An acropolis is a high, fortified site that was an important feature of many city-states* in ancient Greece. The word acropolis means L upper part of a city. Originally, it served as a hilltop fortress—a place of refuge in time of war.
The Athenians built the most famous acropolis in Greece, which is referred to as the Acropolis. Its public buildings, temples, porches, and gates—all in white stone or marble—remain one of the supreme accomplishments of classical* Greek art. Rising near the center of Athens, the Acropolis is a steep rocky hill with a flat oval-shaped top about 500 feet wide and 1,150 feet long.
Ancient peoples built settlements and fortifications on the Acropolis of Athens, perhaps as early as 6000 B.C. During the time of the Mycenaeans, between 1600 and 1100 B.C., a massive wall was constructed around the site, which included a small fortified city and palace. Natural springs on the slopes of the hill supplied water for the inhabitants. The first temples on the Acropolis were built in the 500s B.C., during the reign of King Pisistratus. These included temples to Athena, the goddess who protected the city.
In 480 B.C., Persian invaders swept into Athens and destroyed the Acropolis. The Athenian general Pericles rebuilt the Acropolis during the mid-400s B.C. with funds borrowed from allies of Athens. To work on the new Acropolis, Pericles hired the leading architects and artists of the day. In later years, other structures were added to the Acropolis and its slopes.
Athenians entered the Acropolis from the west end. There they climbed the stairs of the Propylaea, a massive gateway that also served as a public meeting place. Nearby was the small temple of Athena Nike, built to honor Athena’s role in bringing victory to the city. From the Propylaea, a pathway known as the Sacred Way led into holy areas of the Acropolis. It passed an enormous bronze statue of Athena, the Athena Promachus, erected to celebrate the Athenians’ victory over the Persians. Along the Sacred Way there were small, columned buildings called treasuries, which contained offerings from other city-states to the gods for victories or other special events.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
The path continued to the Parthenon, the largest and most sacred structure on the Acropolis. Built of gleaming white marble, the Parthenon dominated the entire city and its surrounding countryside. Inside, the sculptor Phidias erected a 40-foot-tall, gold-and-ivory statue of the goddess Athena. This work has disappeared.
North of the Parthenon was the Erechtheum, another temple. This shrine to the gods of agriculture contained holy objects associated with the founding of Athens. A sacred olive tree grew in one of its courtyards.
The Acropolis had several other temples and buildings—including an altar to the god Zeus and some storehouses. The Theater of Dionysus, built in the 400s B.C., and the Odeum* * of Herodes Atticus, built in A.D. 167, stand on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. Plays were given as part of religious festivals. The Theater of Dionysus, an amphitheater* that held 15,000 people, was designed so that even those seated at the back of the theater could easily hear the performers on stage.
The Acropolis remained the religious center of Athens for hundreds of years. In later centuries, people turned its temples into Christian churches or used them for other purposes. Remnants of the Acropolis still stand today, although in various stages of ruin. Even so, the Acropolis of Athens continues to inspire people with its commanding location and the great beauty and dignity of its architecture. (See also Architecture, Greek; Mycenae; Religion, Greek; Temples.)
* odeum hall used for musical or dramatic performances
* amphitheater oval or round structure with rows of seats rising gradually from a stage or central open space