• Diego Ratti

More on Atlantis between Asia and Libya

Updated: Apr 21

Tony O'Connell, author of and of the book "Joining the Dots: Plato's Atlantis in the central Mediterranean" has recently suggested me to dig deeper in the issue related to the position of Atlantis as described by Plato in Timaeus and Critias:

Timaeus (24e): νῆσος ἅμα Λιβύης ἦν καὶ Ἀσίας μείζων

Critias (108e): Λιβύης καὶ Ἀσίας μείζω νῆσον

In my book Atletenu I argued that μείζων (larger) should be read as μεταξύ (between) and therefore translated as:

Timaeus (24e): an island between Libia and Asia

Critias (108e): an island between Libia and Asia

I explained that the exact size of the Atlantis is provided by Plato in great detail in “Critias” [116a] as an island of 5 stadia diameter, therefore in my opinion, it would really make no sense to read “Critias” [108e] as “larger than Asia and Lybia together”, there Plato was just talking of the location of Atlantis thefore I believe Critias” [108e] should be translated "an island between Libia and Asia". To change μείζω with μεταξύ I speculated about a copying error of the author of the manuscript Parisinus Graecus 1807 [A]: I have no evidence for this hypothesis and Tony O'Connell called it, fairly I must say, "speculation". The only supporting evidence for my idea is that Herodotus in his Histories describing the Nile River used the same words used later by Plato but with μεταξύ rather than with μείζω:

(…) τοῦ Δέλτα δὲ τούτου κατὰ τὸ ὀξὺ περιρρήγνυται ὁ Νεῖλος, ὥστε ἐν τῷ μεταξὺ Ἀσίης τε καὶ Λιβύης γίνοιτ᾽ ἄν.

(…) the Nile divides at the apex of this Delta, so that this land must be between Asia and Libya.

Herodotus, Histories [2.16.2]

I took Tony's advice seriously and I dug a bit deeper and below is a summary of my latest thoughs on this delicate issue.

This is a snapshot of the Parisinus Graecus 1807 [A] with the exact part of Critias (108e) where the sentence Λιβύης καὶ Ἀσίας μείζω νῆσον is found:

The Parisinus Graecus 1807 [A] is the oldest manuscript for Plato's "Timaeus" and "Critias", it dates 875 AD circa, it is very well conserved despite its age but of course the handwriting style is very different from what we are used to, there is not much space beteen words and letters are written in a peculiar form yet one can get used to it. When I first saw it I could only recognize 10% of the words but after few hours of practice I started to recognize how the Greek letters were written by the copyst and now I have a fairly decent ability to read it.

There is no doubt that in the manuscipt the word written by its author is μείζω ( larger ) as seen in the snapshot below (altough the handwritten ei and zeta are very different in shape from what we are used too but that is the way the copyst used to write them):

There is another primary source for Plato's "Critias" and that is the manuscript Vindobonensis Suppl. Graecus 39 [F] : unfortunately I have no access to it so I cannot verify if μείζω is present there too but I am not aware of any scholar mentioning any significant difference between Parisinus Graecus 1807 [A] and Vindobonensis Suppl. Graecus 39 [F] as far as "Critias” [108e] is concerned. Moreover I have read the Latin translation of Marsilio Ficino of 1469 AD (the first edition of Plato's "Critias") which seems to draw from Vindobonensis Suppl. Graecus 39 [F] and there it reads:


Since Ficino used the latin word MAIOREM (bigger) we can safely assumed he found in his original Greek manuscript the word μείζων that he translated as MAIOREM.

Considering all the above it is evident that there cannot be a translitteration mistake from the original MSS and the likelihood of a copying error of the word μείζων in different manuscripts is very small. It seems that Plato really wrote μείζων in Timaeus (24e) and μείζω in Critias (108e). However there is another possibility that is worth investigating considering the importance of the issue: what if it was Plato himself making the copying error from Solon's manuscript? What if Plato copied as μείζων another word written by Solon which looked similar to μείζων? Is this possible?

Considering that Plato wrote in Attic Greek and Solon wrote prose in Old Attic and verses in Ionic Greek one cannot rule out the possibility that Solon wrote a Ionic Greek word which looked similar to the Attic word μείζων and Plato got confused. The first scholar to examine this possibility was P.B.S. Andrews in 1967 who suggested that Solon wrote μέσον (between) and Plato read it as μείζων (larger), Andrews argued that Solon wrote using the old Attic alphabet which used a three-stroke sigma similar to zeta and making no distinction between long e and short e. It was Tony O'Connell who suggested me to read Andrews's article and that was a good advice because reading this article provided me with the opportunity to make some further research and reach to a similar conclusion to that of Andrews but with some differences in the explanation which I will try to describe here.

Greek authors did not necessarily wrote in their native dialect, but rather chose a dialect that was suitable or traditional for the type of literature they were writing, Solon was an elegist and he planned to write the hystory of Atlantis in verses: the elegiac poets wheter of Ionic or non Ionic birth used the language of the Homeric epos as the basis for their verses with some modification shaking off the most archaic forms and adopting those peculiar of the poet's home. The fragments of Solon's elegiac works from the MSS sometimes use the Attic ā sometimes use the Ionic ē: the MSS of Solon passed through the hands of scribes who probably substitued the Ionic forms for Attic form according to Weir Smyth who explained that the poetic dialect of Solon went along with that of his Ionic elegists predecessors. I would clearly imagine and it can be safely assumed that if Solon had planned to write a poem with the History of Atlantis he would clearly have adopted a writing style and dialect closer to that of Homerus than to old Attic. This premise about the writing dialect of Solon is important because not only we need to consider that Plato wrote in classic Attic while Solon used the old Attic dialect, we also need to take into account that Solon for his poetic works used a non birth dialect. Finally we have to take into account that it was common for copysts to change Ionic forms to Attic forms as pointed out by Weir Smyth. That said let's see how Homerus would have used the word "between" because Homerus was the model for Solon's planned poem about Atlantis:

δεῖξε, καὶ ἠνώγει πέλαγος μέσον εἰς Εὔβοιαν

and bade us cleave through the midst of the sea to Euboea,

(Homerus, Odyssey 3:173)

Homerus used the word μέσον ( in the middle, in the midst ): it is very similar to the ionic form of μείζων (larger) which is μεζων

Now: Plato inherited Solon's manuscript which was written in verses using a dialect similar to that used by Homerus and it is possible that he confused μέσον (between) with μεζων (larger) being the ionic form of μείζων and copied it in "Critias" using his Attic dialect as μείζων (larger). Moreover, if we follow Andrews's explanation that old Attic made little distinction between omicron and omega which were both written as O than the difference between μέσον and μεζων would be reduced to the difference between μέσον and μεζον or just one letter.

Of course this theoty/hypotesis is not conclusive and it is more speculative than evidence based but it explains while it is absolutely plausible that Solon really meant that Atlantis was between Asia and Libya and not larger than both together.


Andrews P.B.S. "Larger than Africa and Asia", Greece & Rome, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Apr., 1967), pp. 76-79, Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association

Gijsbert Jonkers, "The Textual Tradition of Plato's Timaeus and Critias" , 2016

Herbert Weir Smyth "The Sounds and Inflections of the Greek Dialects: Ionic, Volume 1" 1894