Propylaea Of The Ancient Acropolis Term Paper

Length: 8 pages Sources: 6 Subject: Drama - World Type: Term Paper Paper: #13626198 Related Topics: Superstition, Ancient Greece, Hellenistic, Ancient Greek
Excerpt from Term Paper :

¶ … Mystery of the Propylaea

The Propylaea (ca.437-432 BCE) is considered one of the mysteries of Ancient Greece. The structure was the gate to the Acropolis which was built during the Periclean building endeavor, the rebuilding program for Athens which began in 437 BCE. The Propylaea were designed as a means of creating a massive and monumental entrance to the plateau of the acropolis, particularly the complex of shrines and sanctuaries there. The gateway itself is truly stunning, as it is indeed tremendous and thundering with precise details carved in dark Elysian marble, but it was never finished. The fact that this dramatic and stunning gateway was never finished is indeed a mysterious prospect, and in the academic field of archeology, a range of theories abound as to why it was never finished. This paper will examine the most dominant theories regarding this fact, and attempt to determine why this was in fact the case. After examining all the most dominant theories regarding this issue, this paper will offer the final answer that it was the particular interruption of the Peloponnesian War which created a situation where it would be most likely that this structure remain unfinished.

Economic Reasons

The argument of frugality and economy is one major argument which is commonly used to explain why this structure was left unfinished. Specifically, some of the unfinished details of the structure are that the projecting bosses left on the outer faces of the walls which make a separation between the wings, over the roof slabs which move forward from between the main hall and the west wings. "Here they were left, it would seem, because they were hidden to anyone approaching the front of the propylaea, or passing from main hall to wing, by the 'roof slabs. In a perfectly finished building they would have been removed. The decision to leave them can only be attributed to the need for haste and economy. In the same way, it can be argued that the projections on the inner faces of the walls were left because they were not visible from within the acropolis, being obscured by the Mycenaean wall, the boundary wall of the Brauronian Artemis precinct, and, on the opposite side, the 'portico' building: proof again, that this was now allowed to continue in existence, in default of the construction of the north east wing" (Tomlinson, 1990). To some scholars, this answer makes sense: at the time the Peloponnesian War had started and one could ascertain that there was an overall lack of funds. However, this is simply not the case as later historical events demonstrate how such an explanation is really insufficient. Frugality really cannot be used as a reason to explain why the finishing touches were not given to the Propylaea even later. "A city that could in 434/3 allot 20 talents a year to get the Acropolis in shape (one of the provisions of the Kallias Decrees) and that in the last third of the fifth century could afford to complete the Erechtheion and Nike sanctuary and create the Nike parapet could surely have afforded to return of the gateway and shave off a few unsightly lumps of stone from its walls" (Hurwit, 2004

The oddness and sheer mystery as to why parts of this structure were left so boldly and so remarkably unfinished is indeed perplexing. Consider the following statement: "On the walls, particularly on the outer south side of the Propylaea, and on the floors and steps one can still see the lifting bosses for moving the blocks during construction. Or the unfinished protective surfaces. During the final polishing, which was carried out from top to bottom, the bosses and mantle ought to have been removed. This indeed occurred in the upper part of Propylaea, and the painting decoration, consisting of stars on the ceiling coffers was added" (Goette, 2012, p.37). These facts are so remarkable as they paint a clear picture regarding the strong sense of disharmony between the elements of the structure. It's not just that the Propylaea were left unfinished; it's that certain sections of the gateway were not only finished but adorned. This gives one a sense that there truly was something odd and amiss with the fact certain sections bear the mark of Greek precision and completion, whereas other sections of the structure lack this same precision. This discrepancy only furthers the sense of mystery as a whole.

Aesthetic Reasons

Other scholars argue for the fact that there was a certain aesthetic charm that was discovered at the time in regards to unfinished masonry. While these same scholars assert that the Peloponnesian War probably had something to do with the fact that the final finished was not carried out immediately, they believe that there was a certain amount of discovery connected to the fact that the structure remained unfinished. "It is certainly true that masonry was left unfinished in later times; rustification used as decorative...


The fact that portions of the structure are finished and other portions of the structure are unfinished simply creates a state where it appears as though there was uncertainty and discord regarding what to do specifically with the piece.

Religious Reasons

Other reasons for why the Propylaea were left unfinished are often connected to a sense of religious economy, similar to the explanations which exist in the name of frugality. However, as other scholars demonstrate, these explanations are not sufficient either. While it's true that Greek architects would sometimes alter or adjust the design of their buildings mid-construction is in fact true, but to assume that the Propylaea were substantially different from what Mnesikles had originally envisioned is incorrect; ultimately others argue for a cogency present within the asymmetry which survives (Martin-Mcauliffe, 2012). Even still, other scholars have argued that it was not the interruptions of the Peloponnesian War which created such a profound sense of urgency regarding a more marked sense of frugality, but the anxiety placed on the society because of the Peloponnesian war. This created a sense of worry and concern that shifted the focus of society from an aesthetic perspective, to a more defensive one. "Indeed there is good evidence to suggest that the Mycenaean fortifications of the Acropolis and the Pelarkigon were still viable defense systems in the fifth century BCE; functional and formidable, yet hardly relics" (Martin-Mcauliffe, 2012). This is significant, as it helps to remind one that function and defense were still at the forefront of the Greek mind during this historical period. It thus suggests that perhaps it wasn't the interruption in time of the Peloponnesian War which was the reason the Propylaea was left unfinished, but it was the shift in mindset that the outbreak of this war caused. The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War could have helped to refocus the perspective of the Greeks to a mindset which recalled that theirs was a society which was focused on defense and victory. Thus, the outbreak of this war may have created a state within the Greek mentality of "re-remembering" that defense and victory were primary, and aesthetic values were secondary. Thus the unfinished quality of the Propylaea may have simply been a reassertion of those values.

Anxiety of War

One must not forget that impact that going to war can have on a society. War is horror, terror and futility: even in Ancient Greece one can assume that there was little romance attached to war. One can assume that the soldiers and generals of ancient Greece were still acquainted with the fragility of human life and the fragility of civilization and that all their "modernism" in warfare was only going to be able to get them so far. There was no doubt a certain level of anxiety and anguish that came with the crisis of the Peloponnesian war that made the Greeks reprioritize items in various directions more than others. Even when a society is victorious after war, can still create a false sense of security and only contribute to an overwhelming sense of anxiety which becomes largely repressed. Consider America in the 1950s after World War Two: while this was an age of prosperity and of the suburban home, and is often romanticized to a certain extent, there was still a highly significant amount of anxiety: fear of retaliation, economic inequality, uncertainty about the future. Thus, one can only assume that prevalent anxieties of some nature were plaguing Greek society, and were part of the reason why this structure was re-prioritized as after the war. In fact, one could argue that the unfinished gateway was used to serve as an active reminder of what was important in Greek society: safety and defense over the primacy of the aesthetic.

Similarities and Superstitions

Other scholars assert that this was not at all the case, and that the unfinished quality of the structure, along with other aesthetic trends of the structure can be used to create parallels with…

Sources Used in Documents:


Goette, H.R. Athens, Attica and the Megarid. New York: Routledge Press, 2012.

Hurwit, J.M. The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles. London: Cambridge Press, 2004.

Leonard, J. The Erechtheion: A jewel in the Acropolis crown. 2010.

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