Quite why a story written 2,500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato continues to capture the public imagination is a mystery in itself - a mystery fed by countless books, films, articles, web pages, and now a Disney cartoon. It has spawned a rich populist sub-culture (much of it internet-based) which pits the passions and imaginations of committed 'Atlanteans' against the orthodox analysis of the scientific mainstream.
Part of the contemporary appeal of the Atlantis story has no doubt been fed by scientists. Historians, archaeologists and geologists have also entered the debate to contest the various literary, historical or geographical elements of the story. Currently - following Bernhard Zangger's new book presenting the archaeological case for Troy as the true inspiration for Atlantis - we have the BBC Horizon documentary 'Helike - The Real Atlantis' staking the same claim for the Classical Greek city of Helike. Atlantis, it seems, remains a very bankable media product.
So what do we actually know about Atlantis and its demise? The answer is not much. Plato's story comes to us from two short pieces, Tinnaeus and Critias, believed to have been written in the decade or so before his death in 348 BC. In these, he presents an apparently true account of an ideal society that existed many millennia before the Classical Greek times in which he was writing.
According to Plato, Atlantis was a great island (larger than Libya and Asia combined) in the Atlantic Ocean, but its control extended beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' into the Mediterranean as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia (Italy). Its powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings arose directly from Poseidon, god of sea and of earthquakes, though this divine and heroic lineage gradually became diluted by mixing with mortal stock.
The resulting degeneration of this noble civilisation led it into a war with its former ally, Athens, and culminated in its cataclysmic destruction, which Plato dates as 9,000 years previously. Of the destruction itself, Plato simply notes, 'Some time later there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your life [ie, Athenian] fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished'.
While the bulk of Plato's account of Atlantis details its physical and political layout, its location and the nature of its destruction warrant only a few hundred words. It is a meagre foundation for the weight of subsequent theories and speculations on which the modern controversy is based.
At the time of its destruction, Helike was the flourishing capital of the Achaean League, a confederation of city states, and revered throughout the ancient world as the cult centre for worship of Poseidon. The sacred grove of Poseidon was second only to the oracle at nearby Delphi in terms of sanctuary sites at that time, and in promoting a spirit of harmonious co-existence and collaboration with neighbouring states, Helike ensured that it largely remained uninvolved in the turbulent political upheaval around it. This state of political and social harmony, and the healthy economic growth that it encouraged, ended one winter's night in 373 BC.
Numerous contemporary and later sources provide dramatic testimony to what happened to Helike and Bura that night. The Greek writer Pausanius, visiting the site of the devastation almost 500 years later, recounted how, 'An earthquake struck the country and destroyed every single building, until the very foundations of the city were lost for all time.'
The accompanying seismic sea-wave '...flooded in far over the land and overwhelmed the city and its surroundings, and the swell of the sea so covered the sacred grove of Poseidon that nothing could be seen but the tops of the trees. A sudden tremor was sent by the god, and with the earthquake the sea ran back, dragging down Helike into the receding waters with every living person.'
After the disaster, whatever was left of Helike's land was divided amongst its neighbours. The nearby city of Aegion assumed control of the Achaean League, and Helike went into political obscurity. A tradition sprang up amongst its Achaean neighbours that Helike had been punished by Poseidon for defiling the sanctuary, though it was perhaps more its unrivalled supremacy amongst the other city states that sealed its ultimate downfall.
Nevertheless, its removal from the political scene was mirrored by the physical removal of the city, believed by most ancient writers to now lie deep below the waters of the Corinthian gulf. Travellers like Strabo and Pausanius, searching out the city several centuries later, were shown only a few sunken ruins and accounts of a submerged bronze statue of Poseidon that snagged the nets of local fishermen.