Today, the Parthenon hogs all the glory on the Athenian Acropolis. Tourists flock to it every day, all but ignoring an equally-remarkable structure as they walk right through it. The Propylaea, part of Pericles’ grand construction plan, straddles the entrance to the Acropolis. Its construction was directed by Mnesikles, and began directly after the Parthenon was completed. Contemporary writers such as Pausanias and Demosthenes valued the Propylaea just as greatly as the Parthenon, naming it as one of Athens’ greatest monuments and going on at length about its marble roofs and gilt decorations.
Clearly, Mnesikles designed the Propylaea as more than a simple gatehouse – it was designed as a central hall with four wings projecting from it, two on each side. The building’s core consisted of a wide set of steps leading up to a gatewall, with its five openings of varying size. Interestingly, the threshold of the left-most entrance is much more worn than those of the other gateways. This strongly suggests that the other gates (three of which are larger and more centrally-located) were sealed off at some point (likely with doors, as evidence shows), with the left-most door left open as the only entrance. Taking this one step further, since the Acropolis was intended to double as fortified ground, the Propylaea was almost certainly intended to serve as the fully-sealable gate that barred access to the Acropolis in case the Athenian populace ever retreated there during a siege.
This utilitarian function does not explain why the Propylaea was so beautifully designed and well-decorated, however. For example, the Pinakotheke, the larger of the two constructed wings, was anything but a stark guardpost. It was suggested to be a hospitality area to accommodate pilgrims to the Acropolis, though others proposed that it was used as a formal banquet hall instead. Later on, it also displayed pictures within it, though that may not have been its original purpose. No matter whether the Pinakotheke served as a rest stop, a dining hall, or a gallery, it was almost certainly an ancillary component to the full structure, and is not indicative of its primary purpose.
The clue to the purpose of the Propylaea not only lies in its construction, but also in its location. An imposing structure such as this situated at the head of the Acropolis could hardly be missed from most points in the city, including the Agora to the northwest. In addition, it also lies at the end of the Panathenaic way, guarding the entrance to the most sacred ground in the region. Once a year, the Panathenaic Procession would pass down the Panathenaic way from the Dipylon Gate all the way to the Acropolis. Led by the wheeled ship bearing the robe of Athena (the peplos), the procession consisted of members of most walks of Athenian life: old generals, young athletes, women escorting the wheeled ship, metics (foreign residents in Athens) bearing gifts, and representatives from every deme in Attica. In Athens’ later imperial years, representatives from every allied state were also required to be present, bearing offerings. As the parade reached the foot of the Acropolis, the first of the offerings to Athena were made here, in the shadow of the towering Propylaea. Only citizens were permitted to pass beyond this, and escort the wheeled ship to the Erechtheion. Here, the Propylaea marked the boundary between the civil world of the city of Athens and the spiritual world of the Acropolis, in a suitably grand style.
The location of the Propylaea, in conjunction with the context of the historical environment in which it was built, gives us a real sense of what Propylaea was mainly designed to do. Yes, it was in essence a gate. But no gate needs to be so monumental and beautiful to fulfill its function of controlling access. Instead, we should consider it as part of Pericles’s grand construction project, which began soon after the Athenian victory over the Second Persian Invasion. Athens has just risen from its lowest point – the occupation and razing of the city – to its highest, after its singlehanded defeat of the force which brought the rest of the Hellenic world to its knees. Pericles’ building program was therefore symbolic of that bounce back from foreign destruction, stronger than ever. Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, the Propylaea rose on top of an earlier structure (which served a similar function and was no doubt destroyed by the Persians) to light up the classical skyline. To Athenian citizens, this fortress of white marble and glowing bronze stokes the fires of patriotism in the grandest display of power the city has seen yet. To foreigners, including the “allies” of the Delian League, the same sight asserts the political, economic, and military might of Athens. No matter who stands at the foot of the Propylaea, gazing up in wonder, Mnesikles is sending a clear message: Athens has risen from its ashes stronger than it has ever been.