The ancient Agora (meeting place) of Athens was the place to meet and be seen.
The Agora was a large square on the northwest slope of the Acropolis where social and religious activities, commerce, outdoor theatrical performances, and athletic contests were held. (Opening photo of the Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora below the northside of the Acropolis.)
The Acropolis with the Temple of Nike (Victory) at far right.
The Agora was the heart of the ancient city and the center of Athenian democracy, where administrative, judicial, and political functions and assemblies took place. From the 6th century B.C. onwards the Agora was traversed by the Panathenaic Way, a boulevard where over the centuries public buildings were constructed and adorned with altars, temples, stoa, fountains, portraits, and statues.
Athens is located on the Attic Plain, surrounded by mountains on three sides: Parnus, Pendeli, and Hymettus; two streams flow through the plain, the Kifisos and the Illsos. Over-shadowing the Agora was the Acropolis which was inhabited since Neolithic times. but fortified as early as 1,400 B.C. during the Mycenaean empire. In the 9th century B.C. the surrounding countryside, including the port of Piraeus, was incorporated into the city.
The Agora from the Temple of Hēphaistos.
The monarchy was replaced with an aristocracy of nobles; ordinary citizens had few rights. The city was controlled by the Areopagus (Council of Elders) who appointed three magistrates (later nine) called archons, who were responsible for the conduct of war, religion, and law. Discontent with the system led to an abortive overthrow by Cylon in 632 B.C. Continued unrest led to Draco’s harsh legal code enacted in 621 B.C. (thus the word Draconian). The abrasive code finally led to Solon as archon in 594 B.C., and he established a council (boule) a popular assembly (ekklesia), and fair laws.
In 560 B.C. the tyrant Pisistratus came to power, assisted by the aristocracy. He enlarged Solon’s assembly hall in the Agora and built a new Temple of Athena (patron goddesses of Athens) on the Acropolis. He also sponsored public events such as the Panathenaic festival, held every four years in Athena’s honor. In 509 B.C. Cleisthenes led a democratic revolt, and a new assembly area was created on Pryx hill below the Acropolis.
Many roads led to the Agora.
In 480 B.C. the Persians sacked and nearly demolished Athens, but Themistocles, who defeated the Persians at Salamis, restored the city with walls around Athens that extended to the port of Piraeus. The walls can be seen in the basement of my luxurious hotel, the Divani, a few short blocks from the entrance to the Acropolis.
About 450 B.C. Pericles continued the wall expansion. Pericles, more than any democratic leader, turned Athens into a classic city, using public funds to build the Parthenon, the Temple of Nike (Victory), and the Erechtheum, all on the Acropolis. At the same time Pericles developed the Agora, which now brought goods to the citizens from around the Aegean. Athens became the head of the Delion League of Greek city-states; it was now an imperial power, and it tried cases from all over the Mediterranean in its courts in the Agora. The city with its democratic way of life became the School of Hellas.
The graveyard at the Athens Agora.
Athens fell into decline after its defeat by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Pessimism spread. Socrates was forced to take his own life. But philosophy prevailed; Plato, a student of Socrates, created his school, the Academy, and Aristotle created his school, The Lyceum; orators like Demosthenes, Isocrates, and others, refined the art of rhetoric, often practiced in the Agora.
Many Athens Agora temples date to the Classical era.
A number of important roads ended or began in the Agora, including Piraeus Street, which connected the city to its port, and Areopagus Street, where the nobles and aristocracy held Athens’ oldest court, the sanctuary of the Semnai (the vengeful ones) and the Eumenides (the kindly ones); also in the area was a part of the Kydathenaion Quarter, and the Christian Church dedicated to Dionysius the Aeropagite.
It was an easy walk clockwise from the Divani hotel as I followed the old Areopagus Street (now paved) to the shuttered Observatory of Athens on the Hill of the Nymphs. Beautiful panoramic views of the Acropolis and modern Athens are scenes to behold from the hill. With disappointment I found no Nymphs, only old foundations and a huge bubbling spring, the source of water for the citizens and the Agora’s Southeast Fountain House (6th century B.C. and one of the oldest buildings in the Agora) and the Southwest Fountain House (4th century B.C.).
The Observatory on the Hill of the Nymphs.
The entrance to the Agora from the west is unmarked so I spoke to a policeman on a motor scooter who pointed out an open gate, which led me on a gravel path to the real entrance. Parts of the Agora are closed because of ongoing archaeological digs. At the entrance I was presented a map, bought bottled water, and first explored the nearby Nymphaion (150 A.D.) near the entrance; I found no nymphs there either. Life in the Agora must have been a frolicking time!
The Library of Pantainios (100 A.D.) was under reconstruction, which resulted in the closure of the Southeast Stoa (150 B.C.). I followed well-worn tourist paths to the mostly ruined, but linear and long, Middle Stoa (2nd century B.C.). Stoa were the workshops, storehouses, and market stalls of the ancient citizens of Athens.
Water flowed from the Acropolis springs.
Near each other were the Heliaia (460 B.C.) and the Triangular Shrine (5th century B.C.) two of the oldest votive areas in the park. I explored the area of the ruined circular Tholos (460 B.C.) and the Strategeion (5th century B.C.). The Tholos housed the seat of government, the Prytaneion. All that was left of the Strategeion was a grassy trapezoidal foundation of the stepped chamber where the ten Strategoi convened. Each of the ten ancient tribes elected a Strategoi for one year as its representative and they lived on the premises. The Athenians also called their generals Strategos, which dates back to a cult hero of the same name. Tribal decisions were heard for matters concerning finance, politics, and foreign policy. I stood where Pericles, Themistocles, Cleon, and Nicias argued their rhetorical and “strategic” fine points.
The Tholos and Strategeion were located
below the 5th century B.C. Temple of Hēphaistos.
Above me was the hill of Kolonos Agrippais, dominated by the classical colonnaded temple dedicated to Hēphaistos (5th century B.C.) and Athena Ergane. Hēphaistos was the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metallurgists, fire, and volcanoes; the location of the nearby Arsenal (3rd century B.C.) now made sense. The view from the hill was a full scene of the entire Agora, including the Stoa of Attalos, on the far eastern boundary of the Agora.
The Museum of the Athena Agora in the Stoa of Attalos.
The Museum of the Athena Agora is housed in the Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd century B.C. building that was restored in 1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies to house artifacts from the Agora. The Stoa was built by King Attalos II of Pergamon (159-138 B.C.) and functioned as a place for meetings, thoughtful walks, and as the commercial center of the Agora. The modern renovation included 21 shops on two stories at the rear of the museum. The original columns shaded the colonnaded terrace and façade. The Museum was revamped by the Ministry of Culture in 2003-04 in time for 2004 Olympics in Athens.
The exhibits on the ground floor are deployed in a large oblong gallery that resulted in ten of the Stoa’s ancient shops opened up for museum space. The main gallery is arranged in chronological and thematic groups presenting Athens’ political and administrative activities. The Agora was also once used as a cemetery, so many finds were discovered in grave plots. The older items included vases, weapons, and figurines that dated back to the Neolithic era, the Early and Middle Bronze Age, and Mycenaean and Geometric periods, mostly found in burials and walls.
Statuary abounds in the Museum.
The most important exhibits are connected to Athenian democracy and date to the Classical and Late-Classical periods: clay public measures, official bronze weights, part of a marble ballot box, jurors’ ballots, a clay Klepsydra-water clock for timing speeches, ostracism astrakas incised with the names of ancient politicians, and important inscriptions such as a marble stele (337-336 B.C.) depicting Demos and Democracy with an inscribed decree of the Assembly of the Deme against tyranny. The exhibition is completed with black- and red-figure vases, the works of vase painters like the krater by Exekias, plus, household vessels, figurines, lamps, coins, and a miniature marble statuette which is a copy of Apollo Lykeios by Praxiteles.
Votive reliefs, inscriptions, and sculptures from decorations in the temples and public buildings are in the lower open stoa. These include the cult statue of Apollo Patroos (the temple was constructed in the Agora from 340 to 320 B.C.), a work by Euphranor (4th century B.C.), a colossal statue of Aphrodite dating to the Classical period, an exceptionally fine torso of Themis (4th century B.C.), sculptures from the Hephaesteion and the Temple of Ares (440 B.C.), the winged Nike (Victory) from the acroterion of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios (5th century B.C.), and Roman statues which are personifications of the Iliad and Odyssey from the Library of Pantainos.
A beautiful relic of the Athens Agora.
The foundations and footings and broken column stubs of other buildings that once stood in the Agora include: The Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileios, 460 B.C.), the Bouleurterion (Council House, 5th century B.C.), the Metroon (2nd century B.C.), the Altar of the 12 Gods (522-521 B.C.), the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes (4th century B.C.), the Painted Stoa (Stoa Poikile. 460 B.C.), and the Odeion of Agrippa (15 B.C.).
Church of the Apostles above the Agora ruins.
Southwest of the Agora a residential area once formed the ancient demes of Kollytos and Melite, while the sanctuary of Eleusis grew up southeast of the site. The Athenian Agora was repeatedly plundered and destroyed: the Romans under Sulla in 86 B.C.; the Herulians in 267 A.D.; and the Slaves in 580 A.D. In the 10th century A.D., following a long period of desertion, a Byzantine neighborhood grew up in the Agora, and the Church of the Holy Apostles was built. The area was again destroyed in 1204 by invaders under Leon Sgouros, the ruler of Nauplion, and sacked in 1826-27 during the Greek War of Independence. In the late 19th century the Agora was buried under the Vrysaki quarter of Athens with its densely built-up Vlasarou and Apostolon (Holy Apostles) neighborhoods. Since 1957 the Agora has been operated by the Greek Archaeological Service.
Giant columns at the Temple of Hēphaistos.
The next day I decided to visit the Agora again, but I strolled counter-clockwise from the Divani Hotel through the modern Agora of cafés, restaurants, t-shirt shops, trinket sellers, bars, and boutique hotels. I was surprised to stumble upon the ancient, but smaller Roman Agora, 100 meters east of the Athens Agora.
The Roman Agora of Athens was built in the first half of the 1st century B.C. The donor of the Roman Agora, as seen on an inscription carving on the epistyle blocks of the west propylon, were Julius Caesar and Augustus.
The Roman Agora.
The Roman Agora dimensions were 111 by 98 meters with a large rectangular open courtyard once surrounded by stoa and storerooms. The Roman Agora has two propyla: the one on the west was in the Doric style, known as the Gate of Athena Archegetis, dedicated by the Athens deme in 11/10 B.C. during the archonship of Nikias. The eastern propylon has Ionic columns made of gray Hymettian marble, with bases of Pentelic marble.
Another entrance from the street was used in ancient times in the same area. The courtyard was paved during the reign of Hadrian (117- 138 A.D.) Hadrian’s oil merchant tax regulations can be seen carved on the main door of the west propylon.
The date at which the Roman Agora was destroyed is not known. In 267 A.D., after the Herulian attack, Athens moved the commercial and administrative center from the Athens Agora to the Roman Agora at Hadrian’s Library, where it continued until the middle of the 19th century. Evidence of urban development of the area can be drawn from 18th and 19th century engravings and oil paintings.
There are three other buildings to the east of the Roman Agora on a higher level.
The Tower of the Winds.
All that is intact of The Agoranomeion (1st century A.D.) are a wide staircase, the façade with three archways, and parts of the north and south walls. The inscription on the epistyle on the façade states that the building was dedicated to Athena Archegetis and the divi Augusti.
The most beautiful standing structure is The Horologion of Kyrrhestos or Tower of the Winds (Aerides). This building was built by the Astronomer Andronikos from Kyrrho in Macedonia. It is an occtongal tower of Pentelic marble standing on a base with three steps with a conical roof, a cylindered annex on the south side, and two propyla. A bronze weather-vane (no longer preserved) was on the roof and indicated the direction of the winds, with the personifications of the wind gods still present in relief near the top of each of the sides. The wind gods’ names are carved beneath the cornices: Boreas, Kaikias, Apeliotes, Euros, Notos, Lips, Zephyros, and Skiron. The rays of sun dials are carved on each side beneath the scenes of the winds, and inside the building was a water clock, operated with springs from the Acropolis. In the early Christian period, the monument was used as a church, and in the 18th century as a Dervish monastery.
The Vespasianae, or public toilets, are still seen NW of the Tower of the Winds in a rectangular room with benches along the sides, and a narrow anteroom to the east.
The western Athena Archegetis gate of the Roman Agora.
I visited both Agoras on my own. A guide is not really needed for the Roman Agora, but to get a full flavor of the Athens Agora I noticed walking guides leading small groups as they pointed out the details of the archaeological park. Visit Athens Walking Tours at www.athenswalkingtours.gr and then later take an Athens Food Tour through the modern Agora with the same company. The Greeks today are still a gregarious people, so excuse me while I meet up with the Nymphs at the ancient Nymphaion for a few Mythos beers to discuss the rhetorical terms of endearment.
One of the eight Greek winds.
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— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.