The Parthenon, temples and sculptures that adorn the Acropolis of Athens reveal a period of architecture unrivalled in the history of Ancient Greece. Pericles, from 460 BC and twenty years after Athens defeat by the Persians, introduced grace and beauty through architecture to enhance civic pride and education.
Plato, born within twelve months of Pericles death, recognised the value of the architectural wonders on the acropolis to all of Athens. Plato argued in ‘The Republic’ that an ideal city of grace and beauty would promote an environment of health and reason in which youth would prosper;
“Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds…”
The golden years of Athens and its architecture was when the city was in its prime during the 5th Century BC. During these golden years Athens was the most graceful and beautiful city in antiquity. The unchallenged beauty of the architecture of the temples and monuments on the acropolis broadcast loudly Athens’ intellectual and artistic achievements.
The beauty of the acropolis architecture of the 5th Century BC that was so important to Plato can still be enjoyed. However, the Acropolis of Athens, elevated 61 metres above the city, now bears only a minor resemblance its impressive 5th Century BC past. Yet we can still engage with the architecture and design of the acropolis’ beautiful marble monuments, temples and sculptures. Through the history of these monuments we gain an appreciation of how the Athens Acropolis is not only a symbol of Greek civilisation, but is also an iconic symbol of Greece’s contribution to the politics, culture, and architecture of the world.
The Acropolis of Athens
The Athenian acropolis sits on exactly the type of landform the ancients sought to build on; a remnant of weathering and erosion that occurred over millennia. The harder limestone that caps the hill sits on softer underlying sediments of sandstone and other forms of calcium carbonate. The lowest rocks in the sides of the acropolis show angular fragments of limestone breccia that suggest the cap has moved relative to the sediments underneath it. The relative flatness of the acropolis’ hill is due to terracing and filling that occurred during building.
The Word ‘Acropolis’
The word ‘acropolis’ is a combination of two Greek terms, ‘acro’ meaning high and ‘polis’ meaning city. The use of the term ‘acropolis’ is not unique to Athens. It refers to the common ancient practice of building settlements or communities on elevated landforms for protection. These landforms were preferably hills or plateaus surrounded by precipitous slopes.The acropolis associated with Ancient Corinth, the Acrocorinth (image of Acrocorinth), is an excellent example, as is the less elevated acropolis of the ancient, second millennium BC Mycenenaean city of Tiryns (image of Tiryns Acropolis).
Meaning in language shifts over the years and it appears that these days the term ‘acropolis’ is applied generically by some to mean the sum total of what we see – the big picture of the landform, architecture, structures and buildings on top of it. Indeed, some visitors use the terms ‘acropolis’ and ‘parthenon’ interchangeably, though incorrectly.
Athens was named after the Greek goddess Athena and was one of the first Greek city-states. Its origins can be traced back before the arrival of the Mycenaean civilisation in Greece. The population in the original citadel on the Acropolis in Athens was protected by steep cliffs. The cliffs had been eroded away from its elevated plateau. The other source of protection was a defensive wall that was added during the 13th Century BC. However, the protection did not prove to be impenetrable. In 480 BC the old Acropolis was plundered by the Persian army under Xerxes. The settlement on the Acropolis was burned to the ground before the Athenians could force a Persian withdrawal by wrecking the Persian fleet at Salamis.
The victory over Persia was followed by a period between 449 and 410 BC of celebrated prosperity, and rebuilding on the Acropolis under Pericles in 461 BC produced many of the finest examples of ancient Greek architecture that have ever been constructed.
Architecture on the Athens Acropolis
- The Architecture of the Propylaea – The Monumental Entrance to the Acropolis
- The Architecture of the Temple of Athena Nike
- The Pinakotheka
- The Pedestal of Agrippa
- The Architecture of the Eastern Portico of the Erechtheum
- The Architecture of the Southern Portico of the Erechtheum
- The Architecture of the Western Façade of the Erechtheum
The Architecture of the Propylaea – The Monumental Entrance to the Acropolis
The acropolis at Athens was enclosed by a protective city wall. There was only one gateway through the wall and this was the monumental entrance referred to as the Propylaea. The Propylaea was built on the site of a former Propylaea which had been destroyed by the Persians in the historic battle of 480 BC.
Athenians would approach the Propylaea from the south-west above street level by passing through the Beule Gate. They would then ascend a marble staircase. The staircase served as the ornamental pathway to five gates that led through the Prolylaea into the Acropolis. The original width of each step in the staircase was 21 metres. The staircase was intersected half way up the slope to the Propylaea by an earthen ramp that entered from the west. This ramp also led to the main gate which was wide enough for the entry of horses, chariots and wagons. These were essential to the Panathenaic festival. Smaller gates on either side of the main gate provided access for pedestrians.
The itinerant geographer Pausanias described the architecture of the Propylaea by;
‘There is but one entry to the Acropolis. It affords no other, being precipitous throughout and having a strong wall. The gateway has a roof of white marble, and down to the present day it is unrivalled for the beauty and size of its stones.’
The Propylaea was constructed from Pentelic marble and limestone by architect Mnesicles. He commenced the project in 437 BC and completed it in 432 BC.Architectual
Architectural Elements of the Propylaea
The Main Enrance to the Propylaea
The large gate through the centre of the Propylaea configured the entrance into two colonnades that stood opposite each other. Each colonnade consisted of six fluted Doric columns that supported the pediment. Once through the Doric colonnades, Athenians preceded through the central portico, seen in the image above as partially rooved. There are Ionic columns on the inside of the portico and Doric columns on its outside.
The image above, in its centre, shows the capitals on top of the columns that support the interior roof of the central portico. These capitals are Ionic and each column is mounted on a separate base. Doric capitals, not Ionic capitals, can be seen on the columns supporting the roof when exiting the portico. These columns rest directly on a shared surface, the stylobate.
Two additional stoas were situated on either side of the central colonnades, each featuring three Doric columns, on the façades facing the central colonnade.
The Main Exit from the Propylaea
The image below shows visitors exiting the Propylaea as well as many features of classical Greek architecture present on the acropolis.
The architecture of the façade is classically Doric. The columns are fluted, meaning shallow grooves have been cut into the columns along their lengths. The horizontal joints of where sections of each column have been placed on another are clearly visible. The stability of the columns was enhanced by using dowels that connected the columns through their centres. The columns display distinctive Doric capitals and have a common base. Each column supports the horizontal architrave overhead. The frieze clearly shows the vertical triglyphs and adjacent metopes, and the remnant of the triangular pediment which would have enclosed a decorated or sculptured tympanum.
The Pinakotheka, Pedestal of Agrippa, and the Temple of Athena Nike
The image below identifies three additional buildings which occupied the space adjacent to the Propylaea. Two of these structures occupy the wings on either side of the Propylaea, and the third is central. They are, from left, an enclosed building known as the ‘Pinakotheka’ (the north wing of the Propylaea), the centrally located Pedestal of Agrippa, and the beautiful Temple of Wingless Victory (aka Temple of Athena Nike) situated on the south wing.
The Architecture of the Temple of Athena Nike
The Temple of Athena Nike stands to the right (south) of the stairs on a bastion of light marble and is offset in relation to the Propylaea. The temple was built to honour the goddess Athena Nike, or Goddess of Victory. The temple is also called Nike Apteros, or ‘Wingless Victory’. The Athenians portrayed her as wingless so she would remain permanently with them. The original statue that occupied the temple, Hecate of Alcamenes, was wingless. The temple, using street metrics, is about 9 metres x 6 metres with a height of 8 metres.
The architecture of this graceful little temple is Ionic. The temple was constructed circa 428 BC from Pentelic marble. Signature elements of its Ionic architecture include the four, 12 metre Ionic columns that adorn its shorter sides. The columns are mounted on the tri-level crepidoma (platform) and individual bases.
The scrolled Ionic capitals are prominent under the architrave upon which rests the frieze and cornice. The fragment of a triangular pediment is clearly visible. The sculptured frieze that encircles the temple near the top of the columns celebrates the victory over the Persians in 479 BC at the battle of Plataea.
Details of the frieze were recorded in the 17th Century which assisted the restoration of the temple’s architecture following almost complete devastation in 1751.
Many legends surround the Temple of Athena Nike (Wingless Victory). A legend that is often recounted is that it was from the temple that Aegeus threw himself down to his death’ when he saw the ship that carried children to Crete return with black sails’.
The Pinakotheka was a gallery that contained paintings by Polygnotus and Timenxtus. Pausanias identifies some of the art as being, ‘Diomedes taking the Athena from Troy, Odysseus in Lemnos taking away the bow of Philoctets, Orestes killing Aegisthus, Pylades killing the sons of Nauplius, Polyxena about to be sacrificed near the grave of Achilles, and others.’
The use of the Pinakotheka on the Acropolis was redefined over the years depending on who occupied it. The Franks transformed the Pinakotheka into their official court and the Turks repurposed it during the 15th Century AD into an armaments store.
The Pedestal of Agrippa
The very prominent Pedestal of Agrippa is unmissable as visitors enter the Acropolis through the Propylaea. The Pedestal of Agrippa can be seen in previous images. The pedestal was erected originally by Eumenes II, the King of Pergamum, in 178 BC. This is the same Eumenes who made a gift to Athens of the Stoa of Uemenes which is the subject of its own post. That post describes the relationship Eumenes had with Athens and his adoption of all things Greek, including its gods and religion. The pedestal as it is now seen is the base of the original structure without statue of Eumenes.
The statue commissioned to honour Eumenes was replaced with one of Agrippa. Marcus Agrippa was related both personally and by kin to Augustus. He was recognised for his military service and extensive building projects across both Athens and Rome. The latter included concepts from Greek architecture, and so it was decided that the statue of Eumenes would be replaced with a statue of Agrippa.
Architecture on the Plateau of the Acropolis of Athens
The original table of the Acropolis which measured 300 metres by 85 metres was expanded by 150 metres.
The Architecture of the Erechtheum
Homer identified Erechtheus, an early king of Athens, having been raised by Athena, and who established the worship of Athena in Athens. Erechtheus was worshipped in the Erechtheum under the name of Poseidon Erechtheus, as being a son of Poseidon.
The beautiful Erechtheum on the Acropolis is considered to be one of the most graceful and elegant temples produced in antiquity. The function of the Erechtheum was to house the cults which once served in the archaic Temple of Athena and to provide protection for her ancient cult statue. It was considered for these reasons to be the most sacred and ancient temple in Athens.
The architecture of the Erechtheum is Ionic, as clearly defined by its capitals. The temple was constructed from Pentelic marble between 430-410 BC which was just after the construction of the Parthenon. It was completed during the last years of the Peloponnesian War.
The architecture of Greek temples was always rectangular and oriented east-west with a colonnade at each of the eastern and western sides. However, the Erechtheum was unconventionally shaped. The temple also extended north and south, thereby creating a temple complex that formed the shape of a cross.
The Architecture of the Eastern Portico of the Erechtheum
The eastern portico of the Acropolis’ Erechtheum features six prominent Ionic columns (note capitals and bases) with a suggestion of the triangular pediment above the architrave. The frieze above the architrave was in stone brought from Elfisina. The foundations were of Piraeus stone. The eastern portico served as the porch entry into the Temple of Athena Polias and its which included the olive wood statue of Athena.
The Architecture of the Southern Portico of the Erechtheum
The southern portico, the Caryatid porch, is level with the foundations of the Old Temple of Athena. This portico was decorated with the six Caryatids which were sculptured from Pentelic marble. Five of the Caryatids still exist. The Caryatids stood in place of supporting columns.
The image below shows the 2.3 metre maidens stand effortlessly in their Panathenaic costumes supporting the architrave above them. The graceful Caryatids represented the women of Spartan Caryae who were known to balance a basket on their heads in honour of Artemis but who were doomed to hard labour because the town sided with the Persians in 480 BC during their second invasion of Greece.
The Rock of Kekrops was said to be located under the southwest corner of the Erechtheum near the portico of the Caryatids. This was the place where a mythical king of Athens, Kekrops, was buried.
The Architecture of the Western Façade of the Erechtheum
The western side of the Erechtheum served the cult of Poseidon-Erechteheus. This area constituted the central Temple tomb of Erechtheus. The image above shows the tree growing from below floor level on the western side which indicates the uneven ground on which the Erechtheum was constructed. The unevenness of the ground was the principal reason for its unconventional design. The builders lifted the floor level of the western side to be level with the eastern side, but it prevented the inclusion of a conventional portico. However, for symmetry, four Ionic columns were constructed to image the western side.
The ancient olive-wood statue of Athena Polias inside the western wall of her temple was said to have ‘fallen from heaven’. And it was said that when the statue of Athena Polias fell from heaven, people regularly brought a new handmade robe for it. The Erechtheum was also the location of the ‘Sacred olive tree’ that Athena had sprout from her spear in her quarrel with Poseidon over the possession of Athens. The tree now growing adjacent to the western wall is said to be the site of the original tree. The Erechtheum was also the location of the inextinguishable golden lamp which had been dedicated to Athena.
The paving in the six-columned northern portico is said to be where Poseidon struck the rock with his trident during his conflict with Athena over his claim to the land, the scars on the stone still observable. The striking of his trident on the floor produced ‘the Erechtheian Sea’, a well of salt water which was said to make the sound of waves when the southerly wind blew across the Acropolis.
The Architecture of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens
The structure that dominates the Acropolis in Athens is, of course, the Parthenon. Athens entered into an understandable period of dejection following the destruction of the Acropolis by the Persians in 480 BC. However, the Acropolis underwent an unprecedented rebirth in 460 BC under Pericles.
The construction of the Parthenon of Doric architecture was at the initiative of Pericles and was designed by the architects Callicrates and Ictinus. The sculptor Phidias had overall supervision. The edifice is considered by many to be the finest and most beautiful structure in Ancient Greece. This massive 5th century BC Pentelic marble Doric temple was built between 447 and 438 BC and dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess of wisdom. The reconstruction of the Parthenon (see pre Parthenon) was resumed on its original platform which was enlarged to 33 metres by 70 metres with additional columns. Some of the blocks which had been used for the pre-Parthenon were recycled. The building of the Parthenon took only nine years and its sculptural decorations only required another six years, being completed in 432 BC. Consequently the Parthenon was built in 15 years.
The Parthenon sheltered the 12 metre statue of Athena Parthenos which was sculptured by Phidias. The statue was constructed from gold and ivory.The statue was described by Pausanias as ;
‘being upright with the tunic of Athena reaching her feet, an ivory head of Medusa on her breast … she holds a statue of victory in her right hand and in the other hand a spear, while a shield and serpent lie at her feet’. The serpent was thought to be Erichthonius, an early ruler of Athens.’
The architectural elements of the Parthenon (L: 70 m; W: 33 m; H: 22 m) include its being surrounded by an outer colonnade of 8 columns on the short sides and 17 columns on the long sides. An inner colonnade of 6 columns was built on both short sides. The columns had a diameter of 1.9 metres at their base and a height of 10 metres. The eastern pediment (the triangular gable above the major entrance) was decorated with a relief depicting the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus, and the relief on the western pediment related the conflict between Athena and Poseidon.
The friezes around the Parthenon represented various battles including battles of the gods and giants and battles of Greeks and centaurs. On the eastern side, the 160 metre frieze is almost entirely occupied by the procession of the Panathenaic festival while the gods Hephaestus, Apollo and Artemis remain seated as they wait for it along with their fellow Olympians. During the Panathenaea the veil of the goddess Athena was borne along The Panathenaean Way through the Agora from the Procession House (next to the city gate) to the Acropolis. The frieze depicts the splendour and stateliness of the procession—the cavalry, the competing chariots, the animals marked for sacrifice and the young men and girls carrying the sacrificial materials.
The northern frieze was decorated with the battle between Athena and the Amazons, while the southern frieze displayed the Battle of the Centaurs, and heroes of Athens following wars with the Persians and Gauls.
The ancient Greek architects were very aware of optical illusion and for this reason they included subtle variations to offset a tendency to see curvature where only a straight line is present. For example, the tri-level platform, or crepidoma, on which the Doric columns sit, falls away by seven centimetres along its length from its centre to its edges. This makes the platform of the Parthenon appear level. Columns also have a subtle adjustment. They bulge by only a few millimetres at the centre to ensure they appear straight with parallel sides. The architraves on which the columns sit are also curved and the blocks that make up the building are not perfectly square but subtly rounded at the corners.
The final problem to be overcome by the architects and builders of the Parthenon was the erection of the columns. The columns were precisely shaped in sections such that one section of column would fit perfectly onto the section beneath it. Positioning was precise due to the insertion of a wooden dowel in the centre of each section which would fit into the same insert of the adjacent section. The raising and lowering of the sections was achieved using large hoisting devices which used straps that wrapped around protrusions on the sections. Once the section was in place the protrusion was knocked away.
The Parthenon was converted into a Christian church in the 5th Century AD and then a mosque in the 15th Century. The Turks used it to store explosives which resulted in extensive damage when it was targeted by the Venetians in 1687. A quantity of the decorative and artistic content of the Parthenon was plundered and sold to the British Museum during the 19th Century.
You may wish to compare the Parthenon with three other significant Doric Temples, these being the temples of Apollo at Ancient Delphi and Ancient Corinth, and of Zeus in Athens.
One advantage of being on the Acropolis is the panoramic view of Athens it offers in every direction. It even provides a view of Mount Penteli to the northeast, the source of the marble taht the architects used for the construction of the Parthenon. But take care on the Acropolis. The limestone has been weathered into a gnarly surface and then smoothed by the friction from shoes of millions of visitors.
Elements of Architecture of the Pre-Parthenon on the Athens Acropolis
(Source: Secrets of the Ancient Citadel, National Geographic)
Excavations conducted at the end of the 19th century exposed foundations of a more substantial pre-Parthenon. Circa 490 BC, builders constructed an 11 metre wall on the southern side of the Acropolis in preparation for the construction of the Parthenon. This building has come to be known as the pre-Parthenon. Blocks, each 0.5 m³ in volume and a mass of several hundred kilograms and which were used to construct a perfectly smooth surface of 67 metres x 23 metres,, have been found under the current Parthenon. Although the pre-Parthenon was destroyed during the Persian invasion of the Acropolis the stones that made up its platform are still visible.
The pre-Parthenon was constructed entirely of marble which was sourced from Mount Pentilicus, 17 km from the Acropolis. These blocks each had a mass of approximately 13 tonnes. The removal of each block in the form of a cube from the marble face at the quarry involved significant labour. Men would stand quite close to each other and cut slits into the marble surface so that the pattern of slits would form a square. They would then simultaneously strike iron wedges inserted into the marble until the marble cracked open. This may have taken thousands of strikes. Once the marble was cracked the men would use levers to prise the marble cube away from the face of the quarry.
The next challenge was to transport the marble block to the Acropolis. The block was transported to the foot of the Acropolis using wooden carts pulled by mules. The block was then hoisted to the top of the Acropolis using a ramp system. Two parallel ramps were used, each 10 metres wide and 80 metres long, and coupled at the top of the ramp by a pulley. Mules would pull a loaded cart down one ramp which would pull the cart loaded with the marble cube up the other ramp. The elevation of the ramp was 10% which significantly decreased the component of gravity acting down the ramp. A well designed pulley would also add to the mechanical advantage of the system.
The pre-Parthenon was never completed. The Persians returned in 480 BC and burned the Acropolis to the ground, including the pre-Parthenon.
Architecture of The Temple of Augustus and Rome, The Old Temple of Athena, and the Statue of Athena Promachos
The three sites listed are also located on the main area of the Acropolis.
The Old Temple of Athena
The Old Temple of Athena, worshipped as Athena Polias, the patron deity of Athens, was erected in the centre of the Acropolis in the early 6th Century BC between the Older Parthenon and the Erechtheum. The temple was another victim of the wrath of the Persians in 480 BC when they burned Athens to the ground to gain revenge for their loss a decade earlier at the Battle of Marathon. The scattered ruins of the foundations of the Old Temple of Athena are still visible in the foreground of the Erechtheion.
Statue of Athena Promachos
The centre of the Acropolis between the Propylaea and the Erechtheion is littered with ruins of figures, statues, stones and sanctuaries that at first don’t appear to present a clear picture of their past. The image above indicates where the bronze, mid-5th Century BC Statue of Athena Promachos stood in front of the Terrace Wall of the Old Temple of Athena. ‘Promachos’ was an epithet applied to Athena as a warrior and as a leader of men into battle. The statue stood 20 metres high and could be seen from the sea. That is equivalent to six modern building stories. The Statue was dedicated to Athena in appreciation for victories over the Persians.
The Temple of Augustus and Rome
There are ruins in front of the northern end of the Parthenon that are easily missed when moving between the Erechtheum or the Parthenon. The ruins are of a small building which was round with nine ionic columns. Amongst the scattered remnants are parts of the columns, a curved segment of the entablature, and an ionic capital (on top of the right-most column in the above image). These ruins indicate the temple was small with a circular colonnade. The small temple (8.6 m x 7.3 m) was commissioned by Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus circa 27 BC on the occasion when Roman architects were used to restore some of the damage done to the Acropolis’ buildings. The temple is the only Roman temple on the Acropolis and the only temple dedicated to a Roman emperor.
Final Thoughts on the Acropolis at Athens
A visit to the Acropolis should not be just an observation of masonry and sculpture – it is also about the civilisation that built the edifices and what the population drew from them. If Plato was correct in assessing the grace and beauty of a city as important to the development and education of youth, then Pericles had delivered his vision. A visit to the Acropolis at Athens is about the grace of its architecture, dimensions of its history, the unsurpassed beauty of its monuments, and the importance of its contribution to our global cultures and reasoning.
Site Information, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Athens
Plato, The Republic
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 17 – 29, Translated by W. H. S. Jones
National Geographic: The Acropolis: Secrets of the Ancient Citadel
W.G. de Burgh, The Legacy of the Ancient World
Macdonald and Evans, 1967
Penguin books England, USA, Australia