The History of the Acropolis

Once a center for ancient Greek religious life, the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis is now one of Athens’ most famous historical sites. From celebrating festivals of the gods of old to housing royalty throughout the ages, the Acropolis has remained standing proudly above the city.

Even more exciting, you can see it in person. What makes this trip truly special is the ability to peek into the world of the ancient Greeks — and even further back to the civilizations that came before them. 

Let’s step back in time to visit the Acropolis of old and learn about how it’s evolved.

In This Article

What Is the Acropolis?

The Athenian Acropolis has served many purposes throughout the centuries, but it’s most well-known as an ancient religious site. Today, the Acropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist attraction. 

The word “acropolis” literally translates to “high city.” While the term can technically refer to any elevated stronghold in the country, the Acropolis of Athens is the most famous. 

Resting on top of the Attica plateau in Athens, the Acropolis consists of four hills:

Atop these hills are some of antiquity’s most magnificent structures, which have survived mostly intact. These buildings have left an outsize impact on Western architecture, inspiring many neoclassical designs such as those that were popular during the Renaissance.

Who Built the Acropolis?

Who Built the Acropolis?

Archaeological evidence suggests the ancient Mycenaeans were the first to begin building on the Acropolis in the late Bronze Age, around 1600 to 1100 B.C. While none of their original structures remain, historians believe they built a fortified stronghold for the local ruler and his family.

The Acropolis as we know it today was the result of an ambitious building plan by legendary statesman Pericles in the fifth century B.C. While the project initially faced criticism from other prominent Greek politicians who believed it was too extravagant, Pericles ended up going through with his project. 

Pericles commissioned three renowned artisans — architects Ictinus and Callicrates and sculptor Phidias — to help design and build the new Acropolis. These individuals built the four structures that you can visit today. 

Although the Acropolis faced many changes throughout the ages, much of its original glory has remained.

The Acropolis Through the Ages

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention calls the Acropolis an “outstanding example” of a site that has been present through significant periods of change. As a central hub for one of the oldest civilizations on earth, it’s an amazing monument to human history.

Here’s a brief overview of important moments in Acropolis history.

The Mycenaean Acropolis

Mycenae was a Bronze Age civilization that lived in Athens from around 1600 B.C. to 1100 B.C. According to myth, the legendary hero Perseus founded the city-state, enlisting cyclopes to build the fortifying wall around it.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the civilization’s elites occupied the Acropolis starting around 1600 B.C. At the center of their fortified city was the megaron, a central hall characteristic of Mycenaean palaces. 

Little is left of the original palace, which was located where the Erechtheion is now. However, historians believe this structure housed the local king and his household.

Although historians are unsure why, the Mycenaean civilization began declining around 1200 B.C. The ancient Greeks replaced them sometime around the eighth century B.C.

Archaic Greece: The Hekatompedon Temple

The archaic Greek civilization thrived from 800 to 499 B.C., constructing new buildings on the Acropolis and developing a strong tradition of art and culture.

At that time, the largest structure on the site was the Hekatompedon, or the Pre-Parthenon. This structure was a large limestone temple dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war.

One of the most prominent sculptures on the temple was a three-headed man-serpent. All three of the heads had brightly painted blue beards, which earned the building the nickname of “Bluebeard Temple.” This temple originally occupied the same space where the Parthenon stands today.

Other archaic structures that existed on the Acropolis include:

After the collapse of the Hekatompedon, the Athenians began building a new marble temple known only as the Old Parthenon. This structure — as well as everything else on the hill — was destroyed in the second Persian invasion.

The Athenian Golden Age

The Athenian Golden Age

Athens reached its cultural peak between 480-404 B.C. Under the rule of the Athenian statesman Pericles, the city-state transformed into the artistic and intellectual hotbed that would raise some of the most influential Western thinkers, including Socrates, Plato, Herodotus and Hippocrates.

The entire project took 50 years to complete and included the following structures, the remains of which are still standing today:

The ancient fortification wall, left by the Mycenaeans, still encircled the Acropolis at this time. It is still standing, though it has been restored multiple times throughout the ages.

Hellenistic and Roman Period

While little changed on the Acropolis after the Romans conquered Greece in 146 B.C., they did build a new minor temple dedicated to Rome and Caesar Augustus. This marble temple, constructed in 27 B.C., was a circular Ionic structure located next to the Parthenon. Only the foundations of the temple’s pillars remain.

After the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity in the fourth century A.D., many of Greece’s ancient temples were repurposed as Christian churches. That included the Parthenon, which was rededicated to the Virgin Mary in the sixth century A.D. Similarly, the Erechtheion served as a Christian chapel for much of the medieval period.

The Acropolis Today

Centuries later, people still flock to the Acropolis in droves — but not for the same reasons they once did. UNESCO designated the Acropolis as a World Heritage site in 1987, and it’s been a popular tourist site ever since.

That said, today’s Acropolis looks much different from Pericles’ original construction project. Throughout the generations, construction on the Acropolis never stopped. Each new occupying force remodeled or added to the ancient structures that were already there, repurposing the site for the world’s changing needs. 

Here are some examples of those post-Classical changes:

While these evolutions mean today’s Acropolis is quite different from its original appearance, its ancient roots are still unmistakable. 

Who Destroyed the Acropolis?

It’s tough to point to any specific group as the one that destroyed the Acropolis since the site experienced heavy damage from many attackers throughout its long history. Here are a few of the most notable incidents.

The Persian Wars: 499 to 449 B.C.

The Persian Wars: 499 to 449 B.C.

The Persian invasion of 480 B.C. left Athens in utter ruins. Led by Xerxes I, the invading troops ransacked the city, including the original temples on the Acropolis. 

After the attack, surviving Athenians conducted a religious ceremony where they buried the desecrated temple remains on the mountain. Interestingly, it was this ceremony that allowed future archaeologists to uncover these pieces centuries later.

The 1687 Siege of the Acropolis

The Ottoman Empire — based in what is now modern-day Turkey — occupied Greece from the mid-15th century to 1832. In the late 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was involved in a territorial war with the Republic of Venice. The Venetians first attacked the Propylaea, laying siege to the Acropolis.

Hoping the Venetians would not attack another historical monument, the Turks turned the Parthenon into a gunpowder arsenal. But they misunderstood their enemy. On September 26 of 1687, the Venetian army opened fire on the Parthenon, detonating the gunpowder at its center and reducing the cella’s walls to rubble. The blast also knocked out several of the Parthenon’s columns, utterly destroying a significant portion of the structure.

The Removal of the Elgin Marbles

One of the most controversial incidents to happen to the Acropolis happened in 1801, when Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, decided he was going to reproduce parts of the Parthenon for preservation purposes.

Elgin, then the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, claimed to have received permission from the occupying Turkish government to do more than simply copy the monument — he could remove whatever pieces he wanted. Some modern historians believe this claim to be a misinterpretation.

Elgin ended up removing a significant amount of pieces from the temple and brought them back to England with him. The collection, nicknamed the Elgin Marbles, includes:

He then sold this collection to the British Museum in 1832, where it remains to this day. To this day, the Greek government is negotiating with the British government to return the Marbles to their original homes.

Tips for Visiting the Acropolis

If learning the history of this amazing monument got you excited to see it in person, we’re here to help! Here are some of our top tips for making the most out of your trip to the Acropolis:

While you’re in the area, take some time to explore the city of Athens. Visit some of the local art and history museums, and sample some authentic Greek cuisine. Athens is a beautiful city with a rich history that you just have to experience for yourself.

Explore Ancient Greece on a Windstar Cruise

Explore Ancient Greece on a Windstar Cruise

Are you ready to explore the remains of one of the world’s most influential civilizations? We can take you there.

Indulge in authentic Greek cuisine, visit ancient historical sites and experience the beauty of the Mediterranean coast with us. Our small ship size means you can enjoy all the excitement of a world cruise without the crowds. Enjoy an intimate, relaxing experience with fascinating on-shore excursions and personalized attention from our ever-attentive crew.

Give us a call to speak with one of our knowledgeable vacation planners about our Greek and Mediterranean cruise options.