Helike, the true Atlantis

Stories of Atlantis have entertained people since Plato wrote of it in 360 BCE. There are those who would argue that Atlantis was a real place. They claim that Plato was writing a history, but few know of the Greek city of Helike which may have inspired Plato’s story.

A coin found at Helike. Helike's patron god Poseidon on one side, his trident (flanked by dolphins) on the other.
A coin found at Helike. Helike’s patron god Poseidon on one side, his trident (flanked by dolphins) on the other.

Greeks colonized the island during the Bronze age. Because of its rapid rise, it became the principal city for the Achaea region of Greece soon after. The city became so large, they began minting coins and founding colonies. But it wouldn’t last forever. In 373 BCE a large tsunami swallowed the city whole.

A map of Arcadia showing Achaea (shown as Acaia here) to the north
A map of Arcadia showing Achaea (shown as Acaia here) to the north

Eratosthenes (a philosopher) visited the location of the city about 150 years later. Geographer Strabo described what Eratosthenes saw:

For the sea was raised by an earthquake and it submerged Helike and the temple of Helikonian Poseidon . . . And Eratosthenes says that he himself saw the place, and that the ferrymen were saying that a bronze Poseidon stood erect in the strait, holding in one hand a hippocamp, which was dangerous to those fishing with nets.

By the second century CE, travelers were still visiting the ruins.But at this point the once vibrant metropolis was considerably more ruined. The ocean had taken its toll on the city’s remains:

Because when the god suddenly quaked, the sea advanced together with the earthquake, and the wave dragged down Helike with all its people. The ruins of Helike are also visible, but not so plainly now as they were once, because they are corroded by the salt water.

-Pausanias, Greek traveler, between 143-176 CE

Tourism of the site continued in popularity for a few centuries, but silt eventually covered the city entirely. And as they say, “out of sight, out of mind,” the location of the city was lost. Beginning in the 19th century, archaeologists and historians had a renewed interest in finding it. François Pouqueville, Alfred Philippson, and even Jacques Cousteau made attempts to no avail.

A portion of the archaeological site at Helike
A portion of the archaeological site at Helike

Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou theorized that ancient texts had been misinterpreted. Scholars had translated poros to “straight” (often tying it to the Corinthian Gulf), but Katsonopoulou offered the alternate translation of “an inland lagoon”. Perhaps the earthquake had caused the ground beneath the city to liquefy, the earth swallowing the city not the ocean. With the new hypothesis, archaeologists began searching in ancient lagoons.

In 1999, the city was rediscovered by Katsonopoulou and her team. Her hypothesis was correct! The research has only just begun, and every year they discover more. Fragments of black glazed vases, copper coins, and terra cotta statues were among the first to be pulled up. It was confirmed in 2001 that this was the fabled site of Helike. We’ve found Atlantis, and it’s not utopia.


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