The Role Of The Parthenon Acropolis In Greek Society

Towards the end of the second millennium before Christ, the mass dislocations of people in the east Mediterranean destabilized the balance of strong states; the invasions from the northwest of the civilized Mycenaean and Hittite empires undermined the established orders, which had led to several centuries of cultural stagnation, or even regression. By the eighth century BC, there was a revival in the east, at the centre of which stood Greece. The Greeks embraced urbanism in the desire of going beyond the patriarchal and custom-bound tribal communities, and to live under controllable institutions of self-government and human parity. The rise of the ‘polis’, or individual city-states, was a typical community structure in the ancient Greek world that all citizens (although confined to male) have equal political rights based on the ownership of property. A polis consists of an urban centre that controls the surrounding territory. It was usually a fortified and sacred space built on a plateau, named Acropolis, which derived from the greek ‘akro’, meaning high, and ‘polis’, city. The presence of an appropriate natural fort inherited from the Mycenaean Palace in the Bronze Age was one of the essential prerequisites for the selection of Athens as a site on which to build for Greek settlers. Other important factors include the proximity of agricultural and pastoral productive territory sufficient for the maintenance and economic development of a sizeable population, as well as adequate land and sea connections for the expansion of commercial and other activities. The natural shape of the Attic basin favoured the concentration of wealth, the development of a considerable military force and the transmission of political control through a system of hereditary monarchy. The necessary governmental seat of this new state was a fortified plateau - the Acropolis. The radiant Greek spirit, along with the faith in individual freedom, human parity and civilized order, as expressed in architecture on the acropolis and especially the temple form, becomes the chief source of unity when the Greek Commonwealth in the eighth century started to forge a national identity.

The temples on the Acropolis, unlike its predecessor the Mycenaean Palace, were not exalted at the expense of others. These temples were intended for the exclusive use of gods, not as congregational halls for worshippers nor as centers of the community’s economic or social structure, and this intention had been carried forward into the urban phase of Greek history. The Greeks’ relation to divinity was to be an open act around monumental buildings - there was to be no powerful priestly class in charge of the temple and its rites, instead the citizens performed the priestly duties as part of the responsibility of citizenship, as each person was accountable for his own relation with the immortal protection of the city and its laws. A continuous frieze, running the length of the building along the top of the inner core behind the peristyle, showed, for the first time in Greek history, the citizens themselves on the temple. The frieze, 160 meters long and 1 meter high, started at the southeast corner of the Parthenon and progressed into two streams, along the west and north sides and along the south side, ending with a grand gathering of the gods on the east front of the temple’s inner core, is a material evidence that demonstrates civic involvement in cult practices. Carved in high relief, painted with color and decorated with metal accessories, it depicts every stage of the Panathenaic procession that had brought the citizens to the Acropolis: the preparations, the setting out, the gradual acceleration of pace, the horseman in the lower city, and those marching on foot. The citizens chose to portray themselves on the temple of the goddess in the act of doing homage to her - they are the human content of the polis, what the polis was made of, and Athena was its sacred embodiment. ‘Our dear daughter who is among us’, as Plato says. Religious festivals, such as the Panathenaia in Athens, can be seen as a public event for communal revelry and spiritual release, which manifested Athenian identity and civic pride.

The Acropolis in each city-state, with its processional spaces and temples, facilitated each polis’ special involvement with one of the immortals, for instance, Corinth with Apollo, Samos with Hera, and Athens with Athena. The same architecture was used to make respective statements based on geographic and historical contexts of the region, which distinguished one Greek city from the others, conveying messages to its own audience. For the Greeks, the city itself was a faith - the historical identification of the people, thus the temple could be seen as its cornerstone of a stable government. Meanwhile, the collective belief of the ancient greek religion also helped to transcend the local allegiances of each city-state, strengthening the connections between poleis, which illustrates both the uniting and site-specific nature of temples. Hence, the Greek temples had served simultaneously as symbols of union of Greeks upon a common religion, a common tongue, and the belief in a common ancestry - and also as a symbol of each city’s unique association with its own god.

The Persian invasion in 480 BC has taught the Greeks the benefits of unity, of creating legends of supernatural power that would sustain generations of Greeks to come. By 450 BC reconstruction took hold in Athens, the premier Greek city and the acknowledged leader of resistance to Persian hostility. An ambitious building program set about to revive the Acropolis which had been laid waste by the ravage of 480. This radiant complex of three new temples and a monumental gateway (the Propylaea) on a plateau overlooking the bowl of Attica celebrated the divine protectress of the city, the warrior-maiden Athena, projected personal, local messages to its own citizens. Having been through the Persian onslaught, Athens saw herself as the champion of Greece. Later under Perikles, Athens had presided over a naval alliance of more than three hundred cities around the Aegean, the anti-Persian League was turned into an Athenian Empire of tribute-paying cities. To Perikles, Athens was a divine city, the earthly citadel of all Greek gods, and the new Parthenon was its beacon.

However, to the citizens looking up from the old town, or from a distance, the defensive summit walls among the remains of the pre-classical buildings that were destroyed by the Persian invaders in 480 BC still catches attention. The Athenians of the classical age and later would encounter every day this permanent reminder of the foregn invasion that had once destroyed their city, not a material one, but the people. It was the remains of the older, demolished Parthenon that they mostly saw in their daily lives, not its classical replacement that lies outside the sightlines from the town. The ancient marbles and the new replacements operated simultaneously in two temporalities: see the physical stones, and imagining what has been lost, which gives the viewing experience a wider signification and meaning.

The Acropolis summit is a place of imposed order, a bare, enclosed and devised environment where the natural world is unwelcome. Greek Doric temples have a form that opposed its natural landscape - the presence of right angles, strict proportions and sharp geometries. It stood as a monument of human abstraction devoid of fusion with its natural site, defending its citizens and community from the dark ancient forces of land that they feared, while simultaneously, they serve as homes for the individual god or goddess controlling the forces of nature who protected and sustained the community. This intertwined relationship between the natural and the devised, the human and the divine lies at the heart of Greek religious architecture - it illustrates both the distinction of human achievement from the divinely controlled forces, as well as the reconciliation of humans with the omnipotence of gods, through the act of building.

The principle of empathy is central to the understanding of Greek architecture. The metaphor of the Greek column is associated with the human body: the column height and its thickness in relation to the mass of the structure was designed to delude human perception, so that they looked less heavy than they actually were. Through the proportional interlocking of the members, it intangibly evokes the proportional relationships of a standing man. The fact that each unit of measurement corresponds to a part of the human body implies an affinity between the temple and its users, for example, the ratio of column to capital roughly equates to the ratio of the human body to the head. It was this affinity that enables the citizens to comprehend the architecture in their own capacities. Moreover, there was no designated entrances to the building - every intercolumniation functions as a door, so the temple and the statues were seen according to the way the worshipper moved through the site. There was no single point of view, so the visual experience had no fixed value. Additionally, with new structures regularly added to the site according to processional needs, the relationship of those already present will alter and shift, which evoked different spatial experiences of the viewer and is reflective of a change in attitude towards sacred space. The Acropolis is in a process of continuous becoming - yet it was also completed at every phase of its growth, offering dynamic experiences for its procession and viewers.

In ancient Athens, the paths and the caves of the slopes were also integral to the ceremonial life of the city. Cut into the rocks, the paths was a designed feature of the Acropolis and of the cityscape that was financed by the city’s authorities. The ‘peripatos’, a word that brings out the role of paths as a place for peripatetics, illustrating its social function beyond its practicality as a road for travel. As an unsupervised meeting place, it allowed political conspirators and transgressing lovers to escape the inquire of others. The Acropolis, besides being viewed as a sacred space for ritual use, facilitated informal communal interactions of citizens. 

09 March 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now