Parthenon in Athens

Ancient Athens was claimed according to legend by the goddess Athena after she defeated the sing king Poseidon in an epic battle. The first settlement of Athens, dated to around 3000 B.C. was situated on the rock of Acropolis. By 1400 BC the settlement had become an important center of the Mycenaean civilization and the Acropolis was the site of a major Mycenaean fortress whose remains can be recognised from sections of the characteristic Cyclopean walls. Unlike other Mycenaean centers, such as Mycenae and Pylos, we do not know whether Athens suffered destruction in about 1200 BC, an event often attributed to a Dorian invasion, and the Athenians always maintained that they were "pure" Ionians with no Dorian element. However, Athens, like many other Bronze Age settlements, went into economic decline for around 150 years following this.

During the Golden Age of Greece Athens was home to about 75,000 people and and between 200,000 and 250,000 lived in the surrounding countryside called "Attica." The city had an area of about 0.7 square miles.

Unlike Sparta, which rose through its military might, Athens became a large power by way of trade and naval supremacy, a course it took namely because it was surrounded by poor soils and it needed to feed its population somehow.

In the golden age of Athens and the Greece in the 5th century B.C. Athens was the heart of the classical Greek civilization and a pioneer of democracy. In 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle addressed their followers in markets ans academies and tragedies by Sophocles and Aristhosenes were performed in the amphitheaters. The acropolis was the center of the ancient city. Other classical building are buried beneath the modern city where they are occasionally unearthed by sewer and subway construction workers.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Early History of Athens

Iron Age burials, in the Kerameikos and other locations, are often richly provided for and demonstrate that from 900 B.C. onwards Athens was one of the leading centers of trade and prosperity in the region. This position may well have resulted from its central location in the Greek world, its secure stronghold on the Acropolis and its access to the sea, which gave it a natural advantage over inland rivals such as Thebes and Sparta.

Kecrops and Pandrosos

According to the tradition, Athens was founded, when the king of Theseus united several settlements of Attica into a state and was ruled by kings until the 9th century B.C. Based on later accounts, it is believed that these kings stood at the head of a land-owning aristocracy known as the Eupatridae (the 'well-born'), whose instrument of government was a Council which met on the Hill of Ares, called the Areopagus and appointed the chief city officials, the archons and the polemarch (commander-in-chief).

Before the concept of the political state arose, four tribes based upon family relationships dominated the area. The members had certain rights, privileges, and obligations including common religious rights, a common burial place and mutual rights of succession to property of deceased members. During this period, Athens succeeded in bringing the other towns of Attica under its rule. This process of synoikismos---the bringing together into one home---created the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland, but it also created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility. By the 7th century BC social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new code of law (hence the word 'draconian'). When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (in 594 BC). [Source: Wikipedia]

Origins of Athens

On the Origins of Athens, Herodotus wrote in Book I of “The History,”( c. 430 B.C.): “These were the Spartans and the Athenians, the former of Doric, the latter of Ionic blood. And indeed these two nations held from earliest times the most distinguished place in Hellas, the one being a Pelasgic, the other a Hellenic people, and the one never having quitted its original seats, while the other had been excessively migratory...What the language of the Pelasgi was I cannot say with any certainty. If, however, we may form a conjecture....we must pronounce that the Pelasgi spoke a barbarous language. If this were really so, and the entire Pelasgic race spoke the same tongue, the Athenians, who were certainly Pelasgi, must have changed their language at the same time that they passed into the Hellenic body...The Hellenic race has never, since its first origin, changed its speech. This at least seems evident to me. It was a branch of the Pelasgic, which separated from the main body, and at first was scanty in numbers and of little power; but it gradually spread and increased to a multitude of nations, chiefly by the voluntary entrance into its ranks of numerous tribes of barbarians. The Pelasgi, on the other hand, were, as I think, a barbarian race which never greatly multiplied. [Source: Herodotus, “Histories”, I.56-59, translated by George Rawlinson, New York: Dutton & Co., 1862, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

replica of the Athena statue in the Parthenon

Thucydides wrote in “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (c. 404 B.C.): “In the days of Kecrops and the first kings, down to the reign of Theseos, Attica was divided into communes, having their own town halls and magistrates. Except in case of alarm, the whole people did not assemble in council under the king, but administered their own affairs, and advised together in their several townships. Some of them at times even went to war with the king, as the Eleusinians under Eumolpos with King Erectheos. But when Theseos came to the throne, he, being a powerful as well as a wise ruler, among other improvements in the administration of the country, dissolved the councils and separate governments, and united all the inhabitants of Attica in the present city, establishing one council and town hall. They continued to live on their own lands, but he compelled them to resort to Athens as their metropolis [i.e., "mother-city"], and henceforward they were all inscribed in the roll of her citizens. A great city thus arose which was handed down by Theseos to his descendants, and from his day to this the Athenians have regularly celebrated the national festival of the Synoikia, or "union of the communes," in honor of the goddess Athena. [Source: Thucydides, “The History of the Peloponnesian War” II.5]

Plutarch wrote in “The Life of Theseus” (c. A.D. 110): “Now, after the death of his father Aigeos, forming in his mind a great and wonderful design, he gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica into one town, and made them one people of one city, whereas before they lived dispersed, and were not easy to assemble upon any affair for the common interest. Nay, differences and even wars often occurred between them, which he by his persuasions appeased, going from township to township, and from tribe to tribe. And those of a more private and mean condition readily embracing such good advice, to those of greater power he promised a commonwealth without monarchy — a democracy, or people's government — in which he should only be continued as their commander in war and the protector of their laws, all things else being equally distributed among them; and by this means brought a part of them over to his proposal. [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives,” (The "Dryden Plutarch"), London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910]

“He then dissolved all the distinct statehouses, council halls, and magistracies, and built one common state-house and council hall on the site of the present upper town, and gave the name of Athens to the whole state, ordaining a common feast and sacrifice, which he called Pan-Athenaia, or the sacrifice of all the united Athenians. He instituted also another sacrifice called Metoikia, or Feast of Migration, which is yet celebrated on the sixteenth day of Hecatombaion. Then, as he had promised, he laid down his regal power and proceeded to order a commonwealth, entering upon this great work not without advice from the gods....Farther yet designing to enlarge his city, he invited all strangers to come and enjoy equal privileges with the natives...Yet he did not suffer his state, by the promiscuous multitude that flowed in, to be turned into confusion and he left without any order or degree, but he was the first that divided the Athenian Commonwealth into three distinct ranks, the noblemen, the farmers, and the artisans. To the nobility he committed the care of religion, the choice of magistrates, the teaching and dispensing of the laws, and interpretation and direction in all sacred matters; the whole city being, as it were, reduced to an exact equality, the nobles excelling the rest in honor, the farmers in profit, and the artisans in number. He also coined money, and stamped it with the image of an ox, either in memory of the Marathon bull, or of the Minotaur, both of whom he vanquished; or else to put his people in mind to follow animal husbandry; and from this coin came the expression so frequent among the Hellenes, of a thing being worth ten or a hundred oxen. After this he joined Megara to Attica...

“About this time, Menestheos (the son of Peteos, grandson of Orneos, and great-grandson of Erechtheos), the first man that is recorded to have affected popularity and ingratiated himself with the multitude, stirred up and exasperated the most eminent men of the city, who had long borne a secret grudge to Theseos, conceiving that he had robbed them of their several little kingdoms and lordships, and having pent them all up in one city, was using them as his subjects and slaves. He put also the meaner people into commotion, telling them that, deluded with a mere dream of liberty, they were actually deprived of both that and of their proper homes and religious usages; and that instead of many good and gracious kings of their own, they had given themselves up to be lorded over by a newcomer and a stranger....and after Theseos death — by accident or misadventure — Menestheos ruled in Athens as king.

Aristotle wrote in “The Athenian Constitution”: “Not only was the constitution at this time oligarchical in every respect, but the poorer classes — men, women, and children — were in absolute slavery to the rich. They were known as pelatai and also as hectemori, because they cultivated the lands of the rich for a sixth part of the produce. The whole country was in the hands of a few persons, and if the tenants failed to pay their rent, they were liable to be haled into debt-slavery and their children with them. Their persons were mortgaged to their creditors, a custom which prevailed until the time of Solon, who was the first to appear as a leader of the people. But the hardest and bitterest part of the condition of the masses was the fact that they had no share in the offices then existing under the constitution. At the same time they were discontented with every other feature of their lot; for, to speak generally, they had no part nor share in anything. [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Boston: D. C. Heath, 1907, pp. 77-79]

map of Athens

Layout of Ancient Athens

Ancient Athens spread out around the Acropolis. It was a walled city whose main gates — the Dipylon Gate, Sacred Gate and Petriac Gate — were on the northwest side of the city. Other main important places were the Lyceum (outside the walls), the Olympieion, the Pynx, the Aereopagus and the Agora, the main shopping area and gathering place. The ruins of the Lyceum, where Aristotle taught 2,300 years ago, was uncovered in the mid 1990s in downtown Athens.

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “When Themistocles became archon, since he thought that the Peiraeus was more conveniently situated for mariners, and had three harbors as against one at Phalerum, he made it the Athenian port. Even up to my time there were docks there, and near the largest harbor is the grave of Themistocles....The Athenians have also another harbor, at Munychia, with a temple of Artemis of Munychia, and yet another at Phalerum, as I have already stated, and near it is a sanctuary of Demeter. Here there is also a temple of Athena Sciras, and one of Zeus some distance away, and altars of the gods named Unknown, and of heroes, and of the children of Theseus and Phalerus; for this Phalerus is said by the Athenians to have sailed with Jason to Colchis. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“On entering the city there is a building for the preparation of the processions, which are held in some cases every year, in others at longer intervals. Hard by is a temple of Demeter, with images of the goddess herself and of her daughter, and of Iacchus holding a torch. On the wall, in Attic characters, is written that they are works of Praxiteles. Not far from the temple is Poseidon on horseback, hurling a spear against the giant Polybotes, concerning whom is prevalent among the Coans the story about the promontory of Chelone. But the inscription of our time assigns the statue to another, and not to Poseidon. From the gate to the Cerameicus there are porticoes, and in front of them brazen statues of such as had some title to fame, both men and women.[1.2.5] One of the porticoes contains shrines of gods, and a gymnasium called that of Hermes. In it is the house of Pulytion, at which it is said that a mystic rite was performed by the most notable Athenians, parodying the Eleusinian mysteries.

“On the way to the Athenian Acropolis from the theater is the tomb of Calos. Daedalus murdered this Calos, who was his sister's son and a student of his craft, and therefore he fled to Crete; afterwards he escaped to Cocalus in Sicily. The sanctuary of Asclepius is worth seeing both for its paintings and for the statues of the god and his children. In it there is a spring, by which they say that Poseidon's son Halirrhothius deflowered Alcippe the daughter of Ares, who killed the ravisher and was the first to be put on his trial for the shedding of blood....Hard by is a sanctuary of the goddesses which the Athenians call the August, but Hesiod in the Theogony1 calls them Erinyes (Furies). It was Aeschylus who first represented them with snakes in their hair. But on the images neither of these nor of any of the under-world deities is there anything terrible. There are images of Pluto, Hermes, and Earth, by which sacrifice those who have received an acquittal on the Hill of Ares; sacrifices are also offered on other occasions by both citizens and aliens. Within the precincts is a monument to Oedipus, whose bones, after diligent inquiry, I found were brought from Thebes. The account of the death of Oedipus in the drama of Sophocles I am prevented from believing by Homer, who says that after the death of Oedipus Mecisteus came to Thebes and took part in the funeral games.”

Attica: The Region Containing Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “On the Greek mainland facing the Cyclades Islands and the Aegean Sea the Sunium promontory stands out from the Attic land. When you have rounded the promontory you see a harbor and a temple to Athena of Sunium on the peak of the promontory. Farther on is Laurium, where once the Athenians had silver mines, and a small uninhabited island called the Island of Patroclus...“The Peiraeus was a parish from early times, though it was not a port before Themistocles became an archon of the Athenians. Their port was Phalerum, for at this place the sea comes nearest to Athens, and from here men say that Menestheus set sail with his fleet for Troy, and before him Theseus, when he went to give satisfaction to Minos for the death of Androgeos. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]


“Twenty stades away is the Coliad promontory; on to it, when the Persian fleet was destroyed, the wrecks were carried down by the waves. There is here an image of the Coliad Aphrodite, with the goddesses Genetyllides (Goddesses of Birth), as they are called. And I am of opinion that the goddesses of the Phocaeans in Ionia, whom they call Gennaides, are the same as those at Colias. On the way from Phalerum to Athens there is a temple of Hera with neither doors nor roof. Men say that Mardonius, son of Gobryas, burnt it. But the image there to-day is, as report goes, the work of Alcamenes1 So that this, at any rate, cannot have been damaged by the Persians.

“The small parishes of Attica, which were founded severally as chance would have it, presented the following noteworthy features. At Alimus is a sanctuary of Demeter Lawgiver and of the Maid, and at Zoster (Girdle) on the coast is an altar to Athena, as well as to Apollo, to Artemis and to Leto. The story is that Leto did not give birth to her children here, but loosened her girdle with a view to her delivery, and the place received its name from this incident. Prospalta has also a sanctuary of the Maid and Demeter, and Anagyrus a sanctuary of the Mother of the gods. At Cephale the chief cult is that of the Dioscuri, for the in habitants call them the Great gods. At Prasiae is a temple of Apollo. Hither they say are sent the first-fruits of the Hyperboreans, and the Hyperboreans are said to hand them over to the Arimaspi, the Arimaspi to the Issedones, from these the Scythians bring them to Sinope, thence they are carried by Greeks to Prasiae, and the Athenians take them to Delos. The first-fruits are hidden in wheat straw, and they are known of none. There is at Prasiae a monument to Erysichthon, who died on the voyage home from Delos, after the sacred mission thither.

“The Attic mountains are Pentelicus, where there are quarries, Parnes, where there is hunting of wild boars and of bears, and Hymettus, which grows the most suitable pasture for bees, except that of the Alazones.1 For these people have actually bees ranging free, tamely following the other creatures when they go to pasture. These bees are not kept shut up in hives, and they work in any part of the land they happen to visit. They produce a solid mass from which you cannot separate either wax or honey. Such then is its nature. The Athenians have also statues of gods on their mountains. On Pentelicus is a statue of Athena, on Hymettus one of Zeus Hymettius. There are altars both of Zeus Rain-god and of Apollo Foreseer. On Parnes is a bronze Zeus Parnethius, and an altar to Zeus Semaleus (Sign-giving). There is on Parnes another altar, and on it they make sacrifice, calling Zeus sometimes Rain-god, sometimes Averter of Ills. Anchesmus is a mountain of no great size, with an image of Zeus Anchesmius.

“There is a parish called Marathon, equally distant from Athens and Carystus in Euboea. It was at this pointin Attica that the foreigners landed, were defeated in battle, and lost some of their vessels as they were putting off from the land....There is at Marathon a lake which for the most part is marshy. Into this ignorance of the roads made the foreigners fall in their flight, and it is said that this accident was the cause of their great losses. Above the lake are the stone stables of Artaphernes' horses, and marks of his tent on the rocks. Out of the lake flows a river, affording near the lake itself water suitable for cattle, but near its mouth it becomes salt and full of sea fish. A little beyond the plain is the Hill of Pan and a remarkable Cave of Pan. The entrance to it is narrow, but farther in are chambers and baths and the so-called "Pan's herd of goats," which are rocks shaped in most respects like to goats.

“At some distance from Marathon is Brauron, where, according to the legend, Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, landed with the image of Artemis when she fled from the Tauri; leaving the image there she came to Athens also and afterwards to Argos. There is indeed an old wooden image of Artemis here, but who in my opinion have the one taken from the foreigners I will set forth in another place. About sixty stades from Marathon as you go along the road by the sea to Oropus stands Rhamnus. The dwelling houses are on the coast, but a little way inland is a sanctuary of Nemesis, the most implacable deity to men of violence. It is thought that the wrath of this goddess fell also upon the foreigners who landed at Marathon. For thinking in their pride that nothing stood in the way of their taking Athens, they were bringing a piece of Parian marble to make a trophy, convinced that their task was already finished. Of this marble Pheidias made a statue of Nemesis, and on the head of the goddess is a crown with deer and small images of Victory. In her left hand she holds an apple branch, in her right hand a cup on which are wrought Aethiopians.

“The land of Oropus, between Attica and the land of Tanagra, which originally belonged to Boeotia, in our time belongs to the Athenians, who always fought for it but never won secure pos session until Philip gave it to them after taking Thebes. The city is on the coast and affords nothing remarkable to record.”

Athens Acropolis

Islands Near Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “There are islands not far from Attica. Of the one called the Island of Patroclus I have already given an account.1 There is another when you have sailed past Sunium with Attica on the left. On this they say that Helen landed after the capture of Troy, and for this reason the name of the island is Helene. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“Salamis lies over against Eleusis, and stretches as far as the territory of Megara. It is said that the first to give this name to the island was Cychreus, who called it after his mother Salamis, the daughter of Asopus, and afterwards it was colonized by the Aeginetans with Telamon. Philaeus, the son of Eurysaces, the son of Ajax, is said to have handed the island over to the Athenians, having been made an Athenian by them. Many years afterwards the Athenians drove out all the Salaminians, having discovered that they had been guilty of treachery in the war with Cassander1, and mainly of set purpose had surrendered to the Macedonians. They sentenced to death Aeschetades, who on this occasion had been elected general for Salamis, and they swore never to forget the treachery of the Salaminians. There are still the remains of a market-place, a temple of Ajax and his statue in ebony.

“Before the city of the Milesians is an island called Lade, and from it certain islets are detached. One of these they call the islet of Asterius, and say that Asterius was buried in it, and that Asterius was the son of Anax, and Anax the son of Earth. Now the corpse is not less than ten cubits. But what really caused me surprise is this. There is a small city of upper Lydia called The Doors of Temenus. There a crest broke away in a storm, and there appeared bones the shape of which led one to sup pose that they were human, but from their size one would never have thought it. At once the story spread among the multitude that it was the corpse of Geryon, the son of Chrysaor, and that the seat also was his. For there is a man's seat carved on a rocky spur of the mountain. And a torrent they called the river Ocean, and they said that men ploughing met with the horns of cattle, for the story is that Geryon reared excellent cows. And when I criticized the account and pointed out to them that Geryon is at Gadeira, where there is, not his tomb, but a tree showing different shapes, the guides of the Lydians related the true story, that the corpse is that of Hyllus, a son of Earth, from whom the river is named. They also said that Heracles from his sojourning with Omphale called his son Hyllus after the river.

“In Salamis is a sanctuary of Artemis, and also a trophy erected in honor of the victory which Themistocles the son of Neocles won for the Greeks. There is also a sanctuary of Cychreus. When the Athenians were fighting the Persians at sea, a serpent is said to have appeared in the fleet, and the god in an oracle told the Athenians that it was Cychreus the hero. Before Salamis there is an island called Psyttalea. Here they say that about four hundred of the Persians landed, and when the fleet of Xerxes was defeated, these also were killed after the Greeks had crossed over to Psyttalea. The island has no artistic statue, only some roughly carved wooden images of Pan.”

Temple Area of Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “The district of the Cerameicus has its name from the hero Ceramus, he too being the reputed son of Dionysus and Ariadne. First on the right is what is called the Royal Portico, where sits the king when holding the yearly office called the kingship. On the tiling of this portico are images of baked earthenware, Theseus throwing Sciron into the sea and Day carrying away Cephalus, who they say was very beautiful and was ravished by Day, who was in love with him... A portico is built behind with pictures of the gods called the Twelve. On the wall opposite are painted Theseus, Democracy and Demos. The picture represents Theseus as the one who gave the Athenians political equality. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

night view of the Acropolis

“Near the statue of Demosthenes is a sanctuary of Ares, where are placed two images of Aphrodite, one of Ares made by Alcamenes, and one of Athena made by a Parian of the name of Locrus. There is also an image of Enyo, made by the sons of Praxiteles. About the temple stand images of Heracles, Theseus, Apollo binding his hair with a fillet, and statues of Calades,1 who it is said framed laws 2 for the Athenians, and of Pindar, the statue being one of the rewards the Athenians gave him for praising them in an ode. Hard by stand statues of Harmodius and Aristogiton, who killed Hipparchus. The reason of this act and the method of its execution have been related by others; of the figures some were made by Critius2, the old ones being the work of Antenor. When Xerxes took Athens after the Athenians had abandoned the city he took away these statues also among the spoils, but they were afterwards restored to the Athenians by Antiochus.

“When you have entered the Odeum [Music Hall] at Athens you meet, among other objects, a figure of Dionysus worth seeing. Hard by is a spring called Enneacrunos (Nine Jets), embellished as you see it by Peisistratus. There are cisterns all over the city, but this is the only fountain. Above the spring are two temples, one to Demeter and the Maid, while in that of Triptolemus is a statue of him.

“Above the Cerameicus and the portico called the King's Portico is a temple of Hephaestus. I was not surprised that by it stands a statue of Athena, be cause I knew the story about Erichthonius. But when I saw that the statue of Athena had blue eyes I found out that the legend about them is Libyan. For the Libyans have a saying that the Goddess is the daughter of Poseidon and Lake Tritonis, and for this reason has blue eyes like Poseidon. Hard by is a sanctuary of the Heavenly Aphrodite; the first men to establish her cult were the Assyrians, after the Assyrians the Paphians of Cyprus and the Phoenicians who live at Ascalon in Palestine; the Phoenicians taught her worship to the people of Cythera. Among the Athenians the cult was established by Aegeus, who thought that he was childless (he had, in fact, no children at the time) and that his sisters had suffered their misfortune because of the wrath of Heavenly Aphrodite. The statue still extant is of Parian marble and is the work of Pheidias. One of the Athenian parishes is that of the Athmoneis, who say that Porphyrion, an earlier king than Actaeus, founded their sanctuary of the Heavenly One. But the traditions current among the Parishes often differ altogether from those of the city.

“As you go to the portico which they call painted, because of its pictures, there is a bronze statue of Hermes of the Market-place, and near it a gate. On it is a trophy erected by the Athenians, who in a cavalry action overcame Pleistarchus, to whose command his brother Cassander had entrusted his cavalry and mercenaries. This portico contains, first, the Athenians arrayed against the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) at Oenoe in the Argive territory.1 What is depicted is not the crisis of the battle nor when the action had advanced as far as the display of deeds of valor, but the beginning of the fight when the combatants were about to close. On the middle wall are the Athenians and Theseus fighting with the Amazons.”

Temple of Zeus in Athens

Zeus temple in Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “Before the entrance to the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus” is “the statue, one worth seeing, which in size exceeds all other statues save the colossi at Rhodes and Rome, and is made of ivory and gold with an artistic skill which is remarkable when the size is taken into account...Before the pillars stand bronze statues which the Athenians call "colonies." The whole circumference of the precincts is about four stades, and they are full of statues” from “every city... and the Athenians have surpassed them in dedicating, behind the temple, the remarkable colossus. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

Within the precincts are antiquities: a bronze Zeus, a temple of Cronus and Rhea and an enclosure of Earth surnamed Olympian. Here the floor opens to the width of a cubit, and they say that along this bed flowed off the water after the deluge that occurred in the time of Deucalion, and into it they cast every year wheat meal mixed with honey. On a pillar is a statue of Isocrates, whose memory is remarkable for three things: his diligence in continuing to teach to the end of his ninety-eight years, his self-restraint in keeping aloof from politics and from interfering with public affairs, and his love of liberty in dying a voluntary death, distressed at the news of the battle at Chaeronea1. There are also statues in Phrygian marble of Persians supporting a bronze tripod; both the figures and the tripod are worth seeing. The ancient sanctuary of Olympian Zeus the Athenians say was built by Deucalion, and they cite as evidence that Deucalion lived at Athens a grave which is not far from the present temple.

“Close to the temple of Olympian Zeus is a statue of the Pythian Apollo. There is further a sanctuary of Apollo surnamed Delphinius. The story has it that when the temple was finished with the exception of the roof Theseus arrived in the city, a stranger as yet to everybody. When he came to the temple of the Delphinian, wearing a tunic that reached to his feet and with his hair neatly plaited, those who were building the roof mockingly inquired what a marriageable virgin was doing wandering about by herself. The only answer that Theseus made was to loose, it is said, the oxen from the cart hard by, and to throw them higher than the roof of the temple they were building.

“Concerning the district called The Gardens, and the temple of Aphrodite, there is no story that is told by them, nor yet about the Aphrodite which stands near the temple. Now the shape of it is square, like that of the Hermae, and the inscription declares that the Heavenly Aphrodite is the oldest of those called Fates. But the statue of Aphrodite in the Gardens is the work of Alcamenes, and one of the most note worthy things in Athens. There is also the place called Cynosarges, sacred to Heracles; the story of the white dog1 may be known by reading the oracle. There are altars of Heracles and Hebe, who they think is the daughter of Zeus and wife to Heracles. An altar has been built to Alcmena and to Iolaus, who shared with Heracles most of his labours. The Lyceum has its name from Lycus, the son of Pandion, but it was considered sacred to Apollo from the be ginning down to my time, and here was the god first named Lyceus.”



From the Acropolis , it is easy to see why this abrupt steep-sided rock was chosen as the first citadel of ancient Athens: it is a superb natural defensive site. Once fortified, it was virtually impregnable, although defenders were hampered by the lack of water on the Acropolis . Still, the Acropolis was a fitting home for the virgin warrior goddess, Athena. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

Many of the temples built on the Acropolis were shrines to Athena, as is the Parthenon which remains today. Its predecessor, the massive Hekatompedon of Peisistratus, was located slightly to the north of the Parthenon, beside the present Erechtheion. The Hekatompedon (also known as the "Old Temple of Athena"), was burnt in the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C. Its foundations remain on the Acropolis , and are the only remnants of the buildings which were on the Acropolis before the Persians sacked the city. Parts of the temple were built into the north wall of the Acropolis , where some of the massive column drums may still be seen.

However grand the buildings with which Peisistratos adorned the Acropolis , they did not survive the Persian onslaught. Fortunately, many of the buildings erected by Pericles a half century later have survived, and it is the Periclean Acropolis which we visit today. Of these buildings, the most famous is the Parthenon (447-32 B.C.), flanked by the temple of Athena Nike (427-24 B.C.) and the Erechtheion (421-06 B.C.). In addition, Pericles was responsible for the building of the Propylaia (437-32 B.C.), the monumental entrance way to the Acropolis .

Monuments of the Acropolis

According to UNESCO: “The Acropolis of Athens and its monuments are universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilization and form the greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek Antiquity to the world. In the second half of the fifth century B.C. Athens, following the victory against the Persians and the establishment of democracy, took a leading position amongst the other city-states of the ancient world. In the age that followed, as thought and art flourished, an exceptional group of artists put into effect the ambitious plans of Athenian statesman Pericles and, under the inspired guidance of the sculptor Pheidias, transformed the rocky hill into a unique monument of thought and the arts. The most important monuments were built during that time: the Parthenon, built by Ictinus, the Erechtheon, the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, designed by Mnesicles and the small temple Athena Nike. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The Acropolis of Athens is the most striking and complete ancient Greek monumental complex still existing in our times. It is situated on a hill of average height (156m) that rises in the basin of Athens. Its overall dimensions are approximately 170 by 350m. The hill is rocky and steep on all sides except for the western side, and has an extensive, nearly flat top. Strong fortification walls have surrounded the summit of the Acropolis for more than 3,300 years. The first fortification wall was built during the 13th century B.C. and surrounded the residence of the local Mycenaean ruler. In the 8th century B.C. the Acropolis gradually acquired a religious character with the establishment of the cult of Athena, the city’s patron goddess. The sanctuary reached its peak in the archaic period (mid-6th century to early 5th century B.C.). In the 5th century B.C. the Athenians, empowered from their victory over the Persians, carried out an ambitious building programme under the leadership of the great statesman Perikles, comprising a large number of monuments including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia and the temple of Athena Nike.

The monuments were developed by an exceptional group of architects (such as Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnesikles) and sculptors (such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, Agorakritos), who transformed the rocky hill into a unique complex, which heralded the emergence of classical Greek thought and art. On this hill were born Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre, Freedom of Expression and Speech, which provide to this day the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values. The Acropolis’ monuments, having survived for almost twenty-five centuries through wars, explosions, bombardments, fires, earthquakes, sackings, interventions and alterations, have adapted to different uses and the civilizations, myths and religions that flourished in Greece through time.”

Acropolis model

Why the Acropolis Is So Special

According to UNESCO: “The Athenian Acropolis is the supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site. This grand composition of perfectly balanced massive structures creates a monumental landscape of unique beauty, consisting of a complete series of architectural masterpieces of the 5th century B.C.: the Parthenon by Iktinos and Kallikrates with the collaboration of the sculptor Pheidias (447-432); the Propylaia by Mnesikles (437-432); the Temple of Athena Nike by Mnesikles and Kallikrates (427-424); and Erechtheion (421-406). [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The monuments of the Athenian Acropolis have exerted an exceptional influence, not only in Greco-Roman antiquity, during which they were considered exemplary models, but also in contemporary times. Throughout the world, Neo-Classical monuments have been inspired by all the Acropolis monuments. =

“From myth to institutionalized cult, the Athenian Acropolis, by its precision and diversity, bears a unique testimony to the religions of ancient Greece. It is the sacred temple from which sprung fundamental legends about the city. Beginning in the 6th century B.C. myths and beliefs gave rise to temples, altars and votives corresponding to an extreme diversity of cults, which have brought us the Athenian religion in all its richness and complexity. Athena was venerated as the goddess of the city (Athena Polias); as the goddess of war (Athena Promachos); as the goddess of victory (Athena Nike); as the protective goddess of crafts (Athena Ergane), etc. Most of her identities are glorified at the main temple dedicated to her, the Parthenon, the temple of the patron-goddess. =

“The Athenian Acropolis is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble illustrating significant historical phases since the 16th century B.C. . Firstly, it was the Mycenaean Acropolis (Late Helladic civilization, 1600-1100 B.C.) which included the royal residence and was protected by the characteristic Mycenaean fortification. The monuments of the Acropolis are distinctly unique structures that evoke the ideals of the Classical 5th century B.C. and represent the apex of ancient Greek architectural development. =

“The Acropolis is directly and tangibly associated with events and ideas that have never faded over the course of history. Its monuments are still living testimonies of the achievements of Classical Greek politicians (e.g. Themistokles, Perikles) who lead the city to the establishment of Democracy; the thought of Athenian philosophers (e.g. Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes);and the works of architects (e.g. Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnesikles) and artists (e.g. Pheidias, Agorakritus, Alkamenes). These monuments are the testimony of a precious part of the cultural heritage of humanity. =


Propylaia in the 1870s

As one toils up the slopes of the Acropolis, one is aware of the mighty presence of the Propylaia, designed by the famous architect Mnesicles. The Propylaia sits on uneven terrain, on a wedge-shaped bit of the rock, whose anomalies governed the irregularities of the building itself. The terrain may have defeated the project, which was never completed. In essence, the Propylaia has a central hall flanked by two wings, one of which contained the famous Pinakotheke (Picture Gallery), with many pictures by the legendary Polygnotos. As we knew from Pausanias, the pictures were both of legendary figures such as Perseus and of historical personages Alcibiades. "Among the paintings is Alcibiades; there are symbols in the painting of his victory in the horse-race at Nemea. Perseus is on his way to Seriphos, bringing Medusa's head..." [Source: Internet Archive, from]

To the right of the entrance is the little Ionic temple of Athena Nike (Victorious Athena). In Mycenaean times, there was evidently a small shrine here, and Peisistratos constructed a more substantial altar, destroyed in the Persian conflagration of 480 B.C. The Periclean temple stood until it was destroyed by the Turks in 1686; happily, it was reconstructed and restored first in the 19th, and then again in the 20th centuries. The sculptural frieze of the temple, in a departure from tradition, showed not the contests of the gods, but scenes from the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.), in which the Greeks decisively defeated the Persians.

Some say that it was from this spot that Aegeus kept watch for his son Perseus, when he returned from Crete, after slaying the Minotaur. Others, however, believe that Aegeus kept watch from Cape Sounion, and threw himself into the sea from that cliff. Be that as it may, if the nefos is not too enveloping, one has a spectacular view across the Bay of Phaleron and the Saronic Gulf toward the mountains of the Peloponnese.

Acropolis Area in the A.D. 2nd Century

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “After the sanctuary of Asclepius, as you go by this way towards the Acropolis, there is a temple of Themis. Before it is raised a sepulchral mound to Hippolytus. The end of his life, they say, came from curses. Everybody, even a foreigner who has learnt Greek, knows about the love of Phaedra and the wickedness the nurse dared commit to serve her. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

Athens Agora

“All the Acropolis is surrounded by a wall; a part was constructed by Cimon, son of Miltiades, but all the rest is said to have been built round it by the Pelasgians, who once lived under the Acropolis. The builders, they say, were Agrolas and Hyperbius. On inquiring who they were I could discover nothing except that they were Sicilians originally who emigrated to Acarnania.

“In addition to the works I have mentioned, there are two tithes dedicated by the Athenians after wars. There is first a bronze Athena, tithe from the Persians who landed at Marathon. It is the work of Pheidias, but the reliefs upon the shield, including the fight between Centaurs and Lapithae, are said to be from the chisel of Mys1, for whom they say Parrhasius the son of Evenor, designed this and the rest of his works. The point of the spear of this Athena and the crest of her helmet are visible to those sailing to Athens, as soon as Sunium is passed. Then there is a bronze chariot, tithe from the Boeotians and the Chalcidians in Euboea.There are two other offerings, a statue of Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, and the best worth seeing of the works of Pheidias, the statue of Athena called Lemnian after those who dedicated it.

Athens Agora (Marketplace)

The ancient agora (market) of Athens was located just below the Parthenon on the north side of the Acropolis. It was where people shopped, voted, socialized and discussed the issues of the day. The comic poet Eubulus wrote: "You will find everything sold together in the same place at Athens: figs, witnesses to summons, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, meddlers, porridge, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, bee-sting-puddings, myrtle, allotment machines, irises, lambs, water clocks, laws, indictments."

Located between ancient Athen's main gates and the Acropolis, it was filled with workshops, markets, and law courts and was huge area, covering about 30 acres. On work days, vendors set up shop in wicker stalls. There were areas for moneychangers, fishmongers, perfumeries, and slave traders. Visitors today still find hobnails and bone eyelets in an ancient cobbler' shop. Laid out today like a park, and littered with thousands of pieces of columns and building, the Agora was ancient Athens' administrative center and main marketplace and gathering place.

Socrates likes to hang out the agora in Athens. Xenophon wrote that his former teacher "was always on public view; from early in the morning he used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people." Socrates used to address his followers in the Agora. While on trial for insulting the gods, he was kept in the prison annex outside the angora. Plato, Pericles, Thucydides and Aristophenes all spent a lot of time in the agora. Citizens who avoided military service, showed cowardice in battle and mistreated their parents were forbidden from entering the Angora.

Buildings in Athens Agora

Around the agora were courts, assembly halls, military headquarters, the mint, keepers of weights and measurements, commercial buildings, a racetrack and shrines. On a hill behind the agora are the remains of the columned halls of the Hephaisteion (449 B.C, a temple dedicated to Hephaisteion), the best preserved Doric Temple in Greece. It contains friezes of Theseus battling the Minotaur, the labors of Hercules and the battle of the Centaurs.

Below the Hephaisteion is the New Bouleuterion, where the 500-member Boule (Senate) met. Nearby is the Tholos, where the 50 members of the executive committee of the Boule met. In front of the Bouleuterion there were statues of the Eponymous Heroes (ten tribal namesakes chosen by the oracle of Delphi). This was a popular gathering spot.

Other building in and around the Agora included the Shop of Simon the Cobbler, the Stoa of Zeus (a covered colonnade and religious shrine for Zeus), the Royal Stoa, the Painted Stoa (contained beautiful wall paintings that were taken by the Romans and have since been lost), the Altar of the Twelve Gods, the Panathanaic Way (a diagonal street running uphill to the Acropolis and parade route during major festivals), Mints, Fountain House, South Stoa and a, Racetrack. Stoa of Attalus (159-138 B.C.) is completely restored two story building in the Agora, with internal and external rows of columns, that was formerly an arcade with 21 shops. The museum inside the Stoa Attalus contains a slotted marble slab with numbered balls used to select assembly members, a water clock that ensured that speeches did no exceed six minutes, thimble-size terra cotta vessels used by executioners to measure doses of hemlock, pottery shards that were used for secret votes to ostracize people (a 10 year banishment), part of an old ballot box used for the election of city officials and a bronze shield taken from the defeated Spartans.

Athenian citizen used to line the promenade of the Stoa of Attalos in the Agora to watch the Panatheenaic procession in which a huge dress was hauled up to the Acropolis as an offering to Athena. Near the Parthenon was a 30-foot-high bronze statue of Athena Promachos, the Warrior, whose metal glistened so brightly it was said it could be seen by ships approaching Athens.

Acropolis in the A.D. 2nd Century

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “There is but one entry to the Acropolis. It affords no other, being precipitous throughout and having a strong wall. The gateway has a roof of white marble, and down to the present day it is unrivalled for the beauty and size of its stones. Now as to the statues of the horsemen, I cannot tell for certain whether they are the sons of Xenophon or whether they were made merely to beautify the place. On the right of the gateway is a temple of Wingless Victory. From this point the sea is visible, and here it was that, according to legend, Aegeus threw him self down to his death. For the ship that carried the young people to Crete began her voyage with black sails; but Theseus, who was sailing on an adventure against the bull of Minos, as it is called, had told his father beforehand that he would use white sails if he should sail back victorious over the bull. But the loss of Ariadne made him forget the signal. Then Aegeus, when from this eminence he saw the vessel borne by black sails, thinking that his son was dead, threw himself down to destruction. There is at Athens a sanctuary dedicated to him, and called the hero-shrine of Aegeus. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“On the left of the gateway is a building with pictures. Among those not effaced by time I found Diomedes taking the Athena from Troy, and Odysseus in Lemnos taking away the bow of Philoctetes. There in the pictures is Orestes killing Aegisthus, and Pylades killing the sons of Nauplius who had come to bring Aegisthus succor. And there is Polyxena about to be sacrificed near the grave of Achilles... There are other pictures, including a portrait of Alcibiades, and in the picture are emblems of the victory his horses won at Nemea. There is also Perseus journeying to Seriphos, and carrying to Polydectes the head of Medusa, the legend about whom I am unwilling to relate in my description of Attica. Included among the paintings — I omit the boy carrying the water-jars and the wrestler of Timaenetus1 — is Musaeus. Right at the very entrance to the Acropolis are a Hermes (called Hermes of the Gateway) and figures of Graces, which tradition says were sculptured by Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, who the Pythia testified was the wisest of men, a title she refused to Anacharsis, although he desired it and came to Delphi to win it.

Acropolis: 1 Parthenon 2 Old Temple of Athena 3 Erechtheum 4 Statue of Athena Promachus 5 Propylaea 6 Temple of Athena Nike 8 Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia 9 Chalkotheke. 10 Pandroseion 11 Arrephorion 12 Altar of Athena 13 Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus 14 Sanctuary of Pandion 15 Odeon of Herodes Atticus 16 Stoa of Eumenes 17 Sanctuary of Asclepius 18 Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus 19 Odeum of Pericles 20 Temenos of Dionysus Eleuthereus 21 Aglaureion 22 Peripatos 23 Clepshydra 24 Caves of Apollo Hypocraisus, Olympian Zeus and Pan 25 Sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros 26 Peripatos inscription 27 Cave of Aglauros 28 Panathenaic way

“Hard by is a bronze statue of Diitrephes shot through by arrows...I remember looking at other things also on the Athenian Acropolis, a bronze boy holding the sprinkler, by Lycius son of Myron, and Myron's Perseus after beheading Medusa. There is also a sanctuary of Brauronian Artemis; the image is the work of Praxiteles, but the goddess derives her name from the parish of Brauron. The old wooden image is in Brauron, the Tauric Artemis as she is called. There is the horse called Wooden set up in bronze. That the work of Epeius was a contrivance to make a breach in the Trojan wall is known to everybody who does not attribute utter silliness to the Phrygians. But legend says of that horse that it contained the most valiant of the Greeks, and the design of the bronze figure fits in well with this story. Menestheus and Teucer are peeping out of it, and so are the sons of Theseus. Of the statues that stand after the horse, the likeness of Epicharinus who practised the race in armour was made by Critius, while Oenobius performed a kind service for Thucydides the son of Olorus.1 He succeeded in getting a decree passed for the return of Thucydides to Athens, who was treacherously murdered as he was returning, and there is a monument to him not far from the Melitid gate.

“In this place is a statue of Athena striking Marsyas the Silenus for taking up the flutes that the goddess wished to be cast away for good. Opposite these I have mentioned is represented the fight which legend says Theseus fought with the so-called Bull of Minos, whether this was a man or a beast of the nature he is said to have been in the accepted story. For even in our time women have given birth to far more extraordinary monsters than this. There is also a statue of Phrixus the son of Athamas carried ashore to the Colchians by the ram. Having sacrificed the animal to some god or other, presumably to the one called by the Orchomenians Laphystius, he has cut out the thighs in accordance with Greek custom and is watching them as they burn. Next come other statues, including one of Heracles strangling the serpents as the legend describes. There is Athena too coming up out of the head of Zeus, and also a bull dedicated by the Council of the Areopagus on some occasion or other, about which, if one cared, one could make many conjectures.

“On the Athenian Acropolis is a statue of Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, and one of Xanthippus him self, who fought against the Persians at the naval battle of Mycale. But that of Pericles stands apart, while near Xanthippus stands Anacreon of Teos, the first poet after Sappho of Lesbos to devote himself to love songs, and his posture is as it were that of a man singing when he is drunk. Deinomenes made the two female figures which stand near, Io, the daughter of Inachus, and Callisto, the daughter of Lycaon, of both of whom exactly the same story is told, to wit, love of Zeus, wrath of Hera, and metamorphosis, Io becoming a cow and Callisto a bear.“


Once up on the Acropolis , most will be drawn irrestibly to the Parthenon, the greatest monument of Doric architecture in all Greece. The temple, designed by the architect Iktinos, held the monumental gold and ivory (chryselephantine) statue of Athena designed by the sculptor-architect Pheidias. The name, "Parthenon", refers to the room where the virgin goddess Athena (Athena Parthenos), had her statue. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

Parthenon reconstruction

The Parthenon is of Pentelic marble, of a purity of texture and color which astonishes all visitors. Along with a handful of monuments (the Taj Mahal, Saint Mark's in Venice), the Parthenon is familiar from countless photographs long before one actually sees it. Consequently, almost every visitor is oppressed by a secret fear: can the Parthenon possibly be as beautiful as one expects? Happily, the answer, despite the ravages of time, is yes. No photographs and no descriptions can prepare one for the unique golden glow of the Parthenon's columns.

The Parthenon has an exterior colonnade of eight Doric columns at each end, and seventeen Doric columns along each side. Each of these columns bulges slightly in the middle, a device which pre vents the massive columns from seeing lifeless and overly regular. In addition, this swelling (known in Creek as "entasis") corrected the optical illusion whereby perfectly straight columns appear to be slightly concave.

Within the temple itself were two chambers, one in which the statue of Athena Parthenos stood, and one which housed the temple treasury. Visitors to the Parthenon today, disappointed not to be allowed inside, should take some comfort from the fact that most Athenians in antiquity never were permitted inside the temple. Only priests ever entered the treasury, and the statue itself was viewed only rarely. One of those who saw the statue was Pausanias, who describe the Athena as standing "upright in an ankle length tunic with a head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast. She has a Victory about eight feet high, and a spear in her hand and a shield at her feet, and a snake beside the shield; this snake might be Erichthonios."

Parthenon Adornments

The temple itself was adorned with sculpture, of a quality never before, and never since, equaled. The metopes (rectangular panels above the columns) were sculptured with scenes from the Trojan War, and from the Battles of the Athenians and Amazons, the Lapiths and Centaurs, and the Gods and Giants. In addition, a sculptured frieze above the temple walls depicted the great Panathenaic procession. In this annual celebration, Athenian youths and maidens accompanied the new robe for Athena's statue from Eleusis to the Acropolis itself. The young men on horseback, the maidens, the sacrificial oxeri, and the gods themselves all were depicted, and may be seen today - but not in Athens. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

The sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, are on view in London at the British Museum. A few carvings remain in place on the Parthenon, and some fragments are on view in the Acropolis Museum.In addition, the Parthenon had monumental sculpture in both pediments. As Pausanias concisely put it, "As you go into the temple called the Parthenon, everything on the pediment has to do with the birth of Athena; the far side shows Poseidon quarrelling with Athena over the country." As we know, Athena won this contest by producing the first olive tree, and the Athenians did not stint in honoring her with Greece's finest temple. However, the Athenians were always practical: the gold regalia which clad the great statue was designed so that it could be removed for safekeeping. The Athenians had learned what could happen to their sacred sites in the Persian sack of the Acropolis of 480 B.C.

North of the Parthenon is one of the loveliest of all ancient monuments, the delicate Erechtheion, thought to have been built on the very spot where Athena and Poseidon had their contest for possession of Athens. Indeed, some said that the marks of Poseidon's trident were clearly visible in the rock; be that as it may, for some years it has been traditional for an olive tree to grow near the Erechtheion. Alas, visitors today will see the exquisite temple through a screen of scaffolding. Like many of the monuments on the Acropolis , the Erechtheion is feeling the effects of time and urban pollution, and its elegant columns the Caryatid Maidens, have had to be removed (and replaced with copies) for safekeeping.

Elgin Marbles from the east pediment of the Parthenon

Like the monumental Propylaea, the Erechtheum had to overcome irregularities of terrain, and its south and east walls stand some 9 feet above its north and west walls. Although the Porch of the Caryatids is the more famous, the North Porch, with its elegant carved architectural ornament, is perhaps the more deserving of praise. Within the temple was both an ancient wooden idol (a "xoanon") and an olive wood statue of Athena Polias (Athena of the City). Like the great statue of Athena in the Parthenon, this statue also received a new robe in the Panathenaic festival.

Today's visitor to the Acropolis gains but a fragmentary impression of its original splendor. One should keep in mind that the temples were brightly painted, and adorned with great bronze rosettes. The honey-hue of the Parthenon was hidden in antiquity; each visitor will have to decide whether he is disappointed, or relieved, not to have seen the Parthenon and its neighboring temples bedecked with color.

Beyond the Parthenon is the Belvedere of Queen Amalia, Otho's young bride, who loved to stand here and look out over the new capital of the Kingdom of Greece. One can see why: especially at dawn, when the sounds of the city are stilled, the view of the tile roofs of the Plaka is magical. Beyond sprawls Athens, framed by its mountain ranges, which gave so much marble to the monuments of the Acropolis .

Temple of Athena – the Parthenon — in the A.D. 2nd Century

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx — the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia — and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief.[1.24.6] These griffins, Aristeas1 of Proconnesus says in his poem, fight for the gold with the Arimaspi beyond the Issedones. The gold which the griffins guard, he says, comes out of the earth; the Arimaspi are men all born with one eye; griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle. I will say no more about the griffins. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind. The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates,1 who accomplished many remarkable achievements.

“Opposite the temple is a bronze Apollo, said to be the work of Pheidias. They call it the Locust God, because once when locusts were devastating the land the god said that he would drive them from Attica. That he did drive them away they know, but they do not say how. I myself know that locusts have been destroyed three times in the past on Mount Sipylus, and not in the same way. Once a gale arose and swept them away; on another occasion violent heat came on after rain and destroyed them; the third time sudden cold caught them and they died. Such were the fates I saw befall the locusts.

“By the south wall are represented the legendary war with the giants, who once dwelt about Thrace and on the isthmus of Pallene, the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons, the engagement with the Persians at Marathon and the destruction of the Gauls in Mysia. Each is about two cubits, and all were dedicated by Attalus. There stands too Olympiodorus, who won fame for the greatness of his achievements, especially in the crisis when he displayed a brave confidence among men who had met with continuous reverses, and were therefore in despair of winning a single success in the days to come.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema "Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends" (1868)

“Near the statue of Olympiodorus stands a bronze image of Artemis surnamed Leucophryne, dedicated by the sons of Themistocles; for the Magnesians, whose city the King had given him to rule, hold Artemis Leucophryne in honor.But my narrative must not loiter, as my task is a general description of all Greece. Endoeus1 was an Athenian by birth and a pupil of Daedalus, who also, when Daedalus was in exile because of the death of Calos, followed him to Crete. Made by him is a statue of Athena seated, with an inscription that Callias dedicated the image, but Endoeus made it. There is also a building called the Erechtheum. Before the entrance is an altar of Zeus the Most High, on which they never sacrifice a living creature but offer cakes, not being wont to use any wine either. Inside the entrance are altars, one to Poseidon, on which in obedience to an oracle they sacrifice also to Erechtheus, the second to the hero Butes, and the third to Hephaestus. On the walls are paintings representing members of the clan Butadae; there is also inside — the building is double — sea-water in a cistern. This is no great marvel, for other inland regions have similar wells, in particular Aphrodisias in Caria. But this cistern is remarkable for the noise of waves it sends forth when a south wind blows. On the rock is the outline of a trident. Legend says that these appeared as evidence in support of Poseidon's claim to the land.

“Both the city and the whole of the land are alike sacred to Athena; for even those who in their parishes have an established worship of other gods nevertheless hold Athena in honor. But the most holy symbol, that was so considered by all many years before the unification of the parishes, is the image of Athena which is on what is now called the Acropolis, but in early days the Polis (City). A legend concerning it says that it fell from heaven; whether this is true or not I shall not discuss. A golden lamp for the goddess was made by Callimachus. Having filled the lamp with oil, they wait until the same day next year, and the oil is sufficient for the lamp during the interval, although it is alight both day and night. The wick in it is of Carpasian flax,1 the only kind of flax which is fire-proof, and a bronze palm above the lamp reaches to the roof and draws off the smoke. The Callimachus who made the lamp, although not of the first rank of artists, was yet of unparalleled cleverness, so that he was the first to drill holes through stones, and gave himself the title of Refiner of Art, or perhaps others gave the title and he adopted it as his.

“In the temple of Athena Polias (Of the City) is a wooden Hermes, said to have been dedicated by Cecrops, but not visible because of myrtle boughs. The votive offerings worth noting are, of the old ones, a folding chair made by Daedalus, Persian spoils, namely the breastplate of Masistius, who commanded the cavalry at Plataea1, and a scimitar said to have belonged to Mardonius. Now Masistius I know was killed by the Athenian cavalry. But Mardonius was opposed by the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and was killed by a Spartan; so the Athenians could not have taken the scimitar to begin with, and furthermore the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) would scarcely have suffered them to carry it off. About the olive they have nothing to say except that it was testimony the goddess produced when she contended for their land. Legend also says that when the Persians fired Athens the olive was burnt down, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.Adjoining the temple of Athena is the temple of Pandrosus, the only one of the sisters to be faithful to the trust. I was much amazed at something which is not generally known, and so I will describe the circumstances. Two maidens dwell not far from the temple of Athena Polias, called by the Athenians Bearers of the Sacred Offerings. For a time they live with the goddess, but when the festival comes round they perform at night the following rites. Having placed on their heads what the priestess of Athena gives them to carry — neither she who gives nor they who carry have any knowledge what it is — the maidens descend by the natural underground passage that goes across the adjacent precincts, within the city, of Aphrodite in the Gardens. They leave down below what they carry and receive something else which they bring back covered up. These maidens they henceforth let go free, and take up to the Acropolis others in their place. By the temple of Athena is .... an old woman about a cubit high, the inscription calling her a handmaid of Lysimache, and large bronze figures of men facing each other for a fight, one of whom they call Erechtheus, the other Eumolpus; and yet those Athenians who are acquainted with antiquity must surely know that this victim of Erechtheus was Immaradus, the son of Eumolpus. On the pedestal are also statues of Theaenetus, who was seer to Tolmides, and of Tolmides himself, who when in command of the Athenian fleet inflicted severe damage upon the enemy, especially upon the Peloponnesians.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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