Blowing up the Acropolis

The Acropolis has become the byword for Athens, though every Greek city sported an acropolis, an upper town. The Athenian Acropolis was built and destroyed several times during its 7,500 years of history and it found many uses. What sticks in the mind, though, is the moment when the Venetians blew it up. 

The Acropolis of Athens has gone through several cycles of building and destruction. While people tend to associate the word acropolis (upper town) with Athens, every Greek city had this feature. It started out as a defensive fort and evolved into a center of religious and social live. 

Archaeologists have found traces of habitation on the Acropolis hill dating back 7,500 years. During the Mycenaean period, the hill was seat and castle to the kings. With the Ionian incursion around 1200 BC the power of the kings started to wane and the Acropolis became more public space than defensive structure.


The Athenian Acropolis was completely destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. What we see today is mainly what has been reconstructed of the rebuilding period between 467 and 406 BC. Nothing much in that building complex changed when Athens was annexed by Rome until the 9th century AD when Athens became the seat of a bishop with the Parthenon as his main cathedral and the Erechtheum as a parochial church. 

Between 1200 and 1500, the city changed hands several times. The fourth crusade of 1204 left a Frankish duchy in place after the conquest of Constantinople. For the next 250 years, the city belonged in turn to Florence, the Turks, and Venice, until it was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II in 1456. During these various occupations, the Acropolis found many different uses; Mehmed converted the Parthenon Church into a mosque while adding a minaret, the Propylaea served as seat to the city’s commander, the Erechtheum was converted into a harem, and the army's armories and explosive depots were all concentrated on the hill. 

During the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in 1687, Athens was beleaguered by the Venetian army and the Acropolis as the prime military target was taken under artillery fire. One of the shells exploded in a depot containing explosives. The resulting explosion brought down what had still been standing. If that sounds as if the buildings had already been ruinous, they were. Only years earlier, a lightning strike had exploded a similar depot in the Acropolis and the Ottoman government hadn't really yet started on a rebuilding program. 

After taking the city, the Venetians sifted the rubble for art works and carried off what they could conveniently carry. The larger pieces were left in situ for Lord Elgin to plunder roughly 100 years later. In the 19th century, the Greek government of the newly independent country then destroyed what was left by previous thieves and dismantled all buildings of Frankish, Venetian, or Ottoman provenience and everything they deemed not to be part of the original ensemble of the 5th century BC. They then reconstructed an Acropolis according to what they thought it should have looked like. That is what we look at today as original buildings of Athens’ period of power under Pericles.

Further reading
Naval Arms Race in the Mediterranean
The Athenian Navy Revisited
The Battle of Lepanto and Its Influence on English History