Quentin Grafton revisits the past to ask, can history (and a myth) repeat itself?
Long ago there was a place called Atlantis. It was known as the ‘lucky island’ because its people inhabited a land with much gold and other resources. These had made its citizens the envy of the known world. Indeed, many people tried to visit Atlantis, but because it was so far from many places only a few were able to get there. Those that did had to prove themselves worthy to be able to stay otherwise they were sent back to sea.
The most populous nation at this time was Phoenicia which was ruled by an Emperor who came from a priestly caste and was chosen by other high priests in a secret ceremony. Phoenicia had, in the past, been the greatest of all nations, but had fallen into decline as the result of civil wars. Recently, a new priestly caste had emerged that had successfully reunited all the warring factions.
The Phoenician priests and their families had done very well for themselves recently and had built great ziggurats which had become the wonders of the ancient world. The common Phoenicians, believing that ziggurats were both a store of wealth and spiritual value, had also built many family-sized ziggurats, but had done so by accumulating very large debts.
The greatest military power of this time was Mycenae, famous for its powerful navy and army. It had prospered greatly when Phoenicia had been in decline but was now its major rival. Mycenae was ruled by an all-powerful King who was elected by the nobles of the land every four years.
Atlantis had prospered under the Pax Mycenae that had lasted many decades but had recently done even better with the resurgence of Phoenicia as it was able to sell more of its resources at higher prices. The Atlantians thought themselves to be very smart to keep good relations with both Mycenae and Phoenicia, but had found this increasingly difficult following the election of a new King of Mycenae who had promised to ‘Make Mycenae Mighty’. This King vehemently opposed the Phoenicians who, he claimed, encroached on the freedom of the seas.
The wealth of Atlantis was based on trade with Phoenicia, Mycenae and other nations. Its chief export was the principal ore used to make bronze. Almost everyone assumed that the demand for this ore would always increase, but foreign traders had recently reported that the Bronze Age would not last. They also warned that further growth in trade with Phoenicia was unlikely because of the large debts incurred by the Phoenicians to build their ziggurats.
Most people in Atlantis ignored these warnings. In any case, they believed that their wealth was not in the ore they traded or even industry, but rather in their houses of which they were immensely proud. For Atlantians, houses were not only a measure of wealth but also their status in society. The bigger and more opulent the house, the more important the person.
The houses in Atlantis were constructed from a special type of mud that came from a large volcanic lake in the centre of the island. In this lake, mud would occasionally bubble to the surface and then be collected by four very rich merchant families who had the monopoly on its sale. These four families only cared about how much profit they could make from selling mud and the price of houses and had little interest in building other businesses or trade.
The people of Atlantis were governed by a wizard class, led by a Chief Wizard who would get to this exalted position by getting rid of the previous Chief Wizard. All wizards thought themselves to be very clever, but while many were smart at looking after themselves they were much less clever in caring for Atlantis. The Chief Wizards consistently ignored the warnings of the coming end of the Bronze Age or that the Phoenicians had built too many ziggurats. Instead, they tried as much as they could, to distract Atlantians and to encourage them to think only about their houses. To this end, they provided a special dispensation from tax for those Atlantians, which included many wizards, who owned more than one house.
The Chief Wizard was assisted by the Alchemist who was in charge of making sure the bubbles in the lake continued to provide the mud that people needed to build and repair their houses. The alchemist’s magic was kept very secret, but it was known to include an ingredient that came only from Phoenicia.
Secure in their island home and their opulent houses, many in Atlantis thought their wonderful way of life would never end. In this, they were supported by the ‘soothesayers’ who knew very little, but who spoke very well and who told everyone that there was no need to worry and that their prosperity (and houses) would last forever.
Sadly, a conflict arose between Phoenicia and Mycenae that disrupted trade throughout the Mediterranean. The Alchemist’s ingredient from Phoenicia that was needed to keep the bubbles of mud coming to the surface of the lake to build houses was no longer available. Worse, much of the trade that had made the Atlantians so well off evaporated.
No one really knows what then happened to Atlantis. One legend is that the Atlantians, recognising that their Chief Wizards and soothesayers had failed them, took charge of their own lives and began to rebuild trade, reconsider their values, and to recreate a society that worked for everyone. A different legend has it that the Atlantians, sadly, continued to follow the wizards and, thus, never regained their mythical wealth. Instead, Atlantis became just another lost island, far out to sea.