Abstract In seismically active regions, active low-angle detachment faults are probably more frequent as is commonly thought and may play an important but still underestimated role in the evolution of landforms and basins. We investigate the tectonically active region of Attica (Greece) in the Aegean back arc as a model region to show how basins and mountain ranges commonly thought to be formed by movements on high-angle normal faults in fact reflect the surface expression of displacements on yet undetected, deep-seated, active low-angle normal detachment faults. Inferences are made based on an integrated study of Attica linking the petrology of clastic sediments with geomorphology and structures, and including few new palynological data. From the Miocene to Recent, three sets of normal detachment fault systems were successively active. Shear zones of the 1st (Early Miocene) stage emplaced rocks of the Attic Cycladic high- P metamorphic belt (AC-HP-belt) from depth corresponding to greeschist facies conditions in the brittle, upper crust. In the 2nd stage the WNW dipping Attica low-angle normal detachment fault system between the AC-HP-belt and the un- or weakly metamorphosed rocks of the sub-Pelagonian Zone (SPZ) was active. Clastic sedimentation started in the Late Miocene, during the 2nd stage. Late Miocene and Early Pliocene clastic sediments reveal that during the 2nd stage many areas that presently expose the AC-HP-belt were still covered by the overlying SPZ. Also, now uplifted areas such as the Parnitha mountain range that currently undergo strong erosion were then the sites of sedimentary sinks. The 3rd stage (Late Pliocene through Recent) is associated with dramatic changes in the morphology and recurring steepening of the relief. Reversal of the Parnitha area from the site of deposition into the site of erosion is associated with deposition of coarse conglomerates to the SE of the Parnitha Mt. and S of the Penteli Mt. Sediments of the 3rd stage reflect activity of the here newly described, SSE-dipping Penteli—Athens low-angle detachment fault (PADF) system formed at a high angle to the Attica detachment fault. The outcome of this study is that the present-day geomorphology is to a high degree related to the operation of the PADF system. Steep fault bounding the Athens and Mesogea basins as well as the mountain ranges (Parnitha, Penteli, Hymittos mounts) belongs to its breakaway zone or root into the PADF. Ongoing tectonic movements related to this fault system were responsible for the 1999 Athens (Mw = 6.0) earthquake. We particularly discuss how the PADF may continue into greater depth, the translation magnitude, and how the PADF fits into the wider kinematic framework of the Aegean region.