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The Acropolis of Athens. Source: moofushi / Adobe Stock.

The Acropolis Of Athens: A Golden Age Legacy

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The Acropolis of Athens is the most famous of the many acropolises from ancient Greece. The Acropolis we know today was initially constructed in the 5th century BC under Pericles, a governor of Athens, but the location had been settled as far back as 4,000 BC.

Today, a number of ancient Greek buildings survive at the site, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each surviving building is incredible in its own right (it is the home of the Parthenon, for instance) but together they offer a unique insight into the world of the ancient Greeks and the people who lived there more than 2,000 years ago.

The buildings and monuments at the Acropolis are emblematic of ancient Greece, and this has resulted in the Acropolis having a lot of influence on neo-classical architecture. Ancient Greece is often romanticized and heralded as an era of great thought and advancement of knowledge. The influence of the Acropolis on architecture throughout the Western world has been profound, and as a historical site it is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

Cecropia – The Original Name of the Acropolis

While we know it as the Acropolis, to its contemporaries it was known as Cecropia. The name was a reference to Cecrops, who was the legendary first king of Athens. Cecrops was no ordinary king, as he was said to have the head and torso of a man but the lower half of a serpent.

Legends describe his reign as spanning 50 years, during which time the Greek gods claimed cities as their own. The goddess Athena competed against the god Poseidon in a race for ownership of Athens, and it was Cecrops who declared Athena the winner.

The goddess Athena, deity of the Acropolis of Athens. (Геннадий Кучин / Adobe Stock)

The goddess Athena, deity of the Acropolis of Athens. (Геннадий Кучин / Adobe Stock)

Cecrops is what is known as a ‘culture hero’, as he championed many of the elements of ancient Greek culture. He is credited as the author of the first elements of civilized behaviors such as marriage and the first to accept and worship Zeus as a deity.

The importance of Cecrops to ancient Greeks (and in particular Athenians) meant the Acropolis was named Cecropia in honor of him.

What Makes an Acropolis?

The word acropolis can be translated to ‘city in the sky’ or ‘city in the air’ and it was a term used for any city which was built atop a high hill. The architecture of ancient Greek cities is extremely distinctive and instantly recognizable. Grand columns, mosaic floors, and exquisitely carved friezes all make up the ancient Greek architectural style and are visible throughout the wide variety of buildings which made up a city in ancient Greece.

Open air theaters were popular, along with temples, a public square known as the agora, stadiums, the bouleuterion (senate house), propylon (monumental gateway), and mausoleums. Examples of many of these buildings are present throughout Greece, but at the Acropolis of Athens there are a number of particularly well-preserved examples of ancient Greek building types.

The Temples of the Acropolis of Athens

Religion was an important part of life in ancient Greece. They were polytheistic and worshipped 12 main deities; Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Hestia or Dionysus.

They held festivals to honor the gods, practiced animal sacrifices to them, and appealed to them for help. Their reverence and engagement with the gods meant that ancient Greeks were particularly prolific when it came to building temples and the Acropolis at Athens was no exception to this.

One of the first buildings to be constructed at the site between 570 BC and 550 BC was a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city of Athens. Remnants of this first temple are still visible at the site today. A testament to how many temples the Greeks built, is the second temple to Athena, which was constructed between 529 BC and 520 BC, despite the original temple being relatively new.

The Temple of Athena Nike, Athens Acropolis. (Jebulon / Public Domain)

The Temple of Athena Nike, Athens Acropolis. (Jebulon / Public Domain)

Work on yet another temple to Athena known now as the ‘Pre-Parthenon’ began in 500 BC, but it was destroyed in 480 BC when Athens was attacked by troops from the Persian Empire. The site lay in ruin for 33 years before Pericles ordered a grand new temple to be built on the site. The foundations and some of the columns from the older Pre-Parthenon are still visible today.

Temples had a statue representing the god or goddess they were built for, many of them were filled with artwork, and items made from precious metals meant they could be extremely lavish spaces. Although they were not a social hub for ancient Greeks, who often performed ceremonies outside of their temples at altars, they could end up with so many artifacts and precious objects that they were almost like museums.

The Parthenon

When Athens was at the peak of its power, work began on another temple to Athena. Built on the site of the Pre-Parthenon, the Parthenon is now widely considered the most significant surviving example of ancient Greek architecture.

The superb sculptures at the Parthenon are regarded as some of the finest examples of ancient Greek art and it has come to symbolize the culture of ancient Greece. As well as functioning as a temple to Athena, the Parthenon also served as the treasury to the city of Athens which was a common secondary function of temples in ancient Greece.

Columns of the Parthenon at the Athens Acropolis. (Alex Green / Adobe Stock)

Columns of the Parthenon at the Athens Acropolis. (Alex Green / Adobe Stock)

In the 6th century AD, 1,000 years after construction was finished on the Parthenon, it was still in use after it was converted to a Christian church. In the 1460s it was again converted, this time into a mosque.

The Parthenon was originally home to a set of elaborate marble sculptures known as either the Parthenon or Elgin marbles. The marbles were originally painted with bright colors and they would have vividly shown scenes from history and mythology for the public.

Their removal and relocation to Britain by the Earl of Elgin in the 1800s has been a topic of great debate and it is at the center of many arguments about the ethics of removing artifacts from their original locations. As such an iconic representation of ancient Greek artwork, many people feel that regardless of the legality of their removal, the marbles belong in Greece at the Parthenon.

Other Buildings in the Athenian Acropolis

The Parthenon was one of many significant buildings at the Acropolis which was commissioned by the Athenian general Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens in 460 BC to 430 BC.

The Erechtheion was another temple built under Pericles, this time dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. The temple is remarkably preserved today, and it is most famous for the ‘Porch of the Caryatids’.

The Erechtheum, western side, Athens Acropolis. (Jebulon / Public Domain)

The Erechtheum, western side, Athens Acropolis. (Jebulon / Public Domain)

The porch is supported by six columns in the form of six beautiful women in draped clothing. Today, the Acropolis has a replica of the porch while five of the Caryatids are on display at the Acropolis Museum. The sixth was removed by the Earl of Elgin and is still kept at the British Museum in London.

The Propylaea at the Athenian Acropolis was also ordered by Pericles. It was a grand entrance to the city made of marble, with impressive columns which are designed to mimic those on the Parthenon. The Propylaea was a point where people were vetted before they could enter the Sanctuary (holy part) of Athens.
This was to prevent any criminals or fugitives from entering. Although the Propylaea is not considered an iconic building to many people today, to the people living in Athens at the time it was built, it served a very important function and would have been extremely important to them.

The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus was an enormous open-air theater which could seat up to 17,000 people. It is considered to be the first theater in the world, and it was carved into the southern cliff face of the Acropolis.

Remains of the Theatre of Dionysus, Athens Acropolis. (Dronepicr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Remains of the Theatre of Dionysus, Athens Acropolis. (Dronepicr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was used as a theater since the 6th century BC but the remains at the site today reflect a later Roman renovation of the theater. It was named for the god Dionysus as plays were one of the many things he was a patron of.

Further entertainment could be found in the Odeon, an enormous structure supported by ninety pillars which was built next to the Theatre of Dionysus. It was intended to stage musical contests for an event held in Athens which was said to rival the Olympics in popularity. The Odeon at the Acropolis was a covered building so people attending would be protected from any potential rain.

At the foot of the Acropolis was an area called the agora which was a sprawling marketplace. The agora was the meeting place for the Athenian people for 3,000 years - rather than being at the heart of ritual and religion, the agora was the center of everyday life in ancient Athens. It was the hub of political, social, and commercial life in the city.

Although the agora is not as well preserved as the grand buildings of the main Acropolis, it is still a site visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year who are looking to gain a closer insight into the world of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who laid the groundwork for modern Western thinking.

Later Additions and Changes to the Athens Acropolis

After the Athenian Golden Age, the Acropolis remained a popular and bustling destination and the Roman emperor Hadrian made changes to the Acropolis reflecting his personal style.

Roman emperor Hadrian made changes to the Athens Acropolis. (Butko / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Roman emperor Hadrian made changes to the Athens Acropolis. (Butko / CC BY-SA 2.0)

With the spread of Christianity, the Parthenon was converted into a church, and many other changes were made to Acropolis in the same way other formally pagan sites were changed - as it was now a Christian center, any statues and references to the original Greek gods and goddesses were removed and destroyed.

While Greece was occupied by Turkey, many of the buildings at the Acropolis were damaged through neglect. The Parthenon was reduced to a headquarters for the garrison of troops and the Erechtheion became home to the governor’s harem. It was only in 1821 AD that the Greeks were able to reclaim the Acropolis, but by this time many of the treasures at the Acropolis and in particular the Parthenon had been sold by the Turks or removed by other means.

After thousands of years of use, the Acropolis seemed now to be in a state of disrepair and beyond the point of salvation. It would take until the end of the 20th century for serious attempts at restoration to begin and the years of neglect to be undone.

Protecting the Athens Acropolis

As it is such a unique and incredible site, the Acropolis of Athens has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered so culturally and historically significant that it is now protected under international law. Even the area surrounding the Acropolis has protected status and the area is strictly monitored to ensure no plans for urban development and expansion pose any risk at all to the site.

The Acropolis is controlled by the Greek Ministry of Culture, Education, and Religious Affairs through the local Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens. They act as security for the site and safeguard both the Acropolis and the surrounding zone corresponding to the borders of ancient Athens. It is their job to help preserve the site, including the visual integrity.

They are in charge of planning and supervising all of the restoration and upkeep of the buildings at the Acropolis. They are funded both by the Greek government and funds from the European Union.

View east toward the Athens Acropolis under construction during summer 2014. (Ziegoat / CC BY-SA 4.0)

View east toward the Athens Acropolis under construction during summer 2014. (Ziegoat / CC BY-SA 4.0)

In recent years a lot of attention has been paid on making sure the site is safe and accessible to everyone who wants to see it, which has meant making it accessible for people in wheelchairs. Scientific studies have been undertaken to help monitor any risks which may pose a threat to the Acropolis such as earthquakes.

Although argument surrounding the return of the Parthenon Marbles is an ongoing topic of great passion on both sides of the debate, one thing can be agreed upon by everyone – with or without the marbles, the world is made better by the protection and renovation of such a magnificent site.

Top image: The Acropolis of Athens. Source: moofushi / Adobe Stock.

By Sarah P Young


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Sarah P

Sarah P Young is undertaking her masters in archaeology, specializing in early human behavior and in particular evidence of interaction between humans and Neanderthals. She hopes to continue her studies further and complete a doctorate.

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