Acropolis as a Part of the European History

Acropolis as a Part of the European (and World) History

May 2011


We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.
P.B. Shelley

These words, declaimed by the English Romantic poet P.B. Shelley, illustrate one of the conducting ideas of the Anthropologist Eleana Yalouri’s book, The Acropolis: Global fame, local claim: that, in the last centuries, Greece has become the ancestor of Europe, and Greek ancient heritage, the ‘World heritage’, in a process that has been linked to the homogenization of European culture and the elimination of national borders. As her work describes in detail, from the establishment of the Greek state in 1830, and the politics that have been carried out from then onwards throughout what it has been considered to be ‘the West’, “Greek classical studies have spread beyond Europe, and Greek antiquities have become ‘the beloved heritage of many people around the world’” (Loventhal, 1988, in 2001: 6).

This cultural diffusion, then, has converted Greek classical antiquities in the patrimony of a world that uses them as a vehicle of international values. In this sense, the Acropolis, being the national Greek monument par excellence, the one that symbolizes and condenses the Greek identity, has also undergone this process of Europeanization and globalisation, becoming a ‘world monument’ used to convey the image that Europe wants to show of itself in front of ‘the Rest’(2001: 6-7). Indeed, as we will see, since its construction, the Acropolis has been “continuously enmeshed in negotiations of power and in games of politics” (2001: 31).

Being originally a Mycenaean citadel, the Acropolis was “not only a religious place and royal residence, but also an administrative, commercial and military centre, and a refuge for the population in periods of war” (Hurmit, 1999: 71-4, in 2001: 28). Nevertheless, as we will discuss later, although it has undergone several changes in the way it has been used throughout centuries, if it is famous worldwide it is because of the buildings built during the Classical era, which we are about to present in the following pages.

The Parthenon

It was built between 447 and 438 (during the Pericles era) to honour goddess Athena Parthenos, protector and patron of the city, as a token of gratitude for the city’s salvation and victory over the Persians. It is the most important building of Classical Greece remaining, and it has been historically considered the culmination of the Doric order, although the Doric columns are actually combined with an Ionic frieze above the cella, which is not characteristic of Doric style.

ImageThe east pediment depicts Athena’s birth before an assembly of the Olympian gods. Athena and Zeus are in the middle of the pediment. As mythology tells us, Athena was born from Zeus’ head, who after suffering a terrible headache asked Hephaestus (god of fire and forge) to hammer his head open. So he did, and Athena sprang out of Zeus’ head in full armour.

The west pediment depicts Athena and Poseidon’s dispute to be the protector of the city. Poseidon is holding a trident with which he is stroking the floor and creating a wheel with salty water, while Athena is sprouting an olive tree as a symbol of prosperity and food. There are also other gods, heroes and mythical kings of Attica depicted.

The metopes on the four sides of the Parthenon depict battles with a common theme: the triumph of the Greeks and their Gods over their adversaries. On the east side, we find the Gigantomachy (Gods against Giants); on the west side, the Amazonomachy (Greeks against Amazons); the capture of Troy is on the north side, and the Centauromachy (Lapiths against Centaurs) on the south, which shows how the drunken Centaurs acted under the effects of wine during Peirithus’ (king of the Lapiths) wedding feast.

The frieze, which, as we have stated before, is an element of the Ionic order, was added along the top of the cella. It depicted the procession of the Panathenaic Games, an Athenian festival in honour of Athena. Nevertheless, these depictions were not attached independent sculptures, but sculptures in relief, made directly on the frieze.

Inside the Parthenon stood the 12-metre long statue of Athena Parthenos that was completed by Pheidias in 438 BC. The sculpture, which was made of gold and ivory, shows Athena dressed in full armour standing upright. According to archaeological information, she was wearing a chiton, tied around her waist by two snakes intertwining and Medusa’s head on her chest, and a helmet; her shield, decorated with snakes, was leaning against her left leg and she was holding a spear in his left arm, while her right arm was holding a Nike. On the pedestal there was a depiction of Pandora’s birth in relief. The gold sheets covering the statue were removed in 296 BC and replaced by bronze pieces. It was damaged by a fire in 165 BC and repaired afterwards, although it is believed that by the 5th century AD it was finally lost due to a another fire.

Temple of Athena Nike

ImageThe temple, which stands at the southeast of the sacred rock, was part of Pericles’ project (426-421 BC). The representations on the frieze of the temple depict the battle of Plataia, in which the Greeks defeated the Persians. On the eastern frieze there was an assembly of Olympian gods watching the battles, while, according to archaeological evidence, the western pediment depicted a Gigantomachy and the eastern one had an Amazonomachy, but due to the demolitions and destructions it has suffered it is quite difficult to confirm.

When the temple was completed, the Athenians added a protective marble parapet on the east side (409 BC) that consisted of slabs in relief representing winged Victories leading bulls to be sacrificed before Athena.


Located in the north side of the Sacred Rock, it was built from 421 to 406 BC and named after the mythical king Erechteus. Its particular structure and symbolic complexity is related to the terrain in which it lays, which has a 3-metre difference in height between the north and the west side.

ImageThe eastern part of the Erechteion was dedicated to Athena Polias whilst the western was dedicated to Poseidon-Erectheus. In fact, it has been historically considered the place in which the dispute related to the choice of the city’s protector took place. On the eastern side, there is an impressive portico with six Ionic columns in which the cult statue of Athena made of olive wood was standing, while four Ionic columns linked by a rail decorates the western side.

On the other hand, the northern entrance porch has six pi-shaped tall Ionic columns, four at the front and two on each side, but the most impressive decoration is the six maiden standing on at the southern porch, the so-called “porch of the Caryatids”, five of which are in the Acropolis Museum, while the sixth one is still in the British Museum. They represent the importance and perfection of the female form besides supporting the roof.


ImageBuilt in 437-432 BC, after the completion of the Parthenon by Mnesikles, it is the entrance to the acropolis, and it consists of a main hall with two side wings. The north wing (on the left side of the entrance) was the first art gallery with paintings in the world. The south wing is symmetrically similar to the north one, but quite smaller, and it gives access to the temple of Athena Nike. The central section has an outer (west) and inner (east) façades supported by Doric columns, whereas the internal entrance to the wings (north and south) are flanked by two inner colonnades of the Ionic order.
The Propylaea was never completed.

Athena Promachos

The Athena Promachos (Athena who fights in the front line) statue was made by Phidias about 456 BC. Made of bronze and 9-metres tall, she once stood in a strike pose but at ease, although the exact details are not known. According to some roman coins in which Athena Promachos was depicted, she had her shield resting in an upright position against her left leg, and she was holding a spear with her right arm. Apparently, her left arm was outstretched, holding a winged object that could be either an owl or a nike.
The bronze sculpture was so tall that the helmet and the spearhead could be seen from Cape Sounion.

A thousand of years later the sculpture was stolen and taken to Constantinople −capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Finally, in 1203 it was destroyed by a superstitious mob of Christians.


Situated in the southeast of the Propylaea, the Brauroneion was a building dedicated to Brauronian Artemis (the protector of pregnant women and childbirth). It was created in the 6th century by Peisistratus, originally from Brauron.

The building was not a temple, but a shrine with a pi-shaped 38-metre long stoa with ten columns in the Doric style along the façade and two rectangular wings attached at both sides of the stoa. One of the wings had the wooden cult statue of the goddess inside to whom pregnant women pleaded and draped the statue with items of clothing. Today, the head of the statue can be seen in the Acropolis Museum and only the cuts in the bedrock for the wall foundation remain on the Acropolis.

The theatre of Dionysus

In the 6th century BC, Peisistratus, an Athenian dictator, brought the worship of god Dionysus to Athens. In the beginning, there was a circular space in the Roman Agora in order to dance and worship god Dionysus, but a small temple with a statue of Dionysus was built on the southern slope of the Acropolis and that original circular space was transferred from the Roman Agora to the northern side of the temple. Later on, the theatre was built in wooden tiers which were replaced for the stone ones that still remain.

ImageThe theatre could hold up to 30000 spectators, and it is the birthplace of tragedy and comedy, being the first theatre of the Western world.

The Stoa of Eumenes

The 162-metre stoa ran from the theatre of Dionysus to the Odeion of Herodes Atticus (originally it was shorter). It was built by Eumenes II in the 2nd century AD and it resembles the Stoa of Attalos at the Roman Agora which was built by his brother. Unlike the former, the Stoa of Eumenes was designed for promenading rather than business.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus:

ImageBuilt in 161 by Herodes, son of Atticus, in memory of his wife Regilla, it is a small Odeon that resembles an amphitheatre and holds about 5000 people. It still hosts musical events and theatrical performances nowadays.

Man fear time, but time fears the Pyramids: The Acropolis through the Ages

As Yalouri explains, during the Roman occupation, “the Acropolis was among the very few monuments not stripped of ornaments and offerings for the decoration of Rome’s public buildings or villas of Roman officials” (2001: 32). Although several changes were experienced −like the construction of a small temple dedicated to Augustus in 27BC or the placement of a monumental inscription praising Nero in 61BC−, they had more to do with the use of the ancient buildings as a way of legitimising the power and authority of the new conquerors than with the need of reusing them for the sake of new purposes.

In the 6th century AD, under the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, the Parthenon became a Christian church dedicated to Virgin Mary, so it underwent several architectural transformations and some fresco decorations were added, as it happened with the temple of Athena nike and the Erechtheion, which were also converted into basilicas. As a result of the Fourth Crusade (1204-1456), Frankish conquerors “installed a palace in the Propylaea and transformed the Parthenon into a Roman Catholic church” (2001: 32), and in 1456 the Ottomans transformed the Parthenon into a mosque by adding a minaret in the north-western corner −of which in 1667 the Turkish traveller Euliya Chelebi exclaimed: “there is no such magnificent mosque in the whole atlas of the globe” (2001: 32)−, while the Ottoman administrator’s harem was settled in the Erechtheion. So again, throughout all those centuries, the Acropolis was enmeshed in political manoeuvres related to dynamics of power and authority that conducted its main transformations.

During the Turkish-Venetian war, the Acropolis was fortified with the building materials from the temple of Athena nike, which was demolished for this reason, but, in 1687, the Venetians bombarded the Acropolis, and the Parthenon, which was then used as a storage room for gunpowder, was blown up, in what can be considered the largest attack against it.
Nevertheless, in the 18th century there was a resurgence of Classicism, and the Acropolis was widely known, as a great amount of Western Europeans started visiting it, although it also meant that it became a victim of collector’s zeal. In the same line, in the early-19th century, the British diplomat Lord Elgin persuaded the Ottoman authorities to allow him to:

…erect scaffolding, to view and draw the buildings and sculptures, to make moulds, to remove obstructions from the monuments, and to conduct excavations, taking away anything of interest which the excavations yielded (2001: 33),

which, in practice, enabled Lord Elgin to loot more than half of the surviving panels of the frieze, several metopes and most of the surviving figures of the Parthenon’s pediments, as well as a Caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion, in order to sell them to the British Museum. Finally, it was damaged again throughout the two sieges that it suffered during the Greek War of Independence.

Nonetheless, with the establishment of the Greek state in 1830 things started to change and the Acropolis, under the administration of Greek Archaeological Service, underwent a series of conservation and restoration works that have been carried out until our days.

The Acropolis and its contribution to the building of European identity

Image Image Image

Maison Carrée, Nîme

Tempio Malatestiano, Alberti, 1450

National Library, Athens, 1832

From its beginnings, Greek Ancient art became a model for later art productions in both style and symbolic meaning. Romans, claiming to be direct inheritors of Hellenic culture and soul, widely used their architectural and sculptural motifs in the construction of both sacred and official buildings, although they lacked the organicity and relation between shape and function that characterized Ancient Greek constructions. As it can be easily noticed, even in a first glimpse to some well-known Roman buildings, they made use of the same materials and architectural elements as their predecessors, although they introduced some innovations, as the round temple or the curved arch.

During the Renaissance, a resurrection of both style and iconographical motifs was again experienced. Ancient myths became a widely used topic in pictorial and sculptural artworks, which —unlike previous medieval artworks— focused on the depiction of the human body; while some architectural motifs were again in vogue in the construction of churches and official buildings, in what was experienced as a look back to their ancient roots, of which renaissance artists were so proud.

And finally, Greek architectural motifs gain central attention among artists again in the 19th century, when the rediscovery of archaeological sites took place under the movement that went all over Europe −linked to the “Grand Tour”−, and archaeologists like Heinrich Schliemann start drawing attention back to the Ancient architecture and sculpture, making other artists become aware of the possibilities that Ancient motifs had in relation to modern works of art.

Nevertheless, as we will see, art and symbolism are not the sole contribution that Greek antiquities and, above all, the Acropolis, have offered to the creation of European identity. With the birth of the new independent state, Greece had to deal with the issue of constructing a strong Greek identity, an idea of Greekness that was actually being negotiated in the international arena (2001: 13). “Torn between two opposing stereotypes: the one of ‘Hellenes’ (idealized Hellenes of the Classical past) and the other of ‘Romii’ (Christians of the Byzantine and Ottoman periods)”, as Herzfeld stated (1987: 41, in 2001: 11), Greece had also to face the paradox of being considered the cultural ancestor of Europe while on its margins or periphery in recent times (2001: 11).

In this context, the Acropolis and the Classical heritage in general played a key-role in negotiations between Greek government and the rest of the world. Not without reason Rizos Neroulos, the first president of the Archaeological Society, exclaimed: “Gentlemen, these stones, thanks to Pheidias, Praxiteles, Agoracritus and Myron, are more precious than diamonds or agates: it is to these stones that we owe our political renaissance” (2001: 34-5). Indeed, as Yalouri states, “the raison d’etre of Greek archaeology at least in its initial stages, was the justification of Greek national identity” (2001: 35), so much so that the first preservation and restoration works or archaeological sites grew up together with the new state, and the first plans for ‘exporting’ classical antiquities for exhibitions were established, as well as the first claims over plundered antiquities, in an effort of placing Greek identity and History on the world map (2001: 25).

Unlike previous times, it was then when Europe, or ‘the West’, was associated with ideas of progress and modernization −and was no more perceived as a hostile foreign presence− and when it started to be “believed that −through Europeanization− Greece could reach out to its past and heritage” (2001: 11). Consequently, Greeks declared themselves legitimate descendants of Ancient heritage, and the European powers, which were supporting Greek independence against the Ottoman Empire, identified this heritage with democracy, arts and science, and took over Greek antiquities as the origins of European heritage (2001: 35).

In the same direction, the first restorations of the Acropolis were meant to free the site from any monuments or additions other than the ones built during the Classical period. Two young architects, the Greek Stamatis Kleanthes and the German Eduart Schaubert, decided to create an archaeological park surrounding the Acropolis which main objective was to become an open museum without equal. Nevertheless, as Argyro Loukaki explains in “Whose Genius Loci?: Contrasting Interpretations of the ‘Sacred Rock of the Athenian Acropolis’”,

The designers established several priorities: (1) the belief that Greece had an important role to play as curator of ancestral glory, (2) the need to advance the development of archaeology, (3) a conscious view of ancient monuments as spectacle, (4) selective evaluation of past time, and (5) a view of Byzantine architecture as a picturesque supplement to the value of classical monuments (2010: 312),

so all Medieval Christian, Frankish, Turkish and early modern monuments were demolished in favour of preserving and drawing attention to fifth century BC buildings (2001: 36; 2010: 312).

Luckily, in the 20th century, archaeological policies changed and curators were more aware of the importance of preserving the surviving monuments the way they had arrived to our times, maintaining subsequent evolutions and changes they had undergone, so, in the following systematic archaeological excavations, curators included the Byzantine heritage, for the first time, in their conservation and restoration plans, also because, as Dr. Eleana Yalouri explains,

Europe did not show the same philhellenic attitude any more, so Greeks needed to renovate their cultural orientation in the eyes of Europe; dangers also came from other Balkan ethnicities which were forming their national consciousnesses and claiming part of the Ottoman land (2001: 36).

In the sixties, the Acropolis underwent two more landscaping modifications, one by the American School of Classical Studies and the other by the Greek architect Pikionis, which have resulted in the layout as seen today. They restored the monuments on and around the rock, create (and recreate) a Neoclassical Athens in the slopes of the Acropolis hill, and pedestrianized the surrounding roads in what has become the largest pedestrian promenade all around Europe (2010: 311). However, as Loukaki explains,

landscaping the Acropolis involved much more the enveloping the archaeological site and creatively mediating its position in the urban fabric. The process was as much about the crushing dialogue of modern Greek society with its ancient glorious past, about the country’s place in the modern world, and about acceding to the state the role of guardian of this invaluable human heritage (with all the questions of property rights that this entails) [2010: 315].

Indeed, the Acropolis, conceived as the symbol par excellence of Ancient Greek cultural and artistic achievements, has played (and still plays) a major role in the construction of both Greek and European identities, being used, at the same time, to promote the ideas of global community without boundaries and Greek national difference. The Acropolis, as the idea of Greekness, has still to find its place between local and global identities, between “the world” and the Greek nation-state. The dilemma, as the Greek painter Tsarouchis once stated, is that

Greece, even if she [sic] is not so, or does not believe herself to be so, is condemned to respond to a generalized, blurred international opinion, that she still is a centre of aesthetic radiation, even today. (1986: 171, in 2010: 315).


  • Loukaki, Argyro, “Whose Genius Loci?: Contrasting Interpretations of the ‘Sacred Rock of the Athenian Acropolis’”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 87: 2, March 2010, pp. 306-329.
  • Tziovas, Dimitris, “Beyond the Acropolis: Rethinking Neohellenism”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 19, Number 2, October 2001, pp. 189-220.
  • Yalouri, Eleana, The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim, Oxford: Berg, 2001.

Other Sources:

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