Today the Parthenon, the Acropolis on which it stands and the city where it still stands is widely regarded as the very essence of ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and the origins of Western civilisation. For this reason it is one of the world’s most visited ancient monuments. But it is the nearby Pnyx that many consider to be the physical birthplace of democracy. Explore the remains of the ekklesia, where the Athenian democratic assembly met, and enjoy wonderful views of the Acropolis, and Athens
A few weeks ago while in the Altes Museum on Museuminsel I noticed a model in a glass case that I had not noticed before. Going over and reading the label I discovered it was a model of the Pnyx from ancient Athens. Although not the most striking of artefacts, the model or the monument, I was happy to have found the reconstruction. Looking at the model in Berlin, I was reminded of walking up the hill on which the Pnyx is in Athens last May and how I very nearly missed it.
A model of the Pnyx in 4th century BC Athens, in the Live and Death in Classical Athens gallery of the Altes Museum, on the Museuminsel in Berlin.
There were only a few more days left of my stay in Athens. I had seen the archaeological sites I had wanted to, and more. And all that was left on my list was to climb Filopappou Hill for a photograph of the Acropolis. At the top of the hill is the Monument of Philopappos, a 2nd century funerary monument to one of Athens’ wealthy benefactors. Being quite high up, you get a good panorama of the city with a great view of the entrance to the Acropolis.
As the climb was much easier than I had anticipated I carried on to the the Pnyx to check out the view from there. For a moment I lost my bearings and nearly missed it altogether. I am glad I persisted. Not only is this one of the finest views of the entrance to the Acropolis, in my opinion the Pnyx is greatly underrated. For some reason I thought there was nothing left to see except for the modern National Observatory.
Looking east over the Pnyx and the ‘ekklesia’ towards the Acropolis.
The Acropolis the Pnyx is not. Not even close. So why come here at all?
What is the Pnyx?
The Pnyx is an archaeological site on a small, rocky hill that is just over 100 metre high in the centre of Athens. The site is in a large park just below the National Observatory and about a kilometre of easy walking to the west of the Acropolis. The Philopappos Monument is in the same park, which is free to enter.
Sometimes also called Pnyx Hill, mythologically the area is linked to Theseus’ fight against the Amazons after he abducted their queen, Hippolyta. Archaeologically, the rocky outcrop has been a place of religious significance since prehistoric times, perhaps as far back as 5,000 years. But it was in the late 6th century BC that it became the place where Athenian people’s assembly, the ekklesia, would meet. Hence the name Pnyx, which derives from the Greek word for ‘tightly packed together’.
Over a period of nearly two hundred years the Pnyx underwent significance development. Archaeologists have identified three phases, before the assembly meeting point moved to the Theatre of Dionysos (South Slope of the Acropolis) by the 1st century BC.
Why is the Pnyx Important?
The assembly would meet about 10 times a year, sometimes more, to debate and vote on such issues as war and peace, as well as large-scale building projects that included the buildings on the Acropolis.
What is there to see of the Pnyx Today?
Standing in what was the auditorium of the Pnyx, it might be hard to imagine this as an important archaeological site. As early as 1765, this spot had been identified as the meeting place of the Athenian assembly. In 1803 George Hamilton-Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen who travelled widely and had a keen interest in Classical civilisations, removed soil to reveal the bema and a number of plaques that were inscribed with dedications to Zeus Hypsistos. There followed a few further investigations but it was not until 1910 that excavations of the site were undertaken by the Greek Archaeological Society. These confirmed initial suggestions that this was indeed the site of the Pnyx. In the 1930s large-scale excavations were carried out that provided the definitive understanding of the different phases of the architecture and history of the site.
Bema or Orator’s Podium
Remains of the ‘bema’ or podium from the third phase of the Pnyx’s development, dating to the 4th century BC.
The Diateichisma or Fortification
Remnants of the ‘diateichisma’ – a new fortification wall built in the 4th century BC that ran behind the stoas, the remains of the east stoa can be seen to the right in the photograph.
The Retaining Wall
Remains of the retaining wall built during the third phase of the Pnyx’s development.
The Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos
Rock-cut niches in which votive offerings would have been made to Zeus Hypsistos in the open sanctuary from the Roman period.
Visiting the Pnyx
Opening Hours: The park is accessible 24 hours a day.
There is no entry charge for the park.
How to get to the Pnyx:
If you want to start at the Pnyx and walk on to the Acropolis, you could get the Metro to Thissio Station and then walk up Apostolou Pavlou, with the Ancient Agora on your left. You will pass the Sanctuary of Zeus on your right, but once you come to the end of residential houses on your right, that is where you follow the road (Dimitri Eginitou) to your right, passing the Sanctuary of Pan on your left before you come to the entrance to the park on the left. Ahead of you you will see the rock cut steps with the retaining wall behind them (photograph above).
Alternatively, at the end of the pedestrianised walkway (Dionysiou Areopagitou) that most people use for the Acropolis, you will see a traffic roundabout where the hop-on-hop-off buses stop. Take the road leading west from there into the park. Walk up the road until you reach the Church of Agios Demetrios Loumbardiaris, if you take a path to your left you will find Socrates’ Prison and the Philopappos Monument, go right and you will pass a remnant of the Themistoclean Wall before coming to the area of exposed rock on which you can see obvious evidence of cutting for the two stoa, the diateichisma and the Altar of Zeus, the bema and the auditorium of the Pnyx before you.
Pnyx Hill & the Acropolis: A Guided Tour
Seeing the Acropolis with a knowledgeable and engaging guide is a truly wonderful experience. All our romantic notions of the hill-top sanctuary aside, there is no escaping what we see today is part archaeological site part construction site, with crowds of people. Yes, there are good informative panels at necessary points of interest. To have someone point out the main features as well as the hidden bits of history, like the Turkish canons, really does take most people's enjoyment to another level.
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of tours on offer by various operators. We have listed ten guided tours that we recommend here >>
For me, there is one that stands out. This is a tour that starts with visiting the Pnyx and moves on to the Acropolis. A combination that makes for a compelling visitor experience. So few people take the time to go to the Pnyx, while so many climb the Acropolis. Yet it could be argued that if ever there was a good combination of historical sites, it is these two. If you want to know why it is the Acropolis is so symbolically linked to ideas about democracy and the origins of western civilisations, then you need to know about the Pnyx and what took place here.
And of course, it is from the Pnyx that I think you get the best view of the Acropolis and surrounding Athens, ancient and contemporary.
The tour is organised by two giants in the industry: GetYourGuide, the world's leading platform for booking travel activities, and Athens Walking Tours, one of the (if not the) best guided city tour operators in Athens. Together they have created this walking tour that is far from being just another one to choose from; it tells a coherent story of an important historical moment.
Reconstructions and Plans of the Pnyx over the Three Phases of its Development
Plans showing the three phases of the development of the Pnyx from the late 6th century BC on the left (Phase I), the end of the 5th century BC (Phase II) and the late 4th century BC on the right (Phase III).
A reconstruction of Phase III of the Pnyx, 330 to 326 BC.
A plan of the Pnyx site in Phase III, 330 to 326 BC.