Ancient Agora

stoa of attalos

The exact meaning of the ancient greek word agora is meeting place or, to be more exact, a place meant for political meetings, religious festivals, commercial transactions, theatrical shows, sporting events etc. In other words the Agora in ancient times was the heart of all public activities. After the Geometric Age - when the city/state of Athens had already started taking shape and the Acropolis was no longer used as a place of residence - the development of the kato polis (lower city) finally went underway. Even though developing cities in antiquity never followed a specific city plan, Athens was seemingly built around the Agora. The Agora was located at the foot of the Acropolis Hill, stretching out over a vast open space easily accessed by all the different neighborhoods of Athens and Piraeus. In the 6th century B.C. it was nothing more than an open space intersected by thePanathenaean road. All the different sanctuaries, temples, galleries and public buildings weren’t erected until much later. Having been the center of athenian public life for over a thousand years, the layout of the Agora changed a considerable amount of many times, until a persian raid in 480 B.C. destroyed it completely. The new buildings that replaced the older constructions were indicative of the gods favored by the Athenians at the time, as well as the growing popularity of democracy: the Bouleuterion (Parliament House), the Tholos and the Hephaisteion. The Agora eventually reached its final rectangular form in the 2nd century B.C. It was sacked and rebuilt twice over, once in 86 B.C. by the Roman general Sullas and then again in 267 B.C. after the invasion of the barbaric Eroulae. Around 100 B.C. the Ancient Agora was linked to the Roman Agora by way of a road filled with galleries. After the 6th century B.C. the

view of statues Ancient Agora was slowly abandoned and it inevitably started to deteriorate. The constant occupation of this vast space over a period that lasted more than 3.000 years and the continuous use of the same building materials for remodeling and renovations from one period to the next is probably the reason why almost none of the ancient buildings we know existed have managed to survive the test of time - save for their foundations. Their identification is mainly based on the descriptions of the travel writer Pausanias, who visited the Agora in the 2nd century B.C. Nowadays visitors can enter the Ancient Agora through a small outpost on the northern side, in the middle of Andrianou Street. Before you enter the Agora make sure you take a look at the whole thing from above. The part of the Agora visible between Andrianou Street and the train tracks has been excavated recently, proving that the Agora used to extend to the north. The five stone bases with the square ledges (5th century B.C.) were used to support poles marking the start lines for the different sporting activities organized in the Agora. A little further to the west visitors can make out the foundations of the Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileios) named after the sovereign-king who used it as his headquarters. It also housed the most important laws of the state and a display of the laws of Solon. The building dates back to the beginning of the 6th century B.C. and was preserved until the 4rth century B.C. thanks to several renovations and adjustments.

West of the bridge that leads to the entrance of the Ancient Agora, one can see the pebble-covered floor of the Panathenaean road. If you walk along the train tracks you will soon come upon the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the middle of a square courtyard. All that’s left of it nowadays is a single corner. The rest was destroyed during the construction of the railway. It was initially built by the grandson of the tyrant Pisistratos in 522 - 521 B.C. and was considered an inviolate asylum for supplicants. The altar was a central milestone for the city from which distances to other places were measured. Southeast of the Panathenaean road we pass the foundations of a temple dedicated to Ares, the god of war. It was designed around 440 B.C. and it was initially built in Archanes, but was transferred to the Agora during the Roman period, possibly around 15 B.C. Some parts of it still bear quarry symbols from when it was disassembled. Opposite the temple, visitors can admire the colossal figures of the Giants and the Tritons that once decorated the façade of the Odeion that Vipsanios Agrippas erected in 15 B.C. in the middle of the Agora, around the same time that the adjacent temple of Ares was transferred to the site.

panoramic viewThis auditorium was big enough for almost a thousand people and survived in different forms for more than four hundred centuries before it finally became part of a gymnasium built a little further down. If you by-pass the temple of Ares and move to the west, you will reach the foundations of a 5th century stoa (gallery) dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios. It was erected in honor of all the citizens who fought for the freedom and the security of the city. Ancient writings inform us that Socrates was a regular. Next to the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios you can see a smaller temple dedicated to Apollo Patroos, who was considered the founder of the Ionian tribe. It used to host the cult statue of the god, made by the sculptor Euphranor. Behind the temple of Apollo Patroos, on top of a small hill, visitors can admire the Hephaisteion, a marble construction preserved in perfect condition, dedicated to the joint worship of Hephaestus and Athena, the protectors of the arts. It is the best-preserved classical temple in the whole country. It was build around 440 B.C. and it only managed to survive the test of time because it was converted to a christian church. Looking at this temple you still get the feeling that it is an excellent architectural monument that could even be compared to the Parthenon in terms of perfection, even though it’s a lot smaller. It’s Doric peripteral with a pronaos, an opisthodomos and thirteen columns down its long sides. The interior hosted the bronze cult statues of Hephaestus and Athena, made by the famous sculptor Alkamenes. The temple’s marble decorations include the labors of Hercules and Theseus on the metopes, the Centaurfights and the battle between the Paladides and Theseus on the friezes, and the deification of Hercules on mount Olympus on the pediments. Left of the Apollo Patroos temple, there’s a building with an Ionian propylon that once formed part of the Metroon, a public building complex used for storing state archives, official documents and public records of the proceedings of the Council of 500. It was built in the 2nd century B.C. and it was named Metroon because it was under the protection of the mother (mitera) of the gods. The Metroon is the only remaining construction of such function but it is clear that there used to be a lot more of them.Opposite the entrance of the Metroon, visitors can see the foundations of an oblong pedestal, called the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes, that supported the bronze statues of the 10 legendary heroes who gave their names to the ten tribes of Attica. This monument also served as the official notice board of the city.

That was one of the main reasons why every respected Athenian citizen owed it to himself to drop by the Agora at least once a day. The great circular construction on the left side of the Metroon used to belong to the Tholos, a building that served as the headquarters and meeting place for the chairmen (prytaneis) of the Council of 500 (Boule). A set of standard weights and measures, the official seal of the state and the keys of the city temples were kept there as well. The part of the Agora that lies behind the Odeion of
Aggripa was developed according to higher architectural standards. It was separated from the main part of the Agora with a great gallery called Mesi Stoa, built in the 2nd century B.C. at the expense of king Attalos I. The southwestern corner of the square features a much earlier building (probably dating back to 460 B.C.) that has been identified as the courthouse of Iliea. It is entirely possible that the colonnades of the hellenistic galleries were also meant to serve as courts of law, which we know for a fact often conferred in the Agora.
West of the Iliea visitors can admire a public water spring. If you walk down the southwestern road, between the Mesi Stoa and the Tholos, you will come upon the foundations of some more public buildings, the most important of which has been identified as the headquarters of the nine generals. A little further down, outside of the Agora boundaries, there’s a building with a great number of rooms that has been identified as the public jailhouse, possibly the very place where Socrates spent his last moments.

temple of Hephaestus The tour of the south side of the Agora comes to an end with a visit to the beautiful church of Agioi Apostoli (1000 A.D.), located on the very spot formerly taken up by the Nympheo. At this point we come across the Panathenaean road again and we turn north.
This side of the Agora started taking shape after the 2nd century B.C. On the east side of the Panathenaean road one can see a line of ruins that belonged to the so-called southeastern stoa (2nd century B.C.) that must have housed shops. Next to them there’s a library. At first sight it’s a little difficult to understand exactly what it is you’re looking at because the sight of the library is hindered by the remains of some more recent fortification walls. The library was built in 100 A.D. by Flavios Padenos, a priest of the Muses. It is a typical specimen of small public libraries from the period of Emperor Trianus. The fortification wall in front of the library was constructed after the catastrophic raid of the Erulae in 267 A.D. with building materials taken from the surrounding run-down temples. If you take a close look at the wall you’ll make out several columns and architectural parts from the library and a temple that used to be located near the Nympheo.

The great gallery that essentially set the eastern boundaries of the Agora, was built at the expense of king Attalos II, who was always positively inclined towards the city of Athens. It was constructed in 150 B.C. and it was exclusively reserved for commercial transactions and entertainments purposes. The renovations carried out by the American School of Classical Studies between 1953 and 1956 are exemplary and allow visitors to fully grasp the concept behind this ancient structure. The interior has been turned into a very functional museum that boasts several findings discovered in the Ancient Agora. In front of the gallery, visitors can admire a large pedestal which must have been used to support a memorial tethripo (chariot). Further to the west you can make out the ruins of a small circular temple dating back to the 2nd century A.D. that must have housed the statue of some god. Our short tour around the monuments of the Ancient Agora comes to an end with the remains of the Stoa of Attalos that belong to a basilica, a roman-style construction from the 2nd century A.D. and the propylon of a 1st century public building.

view of temple The Ancient Agora is a unique archaeological site with numerous low building remnants, where visitors would have to use their imagination in order to reconstruct the whole thing as it once was. The constant and overlapping construction periods have created a maze of foundations, much to the delight of archaeology lovers who will called upon to piece them together. They will probably feel a lot like the archaeologists who first came across this fantastic site and had to identify each and every construction. All of these buildings are endowed with a long history, reminiscent of all the significant personalities who once lived and breathed among them, still charming visitors with the simplicity of the landscape and its sense of measure. It has been said, and rightly so, that the Ancient Agora is a place for the people, in contrast to the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis, a place exclusively reserved for the gods.