The Ancient Greek Agora at Athens
The ancient greek agora was a central part of life in ancient Greece.
It contained all the essential ingredients for the people of that time to conduct their lives. Shops, meeting places, law courts, libraries, baths, halls for public functions with collonades (stoas), meeting place for those holding public office - these and many other buildings and areas served the needs of the local people.
A complex site
The ancient greek agora at Athens is one of the largest remaining from the classical world. It's not easy for a visitor to understand, because much of the remains are just marks on the ground, or wall bases. To complicate matters further, the agora was in use for over 1000 years. During that time buildings were regularly added and demolished.
Agora at Athens
Also, be aware of the different historical eras. There were quite a few buildings in the ancient greek agora, but when the Romans came along they did what Romans did best (apart from beating everyone else in battle) - they built magnificent civic buildings. A plan of the ancient greek agora of Athens in the 4th century AD shows it stuffed full of structures with hardly any space, whereas the agora in the 5th century BC (as shown below) has far more space in it.
As you walk through the ancient greek agora at Athens - originally over 6 acres - either employ the services of a guide (and make sure they are authentic!) or use a good guide book. Otherwise it will just look like a jumble of stones, statues and lumps of marble. Note that most of the buildings in the north of the plan are difficult to get at, as modern buildings and a railway have been constructed over them.
This was built about 470BC. It was a circular building where the 50 prytaneis (senators) met to eat their meals. They were responsible for the government of Athens. The offical weights and measures were also kept here.
It is thought this is the building where the strategoi (generals) had their office. Because Athens was nearly always at war, the military were very important. Generals were elected, and included the playwright Sophokles.
The State Prison?
Experts have suggested this could be the site of the prison. The Athenians didn't hand out long jail terms, preferring fines, exile or death.
The most famous person held here would have been Socrates. He was executed in 399BC by drinking hemlock.
The Athenians used silver from their mines at Laurion to make their coins. These coins were highly regarded because of their high silver content.
Athena was the goddes of both warfare and wisdon. Most coins showed the head of Athena wearing a helmet, and her symbol of wisdom, the owl.
The real name of this building is unknown, and is called the South Stoa to distinguish it from a stoa built in the same place in later Hellinistic times. It is believed to have been built between 430 and 420 BC.
Because of various objects discovered here, it is thought the stoa was mainly used for commercial functions.
The remains of this structure were in poor condition when excavated, and it's function remains unclear. The most reasonable explanation is that it was a courthouse, but another building in the north-east of the agora has a better claim.
Monument of the Eponymous Heroes
When Kleisthenes revamped the constitution of Athens and created 10 tribes, they were named after early heroes of Athens. Hence the name, as 'eponymous' means giving your name to something.
Although Aristophanes mentions the momument in about 420BC, the exact site of the original is not known; this is where the replacement was erected in about 330BC.
This new 'Senate House' was built in the last decade of the 5thC BC.
It is not known why the Athenians decided to build a new Bouleuterion when they still had the old one.
The Old Bouleuterion or 'Senate House' dates from the 5thC BC. It was where the 'senators' met. The 'Boule' was composed of 500 members, 50 from each of the 10 tribes of Athens. They met every day except during festivals.
The state archives were also kept here, and remained after the New Bouleuterion was built.
Stoa of Attalos
Although not part of the 5thC BC agora, it is included on this plan because today you can't miss the modern authentic reconstruction. It was built in the 1950's and houses the agora museum.
The original was built in the 2ndC BC by King Attalos of Pergamon.
The Temple of Hephaistos
The Temple of Hephaistos was built around the middle of the 5thC BC. It was dedicated to Hephaisos, god of the forge, and Athena, in her role as goddess of arts and crafts.
Because it was turned into a church, it wasn't destroyed and its stones used for other buildings. Having a roof on it for centuries also helped to protect it.
The cavalry (hippeis) was an important element in the Athenian army. The central open space of the agora was an ideal place for horsemen to train.
As with the Heliaia, the function of this building is not certain, but it may have been the lawcourt.
The Athenians were always suing one another. Although they had juries, the smallest one was composed of 201 men, and some had as many as 2,500!
As well as public buildings, there were many private shops in the agora. Excavations have unearthed evidence of different types of businesses, and Greek writers refer to perfume shops, barbers, cobblers, and food, pottery and clothes shops.
Altar of the Twelve gods
The identification for this is based on an inscription found nearby on the base of a statue which reads: 'Leagros the son of Glaukon dedicated this to the 12 gods'.
This altar was famous in classical times as a place of refuge and safety. It was also believed to be the centre of Athens.
Stoa of Zeus
A stoa in the ancient Greek agora dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios (Freedom), which makes it a religious building. It was built using the Doric order, with two projecting wings.
Stoas were used by the Athenians as imformal meeting places. From the writings of Plato and Xenophon we learn that Socrates used to meet with his friends and students here.
The site of the Royal Stoa is probably one of the oldest in Athens. It is thought it was first built in the Archaic period, and rebuilt in the 5thC BC.
It's known as the Royal Stoa because it's where the second in command of the Athenian government, the 'king archon' (basileus), held office. Much of his responsibilities were for religious matters.
(This has been only partially excavated). It was one of the most famous buildings in ancient Athens, and was carefully constructed and highly decorated.
Ancient authors often refer to the paintings here. They were painted on large wood panels, and depicted various victories of the Athenians, and the Greeks at Troy.
The site of the ancient greek agora was in use from about 3000 BC, in the Neolithic period. Pottery has been found in some wells which date from this period. The area was used as a burial site in Mycenaean times up until the 7th century BC.
It was developed into an ancient greek agora from the time of Solon in the early 6th century BC. Solon was the great law giver, who revised Athenian law which enabled the city to become one of the greatest powers of the classical world.
Temple of Hephaistos
What would it have looked like?
Walking through the ancient greek agora at Athens today will actually give you a fairly good impression of how it might have appeared to the Greeks of Pericles' day. There would have been trees to provide shade, and statues, fountains and votive offerings would be everywhere. Surrounding the central space you'd find shops in shaded collonades (stoas), temples, law courts, and places for buisnessmen to meet or just exchange news and gossip.
Interior of the Stoa of Attalos
The Stoa of Attalos has been included on the plan of the agora although it's from the 2nd century BC and not the 5th C. In the 1950's it was rebuilt and is the agora museum. If you're visiting on a hot day, standing inside in the shade will convince you why the Greeks were keen on these types of buildings.
Socrates taught in the Agora. Here is his Three Filter Test.