The Acropolis of Ancient Greece
by Lindsey Hankwitz, Student ASLA

The Acropolis is considered to be the “Sacred Rock” of Athens. It is one of the most recognizable places in the world and the most important site of the city.

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Photo of Acropolis. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

The Acropolis is believed to have been inhabited since the 7th Millennium BC. During the Mycenaean civilization, the walls were built around it. There is also some evidence that there was a Mycenaean palace there as well. There were also many tombs and temples there that connected kings, heroes, and gods to Athens. The Acropolis changed in the 6th century BC to a sanctuary. Huge processions took place every year to the Acropolis, and a wooden statue of Athena was dressed and sacrificed there, too. During the 5th century BC, the Athenians started building the Parthenon on the Acropolis (Rhodes, 2-10). Construction halted during the Persian War, however, and the Persians burned both the Acropolis and the Parthenon. It was during Pericles era (the “Golden Age”) when the Acropolis that exists today was built.

The Romans conquered Greece in the 2nd century BC and looted many of the sanctuaries that time. Many statues and forms of artwork were taken back to Rome from the other acropolises in Greece, but not from the Acropolis in Athens (Hopper, 185). During the Middle Ages, a few of the temples on the Acropolis were converted into Christian churches. The Parthenon became a church to the virgin saint Mary and was later converted to a mosque when the Turks came in the 16th century.

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Photo of Parthenon. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

In the 17th century, the Venetians bombarded the Acropolis. The Parthenon exploded because the Turks used it as a storage room for gun powder. The temple was badly damaged and this is why the temple does not have a roof today (D’ooge, 20-26).

In the 19th century, Englishman Lord Elgin took the famous Greek marble statues known as the “Parthenon Marbles.” They are now housed in the British Museum. The Greeks are still trying to get the Marbles back, but with no success (Woodford, 45).

Despite the acts of war, poor building strategies, time and poor restoration techniques, pollution in modern Athens is the Acropolis’s worst enemy. This problem has been known for decades, but a solution has yet to be developed.

The Parthenon: Jewel of the Acropolis

The classical Parthenon was constructed between 447-432 BC to be the focus of the Acropolis.

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Drawing of Parthenon. Image courtesy Jon Burley, FASLA. (Copyright 2003, all rights reserved.)

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Close-up photo of Parthenon. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

The Parthenon was designed by Phidias, a famous sculptor, and built by architects Iktinos and Kallikrates (Rhodes, 74). It was dedicated to the goddess Athena, who was considered the city’s patron goddess, for the salvation of Athens and Greece in the Persian Wars. The structure was originally called the “Temple of Athena the Virgin,” and the name “Parthenon,” comes from the Greek word, parthenos meaning “virgin.”

The main function of the Parthenon has been a Greek Temple, but it has also been a treasury, a fortress, a church, a mosque, and a shelter for the statue of Athena, which was made out of gold and ivory (D’ooge, 111-115). The construction of the Parthenon cost the Athenian treasury 469 silver talents. While it is impossible to convert that to a modern equivalent, by comparison, one talent was the cost to build the most advanced warship of that time.

The Parthenon replaced the structure that was destroyed by the Persians earlier in 480 BC. This building was referred to as “Pre-Parthenon” or “Older Parthenon” (Neils, 67). The classic Parthenon that stands today was actually built over its ruins. The Older Parthenon was to be built as a Doric Peripteral Temple, which means it was to be designed with a single row of columns on all four sides and it would be rectangular with three stairs on all sides. This design is very similar to that of the classic Parthenon, however not exact. Assuming the existence of three steps, the earlier Parthenon was longer and narrower at 29.6 m by 75.06 m. than the existing building, which is 30.86 m. by 69.51 m. (D’ooge, 89). Its foundations were made of limestone, and the columns were made of Pentelic marble, a material that was used for the first time. The foundation of the destroyed building was studied and certain building techniques and materials proved that it was built before the Persian invasion. Other building architecture styles were also considered to establish a more definitive timeline (D’ooge, 88-90). Besides the information gathered from the foundation of the Pre-Parthenon, however, there is limited information about it and whether or not it was still under construction when it was destroyed.

The Parthenon has a rectangular floor plan with a series of low steps on every side, and an 8x17 colonnade of Doric columns around the entire structure. The columns were designed and built in a ratio of 9:4 (Neils, 72). This ratio regulated the vertical and horizontal proportions of the temple as well as many other relationships of the structure, like the spacing between the columns and their height. Each entrance has an additional six columns in front of it. The smaller of the two rooms (an opisthodomos) was used as a treasury, the larger room (tanaos) housed the cult statue of Athena (D’ooge, 51).  

The three main types of columns used throughout Greek history are Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The most basic differences are the proportions and level of ornateness. Doric columns are thicker and shorter, while Ionic columns are taller and slimmer. The tops of Doric columns have the simplest design; Ionic columns have volutes, or curlicues; and Corinthian columns have acanthus leaves (Woodford, 12-16). Doric is also an “order” which means that the columns are not only of a certain design but the structures of the upper levels are similar as well. The Doric order is characterized by triglyphs and metopes and each metope had a panel of relief sculpture.

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Top of Doric column. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

The Parthenon combines Doric and Ionic orders. Basically, it features elements and columns borrowed from the Ionic order.

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Parthenon column with Doric and Ionic features. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

Metopes represent instances of struggle between forces of order and justice, and criminal chaos. On the west side of the Parthenon is the mythical battle against the Amazons; on the south, the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs; on the east, the battle between the gods and the giants; and on the north, the Greeks versus the Trojans. Of all the panels, the best preserved are those showing the Centauromachy (Rhodes, 11-14).

Pedimental Sculptures are a type of relief sculpture like metopes, only larger. They are located in the triangular space above the triglyphs and metopes (National Geographic Society, 442). Those at the west end of the temple depicted the contest between Poseidon and Athena for the right to be the patron deity of Athens (Athena's gift of the olive tree was preferred over Poseidon's spring). The eastern pedimental group showed the birth of Athena from Zeus' head. However, much of the Pedimental Sculptures suffered great damage when the Parthenon was hit by a Venetian shell in 1687. The entire sculptural sequence is graduated thematically from most human to most divine, from West to East (Rhodes, 63-65).

All temples in Greece were designed to be seen only from the outside and were constructed with the viewer in mind. Viewers never entered a temple and could only see the interior statues through the open doors. It is speculated that the designers of the Parthenon intended the viewer to feel as though it was a theatrical event (Woodford, 34-35). To maximize the awe when seeing the statue of Athena, the architectural elements were strategically placed. The arrangement of the temple, the monumental sculptures of the pediment, the metopes, and the overall size of the Parthenon all prepare the viewers for the magnificent sculpture of Athena that they see last. The intended emotions a viewer experiences are described in the excerpt below: 

The Parthenon was conceived in a way that the aesthetic elements allow for a smooth transition between the exterior and the interior that housed the chryselephantine statue of Athena. A visitor to the Acropolis who entered from the Propylaia would be confronted by the majestic proportion of the Parthenon in three quarters view, with full view of the west pediment and the north colonnade. As the viewer moved closer, the details of the sculpted metopes would become decipherable, and when in proximity to the base of the columns, parts of the frieze would become evident in tantalizing colorful glimpses peering from the spaces between the columns.  

Moving towards the east and looking up towards the exterior of the cella, a visitor would be mesmerized with the masterful depiction of the Panathenaic procession as it appeared in cinematic fashion on the frieze which was visually interrupted by the Doric columns of the exterior. This was certainly a scene that every Athenian could relate to through personal experience, making thus the transition between earth and the divine a smooth one. A visitor moving east would eventually turn the corner to face the entrance of the Parthenon, and there he would be confronted with the birth of Athena high above on the east pediment, and just beyond it, the arrephores folding the peplos among the Olympian gods and the heroes of the frieze.

Then, just below, the “peplos” scene, through the immense open doors, any visitor would be enchanted by the glistening gold and ivory hues of the monumental statue of Athena standing at the back of the dim cella. The statue of Athena Pallas reflected its immense stature on the tranquil surface of the water-pool floor, and was framed by yet more Doric columns, this time smaller, in a double-decked arrangement that made the interior space seem as if it were even larger and taller than the exterior.

The Parthenon is not the largest temple in Greece but its aesthetic appeal sets it apart from all other temples. The unique, subtle features of the Parthenon create an effect that is different from the traditional Doric structures of the past. The design moves towards an animated form of architectural expression through sculpture (Rhodes, 75). The complex refinements of the previous Doric form required exceptional precision that would be challenging to accomplish even in our time. The Parthenon exhibits a variety of subtle architectural refinements. One example of such refinement is the curvature of the temple platform. In the Parthenon’s case, curvature is used to counter the illusion of sagging horizontals or to create an exaggerated perspective, which ultimately creates an illusion of greater size (Rhodes, 76). It is obvious that the Athenians wanted to out-shine all other temples of that time through sculptural decoration and magnificent dimensional architecture (Bundgaard, 89-97). The Greek way of living was also apparent in the design of this temple. The attention to detail, as well as the understanding of a mathematical harmony in the natural world set the Athenians apart from the barbarians of the time (Pope, 53-70).

The Propylaea

The Propylaea is the monumental gateway that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis. It was built under the Athenian leader, Pericles. After the Persian Wars, Pheidias was given the responsibility to plan the rebuilding all parts of the Acropolis, including the Propylaea. The architect Mnesicles designed the structure. Construction began in 437 BC and was terminated in 431 BC without being completed (D’ooge, 172-173). It was constructed of white Pentelic marble and gray Eleusinian marble or limestone, which was only used for the accents. Structural iron was also used but it was later determined that the iron actually weakened the structure. The gateway consists of a central building with two adjoining wings on the west (outer) side, one to the north and one to the south. The core is the central building, which presents a standard six-columned Doric façade both on the west side for those entering the Acropolis and on the east for those departing. The columns mimic the proportions of the Parthenon columns, although on a smaller scale (D’ooge, 174-177).

Entrance to the Acropolis was through by the Propylaea, although it was designed as a fortified structure. The state treasury was also within the Acropolis and security was important. However, people that were runaway slaves, criminals, or troublemakers were not allowed into the Acropolis where they could otherwise claim protection from the gods (Rhodes, 54-56).

The Propylaea was never completed due to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC. Not only are some of the wings (eastern) missing, but the wall surfaces were not trimmed to their final shapes. The Propylaea survived the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods. During the Latin Empire, it served as a palace for the family of the Duke of Athens from 1204 to 1311. It was severely damaged in 1656 by a powder explosion. Today, the Propylaea has been partially restored and continues to serve as the entrance to the Acropolis (Rhodes, 68-70).

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The Propylaea. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus

The Theatre of Dionysus was a major amphitheatre in ancient Greece.

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Theatre of Dionysus. Image courtesy Lindsay Hankwitz. (Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

It was built on the South slope of the Acropolis and dedicated to Dionysus, the god of plays and wine. The theatre could hold as many as 17,000 people, making it an ideal location for the ancient Athenian theatrical celebration, the Dionysia, the festival to honor Dionysus. The theatre was also used for competitions. The Theatre of Dionysus was the world’s first theater built of stone and the birthplace of Greek tragedy. Plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were performed there. The theater was built in phases, each corresponding to the developments of ancient drama.

The theater was originally built with wood, and was rebuilt with racked stone tiers in the mid-4th century BC to increase seating capacity. However, shortly after the upgrade, the theater fell into disuse and little was recorded about it until 61 AD, when the emperor, Nero, ordered major renovations. A small section of the stone theatre was excavated in the 19th century and is still visible today. The remains of a restored and redesigned Roman version can also still be seen at the site today. Recently, it was announced that the theater would be restored, with an expected completion date of 2015. The restoration works will gradually add several more tiers, using a combination of new stone and recovered ancient fragments, while strengthening retaining walls and other parts of the building.

Scholars still differ in opinion concerning the architecture of the first Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The size, shape, and even the precise location for the original orchestra and seating benches that once surrounded it have all been disputed.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a stone theatre structure located on the south slope of the Acropolis of Athens. It is commonly confused with the Theatre of Dionysus. Even today, it is one of the best places to experience a live classical theater performance. It was built in Roman times around 161 AD by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, Aspasia Annia Regilla. It was originally a steep-sloped amphitheater with a three-story stone front wall decorated with marbles and ceramic pieces and a cedar-wooden roof. The semi-circular amphitheater has a 1,250 foot radius, with a seating capacity of 5,000-6,000 people. While the front wall currently stands in ruins, the stage and seating area were renovated and now it is one of the main venues of the Athens Festival, which runs from May through October each year. It is one of the most important cultural events in Greece, highlighting not only renowned Greek artists, but many of the world’s best performers in song, dance and theater.

Lindsey Hankwitz, Student ASLA, is a graduate of Michigan State University in Landscape Architecture 2011.  She visited Athens in 2010, and can be reached at:


Bundgaard, J.A. Parthenon and the Mycenaean City on the Heights. Copenhagen. 1976.

D’ooge, Martin L. The Acropolis of Athens. London. 1908.

Hopper, R.J. The Early Greeks. USA. 1977.  

National Geographic Society. Greece and Rome Builders of the World. USA. 1977.

National Geographic Society. Greece and Rome Builders of the World. USA. 1977.

Neils, Jenifer. The Parthenon; From Antiquity to Present. New York. 2005.

Payne, Humfry. Archaic Marble Sculpture from the Acropolis. London: The Cresset Press, 1950.

Pope, Maurice. The Ancient Greeks; How They Lived and Worked. Great Britain. 1976.

Rhodes, Robin Francis. Architecture and Meaning on the Athenian Acropolis. New York, NY. 1995.

Scully, Vincent. The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture. New York: Praeger, 1962.

Woodford, Susan. The Parthenon. New York. 1981.

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