The Acropolis of Athens (Greek: Ακρόπολη Αθηνών) is an ancient citadel located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and containing the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance, the most famous being the Parthenon. The word acropolis comes from the Greek words ἄκρον (akron, “edge, extremity”) and πόλις (polis, “city”). Although there are many other acropoleis in Greece, the significance of the Acropolis of Athens is such that it is commonly known as “The Acropolis” without qualification.
While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was Pericles (c. 495 – 429 BC) in the fifth century BC who coordinated the construction of the site’s most important buildings including the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike. The Parthenon and the other buildings were seriously damaged during the 1687 siege by the Venetians in the Morean War when the Parthenon was being used for gunpowder storage and was hit by a cannonball.
The Acropolis was formally proclaimed as the preeminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments on 26 March 2007.
The Acropolis is located on a flat-topped rock that rises 150 m (490 ft) above sea level in the city of Athens, with a surface area of about 3 hectares (7.4 acres). It was also known as Cecropia, after the legendary serpent-man, Cecrops, the first Athenian king. While the earliest artifacts date to the Middle Neolithic era, there have been documented habitations in Attica from the Early Neolithic (6th millennium BC). There is little doubt that a Mycenaean megaron stood upon the hill during the late Bronze Age. Nothing of this megaron survives except, probably, a single limestone column-base and pieces of several sandstone steps. Soon after the palace was constructed, a Cyclopean massive circuit wall was built, 760 meters long, up to 10 meters high, and ranging from 3.5 to 6 meters thick. This wall would serve as the main defense for the acropolis until the 5th century. The wall consisted of two parapets built with large stone blocks and cemented with an earth mortar called emplekton (Greek: ἔμπλεκτον). The wall follows typical Mycenaean convention in that it followed the natural contour of the terrain and its gate was arranged obliquely, with a parapet and tower overhanging the incomers’ right-hand side, thus facilitating defense. There were two lesser approaches up the hill on its north side, consisting of steep, narrow flights of steps cut in the rock. Homer is assumed to refer to this fortification when he mentions the “strong-built House of Erechtheus” (Odyssey 7.81). At some point before the 13th century BC, an earthquake caused a fissure near the northeastern edge of the Acropolis. This fissure extended some 35 meters to a bed of soft marl in which a well was dug. An elaborate set of stairs was built and the well served as an invaluable, protected source of drinking water during times of siege for some portion of the Mycenaean period.
The Dark Ages
There is no conclusive evidence for the existence of a Mycenean palace on top of the Athenian Acropolis. However, if there was such a palace, it seems to have been supplanted by later building activity. Not much is known as to the architectural appearance of the Acropolis until the Archaic era. In the 7th and the 6th centuries BC, the site was taken over by Kylon during the failed Kylonian revolt, and twice by Peisistratos: all attempts directed at seizing political power by coups d’etat. Peisistratos built an entry gate or Propylaea and perhaps embarked on the construction of an earlier temple on the site of the Parthenon where fragments of sculptured limestone have been found as well as the foundations of a large unfinished temple. Nevertheless, it seems that a nine-gate wall, the Enneapylon, had been built around the biggest water spring, the “Clepsydra”, at the northwestern foot.
A temple to Athena Polias (protectress of the city) was erected around 570–550 BC. This Doric limestone building, from which many relics survive, is referred to as the Hekatompedon (Greek for “hundred–footed”), Ur-Parthenon (German for “primitive Parthenon”), H–Architecture or Bluebeard temple, after the pedimental three-bodied man-serpent sculpture, whose beards were painted dark blue. Whether this temple replaced an older one, or just a sacred precinct or altar, is not known. Probably, the Hekatompedon was built where the Parthenon now stands.
Between 529–520 BC yet another temple was built by the Peisistratids, the Old Temple of Athena, usually referred to as the Arkhaios Neōs (ἀρχαῖος νεώς, “ancient temple”). This temple of Athena Polias was built upon the Doerpfeld foundations, between the Erechtheion and the still-standing Parthenon. Arkhaios Neōs was destroyed by the Persian invasion in 480 BC. However, the temple was probably reconstructed since in 454 BC the treasury of the Delian League was transferred in its opisthodomos. The temple may have been burnt down in 406/405 BC as Xenophon mentions that the old temple of Athena was set on fire. Pausanias does not mention it in his 2nd century AD Description of Greece.
Around 500 BC the Ur-Parthenon was dismantled to make place for a newer and grander building, the “Older Parthenon” (often called Pre-Parthenon, “early Parthenon”). Athenians decided to stop the construction of the Olympieion which was related with the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons and instead used the Piraeus limestone destined for the Olympieion to build the Older Parthenon. To accommodate it, the south part of the summit was cleared, made level by adding some 8,000 two-ton blocks of limestone, a foundation 11 m (36 ft) deep at some points, and the rest filled with earth kept in place by the retaining wall. However, after the victorious Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the plan was revised and marble was used instead. The limestone phase of the building is referred to as Pre-Parthenon I, the marble phase as Pre-Parthenon II. In 485 BC, construction stalled to save resources as Xerxes took the throne.
The Older Parthenon was still under construction when the Persians sacked the city in 480 BC. The building was burned and looted, along with the Ancient Temple and practically everything else on the rock. After the Persian crisis had subsided, the Athenians incorporated many of the unfinished temple’s architectural members (unfluted column drums, triglyphs, metopes, etc.) into the newly built northern curtain wall of the Acropolis, where they serve as a prominent “war memorial” and can still be seen today. The devastated site was cleared of debris. Statuary, cult objects, religious offerings and unsalvageable architectural members were buried ceremoniously in several deeply dug pits on the hill, serving conveniently as a fill for the artificial plateau created around the classic Parthenon. This “Persian debris” is the richest archaeological deposit excavated on the Acropolis and is well known throughout Greece.
The Periclean Building Program
After winning at Eurymedon in 468 BC, Cimon and Themistocles ordered the reconstruction of the southern and northern walls of the Acropolis. Most of the major temples, including the Parthenon, were rebuilt under the leadership of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens (460–430 BC). Phidias, a great Athenian sculptor, and Ictinus and Callicrates, two famous architects, were responsible for the reconstruction. In 437 BC, Mnesicles started building the Propylaea, a monumental gate at the western end of the Acropolis with Doric columns of Pentelic marble, partly built upon the old propylaea of Peristratus. These colonnades were almost finished in 432 BC and had two wings, the northern one decorated with paintings by Polygnotus. Around the same time, south of the Propylaea, building started on the small Ionic Temple of Athena Nike in Pentelic marble with tetrastyle porches, preserving the essentials of Greek temple design. After an interruption caused by the Peloponnesian War, the temple was finished in the time of Nicias’ peace, between 421 BC and 409 BC.
Construction of the elegant temple of Erechtheion in Pentelic marble (421–406 BC) was in accordance with a complex plan which took account of the extremely uneven ground and the need to circumvent several shrines in the area. The entrance, facing east, is lined with six Ionic columns. Unusually, the temple has two porches, one on the northwest corner borne by Ionic columns, the other, to the southwest, supported by huge female figures or Caryatids. The eastern part of the temple was dedicated to Athena Polias, while the western part, serving the cult of the archaic king Poseidon-Erechtheus, housed the altars of Hephaestus and Voutos, brother of Erechtheus. Little is known about the original plan of the interior which was destroyed by fire in the first century BC and has been rebuilt several times.
During the same period, a combination of sacred precincts including the temples of Athena Polias, Poseidon, Erechtheus, Cecrops, Herse, Pandrosos and Aglauros, with its Kore Porch (Porch of the Maidens) or Caryatids’ balcony was begun. Between the temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon, there was the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia (or the Brauroneion), the goddess represented as a bear and worshipped in the deme of Brauron. According to Pausanias, a wooden statue or xoanon of the goddess and a statue of Artemis made by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC were both in the sanctuary.
Behind the Propylaea, Phidias’ gigantic bronze statue of Athena Promachos (“Athena who fights in the front line”), built between 450 BC and 448 BC, dominated. The base was 1.50 m (4 ft 11 in) high, while the total height of the statue was 9 m (30 ft). The goddess held a lance whose gilt tip could be seen as a reflection by crews on ships rounding Cape Sounion, and a giant shield on the left side, decorated by Mys with images of the fight between the Centaurs and the Lapiths.] Other monuments that have left almost nothing visible to the present day are the Chalkotheke, the Pandroseion, Pandion’s sanctuary, Athena’s altar, Zeus Polieus’s sanctuary and, from Roman times, the circular temple of Augustus and Rome.
Hellenistic and Roman Period
During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, many of the existing buildings in the area of the Acropolis were repaired, due to damage from age, and occasionally, war. Monuments to foreign kings were erected, notably those of the Attalid kings of Pergamon Attalos II (in front of the NW corner of the Parthenon), and Eumenes II, in front of the Propylaia. These were rededicated during the early Roman Empire to Augustus or Claudius (uncertain), and Agrippa, respectively. Eumenes was also responsible for constructing a stoa on the South slope, not unlike that of Attalos in the Agora below.
During the Julio-Claudian period, the Temple of Rome and Augustus, a small, round edifice, about 23 meters from the Parthenon, was to be the last significant ancient construction on the summit of the rock. Around the same time, on the North slope, in a cave next to the one dedicated to Pan since the classical period, a sanctuary was founded where the archons dedicated to Apollo on taking office. In 161 AD, on the South slope, the Roman Herodes Atticus built his grand amphitheatre or Odeon. It was destroyed by the invading Herulians a century later but was reconstructed in the 1950s.
During the 3rd century, under threat from a Herulian invasion, repairs were made to the Acropolis walls, and the “Beulé Gate” was constructed to restrict entrance in front of the Propylaia, thus returning the Acropolis to use as a fortress.
Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Period
In the Byzantine period, the Parthenon was turned into a church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Under the Latin Duchy of Athens, the Acropolis functioned as the city’s administrative center, with the Parthenon as its cathedral, and the Propylaia as part of the Ducal Palace. A large tower was added, the “Frankopyrgos” (Tower of the Franks), demolished in the 19th century.
After the Ottoman conquest of Greece, the Parthenon was used as the garrison headquarters of the Turkish army, and the Erechtheum was turned into the Governor’s private Harem. The buildings of the Acropolis suffered significant damage during the 1687 siege by the Venetians in the Morean War. The Parthenon, which was being used as a gunpowder magazine, was hit by artillery fire and severely damaged.
In subsequent years, the Acropolis was a site of bustling human activity with many Byzantine, Frankish, and Ottoman structures. The dominant feature during the Ottoman period was a mosque inside the Parthenon, complete with a minaret. Following the Greek War of Independence, most features that dated from the Byzantine, Frankish and Ottoman periods were cleared from the site in an attempt to restore the monument to its original form, “clensed” of all later additions.
The entrance to the Acropolis was a monumental gateway called the Propylaea. To the south of the entrance is the tiny Temple of Athena Nike. At the centre of the Acropolis is the Parthenon or Temple of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin). East of the entrance and north of the Parthenon is the temple known as the Erechtheum. South of the platform that forms the top of the Acropolis there are also the remains of an outdoor theatre called Theatre of Dionysus. A few hundred metres away, there is the now partially reconstructed Theatre of Herodes Atticus.
All the valuable ancient artifacts are situated in the Acropolis Museum, which resides on the southern slope of the same rock, 280 metres from the Parthenon.
- Old Temple of Athena
- Statue of Athena Promachos
- Temple of Athena Nike
- Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia or Brauroneion
- Altar of Athena
- Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus
- Sanctuary of Pandion
- Odeon of Herodes Atticus
- Stoa of Eumenes
- Sanctuary of Asclepius or Asclepieion
- Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus
- Odeon of Pericles
- Temenos of Dionysus Eleuthereus
The Acropolis Restoration Project
The Project began in 1975 and is now nearing completion. The aim of the restoration was to reverse the decay of centuries of attrition, pollution, destruction by acts of war, and misguided past restorations. The project included collection and identification of all stone fragments, even small ones, from the Acropolis and its slopes and the attempt was made to restore as much as possible using reassembled original material (Anastylosis) – with new marble from Mount Penteli used sparingly. All restoration was made using titanium dowels and is designed to be completely reversible, in case future experts decide to change things. A combination of cutting-edge modern technology and extensive research and reinvention of ancient techniques were used.
The Parthenon colonnades, largely destroyed by Venetian bombardment in the 17th century, were restored, with many wrongly assembled columns now properly placed. The roof and floor of the Propylaea were partly restored, with sections of the roof made of new marble and decorated with blue and gold inserts, as in the original. Restoration of the Temple of Athena Nike was completed in 2010.
A total of 2,675 tons of architectural members were restored, with 686 stones reassembled from fragments of the originals, 905 patched with new marble, and 186 parts made entirely of new marble. A total of 530 cubic meters of new Pentelic marble were used.
Every four years, the Athenians held a festival called the Panathenaea that rivaled the Olympic Games in popularity. During the festival, a procession (believed to be depicted on the Parthenon frieze) traveled through the city via the Panathenaic Way and culminated on the Acropolis. There, a new robe of woven wool (peplos) was placed on either the statue of Athena Polias in the Erechtheum (during a regular Panathenaea) or on the statue of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon (during the Great Panathenaea, held every four years).
Within the later tradition of Western Civilization and classical revival the Acropolis, from at least the mid-18th century on, has often been invoked as a key symbol of the Greek legacy and of the glories of Classical Greece.