The written history of the Greeks doesn’t go back as far as that of say, Egypt. In fact, Herodotos, in the fifth century BC, thought that the Egyptians were the bees’ knees when it came to any number of things, the antiquity of their records among them. But the writings and art of the ancient Greeks—and their cultural emulators, inheritors, and adaptors, the Romans—have exercised an influence over European culture and imagination which is to all practical purposes unparalleled. Before the twentieth century, literature, art and architecture were saturated with classical allusions, and the so-called “classical education” was de rigueur. Even today, whether or not we realise it, we’re surrounded by classical references.
So perhaps it’s no surprise to find that from Robert E. Howard to the Stargate, SGA, and BSG television series, elements from Greek and Roman history and mythology have often appeared in science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s been used purposefully, sometimes absentmindedly—and sometimes without anyone even realising that this particular interesting thing had classical roots to begin with.
I’m here to spend a little time talking about those classical elements. Since I’ve already mentioned Stargate, let’s start with the one of most obvious ones: the myth of Atlantis.
In the Atlantic Ocean, the story goes, long ago there was an island outside the Pillars of Hercules, which we today call the Straits of Gibraltar. It was a large island, large as Asia Minor and Libyan Africa combined, and it was ruled by a great dynasty which had conquered much of mainland Europe and Africa. When the Atlanteans reached Greece, Athens stood against them, first as a leader among allies, and later alone. But after coming to the edge of utter disaster, the Athenians recovered and triumphed over the Atlanteans, liberating all the peoples east of the Straits.
Later on, in the course of a single day terrible earthquakes and floods happened, killing the whole body of the fighting men of Athens, and causing Atlantis to sink beneath the seas.
This story is told in the Timaeus of Plato—as a prelude to a discussion of the creation and purpose of the cosmos—and taken up again in his unfinished Critias. The interlocutor, Critias, claims to have heard the tale from his grandfather, who had it from the famous sixth-century lawgiver Solon, who had it from Egyptian priests at Saïs, who’d told him their records went back nine thousand years to this time. Many notable modern scholars of Plato have suggested that he invented the idea of Atlantis, and the Atlanteans’ struggle with prehistoric Athens, to serve as an allegory for the events of his day, for the Athens of prehistory strongly resembles the imaginary “perfect city” of Plato’s Republic, and the Atlantis of prehistory can be conceived to resemble the Sparta of the fifth century. There’s certainly no evidence that this little tale predates Plato, at any rate, and his successors in antiquity didn’t seem to think he was recounting an elderly myth—but we’re not here to talk about its antecedents.
Its descendents are more than enough for going on with.
Let’s pass lightly over the centuries separating Plato (d. 348/7 BCE) and the modern period until Atlantis first pops up in the genre. (Very lightly, since my knowledge of late antique, medieval and Renaissance adaptations of the myth is scanty. Readers who know more are invited to contribute in comments!)
In Jules Verne’s 1869 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the narrator Professor Arronax spends Chapter Nine sightseeing (in a diving apparatus) on part of the submerged continent:
“Further on, some remains of a gigantic aqueduct; here the high base of an Acropolis, with the floating outline of a Parthenon; there traces of a quay…” [1992:168]
Really, Atlantis has no business in the narrative except to heighten the sense of wonder of the vast, lost, unknowable depths of the ocean—and leaving aside the offended sensibilities of the modern archaeologist, it does that very well.
From the grandfather of science fiction, we pass (skipping over Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Maracot Deep) to Robert E. Howard’s Kull of Atlantis stories. These use an even further distant imaginary past (one in which Atlantean civilisation has not yet arisen) as their backdrop, and their context—like that of his later creation Conan, descendent of Atlanteans—is a mixture of classical, medieval, and orientalising elements.
In Tolkien’s Númenor, Atlantean echoes abound, and David Gemmell’s Jon Shannow series of novels make use of the Atlantis story. These, and many others, have adapted Atlantis to their own purposes. Atlantis has been a byword for lost grandeur for centuries. And Stargate in its first television incarnation is, of course, a byword for mythological reimagining. (Ancient gods were pyramid-building evil aliens! Except for the ancient gods who were good aliens! Archaeology and physics are exciting sciences! …Well, that’s something they did get right.) Stargate’s Atlanteans—the “Ancients”—weren’t merely superior civilised soldiers who had great wealth and maintained a strong military grasp on their territory: these Atlanteans were technologically—to say nothing of metaphysically—advanced superhumans. (A friend of mine pointed out that while the original Stargate series mostly portrayed the Atlanteans as annoyingly superior ascended beings, SGA, when it dwelt on them, gave a far higher emphasis to their ass-kicking abilities.)
The idea of Atlantis is a fundamentally versatile one, capable of being used as an allegory for warring city-states, as an image of forgotten splendour, or a cautionary tale of decline. But it’s not unique in its versatility, as I hope to show in my next post: classical myth, both in antiquity and in SFF, is very flexible.
Sometimes in more senses than one.
Article originally published in January 2011 as part of a longer series on SFF and the Classical Past.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.