The 'truth' behind Atlantis - Christopher Gill on Plato's Atlantis Story

Posted on May 05, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Christopher Gill, author of Plato's Atlantis Story, discusses the philosophical significance of Plato's compelling Atlantis story and how the mythical city has captured our imagination throughout time. 


Could you give us an overview of Plato’s Atlantis Story?

First of all, it’s not just the story of Atlantis. That is the famous name, but it’s actually a tale of two cities. It’s the story of Atlantis and Athens, two long-ago cities in Greece, and both of them are set in an idealised past. It’s about the character of the two cities, especially the contrast between them, which is a contrast in constitution, structure and character. The story describes each of them separately and leads up to a future war which is never actually described, a war which leads to the defeat of Atlantis – and that is something that is often glossed over in people’s idea of Atlantis. Ancient Athens wins and Atlantis is defeated.


What is the philosophical meaning of the story?

To get the philosophical meaning, it’s useful to think about the relationship between the Atlantis story and other major Platonic works of philosophy. There is an explicit link to the Republic in that the philosophical meaning of this story is a political one. We have the equivalent of the ideal state of the Republic set in ancient Athens and we have a kind of counter-ideal in Atlantis. The focus, in both cases, is on their structure or constitution, which is what Plato’s Republic is also about. Political structure is important and gives rise to events – and this is part of the philosophical significance of the story.

You get another indication of the philosophical significance if you think about the relationship to the Timaeus, the story of the creation of the universe – both stories are put side by side in this text. Both stories, in different ways, place human life in the context of the cosmos, and this greatly expands the perspective that you have on the city as a political community. In the Atlantis story, we find a massive expansion of time, space, and geography; we go out to the far west and we go far back in time. The story invites us to place the city in this much broader perspective. Also, the description of the city is very much centred on its physical context, showing the city in its material and environmental context, just as the creation story is an account of human beings being formed within the universe as a physical entity.

These themes, the political theme and the theme of the universe, are expressions of the more general idea of making the ideal into something concrete, physical and actual. The two cities are specific expressions of the ideal and the un-ideal political community and Atlantis functions as a foil or contrast to the ideal.


What is the significance of Plato’s presentation?

This volume brings out the significance of the use of dialogue and the interplay between characters. The dialogue between the figures (Socrates and the other characters) frames the story, which forms part of their conversation. Plato in other writings uses dialogue form and tells stories (his ‘myths’). But this story is quite unique in Plato, offering a quasi-historical description of two cities, going back far beyond Plato’s own time. It is very vividly presented, with highly specific and graphic presentation of both the cities, their geography, topography and the physical expression of their political life. Of course, that’s what has captured people’s imagination over time. The description reflects the 4th/5th century Athens of Plato’s personal experience whilst also creating an idealised past.

Also, Plato presents the account in such a way that the theme of truth runs through the story. It poses the question, implicitly: what is truth? Critias insists that his story is true and accurate but it looks suspiciously unlike a true story, and more like a philosophical fable. The story starts like a myth, so it is puzzling when it is described as true. Running through the conversation between the characters is this interplay between truth as fact and truth as ideas. This interplay feeds back into the core philosophical point in the story about making the ideal into something actual. It’s difficult to work out when the story is set, whether it is real or not, whether it could have been real. There is a  slightly surreal quality to it all, which helps to unsettle our notion of truth and makes us raise profound questions, which is Plato’s ultimate aim in the story.


Why do you think people are still drawn to Plato? What makes him so significant?

The reason why we’re drawn to Plato is because he is an absolutely brilliant, world-class philosopher. It’s like being drawn to the Bible or Shakespeare or Darwin. The ideas are still philosophically powerful for us. But also, I think Plato also still attracts because he’s a wonderful writer. He is bold, his conceptions capture people’s minds and imagination. He combines philosophical and literary brilliance. It’s that combination of the philosopher and the author that makes him still continually compelling to us.

The story-telling is key in this text, people return to again and again because it seems so vivid that people almost feel it must be true. It’s so wonderfully told, and with such richness of detail, that it has driven people over time to actually look for Atlantis even though it absolutely isn’t there.


What do you think will make this book useful to students?

There are two kinds of readers who will find it really useful. One is Platonic scholars or philosophy scholars in general; they will appreciate the fact that it is comprehensive, with the text, the commentary, the translation and vocabulary brought together in a compact format. There’s a very long and in-depth and new interpretive essay which builds on previous scholarship on the work. So the book has a definite appeal at the academic level.

But there’s also something for everyone because some can just use the translation, and others can make use of the book as a whole. It is especially directed at students, people studying Greek at university or school. It is a very practical text, in a number of ways. This is partly because it’s comprehensive, but also because it gives a lot of help with the grammar and translation, help that students need to work their way through this text. There is a detailed grammatical commentary and a full vocabulary of Greek words, as well as a new translation of the text. Alongside this, the unusual presentation of the text in bite-sized chunks of notes and commentary makes the content more digestible. This book is practical, engaging and designed to provide what modern students need.


For more information on Plato's Atlantis Story please visit our website.

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Challenging perceptions on Columbanus and Jonas of Bobbio - an interview with Alexander O'Hara and Ian Wood

Posted on February 22, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Perceptions on the life of Columbanus, Jonas of Bobbio and hagiography itself are changing in the eyes of historians. We interviewed Alexander O'Hara and Ian Wood, authors of the highly anticipated Jonas of Bobbio to find out more. 

 Jonas of Bobbio

How long have you been working on Jonas of Bobbio? Have you encountered anything surprising in your research?

O’ HARA: What has amazed me is the interest and pride taken in these long-dead figures by the local communities such as in Bobbio and Luxeuil where it is very much living history and part of their civic identity. The slow work of translating Jonas’ Latin gave me a greater appreciation for his skill as a writer and for the subtlety of his approach. Unknown to me, Ian Wood had also been working on a translation and we started to collaborate on the volume in 2013 following a meeting at a conference in Bobbio and the collaboration has been very fruitful.

WOOD: I first started working on the Vita Columbani in 1974, and my first article which dealt with the text was published in 1982, although I had already published on sixth- and seventh-century monasticism in 1981.  Since then I have published over a dozen articles on the text, which was also the focus of one chapter of my book The Missionary Life (2001).


Jonas of Bobbio is best known as the author of the Life of Columbanus and his Disciples, what is the importance of this work today?

WOOD: The Life of Columbanus is one of the great works of hagiography, and it dominates modern interpretations of the seventh century – although one can question whether those modern interpretations have made adequate allowance for Jonas's own intentions.

O’HARA: As well as being one of our principal sources for Columbanus and the monastic movement he initiated in Francia and Lombard Italy, the work is important as a historical source for the history of Europe at this time. It tells us a lot about travel, monastic foundations, politics, and new forms of religious life during this key period of transition. 


What part does the genre of the text play?

WOOD: The genre of the text (i.e. the saint's life, hagiography) determines the parameters of Jonas's narrative, but at the same time there are novelties about his text, not least the creation of a second book, on Columbanus's disciples.

O’HARA: In the case of Jonas we are fortunate that the work was composed only 25 years after Columbanus’ death so he had to remain faithful to the historical outlines while editing some more controversial aspects of the saint’s life. It is pretty easy to detect what is genuinely historically accurate from what is spurious thanks to having the corpus of Columbanus’ own writings and other historical sources which act as a kind of control to Jonas’s account.


The book may be described as a ‘travelogue’ through Western Europe, could you explain more about this?

O’HARA: One of the exciting things about the work is that it reads like a religious odyssey through Western Europe at the turn of the seventh century because it follows the travels of a holy man from Ireland through France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, to Italy where Columbanus died in 615. Jonas is a master storyteller who weaves monastic foundation narratives, adventure, drama, intrigue, and conflict into his narrative of this headstrong holy man.

Wood: I have an article in the latest Antiquité Tardive that looks at this question in detail, but, leaving aside the spiritual nature of the travelogue, which has been dealt with in a fascinating article by Bruno Judic, Jonas tells us more about travel in western Europe in the seventh century than any other text.

O’HARA: He knew the places he was writing about and he had met and talked with the men and women who had known Columbanus personally. One of the important aspects of this work is that it is the work of a near contemporary. 


What is the importance of the monastic foundations of this period?

WOOD: By the end of the seventh century around one third of Western Europe was in the hands of the Church.  Although much of the property was obviously given to bishops and episcopal churches, the development of monasticism was a major factor in the ecclesiasticisation of Europe.

O’HARA: We see a radical transformation in the seventh century in the ways monastic groups and secular elites co-operate and the ways religious norms begin to influence court culture and the exercise of power.  The new Frankish elites became patrons of this new monasticism, endowing monasteries with vast amounts of land and wealth from their own resources. These new monastic centres were plugged into royal and aristocratic networks and functioned as places of intercessory prayer and cultural memory.


The book reveals that Jonas was heavily influential on perceptions of Columbanus. Why are we beginning to realise that this is the issue?

WOOD: In general, hagiography was regarded as rather unreliable evidence until the 1970s: there followed a period in which hagiography was considered much more seriously, but the importance of the input of the hagiographers themselves is, in general, a relatively recent historical observation – I think I am right in saying that my article of 1982 was one of the first historical pieces to put Jonas, rather than Columbanus, at the heart of an argument.

O’ HARA: My view is that Jonas mirrors many of the concerns and issues that were important to Columbanus. Jonas was of course influential in shaping the perception and image of Columbanus, but he relied on the Bobbio tradition and on eyewitness reports. If we read Columbanus’ writings and Jonas’ account together I think they are compatible in many respects. He could not make it all up because many of the people who knew Columbanus were still alive and he was writing in part for them. One of the key aims of Jonas was to revindicate the reputation of Columbanus in the face of attacks on his legacy from members of the Frankish communities. In many ways I see Jonas as a conservative reactionary to the crises that had erupted in the Frankish communities in the years following Columbanus’ death.


You can find Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Réomé, and Life of Vedaston along with other texts in our Translated Texts for Historians series on our website

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Classical sculpture and the modern world - an interview with Elizabeth Bartman

Posted on February 13, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Author of the newly released catalogue The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture, Elizabeth Bartman, discusses the history of the collection, sculptural restoration and how the qualities of the collection transcend into modern life with Chrissy Partheni of the World Museum, Liverpool.



You have described yourself as an archaeologist of the storeroom, can you explain what that means?

Unlike most archaeologists who literally dig beneath the ground to find the remains of now-dead people, I explore museum basements and galleries, studying works of art for previously overlooked evidence of the past.

When and how did you become interested in Henry Blundell’s collections?

Almost 20 years ago I met Jane Fejfer, a wonderful Danish archaeologist who had been working on Blundell’s ancient statues; there were quite a lot of them and she suggested that I might also want to study them.  One trip to Liverpool convinced me that the collection was a treasure, largely forgotten by scholars.

What three words sum up Henry Blundell’s collections of classical sculpture?

Under-appreciated, immense, encyclopaedic

How do Blundell’s collections relate to other 18th century collectors of antiquities and practices of restoration?

Blundell’s ancient statues represent a cross-section of what was being excavated and collected in the 18th century by English gentlemen making a “Grand Tour” to Italy: they are Roman works made to decorate houses, villas, and public spaces in the first centuries CE and so represent mainly gods, goddesses, and mythical heroes.  Many of them would have been found in a damaged state, but because Blundell and contemporaries wanted them as works of art to ennoble their own houses, they were restored into complete figures by skilled Italian sculptors before being sent home to England. Blundell was not as wealthy as some of the collectors with whom he competed for works, so he may not have been able to afford some of the most famous finds of the period.  But he does seem to have had a passion for the antique that not all of his peers shared—he returned to Italy multiple times and continued to add to the collection over 30 years.  Ultimately he ended up with some pieces that today we would consider rare masterpieces.

In your book the descriptions and personal appreciation of different busts or statues reflect the process of your research. Can you talk about the stages and processes involved with researching the collections? Where has the research taken you, were there any particular highlights?

When I began this project nearly 20 years ago, I thought it would be a straightforward catalogue of about 100 ancient Roman statues that examined their date, style, and meaning.  Some other scholars, mainly Italian, had recently made great strides in discovering where statues like Blundell’s had been found in the 18th century, and the possibility of contextualizing these works was very exciting.  However, at the same time, I realized that although these statues had started life as Roman works, the restoration they had undergone had given them a second life and that they were as much artworks of the 18th century as of antiquity.  So then I wondered what meanings they had had for Blundell and his contemporaries: how did these statues relate to what was then known about antiquity from reading ancient Latin and Greek texts or modern books like Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?  Seen from this perspective, “Grand Tour” marbles such as Blundell’s document the way that people of the period thought about the past, something which in turn has affected how we today think about the past.

How do you think your book will help further research into classical sculpture and the particular collections?

By publicizing Blundell’s marbles with new photographs, my book will make accessible works that have been largely forgotten; it will be exciting to see others incorporate them into their own research. I hope also that my book will encourage the recognition that most statues belonging to what we might call the “old European collections” have been restored—here I mean not just the English country house collections like Blundell’s but also those of the Louvre, Vatican, and other museums formed prior to the 19th century.  Sometimes the restoration is so subtle as to be barely detectible, but failing to recognize it leads us to a false interpretation of the antiquity we naively believe it represents.

How do you think general visitors can engage with Henry Blundell’s collections?

Those who know something of classical mythology will recognize familiar subjects like Jupiter and Diana.  Those who don’t may appreciate the skill of the ancient sculptor who has carved figures who seem alive and poised to move out of still, “dead” marble.  Not all of the statues depict serious subjects; in fact some like the satyr wrestling with a beautiful hermaphrodite are quite playful and help bridge the centuries that separate us from the ancients.

Your work and previous role with the Archaeological Institute of America supports and encourages young researchers. What do your think are the challenges classical studies and archaeology face today?

Training to become a professional archaeologist typically requires years of education that can be long and expensive.   Although the general public has an enormous interest in archaeology, funding can be problematic, especially for those at the initial stages of their careers.  And of course the future for foreign archaeologists to work abroad in war-torn areas such as Libya or Syria is very uncertain.  As in all fields of the humanities, archaeologists need to fight increasing specialization to focus on the big issues.

Is there a particular contribution classical studies and training can make to society today?

I firmly believe that the great works of classical literature and art tackle issues that transcend the society that created them and remain as relevant today as they were centuries ago.  We may need a bit of guidance in studying them, but understanding where we as human beings come from is critical to understanding where we are today.

What is the next project/publication you are working on?

I am now working on a book about the sculptural restoration of ancient statuary.  I intend this to be a wide-ranging study that looks at the history, philosophy, and techniques of restoration from the Renaissance through the early 19th century.  It will focus on Rome, which naturally excelled in giving new life to the thousands of statues found in its soil, and will make use of some exciting new technologies such as 3-D digital modelling.


For more on the Ince Blundell Sculpture Collection visit the Liverpool World Museum website or read the blog post by Chrissy Partheni Curator of Classical Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool online.


Find The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture on our website

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Battle of Crécy wins Distinguished Book Prize 2017

Posted on January 19, 2017 by Anthony Cond

Winners of the Society for Military History's Distinguished Book Prize, Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries discuss the revolutionary findings presented in their book The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook.


The Battle of Crécy is a deeply explored area of history. What prompted you to write this book?

Kelly: I'd long had misgivings about the traditional understandings of the Battle of Crécy -- feelings that were underscored when we walked the traditional battlefield together a few years ago. The story of the battle as it was told just didn't make sense.

Michael: My casebook on the Welsh rebel hero Owain Glyndwr had just come out (co-edited with John Bollard), and I was still fishing for a follow-up project. As Kelly showed me and our mutual friend Bob Woosnam-Savage of the Royal Armories around the traditional site, we were all agreed it didn't make a lot of sense. Kelly had this great theory about rotating the battle on the site in order to make it work a bit better, but it just still didn't feel right. I suggested we do a casebook to try to resolve what happened, and Kelly quickly agreed. 

Kelly: (laughs) People have been studying this battle for centuries, so I thought we already had all the sources in hand and it would be a pretty quick process. Turned out there were a lot more sources than anyone ever thought!


You edited over eighty 14th century sources when researching for this book, did you come across any surprises?

Michael: The number of surprises was … well, surprising. At a really basic level, like Kelly said, we were surprised by how many Crécy sources were sitting out there, virtually untouched.

Kelly: There were great sources in medieval Italian and Czech that scholars had ignored, but the most impactful in terms of new information were probably the eyewitness poems and the journal of King Edward III's kitchen. Michael was able to use the Kitchen Journal, for example, to very effectively plot the course of the entire Crécy campaign from start to finish: locations and rates of travel between them. It was really the final piece needed for him to prove that the battle was miles away from where everyone thought it was.

Michael: It's a remarkable document. I'd seen references that it existed, but the fact that no one had utilized such a useful source made us doubt it was real until we saw it in the National Archives. And the poems were incredible finds, too: we found at least two poems that were written by men who were in the thick of the fighting. They not only give us an enormous amount of raw data about who did what, but they also provide a powerful record of the raw trauma of the battle experience. These kinds of records really do serve as a window, even if a frightening one, into the past.  


How much has changed in light of the original material discovered from the sources? 

Michael: Everything?

Kelly: Not everything. The English did still win. 

Michael: (laughs) That's true. 

Kelly: It's pretty significant, though. When Michael established a different location for the battle, it didn't rewrite the books on Crécy, it just about erased them: battles are dependent on the grounds on which they are fought, and no one had the battle in the right place. As a result, centuries of scholars were forced to throw away or ignore source after source because they didn't fit the traditional battlesite. Move it as Michael did, though, and all these different sources suddenly fell into place. It cast everything in a new light. 

Michael: And Kelly really saw that in the tactics. With the old site, the old theories, you could never figure out what the French were thinking. Their actions were illogical from top to bottom. But when we walked the new location together Kelly was able to unfold it all quite easily. As he said, the tactics just fell into place. There were other surprises, too, like figuring out that the Black Prince, who's popularly regarded as something of a great hero in the Crécy myth, was captured on the field and only barely rescued. Or the fact it was a two-day battle. 

Kelly: And figuring out how King John of Bohemia died from the excavation report, which has only appeared in Czech. That was fascinating. 


How do you think your book may influence the direction of future research into the Battle of Crécy?

Kelly: I think it really resets the field in terms of what the base narrative of Crécy is. It'll take some time for people to read and adjust to these new understandings of the battle, but the evidence is all there. That's useful not just for anyone wanting to counter our theories, but it's also great for anyone wanting to jump off into the next stages of studying the event and its impact. 

Michael: I think more than anything what this volume does is it proves the utility of the casebook format that I started with the Battle of Brunanburh and then had continued with the Owain Glyndwr volume I mentioned earlier. There's just tremendous utility in gathering all these sources and presenting them for readers in the original languages with facing-page translations. When you do that, all the evidence is right there. We show you what we made of it in our essays, of course, but we also give any future scholars all the materials they would need to cut an alternative path through the sources. That gives these casebooks lasting utility and lasting impact.


Find The Battle of Crécy by Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries available in all formats on our website 
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Ralph Hanna awarded British Academy Gollancz Prize 2015!

Posted on October 19, 2015 by Heather Gallagher

LUP are delighted to congratulate Ralph Hanna on receiving the Sir Israel Gollancz Prize 2015 from the British Academy yesterday for his contribution to, and prolific research in medieval book history and palaeography. The Sir Israel Gollancz Prize is awarded biennially for work connected with Anglo-Saxon, Early English Language and Literature, English Philology, or the History of English Language. 

Ralph Hanna is Professor Emeritus of Palaeography at the University of Oxford and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the University of California, and his previous books include Introducing English Medieval Book History (Liverpool University Press, 2013, also available in paperback, 2014.)

Ralph's latest book, Editing Medieval Texts will be available in October and is a book which has been conceived as a handbook for graduates interested in texts and their manuscript presentation, not solely in editing them. As such, it addresses the broad interests in all fields from antiquity to early modern studies.

For more information and a list of other winners from the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences award ceremony 2015 click here


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