The Parthenon, perhaps the most celebrated example of Classical Greek architecture, was only the first of a series of remarkable buildings to be constructed atop the Athenian Acropolis in the wake of the Persian Wars. Led by the renowned statesman Pericles, the city-state embarked on an ambitious rebuilding program which replaced all that had been razed by the Persians. The new complex, while dedicated to the gods and the legends that surrounded the Acropolis, were as much a declaration of Athens’ glory as they were places of worship – monuments to a people who had risen from the ashes of a war to become the most powerful and prosperous state in the ancient world.
Once the structure of the Parthenon was in place, Pericles commissioned the next great project: the Propylaea. Situated at the western end of the complex, the monumental gateway was the sole entrance to the Acropolis. Like the Parthenon that preceded it, the new structure was built of Pentelic marble – an indication of the generous budget that financed its construction. The architect Mnesikles, faced by the challenge of reconciling a steep sloping site with the prevailing architectural standards of Classical Greece, split the building into eastern and western sections, each with its own Doric colonnade and pediment. The space between the two central columns was greater than that of the others, an irregularity born from practical concerns: after making their way through the city and climbing a lengthy causeway, it was here that the animals and chariots would pass into the Acropolis every four years during the Panathenaic Procession; the celebrating Athenians entered via stairways to either side.[1,2]
Flanking the western façade were two enclosed wings. The wing to the northeast, the only one to be completed, was notably used as a picture gallery, or pinakotheke, in Roman times; it is unknown if this was the original purpose of the space, but if so, it is the first known structure in history intended for the display of works of art. Like the architects of the Parthenon, Mnesikles chose to use Ionic columns for the interior of the Propylaea, suggesting that this synthesis was the prevailing trend in Athenian architecture at the time; however, different orders would not be mixed in the same façades until the Hellenistic period.
The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. suspended work on the Propylaea. When work on the Acropolis fully resumed ten years later, it was not on the gateway – the original plans for which were never fully realized. Instead, the city moved forward with a second temple: the Erechtheion. Before the Persian Wars, the predecessors to the Parthenon and the Erechtheion had been a pair of standard temples, placed parallel to one another and virtually indistinguishable. While the Parthenon broke from tradition in its scale and proportion, the complex layout of the Erechtheion seemed to abandon the precedent set by its predecessor altogether.
As with the Propylaea, the Erechtheion adapts to the irregular topography of its site through the use of multiple spaces and façades at different levels. The striking similarity of this approach, in fact, has led some historians to conjecture that the Erechtheion was also the work of Mnesikles. It is worth noting, however, that there was a less mundane explanation for the temple’s incongruous asymmetry: the site on which it stood, bearing significance for multiple deities involved in the mythological tale of the founding of Athens, required a single structure to function as multiple temples simultaneously.
According to legend, the Erechtheion stood on the ground where Athena and Poseidon had competed for rule over Attica. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, bringing forth a stream of saltwater; the temple’s northern porch, projecting from one end of an otherwise smooth marble wall, sheltered the trident mark left in the rocks. In response to Poseidon’s display of power, Athena struck the ground with her spear, bringing forth an olive tree from the rock. (Since the construction of the Erechtheion, an olive tree has always been present on this spot.) The western façade bridged the significant ground elevation difference between the tall northern porch and the smaller—yet no less impressive—southern porch. Here, the roof was supported not by Ionic columns as on the other façades, but by serene sculptures of women balancing the architrave atop their heads, or caryatids. The eastern porch, standing on the same level as the Parthenon, was the most conventional, with six Ionic columns supporting a symmetrical pediment.
Before the end of the Peloponnesian War and the construction of the Erechtheion, Athens’ fortunes had recovered well enough for the construction of the comparatively tiny Temple of Athena Nike. Only four Ionic columns stood along its eastern and western façades, with none lining its northern and southern edges. Were it not for the temple’s prominent location on an outcropping to the right of the Propylaea, it may have been easy to overlook altogether in comparison with its much larger, grander neighbors. However, its small size does not negate the potency of its symbolism: one of the first structures visible to those who visit the Acropolis is a dedication to the personification of victory.
Fittingly, the Temple of Athena Nike was adorned with lavish sculptures depicting victory in its various forms. The temple that had once stood on the site had been built in commemoration of the Athenian victory in the Battle of Marathon, an event immortalized in the frieze of the newer building. The exaggerated corners of the new temple’s columns, meanwhile, are noted by some to draw the viewer’s eye toward the sea, where the combined Greek navy’s victory at Salamis liberated Athens and drove the invading Persians out of mainland Greece. Approximately fifteen years after the Temple of Athena Nike itself was built, an additional parapet was erected around the building and adorned with several reliefs depicting Nike. These sculptural portrayals, whether showing Nike enjoying the spoils of victory over Persia or even stooping to adjust a sandal, were carved with deep, intricate detail, adding great visual interest to an otherwise straightforward building.[11,12]
The reconstruction of the Acropolis marked the apex of Greek Classical architecture. In the three centuries between the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Greek civilization to the Roman Empire, very little was done to build on the models used in the design of the Periclean Acropolis; evidently, the rules governing Classical architecture which had been refined for Athens’ great monuments became impediments restricting further innovation until the disturbance of Roman influence.
Although subsequent generations would build other temples in the surrounding city, as well as multiple amphitheaters in its slopes, the Acropolis itself remained largely unaltered by its Roman, Catholic, and eventually Ottoman Turkish rulers, the last of which put the Erechtheion to use as a harem. The War for Greek Independence saw catastrophic bombardment of the Acropolis, and in particular the Erechtheion, but under Greek administration, an extensive reconstruction effort has repaired much of the damage. Along with the Parthenon, the Propylaea, Erechtheion, and Temple of Athena Nike stand as the last remaining elements of the greatest architectural endeavor in Greek history, their 2,500-year old marble stones giving silent testimony to the bygone glories of Athens.[14,15]
 Gardner, Helen, Richard G. Tansey, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. p154.
 Janson, H. W. History of Art; A Survey of the Major Visual Arts From the Dawn of History to the Present Day. New York: Abrams, 1962. p99.
 Gardner, p154-155.
 Janson, p99.
 Gardner, p155.
 Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. p154-157.
 Janson, p100.
 Kostof, p157.
 "Athens - History". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. [access] (accessed January 25, 2017).
 Kostof, p152.
 Kostof, p152.
 Gardner, p156-157.
 Janson, p101-102.
 Cowan, Henry J., and Trevor Howells. A Guide to the World's Greatest Buildings: Masterpieces of Architecture & Engineering. San Francisco, 2000: Fog City Press. p22.
 “Athens - History.”
LocationAthens 105 58, Greece