Under the hill of Acropolis lies the ancient Agora of Athens, the place where Athenian democracy was born. Explore one of the most fascinating places in ancient Greece with this article telling the story of the 8 most important monuments from the ancient site.
What Is An Agora?
In classical Greece, an agora was the center of the commercial and political life of a city-state. Agora means gathering place and it truly was a site where citizens could gather and discuss, exchange views, and decide on important issues. Gradually though, the agora came to be identified as a marketplace with stoas (colonnades) containing shops of all kinds. Even today, the word agora in modern Greek is used to describe a marketplace. Most Greek cities had an agora, but the best example was the agora of Athens.
The Agora of Athens
This was the heart of Athens. The agora was the commercial, political, administrative, social, religious, and cultural center of the city. It was in use as a cemetery and residential site already from 3,000 BCE but became a public place in the 6th century BCE.
The Agora of Athens has seen four major destructions. One by the Persians in 480/79 BCE, one by the Roman general Sulla in 89 BCE, one by the Herulians in 267 CE, and one during the Slavic invasion of 580 CE. Gradually the area lost its importance and was finally abandoned. Nevertheless, the site today is one of the best archaeological resources for understanding the history of Athens and the origins of democracy.
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During Athens’ golden age in the fifth century BCE, the agora was the place where an intense democratic activity took place. Pericles, Themistokles, and Demosthenes, some of history’s greatest politicians, argued in the agora. Other famous figures frequenting here were the poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, as well as historians such as Thucydides and Herodotos.
Moreover, some of antiquity’s most important artists like sculptor Pheidias and painter Polygnotus created some of their finest works in the agora. Finally, we should not forget the rich philosophical tradition that rose in Athens with philosophers such as Sokrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
So let’s take a look at the 9 most important monuments from the agora Of Athens…
In ancient Athenian democracy, the Boule was a council consisting of 500 citizens chosen by lot to serve for a year. The citizens serving in the Boule met in the Bouleuterion and prepared legislation similarly to a modern parliament.
The Bouleuterion’s building was erected sometime in the second half of the 5th century. The new building replaced the Old Bouleuterion which became known as the Metroon (more below).
8. Temple of Hephaestus
Today the temple of Hephaestus is a symbol of the area named Theseion after the mythical founder of Athens Theseus. Why is it called Theseion and not Hephaesteion? Centuries after the temple of Hephaestus was abandoned, people misattributed it to Theseus and, thus, the area was wrongly named Theseion instead of Hephaesteion.
The temple of Hephaestus stands on the hill of Agoraios Kolonos and is the best-preserved Doric temple in mainland Greece. It was built in the mid 5th century BCE and was dedicated to both Hephaestus and Athena.
Furthermore, the temple was built from Pentelic marble (same as the Parthenon). It had elaborate sculptural decoration depicting the 12 labors of Hercules on the one side and the labors of Theseus on the other, which was why people thought this was a temple to Theseus. A centauromachy was also depicted on the west side of the temple and battle scenes on the east.
The temple became a Christian church in the 7th century CE. In addition, during the 18th century, it became a protestant cemetery for philhellenes who died during the Greek struggle for Independence (1821-1832).
7. The Odeon of Agrippa
Agrippa’s Odeon was built around 15 BCE by the ambitious Roman architect and general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa who was also the son-in-law of Emperor Augustus.
The Odeon was the equivalent of a modern opera house. It was a large concert hall, that could fit more than 1,000 people. The primary use of the Odeon was for music or poetry shows, as well as philosophical lectures.
The two-storied building had a large roof that collapsed in c. 150 AD but was quickly rebuilt. Agrippa’s Odeon was destroyed in 267 BCE during the sack of Athens by a Germanic people called Herulians.
The entrance of the Odeon had a facade with statues of mythical creatures in the place of columns. These were Giants and Tritons. The Giants had snake tails as earth creatures while the tritons fishtails as sea creatures.
6. The Monument of Eponymous Heroes
The Athenians were originally divided into four tribes based on blood relations. This tribal system favored certain tribes who had accumulated more wealth and privileges throughout the years.
In the 6th century BCE, the lawgiver Kleisthenes rearranged this tribal system establishing the first democratic system in history. Kleisthenes divided the Athenians into ten new tribes. These included a mix of rich and poor citizens equally drawn from all parts of the city in order to eliminate the localist divisions. These new tribes became the fundament of the Athenian democratic system.
Each of the ten tribes was named after one hero. According to a legend, the heroes were chosen randomly by the Delphi oracle.
One of the most important monuments of the Agora was the monument of the Eponymous heroes. This was a long base for ten bronze statues representing the eponymous heroes of the ten tribes:
- Cecrops II
The base of the monument served as a board for announcements. Anything important, from military conscriptions to new legislation, would be displayed on the Eponymous heroes monument.
Moreover, information concerning a specific tribe was usually hung under the statue of the tribe’s hero. As a result, it was easier for citizens to find information that directly affected them.
The tholos was a relatively small round building adjacent to the Metroon and the Bouleuterion. It may have been a small building but it was the very heart of Athenian democracy.
This was the seat of the 50 prytaneis (senators), the executive committee of the Bouleuterion (Parliament). The prytaneis were selected from each of the ten tribes of Athens to serve for just 35 days. After this period though, 50 prytaneis were chosen from another tribe until each tribe had had a turn in the city’s administration.
The prytaneis called the meetings of the Boule and received ambassadors from other cities and kingdoms. They also held the keys to the treasury and the public archives.
In the tholos, the prytaneis were fed at public expense and 17 of them could stay overnight. Therefore, if there was an emergency, the citizens could find a prytane available 24/7.
The Metroon was a building with a dual function. It housed the archives of the city and also the temple of the great mother goddess, Cybele, Demeter, or Rea. The building was right next to the Tholos and the Bouleuterion.
3. Stoa Poikile
“Pass on in thought to the Stoa Poikile too; the memorials of all your great deeds are set up in the Agora.” (Aischines, vs. Ktesiphon, 186)
The Painted (Poikile) Stoa was one of the most emblematic buildings of the agora. It was a long structure with Doric columns outside and Ionic inside. The stoa was built around the first half of the 5th century BCE and served multiple functions.
Just like most stoas, we must imagine the Poikile stoa filled with merchants selling goods, as well as wandering entertainers like firebreathers.
The Poikile Stoa was the place where Zeno of Citium liked to teach and thus, his school was named stoicism after the stoa. Also, the stoa was a significant place for the history of museums as it functioned similarly to an art gallery. It was called Poikile (painted) because it was decorated with paintings by the famous artists Micon and Polygnotus.
The works decorating the stoa depicted military Athenian triumphs taken from myth and history such as the Battle of Oenoe and the Sack of Troy. At the time of the traveler Pausanias, there were four works in the stoa.
According to a legend, Polygnotus had painted the Poikile Stoa free of charge in exchange for Athenian citizenship. Also, people believed that he had depicted his lover Elpinike as one of the women in his monumental Sack of Troy.
2. Stoa Of Attalos
King Attalos II (159-138 BCE) of the Hellenistic kingdom of Pergamon donated the stoa to thank the city of Athens for the time he spent there as a philosophy student.
The Stoa of Attalos was a two-storeyed double collonade that became the major shopping point for Athenians. The two stories of the stoa included rows of shops. As a result, we may think about the building as an early shopping mall. Finally, the stoa was destroyed by the Herulians in 267 CE.
In the 1950s, the stoa was rebuilt by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) that excavated the site of the agora. The School aimed to recreate the feeling of an ancient stoa while utilizing the reconstructed building to house the museum of the Athenian agora.
1. The Altar Of The Twelve Gods
Founded by the grandson of tyrant Peisistratus in 522/1 BCE, the altar of the twelve gods was one of the most important buildings in the agora of Athens.
Primarily, the altar was dedicated to the twelve Olympian Gods. However, it is not certain which gods were actually included in the twelve gods honored at the altar, and there is reasonable suspicion that the goddess Hestia was also included.
In addition, a secondary function of the altar was its role as a geographic center. All distances in the city were calculated from this monument which was Athens’ point zero.
“The city set me up, a truthful monument to show all mortals the measure of their journeying: the distance to the altar of the twelve gods from the harbor is forty-five stades” milestone from 400 BCE.
Moreover, the altar was a refuge point. Whoever was inside it, enjoyed the protection of the gods and was safe from violence, a common function for sacred sites and temples in the Greek culture. It is also believed that the altar played some role during the celebration of the Dionysia festival.