A monument to imperialism or an expression of intense religiosity - which of these
descriptions of Pericles' refurbishment of the Acropolis do you consider to be more apt?
Fiona MacColl, 2015
In Eumenides, Athena's claim that she 'would find it unendurable not to honour this city among men
by making her a city of victory in glorious martial struggles' (Aeschylus, Eumenides, 467),
demonstrates the close relationship between Athena the Goddess and the imperial military strength
of Athens. This essay will consider the Acropolis as both an expression of intense religiosity and a
monument to imperialism, before examining the principal buildings for evidence to support either
claim. It will advance the view that, because of the nature of the relationship between Athena and
Athens, it is impossible to separate the Acropolis' religious significance from its importance as a
monument to imperialism. However, in examining the Acropolis, it must be borne in mind that it is
not one building but a complex site containing several different, albeit related, buildings.
The Acropolis, under Pericles, was the greatest religious site of ancient Athens, dedicated to Athena
who, though not the only deity revered in Athens, was its patron deity. She was Athena Polias
(Athena of the City) and was regarded as founder of Athens after defeating Poseidon and naming
the city after herself. Thus, Athena was seen as part of the life-story of the city and of all Athenians.
Evidence of Athena's link to the city is seen in the silver tetradrachms which depict the head of
Athena on one side, and two of her symbols - the owl and olive branch - on the other, along with the
inscription AθE which is the first three letters of both the name of the goddess and the city.
Fig. 1. Athenian silver tetradrachm
(From Williams, 2015a)
After the Persian war, the Acropolis which had been razed by the Persians in 480 B.C. began being
reconstructed in 447 B.C. under Pericles, in a style grander than anything seen before. The
rebuilding was done in stone rather than wood as the earlier buildings had been; perhaps not only to
safeguard the religious site against future attacks but also to suggest that the Athenian empire was as
strong and durable as stone. Thus, it could be argued that the Acropolis has both religious and
The Greek gods were worshipped 'in the sense of human acknowledgement (nomisdein tous
theous)'. When we acknowledge someone, we recognize their presence. What better way to
acknowledge the presence of Athena than to build a monument to her? In this way, the Acropolis
can be seen as an expression of religiosity. In addition, temples were regarded as homes for the gods
to live in. This again emphasises the religious significance of the Acropolis. Within temples,
offerings were made, including the first fruits to Athena, a form of offering in which a gift of the
products of the earth was given: 'placing fruits or cakes made from grain on altars'. Interestingly, the
Acropolis could perhaps be seen as the first fruits to Athena from the citizens of Athens. Afterall,
the monuments were made of stone which could be described as products of the earth.
There existed a reciprocal relationship between Athena and her worshippers; the people
acknowledged their goddess and, in return, Athena granted them success in their endeavours. As
Athena was patron of Athens, the Athenians saw themselves as her favourites. Thus, any success or
victory enjoyed by Athens demonstrated the Goddess's approval. In return, the Athenians built
sacred monuments such as the Acropolis to Athena.
The monuments on the Acropolis, the construction of which were initiated by Pericles using tribute
from the Delian League, may be seen as an expression of the growing Athenian confidence in their
imperialistic ambitions but this does not deny any religious significance. In rebuilding the Acropolis
after the Persians razed the site in 480 B.C., the Athenians demonstrated their 'debt of gratitude to
heaven for the defeat of the Mede'. Pericles' justification for using money given by the League to
pay for defenses against the Persians, to fund his building program of the Acropolis was that the
money was Athens' by right. The Athenians were not obliged to return the money as long as they
maintained defences of the League (Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 12-13). However, the high cost,
estimated at four thousand to six thousand talents drew a negative response even from some
Athenians. That members of the Delian League were also angry is evidenced by Miletus and Aegina
refusing to pay, and Thasos paying less than required. The monies paid to Athens reflect the change
in its position, from ally to imperial leader. As tribute could be forced from subject states, it is clear
that Athens now saw itself as possessing an empire.
Plutarch's claim that the allies saw the rebuilding of the Acropolis as 'an act of bare-faced tyranny'
(Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 12-13) suggests that the building of the Acropolis was less about religion
and more about empire-building. His description makes little suggestion of the monuments being
seen as expressions of intense religiosity. Rather, he speaks of them 'gilding and beautifying our
city'. However, it must be remembered that in ancient biographies, events and speeches were often
made up to portray the character of the central figure as seen by the biographer. As Plutarch was
Roman, writing long after the events, it seems possible that he would present Pericles as an empire-
builder; a trait considered admirable in Ancient Rome.
Thus, the decision to rebuild and improve the Acropolis can be seen as linked to the growing
importance of Athens. The monuments would 'bring [Athens] glory for all time' (Plutarch, Life of
Pericles, 12-13). However, as Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, and Athens was the
favoured city of Athena, the glory of one was the glory of the other.
The Acropolis was presented as an expression of the power of Athens. By showcasing the primacy
of Athena over the other gods, and especially Apollo who was the central figure for the Delian
League and patron of Delos where the treasury had formerly been located, Athens was not just
asserting the religious significance of its goddess but also of its state.
Three of the principal surviving buildings - the Parthenon, Propylaea and Athena Nike - were
initiated during Pericles' lifetime and strongly focus on Athena, perhaps suggesting that these
monuments were seen, at least in part, as an expression of intense religiosity towards the patron
goddess of Athens.
The Parthenon, however, while the grandest of the monuments on the Acropolis, was not a temple.
It had neither a dedicated priestess, nor the usual altar outside, facing the front entrance. While it
was not unusual for Greek temples to function as banks, it is perhaps significant that the Parthenon
took its name from the smaller chamber - the parthenon or maidens’ chamber where the bank was
located. This may suggest that the primary importance of the Parthenon was its role as treasury; and
as such it was more a monument to Athenian imperialism than one of religious significance.
The Parthenon was built to impress. It was constructed of Pentelic marble and was larger than other
temples being 8 x 17 columns in size, rather than the usual 6 x 13 columns. Inside the main body of
the building (cella) was a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos which replaced the usual
altar. It was designed to impress, not to inspire reverence and so could be seen as a sign of Athen's
power and that of its goddess; a sign of Athens' confidence and imperial ambitions. The statue was
profoundly militaristic, holding a Victory and a spear, with a shield at her feet, which again suggests
the military might of both the Goddess and her city.
Fig. 2. Nashville Parthenos (copy of Athena Parthenos)
(From Williams, 2015a)
The Parthenon's metopes can also be seen as symbols of imperialism, depicting symbolic battles;
gods battling giants representing the battle between good and evil, Greeks battling Amazons and
Trojans demonstrating the military strength of Athens, and Lapiths fighting Centaurs representing
the Athenians against the Persian barbarians. As the metopes were on the exterior of the Parthenon
and easily seen, they can fairly be described as symbols of imperialism, designed to reinforce the
political propaganda of Athen's military might.
Fig. 3. Parthenon - south metope 31 – Lapith and Centaur
(From Williams, 2015a)
In addition, the continuous sculpted frieze that goes around the inner columns on the exterior of the
Parthenon is a typically Ionic feature, perhaps emphasizing Athens' political position as part of
Ionia. While the frieze can be seen as nothing more than a decorative feature, it can also be
interpreted as an attempt to demonstrate the link between Athens and Ionia, thus validating its claim
as leader of an empire that included Ionia.
Fig. 4. Parthenon frieze
(From Williams, 2015a)
The Propylaea is another grand monument, designed to impress visitors though it has no overt
religious significance. This huge, five-columned entrance to the Acropolis demonstrates the
grandeur of the state, supporting the view that the Acropolis is more a monument to Athenian
Fig. 5. Propylaea
(From Williams, 2015b)
Under Pericles, the Propylaea was re-aligned to face the Isle of Salamis - the site of the Greek
victory against the Persians. This emphasises Athenian imperial strength. However, within the
Acropolis, the Propylaea looked directly onto Athena Promachos, suggesting religious importance.
Thus religion and state are seen to be linked.
Athena Promachos was a huge bronze statue of Athena, created from the spoils of the Persians who
landed at Marathon in 490 B.C., and built after the Greek's victorious battle at the River
Eurymedon. It used military imagery such as a spear and helmet, and the name Athena Promachos
means Athena Who Fights in the Foremost Ranks. Thus, it could be seen as a sign of the victory at
Eurymedon, and growing confidence of the Athenians.
Fig. 6. Athena Promachos
(From Brown, 2012)
It was tall enough to be seen from sea and so would impress members of the Delian League who
came to Athens to get their cases heard in the law courts, or exchange currency; acts which the
Delian League was required to do by Athenian law. In this way, it was a sign of imperial strength
but also a sign of the power of Athena in her martial aspect. As she was the patron goddess of the
city, her strength and the city's strength were one and the same.
The temple of Athena Nike is of special note as it was located just outside the entrance to the
Acropolis and was immediately seen upon approaching the Acropolis. The east frieze of the temple
allegedly depicts Athena standing in the centre of a group of gods, emphasising the supremacy of
Athena over the other gods, and by implication, the supremacy of Athens over other Greek states.
Fig. 7. East frieze of Athena Nike
(From Palagia, 2005)
In addition, the frieze depicts battles between the Persians and Athenians. Thus, it could be seen as a
monument to the imperial military strength of Athens.
Fig. 8. Frieze depicting Greeks and Persians fighting
(From Williams, 2015b)
In contrast, the Erechtheion, built after Pericles' death in 429 B.C., focused on the archaic grouping
of gods, and Athena in her earlier Athena Polias role, perhaps suggesting a move away from
Pericles' religious-military vision. The irregular shape of the temple was likely the result of the wish
to encompass different sacred spots, including altars to Zeus, Poseidon and Hephaestus, as well as
symbols representing both Poseidon and Athena's claims to Athens - the shape of Poseidon's trident
in the stone and the cult image of Athena Polis, the original and most revered relic of Athena,
carved from olive wood.
Fig. 9. Diagram of Erechtheion
(From Williams, 2015c)
As the Erechtheion was built later, this could suggest a change in attitude towards the purpose of the
Acropolis, focusing more on maintaining older religious traditions and less on portraying Athens as
an imperial power which, by this time, was waning. Also, external differences in appearance such as
the Caryatid columns and the two porches (prostaseis) suggest a move away from Pericles' original
vision for the Acropolis.
Fig. 10. Erechtheion, Caryatid Porch
(From Williams, 2015b)
In conclusion, it is reasonable to see the Acropolis as a monument to imperialism, and supporting
evidence such as the many military images on the monuments or the realignment of the Propylaea
to face Salamis, emphasising the military strength of the Athenian Empire, is compelling. However,
Athens' position as the city of the goddess, Athena, and its political ambitions cannot easily be
separated. The Acropolis was rebuilt, at least in part, to honour Athena after the victory at Salamis.
As patron of Athens, it was both the goddess and the citizens who won the war. This was a 'holy'
city; one in which 'church' and state were undeniably linked.
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