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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Athenian Acropolis

CNG 103, Lot: 557. Estimate $1000.
Sold for $2750. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

ATTICA, Athens. Pseudo-autonomous issue. Circa AD 140/50-175. Æ (26mm, 9.76 g, 5h). Draped bust of Athena right, wearing Corinthian helmet / View of the Acropolis from north and west; on right, steps of the Panathenaic Way lead upward to Propylaea; at summit, Erechtheum and colossal statue of Athena Promachus standing right; mid-summit, niche representing the Cave of Pan. Kroll 280; Svoronos, Monnaies pl. 98, 22 (same obv. die). VF, rough green and brown patina. Very rare. An important architectural piece.

Because of the land’s mountainous terrain and the need of the local populace for defensive sites, most early settlements in ancient Greece were established on high rock outcroppings. Known in Greek as an akropolis (pl. akropoleis), or citadel, these places were initially palace sites (megara) of the Bronze Age kings. During the Greek Dark Ages (circa 1100-800 BC), these akropoleis became refuges for the population of the towns which clustered around them. At the same time, they acted as each city’s cultural center with numerous temples and shrines populating the site.

The most famous Greek akropolis is that of Athens. Like other akropoleis, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age and figured prominently in Athens’ earliest mythology. Here, the contest between Poseidon and Athena for patronage of the city took place and her gift of an olive tree was located. Here too was the palace of Athens’ mythological first king, the chthonian Erectheus. Following the Greco-Persian Wars (490-479 BC), the Athenians attempted to reconstruct the Acropolis, since its temples had been destroyed by the Persians. Under the leadership of Perikles (460-430 BC), during the so-called Golden Age of Athens, an ambitious building program was begun to make the Acropolis the center of the new Athenian hegemony. Financed in large part by the Delian League’s treasury, which had been brought from Delos to Athens for safekeeping, most of the major buildings were constructed of Pentelic marble. In addition to a number of sacred precincts and smaller temples, several new constructions were included. The Erechtheum, a temple dedicated to Poseidon and Athena, contained the sacred olive tree and was located near the grave of Erechtheus. The Propylaea, or monumental gateway, sat at the summit of a long staircase which was the culmination of the Panathenaic Way and provided a grand entranceway to the Acropolis. The Temple of Athena Nike, built between 427 and 424 BC, was the earliest temple constructed in the Ionic Order on the Acropolis. And among the sculpture which decorated the Acropolis was a colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos, one of the earliest works of the sculptor Pheidias.

The crowning achievement of the Acropolis was the Parthenon. Begun in 447 BC and dedicated to Athena, the Parthenon also acted as the state treasury, since it was here that the tribute of the Delian League was stored for safekeeping. A masterpiece of Greek engineering. it also was one of the most finely decorated of all the buildings of the Acropolis. Within the shrine was a large chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena in full armor. Around the entablature of the naos was a frieze, which has been generally interpreted as the performance of the Panathenaea (although this interpretation has been challenged). And the sculpture groups in the Parthenon’s pediments depicted the two events central to Athenian mythology: the eastern depicts the birth of Athena; the western, the contest between Athena and Poseidon. Considered the epitome not only of the Doric Order of architecture and the most important surviving building of the Classical period, the Parthenon (and with it the Acropolis) has become the visible symbol of all that was Classical Greece.