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The Acropolis: History, Temples & Sanctuaries

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Athens had a big influence on Western history, and a lot of their accomplishments were centered in one specific place. In this lesson, explore the Athenian Acropolis and see how it impacted Western civilization.

The City on the Hill

Why did ancient people build so many things on top of hills? There are a number of such cities or citadels across the world, and particularly in Greece, where this arrangement is called an acropolis. However, for all the acropolises out there, there's only one we can call the Acropolis. Situated above Athens, this ancient citadel was, for a time, the intellectual and cultural center of the Western world.

The Acropolis
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History

The Acropolis of Athens is a collection of public, civic, and religious buildings that towered over the main city. How did it get there? Archaeological evidence suggests a human presence dating to at least the fourth millennium BCE. According to legend, however, the city of Athens was founded by an ancient king named Cecrops. In the stories, Cecrops was the one to dedicate the Acropolis to Athena, planting an olive tree for her after she defeated Poseidon in a race to the site. For a long time, this hill was known as Cecropia in honor of the legendary founder of Athenian civilization.

As the city of Athens grew, the Acropolis maintained its importance as a religious site. The first true temple to Athena was probably built up there around 570 BCE, and replaced with another one in the 520s BCE. However, the Acropolis really rose to prominence in the 5th century BCE. Persians attacked Athens in 480 BCE, burning the Acropolis. The Athenians rallied the other Greek cities together and defeated the Persians, establishing themselves as the most powerful city in Greece. This power also gave them the ability to collect taxes from other Greek cities, and money poured in.

The result was the Golden Age of Athens, engineered by the Athenian general and statesman Pericles. Under Pericles's leadership, the Acropolis was rebuilt as a symbol of Athenian power. Greece's top intellectuals came to Athens to teach in the Acropolis, the region's greatest architects developed the most sophisticated architecture in the ancient world, and artists built colossal bronze statues of Athena to guard over it.

The Acropolis would come to define Athens and the intellectual, political, and economic power it controlled. It was here that Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates debated philosophy with their followers; Sophocles composed the first great works of Western theater; and Athenian democracy was practiced and perfected. The Acropolis touched all of Athenian life, and all of Western civilization to follow.

Important Buildings

Of all the great things to come from the Acropolis, however, few may have had as direct an impact as architecture. Thanks to an ambitious building program sponsored by Pericles, the Acropolis is home to some of the finest examples of Classical Greek architecture in the world. Now, this citadel was full of structures, from huge temples to small sanctuaries dedicated to various gods, so we don't have room to list them all. However, we can at least cover some of the most important.

The Parthenon

The undisputed highlight of the Acropolis, and one of the most important buildings in the history of world architecture, is the Parthenon, a massive temple to Athena. Heralded as the finest example of Doric Order Greek architecture, the Parthenon covers a space roughly 228 x 101 feet, and is 45 feet tall. Even more impressive, it was built entirely of stone. No one in the world had managed to build an open-walled structure this large out of stone before.

The Parthenon
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The Parthenon was started in 447 BCE, to replace the temple to Athena destroyed by the Persians. It was completed around 438 BCE, and the decorations were finished by 432 BCE. These decorations included numerous statues and massive reliefs, depicting battles from Athenian history and mythology. They remain some of the finest examples of Greek art ever to be created.

Statue from the Parthenon
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