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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Acropolis in Athens

What is the Acropolis?

The Acropolis is the ancient centre of Athenian religious life and renowned site of Classical architecture with its outstanding temple.

View of various ancient buildings on the Acropolis

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Acropolis History

The Acropolis of Antiquity

Ancient visitors to the Acropolis must have had a completely different experience on entering via the marble gateway or Propylaea. We need to imagine the Acropolis of antiquity as resembling a huge open-air museum: every building decorated with sumptuous sculptures and colourful reliefs representing myths and historical events, part of an architectural and figurative project whose aim was to glorify Athens and its pantheon of deities. The site was also enriched by an incredible quantity of precious gifts and dedications, donated by private citizens, public institutions and other cities. Noble families, influential in Athenian politics, vied with each other to adorn the Acropolis, but common people also brought gifts to honour Athena, the city’s patron, the deity most frequently depicted.

Ancient Greek History

The hill of the Acropolis (which means ‘upper city’ in ancient Greek) was occupied since prehistoric times and always played a central role in the political, military and religious history of Athens. During the Mycenaean Period (the latter part of the Bronze Age) the royal palace, surrounded and protected by walls, was situated on the hill. The first historical episode to involve the Acropolis dates back to 636 BC, the ill-fated coup led by the Athenian noble Cylon who, aspiring to tyranny, occupied the Acropolis together with his group of supporters; besieged by the Athenians and oppressed by hunger, the conspirators were eventually reduced to supplicants before the altar and statue of Athena. A subsequent attempt by Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens during the 6th century, to seize power over the city also had the Acropolis as its focus, confirming its continued importance to the Athenians.

The Golden Age of Athens

Following the defeat of the Persians in 480 BC at the cost of the destruction of Athens, an ambitious reconstruction programme was launched by the statesman and renowned general Pericles, during which many of the finest buildings we see nowadays on the Acropolis, exemplars of Classical architecture, were erected. The ‘Golden Age’ of Athens had begun, and the Acropolis became the city’s religious centre.

Iconic Buildings of the Acropolis

The first building to be erected was the Parthenon, a temple built in honour of Athena Polias, widely acknowledged as a consummate example of the Classical style; then the Propylaea, the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis, and the small Temple of Athena Nike. The last temple erected was the Erechtheion, which takes its name from Erechtheus, one of the first mythical kings of Athens. These construction works were supervised and thoroughly discussed by the citizens, and the accounts, recorded on stone and displayed in public, still survive, providing information about the cost of the buildings, the wages of the workers and the existence of monuments now lost.

Religious Festivals

As an important religious site, the Acropolis played a central role in the Greater Panathenaea, a festival celebrated every four years in honour of the birthday of Athena and involving athletic games, music contests and animal sacrifices. The religious festival culminated in a ceremonial procession along the Sacred Way to the Erechtheion, where worshippers could pay homage to the cult statue of the goddess, in front of which burned a golden lamp.

The Acropolis Today

Today, the Acropolis is also a symbol of democracy, and every Sunday the Greek flag is raised on the hill in the morning and lowered at sunset, to commemorate the country’s resistance against Nazi occupation.

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