The Acropolis As We Know It Today Never Existed

Wikimedia

The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens reconstructed between the late 19th century and today.

The Acropolis of Athens is often seen as a symbol of the city’s ancient and wonderous past. The Parthenon, constructed in the 5th century BCE, stands above modern Athens like a jewel atop a magnificent marble crown, overlooking a city that has persisted for millennia. It is, however, somewhat of a fictive totem reconstructed to revive an Athens that was both fleeting and never quite exactly what it aims to resurrect. 

As a settlement, Athens has seen near-constant human activity since the Neolithic period, with the earliest evidence possibly dating to as early as 6000 BCE. The city rose to prominence in the Archaic period of Greek history (ca. 800-480 BCE) with the city truly flourishing and reaching a zenith in the Classical period (ca. 480-323 BCE) after its successes in helping lead the Greeks to victory over the Persian incursions from further east.

Source: AncientAthens3D.com

A 3D reconstruction of the Acropolis in the Classical period after the construction of Pericles’ building program.

It was during this period that Pericles, one of Ancient Athens’ most prominent leaders, came to the fore and ordered a large-scale building program on the Acropolis. During the conflicts with Persia, Athens suffered much being both besieged and sacked by the Persian army around 479-480 BCE. The result of this sacking was large-scale destruction across the city, including the demolition of the contemporaneous Acropolis which by then had multiple temples dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena, and a monumental gateway and encircling walls. In light of this destruction, Pericles sought to reassert Athens’ primacy amongst the Greeks and reinvigorate the city’s identity by ordering Athena’s temples and other structures rebuilt in grand measure. 

Though the construction ordered by Pericles extended beyond his own tenure in power, the end result was the magnificent coalescence of the Parthenon, the Erectheion, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Polias, the Temple of Athena Nike, and multiple other sanctuaries and shrines. 

Source: Wikimedia

“The Siege of the Acropolis” by Georg Perlberg (1807-1884) depicting a scene from the Greek War of Independence.

These buildings and their statuary were lauded across the ancient world for their elegance, beauty, and architectural ingenuity with famous ancient authors writing about them even centuries later. Yet, like any human creation, these were not immortal or unending creations. Archaeological evidence has shown that repair work, reconstructions, and new constructions have taken place on the acropolis nearly constantly since the Classical period, with not every monument surviving as it once was or surviving at all thanks to the ravages of time, nature, and humanity. The Parthenon, Erectheion, and Propylaea have all left substantial enough evidence of their presence for modern reconstructions, however, other features of the Classical Acropolis such as the sanctuary of Zeus Polieus, Athena’s altar, or the Pandroseion have left us little to no evidence beyond what we can reconstruct from ancient sources and images from elsewhere (often coins). 


What is more, the changing nature of human society wrought innumerable transformations upon this space across time. Under the Roman Empire, new temples to the deified imperial family were constructed on the Acropolis (none of which left substantial evidence), while later under the Byzantine and Ottoman periods the old pagan temples that survived were adapted for new modes of worship. The Parthenon, for instance, was converted to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary during the Byzantine period, and under the Ottomans, it was again repurposed as a mosque complete with a minaret tower. Other surviving temples were similarly altered to accommodate churches, administrative uses, or to home the city’s elite and ruling individuals.

Wikimedia. 

A view from the 1830s of the small mosque constructed within the ruins of the Parthenon by Pierre Peytier. The mosque was dismantled in 1843.

The 19th century would again see large-scale changes in the Acropolis in the aftermath of the Greek War of Independence between 1821 and 1829. Riding upon the waves of independence and nationalism, plans to “restore” the Acropolis to its former Greek glory were enacted and all traces of the post-Classical Acropolis were swept away. Work conducted during this and the next century aimed to continue this pursuit and promote Athens’ glorious ancient past.

It was not until the 1970s that academic excavations on the Acropolis sought to rectify the earlier reconstructions and correct those errors that could be rectified. While lost or destroyed evidence could not be recovered, archaeologists have since been working to systematically record all aspects of the Acropolis’ history as well as alter incorrect restorations such as the placement of certain monuments or the re-alignment of columns previously placed together wrongly. 

Despite modern attempts to right past wrongs, it still stands that the Acropolis we know today is a fictive and constructed image of an Athens that did not exist as we have recreated it. Fragmentary natures of the buildings notwithstanding, the reconstructions in Athens still heavily focus on recreating and preserving the Classical renditions of the buildings atop it. The history that followed is now better acknowledged but like any archaeological site, it does well to remember that we are not necessarily looking at the past as much as we are looking at someone else’s version of it. 

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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