In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critias of Athens

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews
  • Book-Length Studies
  • Texts, Translations, and Commentaries
  • Bibliography

Classics Critias of Athens
Christopher Moore, Christopher C. Raymond
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0336


Critias of Athens (c. 460–404/3 BCE), a relative of Plato’s and scion of an elite family that counted Solon among its kin, is now best remembered for three things: an intellectual association with Socrates that ended unhappily; authorship of the so-called “Sisyphus” fragment, among the earliest extant presentations of atheism, and thus a leading instance of the naturalizing explanations typical of the Sophistic movement; and leadership in the so-called Thirty Tyrants, the murderous oligarchy that eliminated the democracy, perhaps with the aim to Spartanize the Athenian polis, in the year following the Peloponnesian War. The last seems to have overshadowed his many other intellectual and cultural accomplishments, as Aristotle and Philostratus suggest. Critias wrote works of almost unequalled generic variety: elegiac poetry, lectures, tragedies (perhaps), analyses of political constitutions (maybe in both poetry and prose), and even proto-dialogues (conceivably). He had a complex and enduring friendship with Alcibiades, a nexus of Athenian political, civic, and military life. Plato treats Critias as a central interlocutor in several dialogues—perhaps more frequently than anyone else besides Socrates. He made statements in natural philosophy, on the nature of soul and the relationship between cognition and perception. The extensive scholarship on Critias deals, in the majority case, with late-5th-century Athenian politics and Euripides’ fragmentary plays, to which ancient authors attributed the dramatic fragments thought to be his. He is less frequently discussed in studies of the Sophists, Presocratics, Socrates, or Plato—according to some scholars, rightly so. But he is not absent from those sub-disciplines, if in a scattered way, and synthetic studies of Critias, taking account at once of his political, literary, and philosophical life, have been produced over the past two centuries, especially in the form of dissertations. There is currently no monograph in English available. This bibliography provides a guide to the materials known about and from Critias; the problems specific to the various witnesses and texts; solutions offered by the scholarship; and the shape that future investigations might take. Since Critias is a figure known only incidentally by most students of classical antiquity it is worth listing here the “hot center” of debate. Why did Critias become an active member of the “Thirty” oligarchs, and what did he hope to bring about in Athens? How secure is the attribution of the dramatic fragments to him, and what might they reveal about his ethical or scientific commitments? Is he the character presented in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, or is that his grandfather? What is Plato’s attitude toward him in the Charmides? Is Xenophon right to have treated Critias as virtually the most bloodthirsty of tyrants known to Greek history? Other questions include the position of Critias within the Athenian intellectual scene; the likely structure of his constitutional works (in prose and poetry); the sources of his “philosophical fragments”; the contours of his relationship with Socrates; the reasons for Plato’s continued literary presentation of Critias; and the overall tenor of his reception through late antiquity.

Reference Works

Ford 1997, Zimmermann 2003, and Németh 2013 sketch Critias’s literary, intellectual, and political life, each in less than a page but with differing emphases. Necessary detail comes from Morison, in shorter compass (2018) and in longer (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and from Flashar 1998. Brisson 1994 emphasizes orientation to the literature and ongoing debates.

  • Brisson, Luc. 1994. Critias [216]. In Dictionnaire des Philosophes Antiques. Vol. 2, Babélyca d’Argos à Dyscolius. Edited by Richard Goulet, 512–520. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

    Not comprehensive, but learnedly expansive and insightful about a few interpretative problems: the identity of Critias in the Critias (leaning toward the deliberate-ambiguity thesis); Pirithous; status as a Sophist; Eryxias; the episode with Theramenes.

  • Flashar, Hellmut. 1998. Kritias aus Athen. In Sophistik, Sokrates, Sokratik, Mathematik, Medizin (Die Philosophie der Antike 2/1). Edited by Hellmut Flashar, 81–84. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe.

    Brief biography, useful catalogue of attested works, and analysis of the Sisyphus fragment as a Trugrede.

  • Ford, Andrew. 1997. Critias. In Encyclopedia of classical philosophy. Edited by Donald J. Zeyl, Daniel Devereux, and Phillip Mitsis, 156–157. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

    Brief but sensitive overview of the life, main works, and philosophical relevance.

  • Morison, William. Critias (460–403 B.C.E). In Internet encyclopedia of philosophy.

    A perspicuous survey with a positive view of Critias (though with qualifications), with helpful reference to the ancient evidentiary base for claims about his work and life, though little in terms of philosophical interpretation, and a minimal bibliography.

  • Morison, William. 2018. “Kritias of Athens (338a).” In Brill’s New Jacoby. 2d ed. Edited by Ian Worthington. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    The “biographical essay” refers to all known life events, with links to fuller discussion by the author elsewhere in the encyclopedia entry, and a focus on the writings about political constitutions and lives of the poets. Available online.

  • Németh, György. 2013. Kritias. In The encyclopedia of ancient history. Edited by Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, and Sabine R. Huebner, 3822. London: Blackwell.

    Brief overview of Critias’s life, with a focus on his politics; only half a paragraph is given to his works. Does not always present controversial matters as controversial. Short bibliography.

  • Zimmermann, Bernhard. 2003. Kritias. In Brill’s New Pauly. Vol. 3. Edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, 945–946. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Provides key dates and references to specific fragments, cited by Diels-Kranz number.

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