The Acropolis of Athens, as it was rebuilt in the fifth century b.c., is a wonderful example of unified civic design in a theocentric society. Under the general control of Pheidias, the greatest artist of his day, the popular strategos (elected general) Perikles (ca. 495–429 b.c.) initiated a fifty-year plan comprising architectural and artistic projects that included the Parthenon, the great western Propylaea, the precious little Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion. The costly works were paid for by misappropriating funds from the treasury of the Delian League, an action that led to the eventual overthrow of Athens. In Greek, acropolis signifies “highest city,” and it is clear that the original purpose of the 8-acre (3-hectare) steep-sided limestone outcrop 500 feet (150 meters) above the neighboring city was for defense in a region dotted with rivalrous city-states. The first inhabitants of Athens, the Palasgians, fortified the Acropolis with 20-foot-thick (6-meter) walls, protecting the king’s palace and his courtiers’ houses. The lower city (asty) in its shadow accommodated mundane urban functions in times of peace, and was the center of an agricultural hinterland. Other noteworthy acropolae, with even more dramatic topography, included Acrocorinth, High Nafplion, and the Cadmea of Thebes. When the lower parts of Athens were walled, its acropolis assumed a religious rather than military role.
Archeologists continue to debate the history of the Acropolis, differing over the disposition of its older buildings. What is certain is that it was the site of successive shrines built over centuries for Athena, the city’s patron goddess. Early among them was the Hekatompedon, which may well have been a temenos (sacred enclosure) and not a temple. The tyrant Peisistratos (602–527 b.c.) championed the Athena cult and commissioned the “old temple of Athena.” Completed by his sons, it was the only temple on the Acropolis when the ragtag Persian armies sacked the abandoned city of Athens in 480, destroying it only five years after it was finished. Within thirteen years of the defeat of the Persians, Cimon and Themistokles had rebuilt the perimeter walls of the Acropolis and cleared the huge site of debris.
After subsequent disputes between the Greek city-states had been resolved in a truce, the fourteen peaceful years of the Delian League gave Perikles an opportunity to propagandize the power of Athens among the participating city-states. In 447 b.c., he appointed Pheidias (ca. 493–430 b.c.) to oversee the restoration of the Acropolis. That Athenian golden age witnessed the creation of the greatest Hellenic architecture: the Parthenon (447–432 b.c.), the Erechtheion (421–406 b.c.), and the Temple of Athena Nike (427–424 b.c.). Grouped at the western end of the plateau, they were reached through the magnificent ceremonial Propylaea (437–432 b.c.), the only opening in the perimeter wall.
Amongst the earliest additions to Perikles’ Acropolis was Pheidias’s 30-foot-high (9.2-meter) bronze figure of a seated Athena Promachos, directly inside the Propylaea. According to the ancient Greek traveler Pausanius, her gleaming helmet and spear could be seen by sailors off Cape Sounion, 30 miles (50 kilometers) away. The Byzantine emperor Justinian had the statue removed to Constantinople in the sixth century a.d.
The Propylaea, never completed, was designed by the architect Mnesikles to replace a gateway, commenced about fifty years before, that had remained unfinished when the Persians took Athens. It seems that Mnesikles designed his gateway in geometrical relationship with the Parthenon, or even (as Constantine Doxiadis claimed) with the salient corners of all buildings on the Acropolis. The Propylaea had Doric porches and a central hall flanked by two wings, one of which contained a famous picture gallery with works by Polygnotos and others. The paintings have long since gone, but Pausanius describes legendary and historical figures as the subject matter. Intriguingly, the interior of the gateway had Ionic columns supporting its roof, as did the Parthenon’s smaller chamber, perhaps as subtle references to the supremacy of Athens over the Ionic colonies, which, after all, had been overrun by the Persians.
South of the gateway, perched on the west wall of the Acropolis, is the perfect little Ionic Temple of Athena Nike (Athena, Giver of Victory), sometimes known as Nike Apteros (the Stay-at-Home Victory). Only 27 feet long and less than 19 wide (8.62 by 5.8 meters), it celebrated the Battle of Plataea (479 b.c.), when the Greeks soundly routed the Persians. The sanctity of the site is emphasized by the succession of buildings upon it: there had evidently been a small Helladic shrine, over which Peisistratos had built a more substantial edifice, destroyed by the Persians in 480. The Periklean building replaced it about fifty years later. Other statues and small shrines proliferated in the high city, some by Pheidias, others by Myron, and a huge bronze figure of the Trojan horse. There were also a number of altars including, between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, the great altar of Athena.
The Romans made few changes to the Acropolis after they conquered Athens in 86 b.c. A quadriga (four-horse chariot) was placed before the Propylaea, and a small circular temple (albeit in the Greek style) was later built for the worship of the emperor Augustus. Around a.d. 50 Claudius tried to improve access by building a monumental stair to the Propylaea, and a monument to Agrippa was erected on the approach path. Other buildings were erected outside the walls on the sides of the Acropolis: the Stoici of Eumenes and the huge theater financed by Herodes Atticus around a.d. 161. Under Flavins Septimius Marcellinus, the Acropolis again became a fortress.
Subsequent invaders desecrated the architectural and artistic treasures. As noted, Justinian’s armies looted them in the fifth century (only to be looted in turn when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204). The Ottoman Turks occupied Athens in 1456. In 1645 lightning struck their gunpowder magazine in the Propylaea, causing extensive damage. In 1686 they quarried the Temple of Athena Nike to build defenses against Venetian invaders; a year later, Venetian bombards destroyed what was left of the Propylaea’s west facade. The largely intact Parthenon, also used as a powder magazine, was hit and left in ruins. When the Turks were expelled after nearly four centuries, they left the Acropolis covered with gardens and hundreds of small huts, its monuments in ruin.
More depredations were inflicted by a supposed friend: in 1801 the British ambassador, Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, arrived in Athens with a Turkish decree permitting him to look for fragments of sculpture on the Acropolis. Among the fifty pieces he plundered was much of Pheidias’s surviving Parthenon sculpture, later sold to the British Museum. He also took a caryatid from the Erechtheion, replacing it with a plaster cast. The moral debate over ownership has become an international issue and still rages.
Greece won its independence in 1836. Under Otho, first king of the Hellenes, every postclassical structure on the Acropolis was removed as he set about to restore “the glory that was Greece.” The Athena Nike temple was rebuilt in 1835–1836. The Acropolis Museum was opened in 1878. In the twentieth century the American School of Classical Studies partly rebuilt the Erechtheion, which had been destroyed by a combination of wars and weathering. Some fallen columns of the Parthenon were restored, but the building suffered more damage in World War II and remains empty and roofless, a noble ruin. At the beginning of the Acropolis’s fifth millennium, the worst threats to its survival are atmospheric pollution, the vibration set up by passing aircraft, and most paradoxical of all, tourism. All that one can hope for today is a mere glimpse of the original splendor of the Athenian Acropolis. In the Golden Age, its buildings were bathed in the clarity of Aegean sunshine and glowed with color. Reds, blues, and greens, not just painted but patterned, picked out the structural elements, all hung with swags of gold and silver and punctuated with glinting bronze rosettes. The sculpted stone friezes were rendered in realistic hues, and the brilliant yellow columns of the Parthenon added their fire to what must have been a breathtaking scene.