Acropolis of Athens | The Monumental Heart of Ancient Athenian Culture

athens-acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens has always been so much more than a hill with impressive buildings on it. It was the cultural heart of ancient Athens, where performances were held, sacrifices and votive offerings made, festivals and rites of passage enacted. It tells the story of the Ancient Greek people better than anything else.

 

In addition to the various temples of Athena that sit atop the Acropolis, it’s flanked by the Theatre of Dionysus, where theatre was created, and performances were hosted for 1000 years. On its slopes, you’ll also find the cult caves of Zeus, Apollo and Pan; the votive enclave of Aphrodite and Eros; and the sanctuaries of Dionysus and Asclepios.

 

All of this can still be seen today, in various states of ruin (and restoration!). In fact, we can see even more, as the Acropolis remained an important political, religious, and cultural centre for millennia after its Classical Period heyday. So, a lot was added over the years!

 

Visiting the Acropolis – a few valuable FAQs

 

Before we jump into the bulk of this post, here are a few questions you may want answered. Visiting the Athenian landmark is an awe-inspiring experience, particularly when you know a bit more about what it is and what to keep in mind as you explore.

 

What is an Acropolis in Ancient Greece?

The Athenian Acropolis was once one of many, although few ever achieved such heights. The Greek word ακρόπολη (a-KRO-po-lee) means ‘high point above the city’.

 

Acropoles and similar citadels were spread across the Mediterranean world. They were simply easily defensible, high-ground fortifications where cities could hold their ground against sieges and attacks. The Spanish Alcazars are another example of this.

 

When was the Acropolis built?

The naturally fortified Acropolis has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era. It has likely included shrines and dedications since the 13th century BC.

 

The first monumental temple dedicated to the goddess Athena was built in the 6th century BC, and worshipers dedicated many offerings to her. But the buildings we know the Acropolis by now were constructed around 420 BC under the leader Perikles.

 

Why was the Acropolis built?

The temples on the ancient Greek Acropolis were built as a dedication to Athena, showing the city’s patron goddess the people’s love for her and appreciation for the victories she awarded them. They were also, perhaps more importantly, built to show both the Athenian people and their enemies what monumental strength and skill they had.

 

These temples – the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, and Erectheon – immortalised the Delian League’s success against the Persian invaders. They were covered in scenes of victorious battle, both real and mythical.

 

Who is Pallas Athena?

Athena Mattei. Marble copy of a Greek bronze sculpture from the 4th c. BC. Image courtesy of      Gautier Poupeau

 

Pallas Athena is the warrior goddess of wisdom, handicraft and warfare. Normally known as Athena, like all of the other gods in the Greek pantheon, Athena would have various titles added to her name to represent different realms of her patronage.

 

Where the ‘pallas’ comes from in Pallas Athena is unclear. One of the most popular ancient myths is that Pallas was a friend of Athena’s, who she accidentally killed.

 

How Athena got the title Pallas

 

In the story, Athena was raised by the sea god Triton, alongside his own daughter Pallas. One day, the two girls engaged in a mock battle with real spears.

 

Watching from the side, Zeus feared his daughter Athena would lose. So he distracted her friend with the aegis, and Athena struck, thinking Pallas would easily duck the blow. Instead, she impaled her.

 

Distraught, Athena took on the name Pallas as one of her own to honour the good friend whose life she took.

 

What is the Acropolis entrance fee?

 

In Greece’s busy season (from 1 April to 31 October), a standard ticket costs €20.

In the off-season (from 1 November to 31 March), a standard ticket costs €10.

 

You can buy a skip-the-line ticket here if you plan on visiting in summer – the ticket line can often take an hour. But we recommend only getting this ticket if you don’t qualify for discounts or you’re low on time.

 

Half price discount (in Summer)

There are various discounts that may apply to you! You can get your ticket at half-price if:

 

  • You’re between 6 and 25 years old from non-EU countries
  • You’re 65 years + and from the EU or the EEA
  • You’re a visiting teacher
  • You’re a parent accompanying a primary school visit from within the EU and EEA

 

Free entrance

As an incredible opportunity for learning, the Acropolis offers free entrance to a broad range of people. You may just fit this category, if you didn’t find yourself in the one above!

 

  • You’re under 25 years old from the EU

  • You’re under 5 years old

  • You’re a student over 25 years old in the EU and EEA

  • You’re an unemployed Greek citizen, or claim Social Solidarity Income

  • You’re a teacher from within the EU on an educational visit

  • You’re a single-parent family, or a Greek family with three or more children

  • You have a disability

  • You’re a journalist or a tourist guide

 

There may be even more reasons to qualify for free entrance, so be sure to scan the board at the entrance. You also need to bring along a form of identification as proof!

 

Glenn marvelling at the uber-rare occasion of no lines at the Acropolis entrance, 2021

 

What are your Acropolis tour options?

If you want to learn as much as possible while you explore the Acropolis, a guided tour is the best option. You’ll learn so many interesting little details as you go along!

 

Here’s one of the most popular and well-reviewed guided tours.

 

And here is one of the favourite Acropolis and Acropolis Museum guided tours! Walking around the Acropolis you’ll be stunned by how much has survived the passage of time. Just wait till you see the museum.

 

If you’re less of a planner, don’t fret! You don’t even need to book a tour online – particularly if you’re not visiting in the height of summer, Greece’s busiest season. Tour guides can usually be found at the base of the Acropolis – you’ll even find a sign that points you in their direction.

 

And of course, tours definitely aren’t necessary. We always enjoy them, but we also have a tendency to spend really long at each spot, taking everything in and reading every little plaque. So we didn’t join a tour, we just read and researched everything ourselves. It’s all up to preference!

 

Athens Acropolis attractions – functions & mythos of what you’ll see

So, what will you actually see on the Acropolis? And what makes them important and special to the history of Athens?

 

Parthenon

 

Anyone who knows about the Greek Acropolis knows about the Parthenon. One of the biggest draws to the city of Athens, this monumental structure grabs your eye right as you walk through the ancient Propylaea. Constructed between 447 and 432 BC, it was designed to be the focus of the Acropolis.

 

The Parthenon is a true feat of architecture, making use of optical illusions to look substantially larger than it is and to ensure no feature fades to the background. Even its base is domed, rather than flat. It once housed an immense statue of Athena made from ivory and gold, along with various other sculptures and treasures. Interestingly, ancient Greek temples were designed to be seen from the outside as the interior was considered a home to the deity. So believers were only able to view those treasures through the open doors.

 

The Parthenon is the epitome of Classical Greek art and architecture. Constructed to celebrate and memorialise the Hellenic victory against Persia and to thank Athena and the gods for that victory, it formed a large role in memorialising Greek strengths for the next 2000 years!

 

Temple of Athena Nike

 

Dedicated to Athena as the goddess of victory (Nike), this small temple stands at the right of the entrance to the hilltop Acropolis. It was constructed in 420 BC, designed by Kallikrates, the same architect as the Parthenon.

 

Like the other temples, this replaces an earlier temple destroyed during the Persian Wars. The fragments of the earlier building can still be found in the temple’s basement.

 

Believers would perform rituals in front of the temple and make sacrifices at the small altar. The inside of the temple – like most Greek temples – was considered the home of the goddess, and the only ones permitted to enter were her priestesses.

 

In the 5th century AD, the temple was converted to a Christian church, and in the 17th century it was dismantled by the Ottomans, its parts used to build a defensive wall! The temple has since been reconstructed – using many of the original parts – multiple times over.

 

Erechtheion

 

The Erechtheion is the last of the Acropolis buildings to be completed under Perikles. It is dedicated to Erechtheus, the mythical king of Attica who judged the competition for Athens between Athena and Poseidon.

 

The complex building is uncommonly irregular because of the slope it’s built on, and the way it’s split to worship multiple gods and heroes.

 

The beautifully iconic Porch of Maidens is built atop the tomb of Kekrops, another mythical king, who first offered sacrifices to Athena. The sacred olive tree (where a newer olive tree now sits) is where Athena planted her dedication to the city of Athens. And in the temple itself, there were dedications to Athena and Poseidon, as well as an altar to the hero Boutes and a shrine to Pandion, the father of Boutes and Erechtheus.

 

Sanctuary of Dionysus

Dionysus, worshipped here as Eleuthereus, has the oldest sanctuary on the South slope of the Acropolis. The Archaic temple was built in the 6th c. BC, and a later one built in 330 BC, housing a gold and ivory statue of the god. This sanctuary, its stoa, and the theatre, were the site of the Great Dionysia festival.

 

Great Dionysia Festival

It was at the Great Dionysia that theatre was created. This annual festival was a raucous week-long affair, filled with wine, ecstatic dancing, and of course, plays! The festival would begin with a procession through the city, ushering Dionysus’ sacred statue through the streets. This was accompanied by singing and drinking on-the-go, and the carrying of comically huge phalloi.

 

This big bash was followed the next day by another procession, and then three tragic plays and one satyric comedy, all at the Theatre of Dionysus. The same pattern was repeated for three days, and the fourth day was given over to comedy, with five fun plays. On the fifth day, the men rested (it’s important to note here that Athenian citizens were made up of only Attica-born men).

 

After a day of rest (there was a great deal of alcohol consumption and merriment), the winning playwright would be announced. These plays, written by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, etc. are some of the best-preserved and nuanced sources on Greek mythology and culture!

 

You can learn more about the sanctuary and festival here!

 

Theatre of Dionysus

 

So, the theatre was the site of the performances and much of the revelry during the Great Dionysia. This ancient theatre greatly influenced the impact and spread of theatre across the ancient world.

 

It was here that the first ‘actor’, Thespis, is thought to have performed around 530 BC (this is why actors are also called thespians).

 

The theatre was reconstructed various times, its seats first made from wood and eventually stone and marble. The remains we see on the Acropolis slope today once housed around 17 000 men.

 

Sanctuary of Asklepios

Founded in 420 B.C, this sanctuary is dedicated to the god of medicine, Asklepios. The sanctuary housed a sacred spring where patients would purify themselves, and a gallery where they would sleep, hoping for the god to reveal their remedies in dreams.

 

It also had a small temple, an altar, a pit for sacrifices, and a stoa where priests and guests were accommodated.

 

Who is Asklepios?

 

Bust of Asclepius. This is a Roman copy of a Greek original by the sculptor Pyromachus, 2nd c. BC. Image courtesy of С. И. Сосновский

 

Asklepios is the Greek god of medicine, who was once a hero, born to Apollo and a mortal woman. Educated in medicine by Apollo and the centaur Chiron, Asklepios helped many and became so proficient at healing that he surpassed even his great father.

 

Eventually, he was capable even of bringing people back from the dead. Zeus had to strike him with a thunderbolt, because he was starting to unbalance the population and Hades was complaining about a reduction in his own underworld subjects!

 

Apollo was so upset about his son’s death that he killed the Cyclops who created Zeus’ thunderbolts. For this, he was banished from Olympus for a year and sent to serve a human king. But Zeus did decide to resurrect Asklepios as a god and give him a place on Olympus.

 

Cult Caves

 

The cult caves of Zeus, Apollo and Pan can be found on the northern slope of the Acropolis. These are just three of the most important cult caves here – there are over ten dotted around the Acropolis! You can think of the hilltop temples as the state religion, while these caves were sites of cult practice and personal beliefs, mirroring rural practices.

 

The most westerly of these caves had a carved podium from which the Panathenaic procession could be watched. They all had votive niches where dedications could be left, which were mostly terracotta statuettes and vases. Terracotta was the commonly used material for the lower economic classes’ religious dedications, as marble and gold were, as they are now, way out of most peoples’ budget.

 

Votive Sanctuary of Aphrodite

A short, narrow path would take acolytes from the caves to the votive sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros. Here, archaeologists have found various dedications including marble statuettes, clay vases and carvings, and engraved reliefs of male and female genitalia. These suggest people asked the goddess of love for help with private romantic matters, particularly fertility and reproductive issues.

 

This open-air sanctuary, with its hollowed niches in the rock, was the site of festivals of worship for both Aphrodite and her son Eros. Despite its unassuming aspect, it was a very important part of Athenian life and worship!

 

Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Herodeon)

 

Built 160-169 AD, the Odeion was donated to the city of Athens by the famous orator Herodes Atticus, as an ode to his late wife, Rigilla. It was to be used for musical performances and philosophy lectures, rather than plays like the theatre a minute’s walk away.

 

With marble seats, a mosaic floor, and a roof made from cedar wood, it was a marvel suited to its spectacular environment.

 

The Herodeon was burnt down in 267 AD by the Germanic Heruli, enjoying a much shorter life than the Theatre of Dionysus. The surviving section was incorporated into the Late Roman fortification wall that was built to surround the Acropolis, which prevented its being destroyed further.

 

When archaeological excavations began in 1847, the Herodeon was buried in ten metres of sand and deposits, meaning that you could walk around and just see the top of the wall sticking out.

 

The rest of the Athens Acropolis

 

There were even more sanctuaries and sacred places on the Acropolis over the centuries. At the site of a Mycenaean spring were cult centres for Pan, Hermes and the Nymphs. Small temples of Themis and Isis, and shrines to various heroes, gods and legendary figures all had their spaces on the Acropolis.

 

On the east slope, you’ll find the largest cave, which was dedicated to Algauros, a mythological princess who jumped to her death here, because it was decreed by the Delphic Oracle that she must do so to save the city.

 

You’ll also find later Roman buildings, like the Stoa of Eumenes, along with later Christian and Islamic modifications and additions to the ancient constructions. Basically, the Acropolis is a site with such deep-running history, that even the famous attractions we know it by only scratch the surface.

 

And, to conclude

 

So, now you’re prepped with all the information you’ll need when visiting the Acropolis of Athens! From entry fees and tour options, to the history of the individual attractions.

 

Of course, there’s so much more to know about this ancient place – after all, it’s packed with thousands of years of human experience and belief. So if you want to know more, I encourage you to keep researching and uncovering the details of the Acropolis! And feel free to let us know if we’re missing anything important – we’d love to hear from you.

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