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Introduction

Today the crowds that visit the Acropolis, after having passed through the Propylaia, trample upon the ruins of a temple without any suspicion that they are in a place of particular significance, noticing only the Erechtheion to the left and the Parthenon to the right. But this very fact indicates that in the plan of the Acropolis as conceived by Pericles these ruins occupied a central position. When the Acropolis was rebuilt in the second half of the fifth century B.C., in the wake of Athens’ final victory over the Persians, the Propylaia were given a new orientation in order to direct attention to these ruins. Those who ascended the Acropolis, after having passed through Pericles’ Propylaia, had their view and way barred by the wall that supported the Terrace with the ruins of the Old Temple of Athena. This temple had been sacked, burned and wrecked by the Persians when in 480 B.C. the Athenians, for the sake of the national resistance to the barbarian invaders, made the extreme sacrifice of abandoning their homes and temples to the enemy. The ruins of this temple were the monument of Athens’ greatest claim to glory, a claim that was used to justify Athens’ assumption of the leadership of the Greek world and further to justify the transformation of this leadership into imperial domination. The Athenians wanted to bare their wounds, wounds that were proffered as the main rationale for Athenian policy in the fifth century B.C. Because the Athenians did not want to obliterate the memorial of the Persian invasion, the temple that was intended to replace the destroyed temple, the one popularly called the Parthenon, was not erected on top of the old one, as might have been expected, but to the south of it.

The ruins were given further emphasis by placing against their supporting Terrace and on the axis of the Propylaia a bronze statue of Athena, known as Athena Promachos, that reached the colossal height of about thirty meters. Since it was erected when the construction of the Parthenon was beginning, it follows that statue and temple were part of a single conception. The ancient visitors to Pericles’ Acropolis, after having been properly impressed by this towering statue, directly on the axis of the new Propylaia, had to continue their way by turning to the right and passing between the long side of the ruins of the Old Temple and the long side of the Parthenon.

The route taken by the ancient visitors was substantially the course of the Sacred Way, designed for Athens’ greatest ceremony, the Panathenaic Procession. After having formed outside the main gate of the city on the bank of the river Eridanos, which represented the westernmost limit of the world, the procession reached the end of its trek by passing between the ruins of the Temple of Athena that had been destroyed by the enemy and the Temple of Athena that had been erected as a piously necessary replacement for it. Upon reaching the top of the hill, the procession reached its final goal by turning to the right to encounter the image of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon. In earlier times, before the destruction of the Old Temple, the procession had passed through the earlier Propylaia in a more northerly direction and, after ascending the Terrace, continued along the northern flank of the Old Temple, before turning right to reach the image of Athena Polias inside this temple. It is remarkable that the altar of Athena, as far as we are able to establish, continued to be in front of the ruins of the Old Temple. If the modern visitors to the Acropolis were forced to follow the Sacred Way, instead of swarming like a mob of barbarians over the ruins of the Old Temple, not only would they be taught the proper respect for the views and feelings of the ancient Athenians, but also would be led to grasp the esthetic organization of Pericles’ Acropolis as a whole.

The modern visitors cannot be blamed if they look at the Acropolis without any sense of its religious and intellectual significance, because this is the way in which it has been seen by archaeologists. The present conception of ancient studies manifests itself most clearly in the way the Acropolis is seen by scholars: it is seen as a living room full of bric-a-brac displayed for its supposed antiquarian, sentimental or decorative value in order to enhance the prestige of its owner. Not one scholar has even tried to see the Acropolis as an organic structure.1 But if we consider with unprejudiced eyes the spatial organization of the Acropolis, it becomes clear that the heart of the Acropolis is the Terrace of the Old Temple.

In the Mycenaean Age, even before the Acropolis became a citadel by the construction of a defense wall around it, its most important structure was a terrace which with slight modifications became the Terrace of the Old Temple. Archaeological investigations have revealed that the Terrace of the Old Temple is the oldest known substantial construction on the Acropolis; it dates from the very close of the Bronze Age, presumably about 1300 B.C.2 At that time the Acropolis was not fortified. Access to the Terrace was gained by ascending the Acropolis from the north side and then stepping onto the Terrace by a staircase, oriented from north to south, which ended where there was later the east side (backside) of the rectangle of the altar.

At the close of the Mycenaean Age, presumably ca. 1000 B.C., the Acropolis was fortified by constructing a megalithic wall, the Pelasgic Wall, which extended the area of the Acropolis to the maximum allowed by the natural features of the ground. This wall followed an irregular curved course determined by the need to exploit the characteristics of the rock. The entrance was rotated ninety degrees to the west and was made to run between the supporting wall of the Terrace and the new line of fortification. The wall was similar in conception and in type of construction to the fortification wall of Tiryns. At this time the Acropolis became a place of refuge for the surrounding population in case of attack, whereas before it must have been merely a religious and political center.

Either at the time of the construction of the fortification wall or soon thereafter, the Acropolis was provided with a second gate, located at the southwest corner, where the ascent is more gentle. Today visitors ascend from this side. In order to protect this entrance which, for the same reason that it was more convenient was most dangerous in case of attack, there was constructed a bastion (pyrgos), extending to the west, which later became the support of the Temple of Athena Nike. The gate was just to the north of this bastion.

Practically nothing is known about the history of the Acropolis from the close of the Mycenaean Age to the Persian invasion of 480 B.C. As far as we know, the system of fortifications was still the original one at the time of the Persian invasion. The only modification was the opening of the fortification line in correspondence with the western gate.

The opening of the fortifications of the Acropolis was achieved by constructing a decorative entrance hall with columns, the propylaia, which replaced the fortified western gate. The foundations of these Propylaia have been found below the foundations of the much larger and more monumental Propylaia constructed later by Pericles. Apparently the Propylaia were erected by the early democracy, damaged by the Persians, repaired in some way after their withdrawal, and finally demolished when Pericles sponsored the construction of completely new Propylaia, designed by the architect Mnesicles (437-432 B.C.).

Whereas the later Propylaia of Pericles were oriented so as to face the western wall of the Terrace of the Old Temple, the first Propylaia were oriented about 30 degrees more to the north. This indicates that at the time the most important area of the Acropolis, after the Terrace, was that north of the Terrace, between the north wall of the Acropolis and the north wall of the Terrace. The pre-Persian Propylaia were oriented to what was then the most important area of the Acropolis and remained forever the most holy one, the side against the north wall. They were aimed exactly to a point just north of the present North Portico, where the olive of Athena grew inside the ancient Erechtheion. After the Persians reduced this temple to rubble and the olive tree to a smoldering stump, the Erechtheion was rebuilt so that its western wall came to form a backdrop for it, allowing visitors to admire its new shoots (Herodotos VIII.55). Earlier, there had been a road that went from the Propylaia to the olive tree, coasting the north side of the Terrace that supported the Old Temple of Athena. We may presume that within the original fortified Acropolis the main internal road went from the north gate to the west gate, passing along the north side of the Terrace. At the time of the construction of the first Propylaia there was a staircase of access to the Terrace from the north side.3 It was only after the withdrawal of the Persians, when the area of the Acropolis was extended to the south in preparation for the construction of the Parthenon, that the most important road within the Acropolis, that followed the Panathenaic Procession from the western gate to the altar, was made to skirt the south side of the Terrace. Let us remember that the Terrace of the Old Temple was still standing in the Periclean age, although at the middle of it there were only ruins. The Persians had razed the Old Temple to the ground, or almost to the ground.

There is an extreme conservatism in the history of the architectural arrangement of the Acropolis. When the Acropolis was built up in the Mycenaean Age, before it was surrounded by a fortified wall, the main structure was the wall that retained the Terrace which became later the Terrace of the Old Temple. This Terrace was still the main feature of the Acropolis when the Persians seized Athens in 480 B.C. At the time of the Persian invasion the circuit of the walls of the Acropolis was essentially what it had been at the end of the Mycenaean Age and the Temple of Athena was about at the center of it. This fortified wall remained substantially the defense line when the Persians stormed the Acropolis. When the Acropolis was rebuilt after the Persian destruction, the line of the walls was radically changed on the west by the construction of the Periclean Propylaia and on the south side by the erection of the Cimonian Wall, but on the north side it remained essentially what it had been in the Mycenaean Age. In the Periclean Acropolis the Terrace of the Old Temple was no longer the main element, but it remained the focal point around which all the rest was organized spatially.

This architectural conservatism of the Athenian Acropolis affects the matter that concerns us the most here. We shall see that the Old Temple of Athena shows characteristics that are unusual in a Greek temple, but are the result of the fact that this temple follows closely the internal organization and dimensions of a Mycenaean Royal Megaron. We shall see that the Periclean Parthenon was planned to follow many of the internal details and dimensions of the Old Temple, so that one must turn to Mycenaean architecture to explain some of the aspects of the Parthenon.

References

  1. The only exception is provided by an outsider, the famous expert of modern city planning Doxiadis, who as a Greek has tried to draw inspiration from the ancient monuments of his native country. He assumed that Greek holy places must have had an organic structure, but unfortunately he tried to find the solution in the principle of vision.
  2. Late Helladic III, presumably ca. 1300 B.C. The importance of the terrace of the Old Temple has been recognized in the study of the prehistory of the Acropolis by Spiridonos E. Iakovidis, He Mykenaike Akropolis ton Athenon (Athens, 1962).
  3. The present staircase to the north of the Erechtheion could be considered a reminder of the ancient north gate. However, the steps of the present staircase ascend from west to east, whereas those of the ancient gate ascended in the opposite direction.

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