In the interest of fairness, today I’d like to look at one of the pieces of evidence for the reality of Atlantis: the work of the respected the ancient geographer Strabo. Then, since I can’t resist, I’d like to look at how pseudo-scientists, alternative historians, and ancient alien theorists completely misunderstand evidence in their own favor because of their poor scholarship, ironically casting even more doubt on the soundness of their theories.
In a passage of the Geography discussing earthquakes, Strabo makes his only mention of Atlantis, discussing the earlier (and lost) work of the philosopher Posidonius:
However, he (Posidonius) is right in attributing to earthquakes and other similar causes, which we also have enumerated, the risings, slips, and changes which at various periods come over the earth. He did well, too, in citing the opinion of Plato, ‘that the tradition concerning the Island of Atlantis might be received as something more than a mere fiction, it having been related by Solon on the authority of the Egyptian priests, that this island, almost as large as a continent, was formerly in existence, although now it had disappeared.’ Posidonius thinks it better to quote this than to say, ‘He who brought it into existence can also cause it to disappear, as the poet did the wall of the Achivi.’ (= Achaeans) (Geography 2.3.6, trans. Hamilton & Falconer)
Thus, Strabo and Posidonius were both of the opinion that Atlantis was a real place, one destroyed by earthquakes. Their trust in Atlantis’ reality was based, however, entirely on the authority of Solon (c. 638-558 BCE), whom it is all but certain could not have passed along a genuine, accurate oral tradition all the way down to Plato (424-328 BCE) almost three hundred years later. Nor could Posidonius (c. 135-51 BCE) or Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE) have any special knowledge of Plato’s sources three centuries before them, or Solon’s six centuries before them.
The “wall of the Achaeans” mentioned above was a large construction built to protect the Greek ships in Homer (Iliad 12.1-33), of which the Classical Greeks could find no trace, leading Aristotle to the conclusion that Homer had invented and disposed of a fictitious construction, as Strabo states in 13.1.36: “…perhaps no wall was built and the erection and destruction of it, as Aristotle says, are due to the invention of the poet” (op. cit.).
Interestingly, based on these two passages (and only on these passages) it is often claimed that Aristotle disbelieved in Atlantis, and many “quote” Aristotle as saying that he who invented the island also sank it, with Strabo being given as the source. However, such a statement does not appear directly in Strabo but is instead a conflation of 2.3.6 and 13.1.36, an inference drawn by attributing the second quotation in 2.3.6 to the Aristotle of 13.1.36 based on the repetition of similar language. This is justifiable, but it is not, strictly speaking, completely certain. If "alternative historians" were real scholars, they would use this uncertainty to dismantle this somewhat weak skeptical argument against the reality of Atlantis.
Of course alternative historian and ancient astronaut theorist David Hatcher Childress, that paragon of scholarly virtue and accurate quotation, completely flubs the quote in his Lost Cities of Atlantis, Ancient Europe, and the Mediterranean (1996), giving it in a form from no ancient text: “He who invented Atlantis also destroyed it” (141). (Childress, because he doesn’t check such things or understand what a quote is, also claims Aristotle doubted the Trojan War in “the same quote.”) This is because, of course, his “sources” aren’t the actual ancient texts, of which he remains happily ignorant. He attributes the quote instead to multiple secondary sources, including such works as L. Sprague de Camp’s Lost Continents (1954) and Lawrence Kusche’s Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved (1975). (Childress doesn’t use page numbers in his references, or provide notes about what came from where, so there is uncertainty about the exact source for any Childress reference.)
I can find no mention of Aristotle in the latter work, though in the former work, de Camp presented the inference of Aristotle’s Atlantis skepticism without qualifiers, stating in a partial quote from Strabo mixed with his own words that Aristotle believed “in the case of Atlantis, ‘he who invented it also destroyed it’” (1970 reprint, p. 17). Instead, the exact quote used in Childress seems to have first appeared in Alan Landsburg’s In Search of Lost Civilizations (1976, p. 14), where no source is given. This work is not cited in Childress.
Many mystery-mongering authors make the same error, failing to recognize the conjecture behind the alleged Aristotle quote and simply taking secondary sources at face value. This is dumbfounding since the reality of the situation gives plenty of opportunity to challenge Aristotle's skepticism and score points for Atlantis.
Tellingly, even when the ancient sources actually support their claims, Childress and these authors manage, through ignorance, to completely misunderstand and misrepresent ancient sources. In so doing, they weaken their own case—both through failing to present evidence in their favor and by exposing the paucity of scholarship and understanding undergirding their own ill-conceived and slapdash theories.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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