The Temple of Athena Nike: A Small Shrine Dedicated To One of Athena's Many Incarnations
The Temple of Athena Nike is the smallest structure on the Athenian Acropolis, but holds no less importance than its neighboring shrines. Built to honor Athena Nike, the goddess of victory, the site upon which the temple was constructed has ceremonial roots that date back to the Bronze Age. When the newer, Classical temple was built in the fifth century B.C., it no doubt did double duty: it stood as a shrine to Athens’ patron goddess, and also acted as a symbol of Athens’ military and political strength.
The location of the Temple of Athena Nike is on the southwest corner of the Acropolis, adjacent to the Propylaia. The position of the temple, on a rocky projection of the outcropping, was particularly vulnerable to attack. The Mycenaeans constructed a wall there to supplement the natural citadel of the Acropolis, and began worshipping there.
There is archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age that suggests this spot was highly important to the worship of Nike, or victory, deities. By the sixth century B.C., also known as the Archaic period, a cult of Athena Nike was established and a small, earlier temple was built on the site. When the Persians sacked Athens and destroyed the Acropolis in 480 B.C., the temple to Athena Nike was also left in ruins.
Plans got underway to rebuild this important shrine in 449 B.C. With architect Kallikrates at the helm, the temple was to be a simple Ionic shrine, made of Pentellic marble, and included a prostyle porch with four columns on the front and back. It also was adorned with a sculptural frieze all around, as was customary in Greek temple construction. However, something delayed the construction, and it was not completed until around 420 B.C., built with Poros limestone and faced with marble. It was also surrounded by a sort of guardrail or parapet that would have kept Athenians and other visitors from falling off the Acropolis. This fortification was decorated with relief sculptures depicting various presentations of Nike.
As with all Greek temples, the Temple of Athena Nike would have housed a cult statue in its cella. In Greek mythology, Nike deities were often depicted with wings. This was not the case with Athena Nike. The wooden cult statue was wingless, and thus dubbed Apteros Nike, or “wingless victory”. This was perhaps to ensure that Nike (and hence and military victory or supremacy) would never abandon Athens.
Today, the Temple of Athena Nike can be seen on the Athenian Acropolis, in its restored state. It suffered much the same fate as the other buildings of the Acropolis, having been the victim of Ottoman occupation and Turkish siege in 1687. In 1834, the temple was reconstructed after Greece's emancipation. In 1998, it was dismantled so that the crumbling concrete floor could be replaced, and its frieze was removed and placed in the Acropolis Museum, safe from the harsh environmental elements of Athens.