An ‘acropolis’ is any citadel or complex built on a high hill. The name derives from the Greek akro, high or extreme/extremity or edge, and polis, city, translated as ‘high city’, ‘city on the edge’ or ‘city in the air’, the most famous being the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, built in the 5th century BCE.
Though the word is Greek in origin, it has come to designate any such structure built on a high elevation anywhere in the world. The Castle Rock in Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, fortified as early as 850 BCE, would be considered an acropolis, as would be those cities of the Maya Civilization which fit that definition, even if they were not built on a natural elevation, but one made by human hands. This same model would apply to the Native American cities of North America and the great mounds such as those at Cahokia or Poverty Point which had temples and residences built on earthen mounds built by hand.
Although there were other city-states in ancient Greece boasting an impressive acropolis (such as Thebes, Corinth and, most notably, at Kolona on the Island of Aegina), and the designation ‘acropolis’ was also used in ancient Rome for a series of buildings set on a higher elevation than the surrounding geography, in modern times the word ‘acropolis’ is synonymous with the ancient site at Athens.
The Acropolis of Athens was planned and construction was begun under the guidance of the great general and statesman Pericles of Athens (l. 495 – 429 BCE). Over two years of detailed planning went into the specifications and contracting the labour for the Parthenon alone, and the first stone was laid on 28 July 447 BCE, during the Panathenaic festival.
Wishing to create a lasting monument which would both honour the goddess Athena (who presided over Athens) and proclaim the glory of the city to the world, Pericles spared no expense in the construction of the Acropolis and, especially, the Parthenon, hiring the skilled architects Callicrates, Mnesikles, and Iktinos, and the sculptor Phidias (recognised as the finest sculptor in the ancient world who created the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) to work on the project.
According to the historian Pedley, “the work…was carried out under the supervision of Phidias. In fact, Plutarch says that Phidias was in charge of the whole of Pericles’ scheme” (251). Hundreds of artisans, metalworkers, craftspeople, painters, woodcarvers, and literally thousands of unskilled labourers worked on the Acropolis. Phidias created a gold and ivory statue of Athena which stood in the Parthenon, known as the Temple of Athena Parthenos (‘Athena the Virgin’ in Greek), while a smaller statue of the goddess was erected in the centre of the Acropolis near a more modest temple of Athena. During the Panathenaic festival, celebrants would carry a new robe to the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena, housed in the Erechtheion.
The UNESCO site claims:
The Athenian Acropolis is the supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site. This grand composition of perfectly balanced massive structures creates a monumental landscape of unique beauty consisting of a complete series of masterpieces of the 5th century BC. The monuments of the Acropolis have exerted an exceptional influence, not only in Graeco-Roman antiquity, a time when in the Mediterranean world they were considered exemplary models, but in contemporary times as well.
The Acropolis rises 490 feet (150 metres) into the sky above the city of Athens and has a surface area of approximately 7 acres (3 hectares). The site was a natural choice for a fortification and was inhabited at least as early as the Mycenaean Period in Greece (1900-1100 BCE) if not earlier. There was already a complex built on the hill, and a temple to Athena in progress, which was destroyed by the Persians under Xerxes in 480 BCE when they sacked Athens. The later structures, famous today, were built as a testament to the resilience of the Athenians following the defeat of Xerxes’ forces at the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE) and to exemplify the glory of the city.
The four main buildings in the original plan for the Acropolis were the Propylaia, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Propylaia was the ornate entranceway into the temple complex, while the Parthenon was the central attraction. Pedley writes:
The Parthenon is unusual for its mass of Doric refinements…Though these modifications to the horizontal and vertical are miniscule, there are nevertheless no true verticals or horizontals in the building, and hence no right angles. At the same time, these refinements impart a sense of mobility to `straight’ lines and avoid a boxlike appearance. Dignity of form was thus enhanced by dynamism of forms. The demands on the masons were enormous. All blocks, whether curving or not, had to fit flush; yet everywhere block fits meticulously with block, and only on one or two metopes does the carving betray signs of uncertainty or haste. Precisely proportioned, marvelously constructed without mortar or concrete, held together by iron clamps coated with lead to withstand corrosion, this magnificent structure haunts us today with its astonishing blend of technical know-how and grandeur. (253)
Changes to the Acropolis
Other buildings were added as the Acropolis was in use, and the Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) added his own flourishes to the city, and the Acropolis, during his reign. With the rise of Christianity after Constantine the Great (l. 272-337 CE) the Parthenon became a church and the Acropolis a centre of Christian devotion. In keeping with the Church’s common practice, all pagan images were destroyed and modifications made to the temples to bring them into alignment with Christian sensibilities. After the fall of Rome in the West (476 CE) and then that of the Byzantine Empire in the East (1453 CE) to the Turks, the Acropolis was transformed into a Muslim place of worship and the Parthenon became a mosque.
The buildings of the Acropolis were damaged through ill use and neglect during the Turkish occupation of Greece (when the Parthenon was used to garrison troop headquarters and the Erechtheion was turned into the governor’s harem) and suffered further damage during the Venetian siege of 1687 CE when the Italian forces sought to dislodge the Turks from Greece. Following the War of Independence of 1821 CE, the Greeks reclaimed the Acropolis and attempted to restore it to its former glory.
The English Lord Elgin, however, with the Turks approval, had “removed a number of the pedimental figures and large chunks of the frieze of the Parthenon, and sold them to the British Museum in 1816” (Pedley, 263). Further, the damage to much of the Acropolis, after years of occupation and neglect, seemed irreparable. Only in the latter part of the 20th century CE was serious restoration and preservation work initiated on the Acropolis site. Such work is ongoing in the present day including a new museum which houses significant artefacts from the site.
This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.