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Kritias and Plato's Ur-Athens as Oligarchy

William S. Morison

Grand Valley State University

The identity of Kritias in Plato’s Timaeus-Kritiashas been a matter of controversy for over a century (Burnet 1914: 338 and Nesselrath 2006: 43-50). We need to move beyond overly rigid ideas about genealogy and Plato’s characters (e.g., Kirchner 1901-1903, Davies 1971: 326, Nails 2001: 108-111) to more clearly understand both the political message of the Timaeus-Kritiasand Plato’s relationship with his notorious cousin. By examining correlations between the historical record of the oligarch Kritias and the “Kritias” of the dialogues, it becomes clear that Plato could only have meant Kritias to be the oligarch.

Building on the work of earlier scholars, particularly Rosenmeyer (1949 and 1956), Bultrighini (1999), and Gill (2016), I argue that the description of ur-Athens provides unambiguous references to the oligarchic ideology and practice of Kritias, leader of the Thirty, that are evident in the fragments of his work. In the Timaeus-Kritias, the character of ur-Athens—with its separate warrior-caste, its focus on a regimented agricultural and artisanal economy, and its idealized concern with aretê—roughly approximates the historical Kritias’ own view of an idealized, oligarchic Sparta; whereas Atlantis with its riches, its fleet, and its corruption more closely approximates his view of contemporary Athens. Kritias composed moralizing elegaic poetry and a prose treatise called the “Well-Balanced Constitutions” (Politeiai Emmetroi), which included moralizing politeiaiand strong political content in praise of Sparta (BNJ338A FF 6-36). Perhaps it was for this reason that Plato has Sokrates note that Kritias was reputedly “not an amateur in this particular matter” (i.e., the politeiaof ur-Athens) (Tim. 20a).

The fragments of Kritias’ writings also reveal a consistency in his belief system that is supported by the historical Kritias’ appearance in the Charmides. Kritias’ definition of sophrosynein the Charmidesas ‘minding one’s own business’ (161b) supports the notion of a society in which individuals are relegated to castes, very much as in the utopia posed in the Republic (433a-b). Moreover, the historical Kritias’ leadership of the Thirty, his work to return Athens and Attika to a primarily agricultural economy (Philostrat. Lives of the Sophists1.501), and the memory of him as a fighter against the hubris of democracy made him the quintessential oligarch (Schol. on Aischin. Tim. 1.39) of fifth-century Athens.  

Morgan reads Plato’s story of ur-Athens as a panegyric speech recounting the greatness of Athens in the past with strong philosophical and moral tones (Morgan 1998: 104-8), and she points to Solon’s role both as the source of the story of Athens/Atlantis and as a source of authority in fourth-century BCE constitutional questions (Morgan 1998: 108-14). Moreover, she provocatively suggests that “the treatment of the myth of Atlantis … is precisely an attempt to claim that the constitution of the Republicis the ancestral constitution of Athens” (1998: 112). This statement becomes even more potent if we go further and understand that it isthe oligarch Kritias relating this patriotic account of ur-Athens’ ancestral constitution as he had it directly through his ancestors from the ur-lawgiver himself.

In his autobiographical Seventh Letter, Plato distanced himself of the bloody actions of his cousin Kritias, but not his oligarchic ideology (Epist. VII).  Oligarchs in the late fifth century BCE discussed the need to restore the patrios politeiato a politically troubled Athens (Ober 2000: 278-86 and Roberts 1994: 65-70), and a poet/philosopher/dramatist such as Kritias may have concocted a story of an idealized Athens that had been passed down over the generations in his family — on the authority of Solon no less. Thus, just as the historical lawgiver Solon was critical in giving authority to the Atlantis story, so too did Kritias give authority as a politician and writer of politeiaito the veracity of ur-Athens as a model oligarchy and historical exemplar. Had Plato wanted us to read the story otherwise, he would not have named his main narrator Kritias.

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Greek Political Thought

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