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13 Facts You Did Not Know About the Acropolis of Athens

The Acropolis of Athens, home to the Parthenon, is a place overflowing with secrets, myths, and fascinating historical facts.

acropolis athens facts

The Acropolis of Athens is, without a doubt, the most popular attraction of the Greek capital. Approximately seven million tourists climb the hill of the Acropolis each year to teleport to Ancient Greece and take a close look at the Parthenon. A place with the rich history of the Acropolis has many fascinating stories to tell. In this article, you will find 13 little-known facts about this unique UNESCO World Heritage Monument.

What Is the Acropolis of Athens?

View of the Parthenon, photo by Constantinos Kollias, via Unsplash.

Acropolis in Greek refers to a high point within a city. Many ancient Greek cities had their own Acropolis, which was usually a citadel on top of a hill. The most famous Acropolis is by far that of Athens. During the classical Greek era, it was a sacred space devoted to the cult of the city’s patron goddess, Athena, as well as other local heroes and deities.

Although the Acropolis was the center of Athens’s religious life for centuries, it became famous in the fifth century BCE, the golden age of Athenian democracy. At that time, Athens had just defeated the Persians and was leading a union of Greek city-states that were challenging the Spartan hegemony of Greece.

Pericles, the prominent politician of the period, firmly promoted the idea of a new Acropolis. This Acropolis would make Athens a city of uncontested beauty and greatness. After spending a legendary amount of money, the Athenians completely reshaped the rock of Acropolis into a place of wonders. The famous Parthenon of the Acropolis, the temple of Athena Parthenos, was built at that time along with a series of buildings like the Erechtheion and the Propylaea.

Of course, the Acropolis did not stop evolving after the classical period. The sacred hill of Athens continued changing with every new civilization that passed from the city. The Romans, the Byzantines, the Latin crusaders, the Ottomans, and finally, the modern Greek state, all left their mark on the rocky hill. So, let’s take a look at 13 facts about the sacred hill of Athens.

13. The Acropolis Was Settled in Prehistoric Times

Mycenean signet ring called the “Ring of Theseus” from the Acropolis of Athens, 15th century BCE, National Archaeological Museum.

Finds on the Acropolis of Athens indicate that the hill was inhabited since, at least, the 4th millennium BCE.

During the rise of the so-called Mycenean civilization, the Acropolis became a significant center. Large cyclopean walls similar to the one in Mycenae protected a palace (anaktoron) and a settlement on the hill. A well was also dug that surely proved useful in times of siege. The walls were called Pelasgian and are still partly visible today to visitors as they enter from the Propylaea.

The Athenians of the Archaic period inherited the ruins of the Mycenean Acropolis, which was rich enough to spark an entire mythology about the past of the city. A Mycenean tomb on the Acropolis, also became known as the tomb of the legendary Athenian king Cecrops became the most sacred place in the whole of Athens.

12. The Persians Razed the First Parthenon to the Ground

Preparthenon with black and the classical Parthenon with grey, Maxime Collignon (1913).

Right after a first win against the Persians in Marathon (490 BCE), the Athenians decided to celebrate by constructing a grand temple of Athena. To do so, they disassembled another temple called the Hecatombedos, meaning a hundred feet (an ancient unit of length), and used its material to build the new temple.

However, the Persians had not spoken their last word. In 480 BCE, King Xerxes I of Persia invaded Greece once more. Realizing that they were not able to defend the city, the Athenians took one of the most important decisions in the history of Athens. They chose to abandon the city and retreat to the island of Salamis to bait the Persians into a naval battle. In the end, the Athenians emerged victorious from the naval battle of Salamis, but they paid a heavy price.

Before the battle, the Persians had entered Athens and razed the city to the ground. The still unfinished Preparthenon (the name of the Parthenon that the Persians destroyed) did not escape the wrath of the invaders, who also destroyed the old temple of Athena.

When the Athenians returned to their city, they decided to leave the ruins of the old temple of Athena in place as a reminder of these dire times. Also, 33 years later, they built a new Parthenon on top of the ruins of the Proparthenon.

11. There Was an Ancient Art Gallery Inside the Propylaea

A model of the Acropolis of Athens as it was in the 5th century BCE with the Propylaea complex in the centre, Acropolis Museum, via Ancient History Encyclopedia.

One of the most beautiful buildings of the Acropolis are the Propylaea. The Propylaea were the monumental entrance to the sacred hill designed by architect Mnesicles. The building was part of Pericles’ construction program and, although its construction took five years (437-342 BCE), it remained unfinished. The Propylaea were made out of high-quality local Pentelic marble and Elefsinian limestone for parts of the building.

The southern side of the building was probably used for ritual dining. The northern side though was especially interesting, as it was a kind of an early art gallery. Pausanias, the Roman author, describes this part of the Propylaea as a Pinacothece, meaning Picture Gallery. He even describes some of the paintings which included works on various religious themes by famous artists like the ‘Greek painter of ethos’ Polygnotus and Aglaophon.

The interesting thing with the Pinacothece is that it was publicly available, at least to those allowed to enter the Acropolis (slaves and those not considered ‘clean’ were forbidden from entering). This seemingly public nature of the Pinacotheca makes it an interesting case study in the ancient history of museums.

10. A Huge Statue of Athena Promachos Stood on the Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens, Leo Von Klenze, 1846, Neue Pinakothek.

In ancient times, there was a colossal bronze statue of Athena standing on the Acropolis. The statue was called Athena Promachos, meaning the one who fights in the front line. This statue was the work of Phidias, who also made the famous golden-ivory Athena Parthenos that was inside the Parthenon. According to Pausanias (1.28.2), the Athenians built the statue to thank Athena after overcoming the Persians in Marathon:

“There is first a bronze Athena, tithe from the Persians who landed at Marathon. It is the work of Pheidias, but the reliefs upon the shield, including the fight between Centaurs and Lapithae, are said to be from the chisel of Mys, for whom they say Parrhasius the son of Evenor, designed this and the rest of his works.”

No one knows how large the statue actually was, but one thing is certain; it was really large:

“The point of the spear of this Athena and the crest of her helmet are visible to those sailing to Athens, as soon as Sounium is passed.” (Sounion is around 60km away from Athens).

9.  The Acropolis Was a Colourful Place

Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, Alma Tadema, 1868-9, Birmingham Museums.

Many people today think that ancient Greek art, especially architecture and sculpture were plain white. If someone visits the Parthenon at the Acropolis today, they will encounter a white or rather a greyish monument alongside similarly white ancient ruins. However, this was simply not the case in ancient times.

The ancient Greeks were people who loved color. Their statues were painted in bright color combinations. The same went for their temples. Greek architecture was in fact so colorful that it was closer to today’s kitsch art than the white classical ideal of the school books.

The reason that the ruins of classical antiquity are white today is that pigments disintegrate over time. However, in many cases, they are traceable or even observable to the naked eye. The curators of the British Museum had found traces of pigment on the Parthenon marbles since they first arrived at the museum in the early 19th century.

A truly beautiful depiction of the Parthenon in color appears in Alma Tadema’s painting Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends. The painting dates back to 1868 and is a visually stimulating study of the Parthenon frieze. So, when we think of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, we need to imagine a place of color. A place where colorful statues met colorful temples.

8. A Battle Between Athena and Poseidon Took Place on the Acropolis

Erechtheion of Acropolis, Photo by Peter Mitchell, via Unsplash.

The Erectheion was Athens’ most sacred site. It was a building consisting of two temples, one for Athena and one for Poseidon. To understand why these two gods shared the building, we need to go back to the old myth of how Athens got its name.

According to the story, Athena and Poseidon wanted to take the city under their protection. To avoid conflict, Zeus intervened and arranged a bloodless competition. Athena and Poseidon came to the place where the Erechtheion now stands, and the people of Athens gathered to watch the competition. First, Poseidon revealed his gift to the city by striking his trident on the ground and producing water. In her turn, Athena planted a seed that instantly grew into an olive tree. The Athenians appreciated both gifts. However, they already had access to plenty of water. So, they picked Athena’s olive tree, which was an excellent source of food and timber. Athena became the patron deity of the city and named it Athens after herself.

The Erectheion is a monument to this myth. The Athenians swore that they could hear Poseidon’s ocean under the building. Also, a hole on the floor was supposed to be the spot where the god struck his trident in his competition with Athena. In Athena’s half of the temple, there was a small yard built around the legendary tree of Athena.

7. The Caryatids Protect the Tomb of a Mythical King

Replicas of the caryatids on the Erechtheion of the Acropolis, Photo by Yang Yang, via Unsplash.

The Caryatids of the Erechtheion are among the most elegant sculptures in the history of art. They are unique in that they combine elegance with function.

Today visitors at the Acropolis Museum can find five out of six Caryatids (the sixth is in the British Museum) exhibited as freestanding sculptures. However, they were originally serving as fancy columns at the “Porch of the Maidens” of the Erectheion.

The name Caryatids means maidens of Caryai, which is a town in southern Greece. The town of Caryai had an exceptional relationship with the goddess Artemis. More specifically, their cult was directed towards Artemis Caryatid. Consequently, many scholars think that the Caryatids represent priestesses of Artemis from Caryai.

The six women of the Erechtheion support the roof built above a Mycenaean tomb attributed to the legendary king of Athens, Cecrops. Cecrops was an interesting figure of Athens’ mythical tradition. He was said to be born out of the earth (autochthon) and for this reason, he was half man and half snake (snakes were the par excellence earth creatures for the Greeks). In this setting, the Caryatids may be simply protecting one of Athens’ most sacred sites. They may be also accompanying Athens’ mythical king in the afterlife.

6. The Acropolis Has Multiple Cave Sanctuaries

The caves of Zeus and Apollon, via Wikimedia Commons

On top of the Acropolis, the state primarily celebrated Athena and a series of other gods and heroes. However, around the rocky hill, there were multiple small-scale cave sanctuaries that responded to different needs. Unlike the official cults promoted by the Athenian bourgeois on top of the hill, these sanctuaries were small-scale cult sites offering individual contact with deities that appealed to the needs of the common folk.

Three of the most important caves were devoted to Zeus, Apollo, and Pan. Other notable ones include a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros. Another one was devoted to Aglauros, the mythical daughter of Cecrops. According to the legend, Athens was under a difficult siege when a prophecy said that only through a willing sacrifice could Athens be saved. When Aglauros heard this, she immediately run off the cliff of the Acropolis.

The Athenians held a yearly festival in her memory called Agaureia. During this event, the Athenian youth wore their armor and swore to protect the city in front of Aglauros’ sanctuary.

5. A Great Procession Signified the End of Athens’ Greatest Festival 

classical greek horsemen
Classical Greek Mounted Horsemen on Parthenon Frieze, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BCE, via The British Museum, London

Every four years, on the Hecatombaion month of the Attic calendar (July/August), the Athenians gathered to celebrate their most important festival, the Great Panathenaea. This was a religious event honoring the goddess Athena that also involved a series of competitions. The Panathenaic program involved athletic games, such as those that took place in Olympia (Olympic Games), but also competitions in poetry and music.

The culmination of the festival was an impressive procession that took place on the final day. The whole city would gather to watch over a thousand people walk from the cemetery of Kerameikos all the way to the altar of Athena on the Acropolis. The high priestess of Athena would lead the procession. Upon reaching the Acropolis, the procession would reach the Erechtheion, where the sacred wooden cult image (xoanon) of Athena was kept. The statue would then be dressed in the sacred peplos, a garment weaved by the Arrephoroi, girls between 7 and 11 years old. A less impressive peplos would be prepared for the Lesser Panathenaea, a yearly celebration of lesser importance. After this point, the procession would reach the altar of Athena, and at least 100 sheep and cows would be sacrificed and subsequently eaten. The Panathenaic procession is also thought to be depicted on the Parthenon frieze.

4. The Parthenon Was a Christian Church and a Mosque

The Ottoman mosque built in the ruins of the Parthenon after 1715, Pierre Peytier, the 1830s, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Parthenon of Acropolis may now be famous as the temple of goddess Athena, but during its long life of 2,500 years, the temple changed hands many times. After the fourth century CE, the old pagan religion began withering away in front of Christianity. The Christianized late Roman Empire and its continuation, known as the Byzantine Empire, ensured that the new dogma would meet no competition. In 435 CE, Emperor Theodosius II closed all pagan temples. By the end of the sixth century, the Parthenon had been converted into a Christian church. The new church was devoted to Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary), an obvious replacement for Parthenos Athena.

In 1204, the fourth crusade went out of its course to dissolve the Christian remnant of the Eastern Empire known as Byzantium. Athens became a Latin dutchy and the Parthenon a catholic church for approximately 250 years. In 1458 the Ottomans conquered Athens and transformed the Parthenon into a mosque with a minaret.

The next chapter in the history of the monument came with the Greek Revolution (1821-1832), which resulted in the creation of the modern Greek state. Since then, the Parthenon is a historical site, and, since 1933, nine restorative projects have taken place.

3. The Parthenon Survived Many Destructions

Ruins of the Parthenon, Sandford Robinson Gifford, 1880, National Gallery of Art.

The first major destruction took place in the third century AD when a fire destroyed the temple’s roof. In 276, a Germanic tribe called Heruli sacked Athens and destroyed the Parthenon, which was soon repaired.

The Parthenon suffered during its many transformations from pagan to orthodox Christian and from a roman catholic church to a mosque. In addition, the temple’s monumental statue of Athena was moved to Constantinople. Still, this continuous use of the Parthenon, meant that the building was well-preserved.

This changed in 1687 when a Venetian force under General Morosini sieged Athens. Then the Ottoman guard fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. Upon learning that the Ottomans were storing gunpowder in the Parthenon, Morosini targeted the temple. One cannonball sufficed to decimate the temple and kill 300 people.

In the aftermath of the explosion, only one out of the Parthenon’s four walls was standing. More than half of the frieze had collapsed, the roof was gone and the eastern porch was now represented by a single column. The Parthenon never recovered from this destruction.

The Temporary Elgin Room, Archibald Archer, 1819, The British Museum.

Nevertheless, one century later, in 1801, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and a British ambassador, put a final touch on the symphony of destruction. Elgin removed a good part of the frieze and the pediments of the temple, as well as a caryatid from the Erechtheion and parts from the temple of Athena Nike.

The loot reached the British Museum after a long and painful trip. Worth noting is that the ship that carried the marbles sunk shortly after leaving Athens, and a group of Greek divers helped retrieve the boxes containing the marbles.

2. A Bavarian King Considered Building His Palace There

Plan of the Acropolis Royal Palace, a lithograph of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s drawing, New York Public Library.

In 1832, Greece became an independent state under the protection of the major European powers (England, France, Russia). In a time when the Holy Alliance was in place, and the idea of democracy sounded heretical, the Europeans could not allow the existence of a new state without an absolute monarch. The European powers finally installed the Bavarian prince Otto Friedrich Ludwig on the throne of the newfound kingdom.

Soon after arriving at his new capital of Athens, Otto was faced with a problem; there was no proper royal palace. Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a celebrated painter and architect, offered a groundbreaking solution.

Views of the Acropolis Royal Palace, a lithograph of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s drawing, New York Public Library.

He suggested that the palace of the new monarch should sit on top of the Acropolis. His plans for the palace were aimed at creating a monumental royal complex. Fortunately, for future archaeologists, the king refused this idea as impractical. Nevertheless, the images of the plans painted by Karl Friedrich Schinkel provide a charming view of an alternative reality.

1. An Act of Resistance Against Nazism Took Place on the Acropolis 

German soldiers raising the Swastika on the Acropolis, 1941, German Federal Archives.

In April 1941, Athens came under Hitler’s rule. The swastika fluttered on the hill of the Acropolis having replaced the flag of the Greek Kingdom.

On 30 May 1941, two Greek university students named Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas secretly climbed on the Acropolis through the cave of the Pandroseion. Avoiding the German guard that was getting drunk near the Propylaea, they took down the swastika and left unseen. The people of Athens woke up to the view of an Acropolis free from the conqueror’s symbol. This was the first act of resistance in Greece and one of the first in Europe. The news lifted the spirits of the occupied European nations as a symbolic victory against fascism.

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