. It is true that there was a massive Mycenaean cyclopean wall that surrounded the Bronze Age Acropolis, but it may have enclosed a palace, not temples of Athena and Hephaestus. (There is no archaeological evidence to prove the existence of such a palace; its existence is surmised from a few traces since it would be buried beneath the Erechtheion.) No special knowledge from the distant past was needed to recall the wall; known as the Pelasgic Wall, parts of it are still visible to this day and would have been well known to the Greeks. Thucydides, writing a century before Plato, mentions the Pelasgic construction at 2.17.1, and Herodotus, writing a half century before Plato, describes this wall in the Histories (6.137.2). Plato’s reference to it as the ancient wall of Athens heavily implies that he was not thinking of the Mycenaean era (the age of the Heroes like Theseus) in describing the Athens of the time of Atlantis but of the mythical Pelasgian era, which he would have considered the oldest habitation layer.
Similarly, even if we agree that Plato meant real constructions and had not simply invented the barracks of the warriors and the houses of the artisans, there is no reason to propose a holdover from Mycenaean memory. Such ruins, if they truly existed, would have been seen and excavated, if at no other time, in the fifth century BCE when the Acropolis was remodeled for the Parthenon and Erectheion.
That leaves us with the fountain or spring, an old one of which was discovered by archaeology in the 1930s. The Mycenaean construction was probably used for about 40 years in the thirteenth century BCE, when an earthquake dried it up. Once again, it isn’t clear why Plato knowing about this spring (if he truly did) would represent a holdover from Mycenaean times unique to him. The Mycenaean fountain discovered in the 1930s was an underground one, not, as Plato implies, one atop the Acropolis that gave rise to streams and rivers. Nevertheless, according to the excavation report, the cave containing the fountain was only sealed during the Greek War of Independence, meaning that the ancient Greeks would have entered the cave and may have seen the remains of the structure for the fountain during the Classical period, as evidenced from the material found within the cave. A well existed in the cave in Classical times and may have been believed to emerge from an ancient fountain. But besides that, there were other springs and wells on the Acropolis, including the Klepsydra, whose name means “stolen water” because its waters would shift of cease to flow from time to time due to earthquakes and landslides. It had just been turned into a fountain with the reconstruction of the Acropolis in the fifth century. The Kepsydra was in use from the fifth century BCE to the fifteenth century CE. This ought to be sufficient to explain Plato’s failed fountain, an imaginary predecessor to the Klepsydra, just as the temples of Athena and Hephaestus were fictive projections of the Parthenon and Erectheon (and their predecessors) back in time. The temple to Hephaestus is clearly standing in for the Erectheon because Hephaestus was the father of Erectheus, who in this timeline was not yet dead and deified.
The association between the Acropolis and springs or fountains is an old one, from the myth of the contest of Athena and Poseidon in which the sea god created a spring. Apollodorus, summarizing the myth two centuries after Plato, wrote in the Biblioteca (3.14.1) that “with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he [Poseidon] produced a sea which they now call Erekhtheis” (trans. J. G. Frazer). Granted, this was salt-water in late stories (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.70ff.), but it may have referred early on to the subterranean waters beneath the Acropolis, since mythologists have argued that Poseidon was originally the god of subterranean fresh water before being named sea-god.
But we needn’t make assumptions about where Plato got the idea. He tells us himself in the Critias: “there may still be observed sacred memorials in places where fountains once existed; and this proves the truth of what I am saying.”
Thus, in short, there isn’t a single detail of the supposedly Mycenaean Athens described by Plato that isn’t either (a) wrong for the date or (b) observable from the ruins Plato could have visited and seen himself in 360 BCE. Therefore, I can only conclude that Plato did not receive his information about Athens from a genuine historical report preserved by Egyptian priests and passed on to Solon around 600 BCE.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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