Acropolis Essays


The Acropolis (Akropolis) of Athens has played an important role in the history of the city from prehistory to the present day. It is both a physical location, standing on a rocky outcrop above the city, and a locus for the expression of religious and civic identity. Excavations have uncovered evidence of a Mycenaean palace and citadel from the Bronze Age. Habitation and burials continued into the early Iron Age, while evidence for religious activities appears in the 8th century BCE. The character of the Acropolis continues to change in the 6th century before becoming the preeminent sanctuary of the city. Herodotus (I, 59) suggests that it was occupied by the ruling family of Athens (Peisistratids), and the remains of a late-6th-century cistern in the northwest corner may indicate the presence of a garrison as well. Several temples were built to honor Athena, patron goddess of the city, and a range of votive offerings, including stone sculpture, bronzes, pottery, and other objects, were dedicated in the sanctuary. In 480/479 BCE, the invading Persian army captured and laid waste to Athens, including the sanctuary on the Acropolis. Only decades later, following the defeat of the Persians, did the Athenians begin a systematic rebuilding of the Acropolis. These efforts, initiated by the Athenian statesman and general Pericles, led to the construction of the temple of Athena Parthenos (Parthenon), the Propylaia, the temple of Athena Polias (Erechtheion), and the temple of Athena Nike. For almost a thousand years, the Acropolis functioned as a center of civic and ritual activity dedicated to Athena and other deities. Sometime in the 6th century CE, the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Classical buildings were adapted to new purposes, including residences and churches. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Acropolis was transformed into a village and garrison. In the 19th century, the Acropolis became a symbol and centerpiece of the newly independent Greek nation as excavations removed postclassical remains and restored the ancient monuments. Today, archaeological research and conservation efforts continue to make new discoveries and contribute to our understanding of the Acropolis.

General Overviews

These books offer an introduction to the Acropolis, its monuments, votive dedications, and ritual practices. Brouskari 1997 and Rhodes 1995 primarily focus on the Classical period while Hurwit 1999 and Holtzmann 2003 employ a diachronic approach that explores the Bronze Age remains, the development of the sanctuary, myths and cults of Athena, and the postclassical history of the Acropolis. Goette 2001 provides practical information and archaeological commentary on the Acropolis from prehistory through the Byzantine era.

  • Brouskari, Maria. 1997. The monuments of the Acropolis. Athens, Greece: Hellenic Ministry of Culture.

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    Authoritative and readable guide to the Acropolis; includes summary of scholarship and historical outline. Detailed description of principal buildings and shrines, their excavation, study, and conservation. Beautifully illustrated with paintings, photographs, and drawings. English translation by David Hardy.

  • Goette, Hans Rupprecht. 2001. Athens, Attica and the Megarid: An archaeological guide. London and New York: Routledge.

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    Guide to archaeological sites for travelers and students with practical information, illustrations, and summary of history from prehistory through Byzantine times. The first three chapters focus on the history of Athens, the Acropolis, and its slopes. Includes useful references (especially German scholarship) for further study. First printed in German in 1993, revised and updated for the 2001 English edition.

  • Holtzmann, Bernard. 2003. L’Acropole d’Athènes: Monuments, cultes et histoire du sanctuaire d’Athèna Polias. Paris: Picard.

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    Comprehensive chronological study of the Acropolis; highlights changing function in Archaic period (habitation, garrison, sanctuary) and a wide range of votive material, literary sources, and inscriptions from Classical period. Includes discussion of post-Antique Acropolis and contribution of early travelers and the excavations of the 19th century.

  • Hurwit, Jeffrey M. 1999. The Athenian Acropolis: History, mythology, and archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Chronological study of the Acropolis and its monuments with detailed references. Best general overview in English; extremely useful for students as introduction and point of departure for further studies.

  • Rhodes, Robin F. 1995. Architecture and meaning on the Athenian Acropolis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Insightful essays on the contribution of history and design to the unique character of the Acropolis. Considers the way Athenians combined new buildings, remains of older monuments, and spatial planning to create a Classical sanctuary that deliberately commemorated the past while expressing contemporary achievements. Valuable complement to the general surveys.

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The Acropolis is the main part of the city of Athens located in 150m above sea level. Since ancient times, art flourished in his part of the city. Temple building had both a symbolic and economic objective. It glorified the gods and the city, which thereby succeeded in overawing the proprietary aristocratic cults that existed in the earlier foundations. In economic terms temple construction meant returning to circulation the money that otherwise would have accumulated in the coffers of the divinities concerned.

Acropolis represents a flat-topped rock settled since Neolithic era (6 millennium BC). Further, Mycenaean population settled in this region. In two centuries, Acropolis was occupied by Kylon. For tribes henceforward all looked alike to Athens, set on that plain’s broad level between the mountains and the sea (Coulton 34). The splendid rock, the famous acropolis, afforded them a strong, capacious citadel; and under the rock’s north slope sprang up the nucleus of what later was to be incomparably the largest of Greek towns.

Political power was vested in the hands of a landowning aristocracy, the ‘High-born’ or ‘Eupatrids’. From their ranks were yearly chosen the three Archons or executive officials, for civil administration, for religion, and for war. Plutarch, in his life of Pericles wrote of the great Classical buildings on the Acropolis that “they arose no less towering in their grandeur than inimitable in their grace of form, for the workmen eagerly strove to surpass one another in the beauty of their craftsmanship . . .” (Berve 56). This description shows that Acropolis had a great meaning and significance for Greece.  Acropolis art included literature and sculpture, buildings and painting.

The most famous architectural constructions, temples, were located in Acropolis’ slopes. The most important temples were the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. Temple sacred to “Athena Polias’ was built around 6th century BC. There were two temples of Athene, an old and a new. Athena’s new temple on the acropolis, and the great Portico which was raised at the entrance to the hill; out of it, too, came the gold and ivory statue of the goddess which stood within the shrine. Such a use of the allies’ money may seem inexcusable to us; but the ethics of imperialism are never very easy to define.

Pericles believed that Athens had a mission to spread artistic culture by such means, and for this reason empire builders too have believed in their own mission and not always in a mission upon so lofty a plane (Berve 67). The temple of Athene had important meaning for Greeks because the climax of the Festival was a procession of ascent to the temple of Athena on the citadel. This temple dated from times long before the tyrant Gelon, there is excellent evidence that he embellished it, adding perhaps the pillars which ran round the shrine’s exterior, and the sculptured groups of marble figures which adorned its gable-ends. Nor were these the only monuments of his architectural passion (Coulton 76).

Peisistratus and his sons rebuilt the Ancient Temple of Athena, with a peristyle of stone. Most unusual is the difference of material in the marble raking cornice, with its hawksbeak bed moulding and a crowning moulding which, though an ovolo, is also painted with a Doric leaf. The sima is likewise of marble, and on the pediments has the ovolo imitated from Corinthian terracotta simas, but on the flanks it retains the old Ionic vertical face with pipe-like spouts at intervals, while the water-spouts carved on the four angle acroterion bases were lion heads at one end, ram heads at the other (Berve 9).

For the first time great pedimental groups were carved in marble, and consequently in the round rather than relief, for the technical reason that it was cheaper to construct the tympanium background separately in local limestone; the subjects were, at the east the battle of the gods and giants, and at the rear a combat of animals.

The Erechtheum (421-407 BC) was constructed, near the north edge of the Acropolis, in the troubled period after Pericles’ death when the Peloponnesian War was going badly for Athens and funds were limited. Despite these handicaps, and the extraordinarily difficult architectural problems involved by the necessity of incorporating earlier shrines into the structure, the Erechtheum ranks as the finest of all Greek temples in the Ionic style. It later suffered badly from fires, from adaptation into a Church and then into a Turkish mansion, and from the carrying off of much of its materials for use in medieval and later buildings. This temple had “porch of maidens” consisted of six female figures as columns (Plommer 34).

The greatest temple, the Parthenon (5th century BC) and popular monument, the Propylaea, were in the Dorian style, though they were in many respects different from the Dorian works elsewhere. Leader among the architects was Ictinus, the designer of the Parthenon, Ictinus was assisted in his work on the Parthenon by Callicrates, of whom less is known; and the name of Mnesicles has come down to us as that of the creator of the Propylaea, the Parthenon embrace both Doric and Ionic principles, as well as their distinctive features.  This temple was built on the place of the old temple of Athena. A huge platform of solid limestone masonry 252 feet long and 103 feet wide, attaining at one corner a height of 35 feet above bed rock, “formed the substructure of the temple; along the south flank it was intended to form a podium rising 7½ feet above the graded earth” (Berve 34).

Leaving a portion of the platform to form a terrace on all four sides, the three-stepped temple was begun with stylobate dimensions of 77 feet 2½ inches by 219 feet 7½ inches; the lowest step was of pink Kara limestone, the middle step and stylobate of Pentelic marble. The temple was hexastyle, with sixteen columns on the flanks, all uniformly 6 feet 3 inches in lower diameter except those at the corners, which in accordance with a new system of emphasis were thickened by one-fortieth of the diameter. On the other hand, the archaic practice of reducing the flank spacing was retained.

The inner building was tetrastyle prostyle (rather than in-antis) at both ends, the antae being of Ionic form lacking offsets but with base mouldings which were continued along the cella walls (Berve 56). The pronaos gave access to a long cella divided by two rows of interior columns, while through the opisthodomus could be entered what was probably a single large room, the prototype of the west chamber of the Periclean temple (Dinsmoor 48). The chief interest of this temple is that it initiated marble construction in Attica on a large scale, introduced the use of Ionic elements (Ionic frieze which runs around the walls) and the application of delicate refinements in upward curvature and column inclinations, and even contributed much of the material and many of the dimensions for the present Parthenon.

When the Persians returned in 480 B.C. they completely destroyed it, the unfinished columns at this time having attained a height of only two to four drums above the stylobate. Also, “in high relief 92 metopes were carved” (Dinsmoor 48). East and west impediments depict scenes from Greek mythology. “The metopes of the Parthenon all represented various instances of the struggle between the forces of order and justice, on the one hand, and criminal chaos on the other” (The Parthenon, n.d.).

 Pheidias was the maker of the celebrated gold and ivory Athena Parthenos that stood in the Parthenon. There are literary descriptions of this lost statue which inspire us with the belief that the great image was truly free in the Greek sense. There are also, unfortunately, copies of Roman date which can only mislead. When he made the Athena Parthenos in Athens, and later the seated Zeus at Olympia, both of gold and ivory and on the giant scale, he was fulfilling the highest ambition of Greek art which had begun, more than a thousand years before, to make works of ivory and gold (Coulton 74).

Under the south-east side of the Acropolis he further planned the building of a magnificent temple to Olympian Zeus. This scheme he never lived to see completed; and before the roof was added, the Athenian people had regained their liberty. The gaunt columns of the arrested work were left simply as they stood–a memorial, as it were, of the tyrant’s frustrated pride and a warning to others who in future days might be tempted to follow in his footsteps (Coulton 73).

Similar plans were employed for the earlier temple of  “A” on the Athenian Acropolis. More elaborate was temple ‘A’ on the Acropolis, with a tetrastyle in-antis façade (Plommer 78-80). In these temples may be seen the characteristic Greek practice of using a different type of anta capital (with the Doric) from that of the column In the entablatures, while the mainland tendency was to leave the metopes uncarved, they were frequently accented by the use of thin slabs of white marble, contrasting with the dark blue or black of the triglyphs and the blues and reds of the taenia below and cornice above. The “Hydra gable” (belonging to an unknown building on the Acropolis) illustrates the growing Athenian tendency to use sculptured pediments, though here the amount of relief is only 1 inch (Plommer 78-80).

Other Athenian temples of this period were the miniature temple ‘E’ on the Acropolis, unknown as to location (possibly one of three treasuries, including temples ‘B’ and ‘C,’ west of the Hecatompedon) though its details obviously imitate those of the Peisistratid temple of Athena, and also its direct antithesis, the huge but frustrated beginning of the great Olympieum by the sons of Peisistratus, abandoned when Hippias was driven into exile in 510 B.C. (Plommer 78-80)..

The two lower steps were actually built, as well as the foundations of the second or inner rows of columns, as well as the arrangement of the columns, the outer rows having eight on the fronts and twenty-one on the flanks, with a diameter of 7 feet 11 1/4 inches (Dinsmoor 48).

The Acropolis and its temples embodied the best architectural constructions of Ancient Greece. The Acropolis temples represent a architectural importance because of the meticulously detailed representation of a building and unique combination of styles.

Works Cited

  1. Berve H., Gruben G., Hirmer M. Greek Temples, Theatres and Shrines. Greenwood Press, 1963.
  2. Coulton J.J. Greek Architects at Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  3. Dinsmoor W.B. The Architecture of Ancient Greece. London: Croom Helm, 1975.
  4. The Parthenon n.d. 09 Ma7 2007.
  5. Plommer W.H. Ancient and Classical Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
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