BMCR 2002.05.02

Die Akropolis von Athen. Eine Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte

, , Die Akropolis von Athen : eine Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2001. 251 pages : 218 illustrations (some color) ; 28 cm. ISBN3896784102 EUR 39.90.

This book is a new and enlarged edition of the book of the same title published by the authors (henceforth S and H) in 1990.1 Since then new discoveries continue to be made on the Athenian Acropolis and some scholarly positions have shifted, though others remain firmly entrenched. As was true also of the earlier edition of Die Akropolis von Athen, it is easier to pin down what the book is not than what it is. It is not an exhaustive history like Jeffrey Hurwit’s 1999 book on the Acropolis.2 It appears not to be intended primarily for a specialist readership, though I believe that specialists will find the book’s first chapter extremely interesting and will appreciate the abundant and beautiful photographs as well as the very solid, scholarly bibliography. Finally, this book is not the place to go for those who want to read both sides of the current debates about the building history of the Acropolis in the Archaic period and about the subject of the Parthenon frieze. S and H aim not to hash out archaeological and historical problems in detail but rather to juxtapose what they consider to be the original social, political, and religious significance of the Acropolis and its monuments with an afterlife which values these monuments primarily for their decorative appeal and for their value as symbols for the golden age of Athens.

The book begins with the intriguing premise that in order to understand the Acropolis we need to begin with its post-antique history as a modern ruin, proceeding all the way through an explanation of its present state as a collection of “high tech” ruins reinforced by innovative reconstructive technology. The reactions to the Acropolis of travelers from Cyriacus of Ancona through Stuart and Revett are described, and this discussion segues into an extremely informative section on the influence of the Classical buildings on the Acropolis upon Neoclassical architecture throughout Europe and in the United States (12-36). Both the bibliography for this section and the photographs are simply excellent; one highlight is the color photograph of a nineteenth century cast-iron (!) triumphal gate in Saint Petersburg inspired by the Mnesiklean Propylaia. Hand in hand with the “rediscovery” of the Acropolis came the plundering of its surviving treasures by Lord Elgin and others (36-39). In a strikingly negative concluding section to the book’s first chapter, S and H compare the decision to clear the Acropolis for archaeological purposes in the nineteenth century to the aftermath of a nuclear explosion (47-55), the final straw in a long process of decay and destructive intervention which turned the Acropolis from a living monument into a “Ruinenlandschaft” in many ways incomprehensible to non-specialists. The final two chapters of the book (“Vom Leben zum Museum” and “Die Akropolis zwischen Orient und Okzident”) take up this thread again, tracing the history of the Acropolis from the immediate aftermath of the Periklean building program in the fourth century through the Hellenistic period, Roman rule, late antiquity, the middle ages, the Tourkokratia, and back to the present day.

The second chapter of the book (“Frühe Besiedlung”) takes us back to the beginning of the story with a brief consideration of the earliest remains of settlement on the Acropolis in the Neolithic period (61-70). As we would expect, the third chapter on the Acropolis in the Archaic period (“Das archaische Heiligtum im Konflikt zwischen Aristokratie und Volk”) is more substantial, though it concerns itself more with monumental votive dedications than it does with the complicated building history of this period. S and H explain the Archaic statue dedications on the Acropolis primarily in social and political terms as a “safe” means of competitive display on the part of Athenian aristocratic families. The discussion of the Acropolis korai that follows substantially restates Lambert Schneider’s position that they were intended by the aristocratic men who dedicated them to represent not particular women or girls but rather a generalized, “überindividuelle” embodiment of the values of the old Athenian aristocracy (72-88).3 In contrast to the general trend in German scholarship, S and H appear not to place the residence of Peisistratos and his family on the Acropolis, but they do accept the interpretation of the “Hekatompedon” as a sacred precinct with treasury buildings within its boundaries rather than a straightforward temple building on either the Dörpfeld foundations just south of the Erecththeion or the later Parthenon site (88-98). S and H assign the Peisistratidai an important role in opening up the Acropolis to a broader constituency of Athenian citizens; they even attribute the initiative to begin construction on the Older Parthenon (halted by the Persian sack of 480) either to Peisistratos’ sons in the 520s B.C. or to the Athenian demos after Kleisthenes’ reforms of 508/7 B.C. (107-109).

The centerpiece of the book and its longest section (111-181) is a forceful discussion of the Periklean building program (“Religion im Dienst der Politik: Die Klassik”). S and H begin with a lucid and effective treatment of the design and construction processes for the Parthenon (115-138) fortified by the insights gained since the 1980s by the architects charged with restoring the building. They explain the final plan of the Parthenon as the result of implementing not only a 4:9 proportion between important dimensions but also a base module of 14/16ths of an Attic foot, or 28.627 cm (122-124). The discussion of the sculpture of the Parthenon that follows (137-155) is traditional overall, including a mainstream reading of the frieze as a representation of the Panathenaic procession in which discrepancies between the frieze and what happened in the real procession can be chalked up to artistic license (147-152). The real innovation here is S and H’s explanation of the sequence of four buildings as we see them now—Parthenon, Propylaia, Athena Nike temple, and Erechtheion—as the outcome of a contentious Athenian political debate. In this view, the Parthenon is not a “real” cult temple but rather a glorified treasury for the Delian League equipped with architectural sculpture showcasing the importance of Athens and culminating in the Athena Parthenos, a gigantic, showy, and unnecessary “Pseudokultbild”. The Propylaia of Mnesikles would have been correspondingly audacious in plan and size had not the wishes of radical democrats been squelched in 433/2 B.C. with the result that the South wing of the building was never built and the North wing was left unfinished (160-166). Both the Athena Nike temple and the Erechtheion are interpreted by S and H as conservative counterblasts to the first two buildings. Both preserve time-honored cult places on the Acropolis; in the case of the Athena Nike temple, the site mandated a very small building which looks more like a treasury than a temple (166-171), and in the case of the Erecththeion, the preservation of sacred spots necessitated an inconvenient architectural plan made more palatable by old fashioned caryatids and truly lavish architectural decoration (171-181).

The authors clearly intend their treatment of the Periklean building program to serve as an antidote to discussions couched primarily in terms of style, and that fits into their larger point that the focus on style is an anachronism, a legacy of eighteenth and nineteenth century Classicism. Still, a reading of the corresponding chapter of Hurwit’s book gives one pause. Because S and H’s book dispenses with footnotes and many details in the interests of the general reader, the primary evidence of building inscriptions and historical sources (with the exception of a short excerpt from Perikles’ funeral oration quoted on p. 141) has been left out of the picture. Controversies go unacknowledged, with the result that readers without prior knowledge of the Acropolis might not realize that what they are reading is one interpretation of the archaeological, epigraphical, and historical evidence. To be fair, the desire to avoid getting bogged down in endless controversies is probably the reason why S and H spend very little time discussing the Archaic buildings on the Acropolis and devote most of their energy to the Periklean buildings. But what will the general reader make of the authors’ abbreviated treatment of the predecessors of the Erecththeion, in which only an “alter Athena-Tempel” of the early sixth century is mentioned and a ground plan reconstructing this temple as peripteral with 6×12 columns (figure 100) has been juxtaposed with Wiegand’s elevation reconstructing the same temple as distyle in antis (figure 101)? A fuller discussion of the more problematic Archaic building history might provide a firmer basis for understanding what the Athenians were getting themselves into when they reconstructed the Acropolis in the second half of the fifth century.

I am qualified to comment in greater detail on S and H’s treatment of votive statue dedications; these in particular are not always the stuff of which good cultural history is made. The problem with S and H’s interpretation of the Archaic korai is that none is known to have been dedicated by an aristocrat; on the contrary, as R.R. Holloway has pointed out (in an article not included in the book’s bibliography), at least two of the extant korai were dedicated by Athenian banausoi.4 It may well be that neither interpretation—that the korai were quintessentially aristocratic or that they were quintessentially non-aristocratic—is correct; we simply know nothing about the majority of dedicators of korai on the Acropolis. When the discussion moves to the subject of statue dedications made after the Persian sack of 480 (155-159), the collective heading “Staatsweihungen auf der Akropolis” misleadingly implies that not only the Athena Promachos and the Athena Lemnia, but also the Mourning Athena relief, Myron’s Athena and Marsyas, Alkamenes’ Prokne and Itys, and the portrait of Anakreon were dedicated by the Athenian state. The truth is that without inscribed bases we simply cannot tell who dedicated what, and S and H’s statement at the end of this section that the meaning of these monuments is clear (“So hatte jedes einzelne Monument für sich eine klare Bedeutung”, 159) might strike specialists who have read the scholarship on them as overly optimistic.

This book has been beautifully produced and the errors are for the most part small ones. For example, the caption for Figure 15 correctly dates the explosion inside the Parthenon to 1687, but the text on the same page (20) dates it to 1683. One more substantial matter not directly related to the Acropolis is the dating of the late antique defensive wall in the Athenian Agora to before the Herulian invasion of A.D. 267 rather than after it (206). The authors of this book are correct to distinguish carefully between the life of the Acropolis in its heyday and its afterlife as a potent symbol. A general audience will take away from it a better understanding of the former; specialists will benefit from the book’s treatment of the latter.


1. Lambert Schneider and Christoph Höcker, Die Akropolis von Athen, antikes Heiligtum und modernes Reiseziel (DuMont Buchverlag: Cologne, 1990).

2. Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis. History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present (Cambridge/New York 1999).

3. Lambert Schneider, Zur sozialen Bedeutung der archaischen Korenstatuen (Hamburg 1975).

4. R. Ross Holloway, “Why Korai?” OJA 11 (1992): 267-274.