Atop the Acropolis of Athens

Fact #1: There was an "Old Parthenon" built years before the one we know today. Who knew?Read More

The remains of the Parthenon anchor the Acropolis. (Source: iStock / Gatsi)

Overlooking the ancient city of Athens, the Acropolis is a towering landmark of the ancient world. Comprised of multiple temples, statues, theaters, altars, and sanctuaries, it is not only a time capsule of Greek religious life before the common era, but an astounding showcase of architectural prowess.

However, while we think of the Acropolis as a symbol of Greek might and innovation, its story wasn’t all glitz, glory, and glam …

Building on the Acropolis started as far back as the 7th century BCE, when early versions of the buildings we know today – now referred to with the qualifiers “early or old,” such as the “Old Parthenon” – were first constructed. When the Persians invaded under Emperor Xerxes, however, the Acropolis was looted and destroyed. In the aftermath, it was used as a dump for refuse and rubble; the burial pit that housed much of this was uncovered in 1890 and serves as one of the greatest finds in archaeology.

Fortunately, this was not the sad resolution to the story of the Acropolis. No, it turns out that the Greek leader Pericles ordered massive reconstruction on the site when things calmed following the Persian invasion. Over the course of some 30 years (roughly 460-430 BCE), the Acropolis that crowned the Golden Age of Greece took shape. Many think the temples and structures on the mount were built once, but they actually were built (and rebuilt) over centuries, using architectural influences both from previous Greek generations and invading cultures.

Among the biggest standouts in the Acropoliptic canon was the Parthenon (the new one, following Perciles’ rebuilding initiative). Measuring about 200 by 300 feet, the overall structure is not massive by today’s standards but is nonetheless a showcase of exceptional Doric design. Iconic in its day, the triangular gables that marked the narrow sides of the Parthenon were filled with carved statues of Greek life and gods – the very ones we see recreated in relief renderings. Additionally, as the building was dedicated to Athena, several statues honoring the goddess were installed throughout; these have largely been removed, however, and are now on display in museums throughout the world (including the Louvre and the National Museum of Denmark).

Looking out over Athens from the Temple of Athena Nike (Source: iStock / Susan Vineyard)
Looking out over Athens from the Temple of Athena Nike (Source: iStock / Susan Vineyard)

Two additional temples to Athena stand on the Acropolis: the Old Temple of Athena, constructed before the Persian invasion led by Emperor Xerxes in 480 BCE; and the Temple of Athena Nike (roughly translated as “Athena the Victorious”), built in 420 BCE. The former is really only present as a foundation, given the Persian destruction, while the Temple of Athena Nike is still extant. Much smaller than the Parthenon, it measures 27 feet by about 19 feet and is marked by two colonnaded porticoes on either end. While subject to damage by the Turks in the 1600s, it has been carefully restored and is even now undergoing renovations to shore up its crumbling floor.

Many other impressive structures stand on the Acropolis. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a massive outdoor amphitheater, was actually a Roman addition added in 161 CE. Over the centuries, it has become better known for modern-era performances than anything performed in ancient history. For instance, it served as the setting for a performance of operatic prima donna Maria Callas and beloved tenor Luciano Pavarotti, as well as Greek composer Yanni and British pop star Elton John.

The world's greatest performers have wowed audiences at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. (Source: iStock / Gwengoat)
The world’s greatest performers have wowed audiences at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. (Source: iStock / Gwengoat)

The Theater of Dionysus, another sprawling venue on the Acropolis, was built in the Greek era (around the sixth century BCE) and was expanded to seat as many as 17,000 drama-lovers who came to soak in the wit and wisdom of Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripedes, among other playwrights. Several changes were made to the theater over the years, including the addition of throne chairs for priests and various amendments to the stage itself, allowing performers to feature painted scenery and enact plays over different levels.

Still other fixtures are present on the Acropolis, include a statue to Athena, a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, and various shrines and stoas (or galleries).

Today, visitors can tour parts of the Acropolis, but will find that many sections/buildings are closed off for restoration or renovation. If you’re keen on visiting, keep a few things in mind:

  1. The Acropolis has a dedicated museum that will provide a great deal of historical and cultural context. It’s also massive, including an entire excavated floor that reveals a piece of the Acropolis and its various structure foundations. Consider spending a day here first, then devoting another day (or part of a day) onsite at the Acropolis.
  2. No surprise here: It gets hot on the Acropolis. Bring sunscreen and plenty of water.
  3. You need a ticket to get into the Acropolis (it costs about €20/$22). Cash and credit cards are both accepted, though there are different lines for each, so keep an eye out for which one you should be in.
  4. Go early, both to avoid crowds and the worst of the heat.
  5. Research and plan ahead. In other words, avoid ambling about aimlessly as you’ll get less out of your visit. Pick the sites you’re most interested in and visit those first. Always have backups if things get too busy or crowded.
See the foundations of the Acropolis on display at the Acropolis Museum. (Source: iStock / Vasiliki)
See the foundations of the Acropolis on display at the Acropolis Museum. (Source: iStock / Vasiliki)

For more information, you can visit the Greek government’s website for the Acropolis or the Acropolis Museum website.