We enter the Acropolis from the western side which has always been the only point of access to the great rock. We enter through the gate, which was probably built in the 3rd century AD, and excavated in 1853 by the French archaeologist Ernest Beule. We don’t know precisely where the entrance was in ancient times, owing to the many alterations and the constant use of pieces of the ancient marble in later buildings. The Acropolis is somewhat like the Greeks who, even though they carry memories of and have been marked by the different conquerors over the centuries, are always solid, with the traditional virtues and vices of the Hellenic race.
There is just enough to confuse the historian striving to trace the roots of their family tree, to learn whether it ever stopped and to identity the ancestors whose traits can be seen so vividly in their descendants.
What is reasonably sure is that in classical times the entrance was a climb similar to today’s. The Romans built a broad ramp leading up in a straight line to the central doorway of the Propylaea (monumental gateway). During Frankish rule, other gates and fortifications were built; under the Ottomans, whatever was located outside the main Propylaea was used to build up the defensive bastions. The present day main entrance was restored during the last century.
Ascending the stairs to the Acropolis we can see, on the left, the massive boulders of the prehistoric wall supporting the plateau at the beginning of the later ramp. To the right is a solid square tower, memory of an ancient bastion, and to the left is the heavy base of a monument by which the Athenians paid homage to the Roman consul Agrippa, benefactor of their city in the 1st century BC. It appears that during the years of Roman occupation, flattery took precedence over aesthetics and thus this stone structure, so alien to the beauty of its surroundings, still offends our eye.
But if this vestige reminds us of the Roman legions, facing it is the light, elegant temple of Athena Nike (Victory). Pausanias called it the temple of “Wingless” Victory, relating that the Athenians had cut off her wings so that she would remain always with them. A very ancient wooden idol was kept in an older, square little temple which was destroyed in the Persian wars; that temple was approached from the side, from the point at which today we can see the remains of a staircase suspended in the air. It was replaced in the 5th century BC by this charming Ionic temple which, with columns on its facades alone, is the most elegant building on the sacred rock.
The entire temple rests lightly on the marble flooring over the required three steps of the crepidoma, i.e. the permanent foundation of temples in the classical age, which served to make them look as though they were floating in the strong Mediterranean light. The marble, cut into pieces of equal size, as they are throughout the Propylaea, was certainly painted so as not to reflect its whiteness too strongly in the bright sunlight. Around the frieze of the little temple, there were battle scenes, and around its enclosure was a low wall of marble relief sculptures. There the goddess Athena was depicted in a seated position, while in front of her was a series of winged Victories sufficient to ennumerate the feats of the Athenians at war. It is worth keeping in mind that both this and all the surrounding buildings were built when the memories of the Persian wars and the dizzying sense of victory were still vivid in the minds of the citizens. Thus, the correct name of this little temple is the sanctuary of Athena Nike, a glorious stone hymn dedicated respectfully to a triumphant divinity.
The whole complex of the Propylaea is the embodiment of magnificence, even today. The ancients themselves used to call it the brilliant preface to the Acropolis. Five years and enormous sums of money were required to construct it. Constructed on two different levels, it comprises three parts: the central structure and two recessed wings. The facades, in the form of a temple, are about twenty-five metres apart. Each one has six Doric columns which, on the western side, rest firmly on a base with the usual three steps. On the contrary, on the east side looking toward the Parthenon the columns appear to have grown out of the natural gray rock.
The transverse wall of the main Propylaea building is not entirely of white marble, as part of its foundation consists of gray marble blocks which continue their colour up to the fifth step separating the two levels. The architect, Mnesikles, took advantage in the most functional way of the natural slope of the hill, creating two different structures under the same roof.
Although the exterior was built in the Doric Order, the central passage ascends through two rows of Ionic columns that support the roof. This marble slope passes through a monumental porch flanked by two smaller ones to the right and left, and by another two even smaller openings near the walls. The result was a pleasant symmetry to the eye of the visitor ascending to the temples with his offerings.
Once again, symmetry is found in the wings which have three Doric columns each. Although the south side of the plateau contains only the temple of Athena Nike, the corresponding north side was totally covered by the severe Pinacotheke (art gallery) building. Not one of the painted works which we know to have been housed in this building has come down to us. They were, it appears, painted on wood or on stretched fabric and were completely destroyed. All we have are Pausanias’ vivid descriptions of the scenes from the Homeric epics and the marvellous portrait of Alcibiades, the enfant terrible of Athens, which showed him to be more beautiful than the goddesses who accompanied him. What a strange creature was this handsome aristocrat! An Olympic victor, as well as being an arrogant, cultivated opportunist, he frequented philosophers’ symposia and hedonistic orgies with the same ease. He was at once devout and profane; he fought like a hero, acted like a traitor and was finally murdered.
On the eastern side, the outer walls of the Propylaea are full of projections (lifting bosses) which the masons left on purpose when they were quarrying the marble, to be used as handles to help carry the huge boulders up to the Acropolis and set them in their place. Then the technicians would plane off these projections before smoothing the whole surface and giving the building its final finishing. But the Propylaea began being built in 437 BC and just a few years later, in 431, the fateful Peloponnesian war broke out. It was for this reason that this technical detail remained unfinished. One may well wonder how many technicians worked on these stones and how many were fortunate enough finally to see the day of the brilliant opening. A pedestal, which once housed a votive offering to Athena Hygeia, right next to the eastern right side, allows us to imagine that there were several casualties; since, according to Plutarch, the goddess revealed to Pericles in a dream that she would cure the master craftsman who had fallen from a scaffolding and was in danger of death.
Leaving the eastern porch of the Propylaea, one might expect to come face to face with the most important temple on the sacred rock, the Parthenon, since this magnificent entrance is but an introduction to the glorious shrine of the city’s patroness. Instead, the splendid structure is situated to the right of the Propylaea, near the south wall, and of course, this is not accidental. If the Parthenon had been built right on the foundations of the old temple of Athena, then the approaching visitor would see the narrow side of the building with only eight columns visible. But on its present site, we can see the corner where the two sides converge, with a total of twenty-four columns in a changing perspective, which thus gives us a full feeling of its architectural perfection. There is nothing more majestic than the austerity of a Doric temple: such beauty expressed in the strength of such simple lines.