Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.17

Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. xv, 384; 242 figs., 10 pls.  ISBN 0-521-41786-4.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Susan I. Rotroff, Washington University in St. Louis (
Word count: 2947 words

Probably no ancient Greek site is better known to the general public than the Athenian Acropolis. Rising above the skyline of the modern city that has been fairly successful in restricting high-rise development that would obscure it, the Acropolis is an obligatory stop on the tourist pilgrimage, and it serves as much as a symbol for modern Greece as for the achievements of the Periklean polis. In this handsome and learned volume, Jeffrey Hurwit traces the fortunes of the rock and the buildings upon it from geological time to the present. The result is a compendium of fact, reconstruction, interpretation, and speculation that establishes a benchmark for understanding of and opinion about the monuments at the close of the 20th century.

H. sets the stage in his three-chapter Prologue, introducing the site and its goddess and investigating the place of the sanctuary in ancient Athenian life. Chapter 1 (The Rock) takes us back to the extreme past and the geological forces that formed the limestone outcropping we know as the Athenian Acropolis, and includes a well-documented summary of the local geology. The second chapter introduces Athena, whose origins H. recognizes in the shield goddess of Mycenaean art. He goes on to discuss her nature and the many activities she fostered. In terms of mythology, H. concentrates on those stories that are particularly significant for the Acropolis and which recur time and time again in the iconography of its monuments: the birth of the goddess, the gigantomachy, her contest with Poseidon, and the birth and fostering of Erechthonios/Erechtheus. Particularly useful for archaeologists is a review of the bewildering array of images of the goddess attested on the Acropolis.

The pedestrian title of the third chapter (The Acropolis in Athenian Life and Literature) belies its content: an attempt to reconstruct the human element in the sanctuary, in my view one of the most valuable contributions of the book. There is a lengthy discussion of the religious festivals celebrated on the Acropolis and its slopes. The Panathenaia is of course treated in detail, but other festivals, like the Dipolieia, the Arrhephoria, and the Plynteria, also receive due treatment. Most fascinatingly, however, H. tries to reconstruct something of how the sanctuary functioned within Athenian life on a day-to-day basis. "Who," he asks, "would have been on the Acropolis on an average day?" What restrictions applied to visitors? Who made the thousands of dedications that littered the rock and filled its buildings, and why? Here, of course, H. must indulge in a certain amount of speculation, for the evidence is limited. Sometimes he states the case more positively than the evidence warrants, claiming, for instance, that several potters made lavish dedications (pp. 60-61, 126-129), a conclusion that, though arguable, has been seriously challenged.1 Nonetheless, H. has constructed a stimulating response to the questions he raises, and one that will help students grasp the role of a sanctuary in an ancient polis.

The heart of the book, termed "The Narrative," comprises ten chapters that lead us from the exiguous traces of Neolithic activity to the end of the ancient sanctuary, which H. pinpoints in the late 5th century C.E. Chapter 4 (The Strong House of Erechtheus) concentrates on the late Bronze Age, reconstructing a Mycenaean acropolis from the few fragments that have survived and by analogy with contemporary sites. Much more of a challenge is the material of Chapter 5, which takes the sanctuary through the Dark Ages and into the 7th century. Almost all of the evidence here is artifactual -- primarily fragments of pottery and metal dedications -- with a few hints from mythology and literature. H. uses three late Geometric sherds with funerary scenes to illustrate how difficult this evidence is to interpret. While these objects clearly document 8th century human activity, whether they attest funerals, dedications, athletic competitions, or merely landscaping is in doubt (pp. 85, 89-90). This is a particularly useful object lesson for students, who need to understand the protean nature of our archaeological evidence. From that evidence, H. paints a picture -- it must remain a shadowy one -- of how the Acropolis may have fared as a focus of cult activity through those centuries. Numbers of votives decline from the 8th century to the 7th century, but H. takes the two limestone bases that have been associated with a 7th-century temple as evidence that "the sacred character of the Acropolis was enhanced rather than diminished" during that time (p. 95).

Once we reach the sixth century, of course, the evidence multiplies, and it comes as no surprise that the Archaic and Classical Acropolis occupies the lion's share of the book (pp. 99-260). Chapter 6, on the Archaic period, begins with four dense pages of historical background, a pattern H. will follow in subsequent chapters. H. lists dedications of the second quarter of the 6th century, when the Acropolis "became a grandiose spectacle of the first order" (p. 104), but the bulk of the chapter investigates the Acropolis of the Peisistratids and the nascent Democracy. Here, as well as in later chapters, H. is concerned to trace the forces behind sculptural and architectural development, particularly the influence of powerful individuals, like Peisistratos and his sons, and, later, Perikles and Lykourgos. One can look a little too hard for this, finding, for instance, Peisistratos vs. the port of Megara in the struggle between a hero and a sea monster in the Bluebeard Pediment. H. finds these formulae attractive, though to his credit he admits that they may go beyond the evidence. Just in terms of architectural development, there are of course enormous uncertainties, even about such basic facts as whether there were temples on both the Erechtheum and the Parthenon sites in the days of the Tyranny. In each case, H. lays out the alternatives with admirable clarity, giving a fair account of the arguments for and against each and explaining his reasons for favoring one or the other.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the early Classical Acropolis, with a thoughtful discussion of just what may have remained standing after the Persian sack, and of why the Athenians chose not to rebuild (the Oath of Plateia, or economic considerations), and a review of the extant sculptural dedications. The monumental Chapter 8 brings us to the Acropolis as it was recreated in the course of the second half of the 5th century. A recurring theme here is the leadership of Perikles: just which buildings can rightly be called part of the Periklean program? The chapter is entitled "A Guide to the High Classical Acropolis," and, like a guide, it takes us through the monuments one by one, in so far as possible in chronological order. Of course the Parthenon looms large (pp. 161-188), but lesser structures, like the sanctuary of Zeus Polieus and the putative House of the Arrephoroi, receive full treatment, and monuments of the south slope are included as well. Much of the information that has emerged from recent study of the monuments in the course of their restoration is incorporated here, especially the work of Manolis Korres and Tasos Tanoulas, who are cited abundantly. The chapter is bolstered by Appendix C, a handy catalogue of major buildings, summarizing the basic facts (date, architect, materials, dimensions, cost, sculptural decoration, and testimonia) and listing select bibliography.

The site tour concluded, H. turns in Chapter 9 to matters of interpretation. He begins with a reconsideration of the Parthenon Frieze, rehearsing the many paradoxes within its iconography that have confounded scholars. He rejects Boardman's view of the cavalry as Marathonian heroes, and Connelly's of the central panel as the prelude to human sacrifice. He prefers Pollitt's suggestion that the frieze depicts "the idea of Religious Festival" (p. 227), its participants evoking a variety of festivals celebrated throughout the year, the Panathenaia among them, of course. The frieze, H. argues, fits into a unified thematic pattern that can be found throughout the Acropolis, a pattern of agon and nike, contest and victory, that can be read in monuments large and small. How, one might ask, could a sanctuary that developed over many centuries with the contribution of both the state and private individuals be expected to display such thematic unity? I confess that I was at first skeptical, but H. argues his case well, demonstrating also in subsequent chapters how later dedicants rang changes on the same themes, adapting them to new situations: as when Attalos I celebrated his agon with and nike over the Gauls by placing the statues of the Smaller Attalid Group near the east facade of the Parthenon, with its Gigantomachy metopes; or when Eumenes II commemorated his nike in the Panathenaic agones with a lofty monument opposite the Nike Temple, in front of the Propylaia.

Chapter 10 takes on another iconographical problem, the decoration of the base of the Parthenos with the myth of Pandora. H. takes this occasion to examine the place of women in Classical Athens. While conceding that "their lives were not uniformly bleak" (p. 240), he emphasizes Athenian women's lack of civil rights and independence, and argues that patriarchy, along with autochthony (which also excludes women, since men spring from the earth itself, not from human mothers), are the "underpinnings of the ideology of the Acropolis." (p. 241). The goddess, however, transcends gender: "She is not just chaste, she is sexless, and her mythology ... made the reproductive function of the female in general minor or even irrelevant" (p. 242). She is thus the opposite of the very female Pandora, who is "the cause of helplessness where Athena is the inventor of technologies of all sorts. Pandora is, in effect, the Anti-Athena" (p. 244). H. sees Pandora's presence on the base as a reminder of the dividing line between god and mortal and of "the existence of evil and the possibility of catastrophe" (p. 245). Neat as that equation may be, my own sense is that ancient viewers saw some more direct and less abstract link between Athena and Pandora (even if it still eludes modern observers).

There was not much room for further building on the Acropolis after the end of the 5th century, but dedications continued to be made, and H. rehearses them in Chapter 11. He also gives considerable attention to the Lykourgan building program, especially works on the south slope of the Acropolis, again investigating the role of the big man behind the architecture. It was in the 4th century, H. argues, that the concept of a Periklean Golden Age began to take shape. That concept flowered in the Hellenistic and Roman eras (Chapter 12), when dynasts of east and west quoted the Classical monuments of the Acropolis in Rome and Pergamon, and its iconography became a language of culture and success. H.'s treatment of the Roman monuments on the Acropolis is particularly interesting, as he is at pains to distinguish between private monuments, imperial initiatives, and Athenian dedications honoring emperors. He argues that the old theme of agon and nike evolved further in the latter, with the little temple of Roma and Augustus celebrating victory over the Parthians, a new set of eastern barbarians, and the inscription honoring Nero on the Parthenon's east architrave, which H. sees as supportive of Nero's campaigns against yet more easterners, Armenians and Parthians.

The End of the Ancient Acropolis (Chapter 13) recounts the depredations of the Herulians and of Alaric's Visigoths in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and the late Roman destruction of the Parthenon and its subsequent repair, which turned it into a very different structure from what it had been. As a final point in the history of the Acropolis as an ancient sanctuary, H. chooses the dream of Proclus, in which a beautiful woman announces to the philosopher that Athena, her statue now removed from the Parthenon, will become his house guest.

Some years ago, on a flight into Athens, I overheard a seasoned tourist explaining to a first-time visitor that none of the buildings on the Acropolis were old; they had all been rebuilt in modern times. Precisely this issue is explored in the short Epilogue (Chapter 14), which traces the history of restoration on the Acropolis. Here we read of the alterations that turned the Parthenon first into a Christian church, then into a mosque, and of Morosini's devastating assault on the Acropolis in 1687. Restorations and excavations of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries and their shortcomings are outlined. H. alludes briefly to the recurrent restorer's quandary: which phase of a monument to preserve, which to discard in favor of something earlier or later. He argues that what we have today is in fact an Acropolis created by the early 19th century, which sought to strip away and even deny the intervening history of the sanctuary, and to return it to a pristine Classical model that never really existed: "a picturesque configuration of ruins that was virtually sculpted out of the thick and chaotic mass of fortifications, hovels, and marble that covered the summit in 1834" (p. 301). I agree that the sanctuary, in its present state, is very different from what it ever was in the past. It would not look the same if excavation and restoration had begun a century later -- and given all of the evidence that has been lost due to the unformed excavation techniques of the past, one often wishes that had been so. But H. overstates his case; the Acropolis is, of course, a reconstructed citadel and an icon of modern Greece, but what is beautiful and extraordinary there today was put there by the original architects.

As appendices, in addition to the catalogue of Acropolis monuments, H. provides a translation and introduction to Pausanias' description of the Acropolis (minus digressions) (App. A), and to Plutarch's description of the Periklean building program (App. B). Appendix D is a time line reaching from the early Neolithic to the designation of the Acropolis as an archaeological site in 1834. The book is lavishly illustrated; many of the views are the author's own, and he proves himself a talented photographer. There are many plans and drawings, a good number of them redrawn by I. Gelbrich, whose work makes a substantial contribution to the book. The occasional omission of a north arrow is a mild irritant.

There is no doubt that this book will be useful to a wide array of people, although it is a little difficult to know just what audience H. is aiming at. The wealth of detail and the care that is taken to present the often complex evidence for conflicting reconstructions seem intended for graduate students and scholars. The tone of the writing, however, is more appropriate for a general audience, which would surely be discouraged by the extensive detail. H. sometimes tries to draw what I find distracting analogies to contemporary life, especially corporate life. Most irritating is the characterization of the treasurers of Athena as "the Acropolis's CEOs" (p. 48), but we also hear about Sophocles as "chairman of the board" (p. 50), about the "managers of the Acropolis" (p. 55), about the "Athenian business or middle class" (p. 60), "businessmen ... and other professionals" (p. 61), and their dedications as "marketing strategy" (p. 62). Fortunately, this model is mostly confined to Chapter 3. Elsewhere H. tries to enliven his writing with cute phrases like "We can tell a lot about a goddess by the company she keeps" (p. 17) or, of the feast at the Panathenaia "the food was literally divine" (p. 47), or with prose bordering on the purple ("the African plate, drifting inexorably northward" [p. 3]; "The effects of erosion are everywhere palpable" [p. 6]). Other quirks make the text hard to read: too many parenthetical expressions, which unnecessarily interrupt the flow of the text, and a love of lists. Through the latter, I think, H. hopes to evoke the richness and jumble of the sanctuary, but they are simply boring to read.

For sheer volume of information presented in an accessible format, however, the book has no peer and it certainly should be part of the library of every serious student of ancient Athens. H. has read very widely and deeply. Factual errors seem to be very few, which is remarkable given the intricacy of this material. There are a few points where conjectures are stated as fact, generally in areas peripheral to the Acropolis, where H.'s research has understandably been less profound. So, for instance, the Eleusis shrine is presented as originally Mycenean (p. 106), a claim which has been challenged.2 Building F in the Agora is accepted unquestioningly as the mansion of the Peisistratids (p. 121), although this is only an attractive suggestion. The history of the Pnyx is made to appear considerably more straightforward than it actually is (a date of 500 for the first phase is only conjecture [p. 121]; and a Lykourgan date for the third phase, though likely, is not certain [p. 256]). Similarly, the partially excavated, late Roman "House of Proclus" on the south slope of the Acropolis loses its quotation marks and becomes the unquestioned residence of the philosopher (p. 287). These are small matters, however, and stand out only in contrast to H.'s meticulous treatment of the Acropolis itself.

Of course not every scholar will agree with H.'s reconstruction of monuments, meanings, and events, and inevitably, as the great work of study and reconstruction continues on the Acropolis, new facts and theories will emerge at an increasing pace. But H. gives us what must be pretty much the last word on the Acropolis of the 20th century. Thanks to this book, it is a monument we can revisit again and again.


1.   E.g., M. Vickers and D. Gill, Artful Crafts, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, pp. 93-95.
2.   P. Darcque, "Les vestiges mycéniens découverts sous le Télestérion d'Eleusis," BCH 105, 1981, pp. 593-605.

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