The term ‘Continent’, is derived from the Latin terra continens, meaning ‘continuous land’ and in English is relatively new, not coming into use until the Middle English period (11th-16th centuries). Apart from that, it is sometimes used to imply mainland. The Scottish island of Shetland is known by the smaller islands in the archipelago as Mainland, in fact its old Norse name is Megenland, which means mainland. In turn the people of Mainland, Shetland, will apply the same title to the Britain, who in turn apply the term ‘continuous land’ or continent to mainland Europe. Consequently it is clear the term is clearly relative.
The term has been applied arbitrarily by some commentators to Plato’s Atlantis, usually by those locating it in the Atlantic. In fact Plato never called Atlantis a continent, but instead as the sixteen instances below prove, he consistently referred to it as an island, probably the one containing the capital city of the confederation or alliance!
[Timaeus 24e, 25a, 25d Critias 108e, 113c, 113d, 113e, 114a, 114b, 114e, 115b, 115e, 116a, 117c, 118b, 119c]
A number of commentators have assumed that when Plato referred to an ‘opposite continent’ he was referring to the Americas, however Herodotus, who flourished after Solon and before Plato, was quite clear that there were only three continents known to the Greeks, Europe, Asia and Libya [4.42]. In fact prior to Herodotus only two landmasses were considered continents, Europe and Asia, with Libya sometimes considered part of Asia.*Furthermore, Anaximander drew a ‘map’ of the known world (left), a century after Herodotus, showing only the three continents, without any hint of territory beyond them.*
So when Plato does use the word ‘continent’ [Tim. 24e, 25a, Crit. 111a] we can reasonably conclude that he was referring to one of these landmasses, and more than likely to either Europe or Libya (North Africa) as Atlantis was in the west, ruling out Asia.
Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 AD) in his On the Eternity of the World(b) wrote “Are you ignorant of the celebrated account which is given of that most sacred Sicilian strait, which in old times joined Sicily to the continent of Italy?” (v.139). It would seem that in this particular circumstance the term ‘Sicilian Strait’ refers to the Strait of Messina, which is another example of how ancient geographical terms often changed their meaning over time (see Atlantic & Pillars of Herakles).
The name ‘Italy’ was normally used in ancient times to describe the southern part of the peninsula(d). Some commentators think that Philo was quoting Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor. This would push the custom of referring to Italy as a ‘continent’ back to the time of Plato, who clearly states (Tim. 25a) that the Atlantean alliance “ruled over all the island, over many other islands as well. and over sections of the continent.” (Wells). The next passage recounts their control of territory in Europe and North Africa, so it naturally begs the question as to what was ‘the continent’ referred to previously? I suggest that the context, had a specific meaning, which, in the absence of any other candidate and the persistent usage over the following two millennia can be reasonably assumed to have been southern Italy.
Centuries later, the historian, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) refers at least twice[1523.6.209/10] to the ‘continent of Italy’. More recently, Armin Wolf (1935- ), the German historian, when writing about Scheria relates(a) that “Even today, when people from Sicily go to Calabria (southern Italy) they say they are going to the “continente.” This continuing usage of the term is confirmed by a current travel site(c) and by author, Robert Fox in The Inner Sea [1168.141].
I suggest that Plato used the term in a similar fashion and can be seen as offering a more rational explanation for the use of the word ‘continent’ in Timaeus 25a, adding to the idea of Atlantis in the Central Mediterranean.
Giovanni Ugas claims that the Mediterranean coast of southern Spain and France, along with the Italian peninsula constituted the ‘true continent’ (continente vero) referred to by Plato. (see below)
Furthermore, the text informs us that this opposite continent surrounds or encompasses the true ocean, a description that could not be applied to either of the Americas as neither encompass the Atlantic, which makes any theory of an American Atlantis more than questionable.
Modern geology has definitively demonstrated that no continental mass lies in the Atlantic and quite clearly the Mediterranean does not have room for a sunken continent .
Herodotus (c.484 – c.420 BC) was born in Halicarnassus, today known as Bodrum, a popular tourist resort in Turkey. He wrote the first comprehensive history of the ancient world. His work has been lauded and denounced in equal measure, earning the twin appellations of ‘Father of History’ and ‘Father of Lies’. The latter is the consequence of some of his accounts appearing incredible at first reading, but a little
investigation and lateral thinking can reveal underlying truth of his statements as demonstrated by Reginald Fessenden among others. Herodotus also described an unusual Egyptian barge, known as a ‘baris’, which was not confirmed until the 21st century(e).
A recent article(d) on the Ancient Origins website defends Herodotus’ reputation.
Another example is to be found in Book IV of The Histories where he mentions the Atlantes as being vegetarians and never dreaming (v.184). This apparently strange comment may be explained by the fact that vegetarians are frequently short of vitamin B6, which is recognised today as leading to the suppression of dreams. This is reminiscent of a reference in the Mahabharata to Atala, sometimes proposed as a reference to Atlantis, where it notes that it is inhabited by “white men who never have to sleep or eat” (Santi Parva, Section CCCXXXVII).
Writing nearly a century before Plato, Herodotus refers to Atlantes as a people occupying the interior of what was then known as Libya (Hist.4.184.1) and since the Atlanteans controlled the Mediterranean as far as Egypt (Timaeus 25b) Herodotus may have been alluding to them. In Book I, 202, Herodotus refers to the sea beyond the Pillars of Heracles as the ‘Sea of Atlantis’. The pre-platonic date of these comments dispels the notion that Atlantis was an invention of Plato’s. This same text refers to the fact that all the known seas are connected; (i) ‘the sea known to the Greeks’, namely the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, (ii) ‘the sea beyond the Pillars of Heracles’ in the western Mediterranean and (iii) the ‘Erythraean’ or Red Sea. This interpretation of the text implies that Pillars of Heracles were located somewhere in the region of Malta, a view supported by some recent writers such as Anton Mifsud.
Herodotus, who flourished after Solon and before Plato, was quite clear that there were only three continents known to the Greeks, Europe, Asia and Libya [4.42]. This provides a powerful argument against the claim that America was known to the Greeks or that Plato’s ‘opposite continent’ could have been a reference to America.*Furthermore, Anaximander drew a ‘map’ of the known world in the 6th century BC showing three continents without any suggestion of territory beyond them.*
In spite of the above references that are apparently supportive of the existence of Atlantis, it has been reasonably argued, by Alan Alford, that they are counterbalanced by the fact that Herodotus considered the wars between the Persians and the Greeks as the greatest of all time, that he considered Sardinia the largest in the world and that the Minoans had developed the first sea empire in the Mediterranean, all attributes of Plato’s Atlantis. In response, I must argue that the war with Atlantis could have been the greatest up to that point in time but subsequently eclipsed by the scale of the war with the Persians. Similarly, the First World War was the most extensive until World War II. With regard to the Minoans, it must be pointed out that the Phoenicians had a more extensive trading empire encompassing both the eastern and western Mediterranean, whereas the Minoans were mainly active in the eastern basin.
Finally, Herodotus was wrong regarding Sardinia, as Sicily is in fact the largest island in the Mediterranean in terms of area (25,708 km2 vs. 24,090 km2). However, the coastal length of Sardinia is much greater than Sicily’s (1843 vs 1115 km). Interestingly, Felice Vinci recently wrote that ancient seafarers measured territory by its coastal perimeter rather than by its area, as we do today. In fact he relates how this method was in use up to the time of Columbus. So in the end Herodotus was quite correct according to the criteria of his age. Once again we see the dangers inherent in trying to understanding writings from another age and culture.
This method of measuring territory by the length of its coastal boundaries must be taken into account when considering Plato’s description of Atlantis being greater than Asia and Libya together.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet has pointed out[580.23] how Jean-François Pradeau after studying the language of Critias demonstrated that ‘this dialogue employs certain terms that do not appear elsewhere in Plato’s works, terms that are borrowed from Herodotus’.
*A modern review of Herodotus’ Histories was written by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker in April 2008(f).*
Thorwald C.Franke delivered a paper to the 2008 Atlantis Conference with the self-explanatory title of The Importance of Herodotus’ Histories for the Atlantis Problem. This interesting document is now available online(c). Franke believes that Herodotus has more to offer Atlantology than is generally thought. He mentions the work of J.V.Luce having made a positive use of Herodotus’ Histories as a contribution to the Atlantis debates.
The full text of Herodotus’ writings is available online(b).