How do you describe Athens? When visiting Athens, it is traditional to start with the Acropolis, the great rocky outcrop that dominates the city, and is crowned by the greatest of all Greek temples, the Parthenon. The Acropolis was the great ceremonial centre of Athens: but was ceremony the centre of Athens? The real heart of Athens was not religious ritual, but the rather more chaotic Agora, a place for meetings, the centre of its markets – and the place where democracy was born.
Athens is dominated by the Acropolis. It has a conveniently flat top, and was the site of the Mycenaean palace, and in the Dark Age that followed it became the site of a temple and ritual observances. But although there was plenty of room for ritual, it was not really big enough for a civil meeting place so it was decided to set aside a larger area at the foot of the hill. This became the Agora.
In the Dark Ages following the collapse of the Mycenaean Empire, the site of the future Agora was covered by a small settlement that clustered around the foot of the Acropolis. A number of graves have been found and also about forty wells which suggest that it was also used for habitation. But around 700 BC, the wells were filled in: was this the time that the area was formally designated to be the meeting place?
Throughout the 7th century nothing much happened there. This was the time of recession for Athens; while the rest of Greece was expanding and colonies were being sent out, no 7th century colonists were sent out from Athens. It is not until around 600 BC that activity begins, presumably when the law-givers Draco and Solon were putting through their reforms. At first the Agora must have been more like a fairground. The road to the north western gate of Athens ran diagonally through it, giving it a sort of lopsided feel throughout its existence, and along this road the great annual procession – the Panathenaic, or ‘All Athenian’ procession wound its way up to the Acropolis. Rough seating was erected along the road for the spectators and these may have formed the basis for theatrical events – singing and dancing and no doubt clowns and jugglers. There was also a foot racing track: blocks for the starting line have been discovered.
It was not till the middle of the 6th century that more substantial buildings make their appearance. Presumably they are due to the energetic tyrant Peisistratus and it is interesting to see his priorities. He began with water works – an aqueduct and a fountain with twelve heads (3 in plan, right), while the river Eridanus to the north was channelled; interestingly, other tyrants at Megara, Corinth and Samos also made a feature of improving the water supply. An Altar to the Twelve Gods was erected as a place of sanctuary (16 on plan) , and over towards the foot of the Areopagus a square, probably unroofed, building was erected which has been interpreted as an early predecessor to the law courts (5). The biggest single building was a large irregular trapezoidal building that was found under the later council chamber (8): was this a somewhat chaotic and makeshift start to what was intended to be the tyrant’s palace?
The major development of the Agora takes place around 500 BC, after the tyrants had been ejected and an interestingly new form of government called democracy was being established. This new-fangled form of government needed a new-fangled set of buildings to go with it. The Agora was formally marked out: two of the boundary stones have been excavated, each inscribed ‘I am the boundary of the agora’. A new Council of 500 men drawn by lot was established, and a square council chamber was built for them (12) which could have held seats for 500 people all squashed together. Adjacent was the circular tholos (8) where the prytany, the Executive Committee of 50 men were fed at public expense, and 17 of them actually slept there. A couple of small shrines were constructed and also the first of the stoas was built- the Royal Stoa (17) – where the royal archon presided, an official who was the second in command in the local government.
This was the first stoa to be constructed – a type of building that was to become characteristic of the Athenian agora. In form it was a long narrow building, open to one side and fronted by a row of columns. The grandest of these, the Stoa of Attalus, has been reconstructed (see header) and gives a good idea of what they may have been like. They were pavilions that would give shelter from the sun in summer and the rain in winter and they became known as the haunts of the philosophers: indeed one particular philosopher in the 3rd century set up his school there which became known as the Stoics. However along the back wall there was a row of shops and a stoa could perhaps be described as being a Greek form of shopping mall.
The grandest of all these stoas was known as the ‘Painted Stoa’(19) as it was elaborately decorated with a number of famous paintings which came to act as a sort of art gallery. It is the least known today because it lies outside the excavated area, beyond the railway that runs across the northern side of the Agora and only a corner has been excavated.
The development of the Agora went ahead in the early 5th century as the fledgling democracy acquired the buildings needed for its functioning: a Council House, Law courts, and shopping malls. A grand temple also began to be constructed along a low hill to the west dedicated to Hephaistos, the smithying god. The work went on slowly, beginning around 460 BC and not being completed until around 415 BC. However miraculously it is the one building that has survived, for it was later converted into a Christian church. It is one of the best surviving examples of a Greek temple, far more complete than the Parthenon, and it would be much better known apart from the fact that it is inevitably overshadowed by the Parthenon.
The Agora went ahead in the first half of the 5th century, but in the second half it languished: all attention and indeed all money was being spent on the Acropolis in the rebuilding of the Parthenon. But from the 4th century onwards the Agora was gradually extended and embellished. As the very existence of democracy declined so the buildings that celebrated democracy became grander. New stoas were erected: the grandest was the Stoa of Attalos built by King Attalos II who ruled Pergamum from 159 – 138 BC, and who built the stoa to the ‘demos of the Athenians’ – a despot celebrating democracy. It has since been reconstructed to form the museum of the Agora excavations and its reconstruction is one of the most impressive buildings on the visitor circuit. At the front was a double colonnade giving a welcome shelter from the sun, but along the back was a row of twenty one shops reminding us of its function as a shopping mall.
The major changes – and to my mind rather disastrous ones, came with the Romans. As Augustus was turning the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, how better to burnish his ‘democratic’ credentials than by glorifying the seat of democracy in the Agora of Athens. Hitherto the Agora had been essentially an open space, still perhaps retaining something of the air of the original fairground and probably in practice a real market place, at least on market or festival days. However the Romans built a huge new market to the East, so the Agora became redundant as a market place, so Agrippa, Augustus’ lieutenant, plonked a huge great concert Hall, known as the Odeion across the southern half of the Agora, which even today dwarfs the remains of the Agora and misleads the visitor. It seated 1,000 people and had a huge roof, but the roof collapsed in the middle of the 2nd century so it had to be rebuilt half size – a fitting end for the brash display of the wealth of the nouveau riche. Equally brash was the building of a temple of Ares in what remained of the open space. This was in fact originally a 5th century temple that lay elsewhere, but the Romans took it down and re-erected it in the Agora, turning it into a sort of museum of ancient architecture.
It is interesting to compare the Agora at Athens with the Forum at Rome which combined ritual and market and became a very grandiose area indeed. By comparison the Athenian Agora must have been something of a let-down for the Roman visitor to the home of democracy, and the Romans felt that they should improve it, and bring it up to the standards of Roman grandeur. And, let’s be fair, the Pax Romana did provide the wherewithal for lavish new building.
In the Roman Empire, Athens became the great university city with philosophies of all kinds being expounded in the various stoas and academies; but from the 3rd century AD onwards, the story is one of decline. In AD 267, German raiders, the Herulians overran the city and ransacked it. In the aftermath the Athenians decided to build a new defensive wall, much smaller than the original defences, which ran along the eastern side of the Agora, leaving most of the buildings outside it. In 395 AD Alaric the Goth destroyed the city, in practice for the destruction he was to wreak on the city of Rome fifteen years later. Soon after, the last great building in the Agora was erected over the ruins of the Odeion. This is traditionally called a ‘gymnasium’, which could be a term for a philosophic school. But in design it looks not unlike a very large Roman house: could it possibly be the Palace of the late Roman Governor? Four statues of Giants which originally adorned the front of the rebuilt Odeion were reused for the front of this new building, and today they have been re-erected and form one of the most prominent but misleading features of the Agora layout.
A disaster of a different kind came in 529 AD when the Emperor Justinian, determined to enforce the primacy of the Christian religion, forbade the teaching of pagan philosophy: the universities of Athens were closed, and Athens lost what had become its raison d’etre.
Finally in 582-3 AD the Slavs destroyed what still remained: squatter occupation lingered on for a couple of centuries, but from the 7th – 10th century the area was unoccupied – no pottery of this period has been found. Re-occupation began in the 10th century AD when it became a residential area covered with small private houses, and it remained as such until the 20th century, with only the temple of Hephaistos surviving as the Church of St. George. The site was otherwise lost, but the Greek government, mindful of the former glory of Athens, was determined to restore the Agora, even if it meant demolishing over 300 houses. The cost however was prohibitive so they decided to call in the Americans.
The American School responded, the Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropists stumped up the cash, over 300 properties were requisitioned and acquired, and from 1931-1939 the houses were demolished and the excavators moved in, and the ancient Agora was revealed, making it one of the best known sites in the Greek world. After the war, work continued. The big problem now was to provide a suitable museum and it was decided to rebuild the Stoa of Attalus to form a magnificent museum.
The excavation of the Agora has been a great success for here we can see how democracy and markets evolved hand in hand. It began as a fairground, detached from the ritual area on the Acropolis. Democracy grew up slowly in a ramshackle sort of way and it was never a grand market place. Where indeed were all the shops? The answer is that probably most of them were temporary market stalls on market days. But philosophy sprang up among the markets. Socrates would be found challenging debate and Plato and Aristotle began formalising their philosophies, and Athens ended up as being a grand university. Is this the real story of the Grandeur that was Greece?
On to The Parthenon