Just how did a Greek city work? How was it laid out and how can we tell from the architecture of the Greek city how it really functioned? In earlier civilisations, the centre of the city was the Palace, where the rulers lived and directed the economy. However in Greek cities proper, there are no palaces but instead the centre of the city was an open space known as the agora, or market place.
In the early Greek cities of the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries, the first priority was often to build a splendid temple which was the symbol of the city. However from the fifth century, the focus tends to shift and it is the agora that becomes the centre of importance and influence where the council offices were situated and civic life was centred.
The best known agora is that at Athens, thanks to the extensive exploration by the Americans in the 1930s and the fact that it was the centre of attention in much of our literature. But what about the other cities? Let us have a look, and see how they functioned.
The best examples are not major towns, but rather insignificant towns, one might say failed towns, which therefore have no modern town on top of them, and have therefore been well excavated and laid out for the modern visitor.
The first is Priene which lies in Ionia in what is today south west Turkey. Priene was a small city on the mouth of the River Meander which is always meandering and silting up. And so in the 4th century it was decided to rebuild it on a new site, in the latest fashion, a strict geometric grid pattern, as laid down by Hippodamus. It flourished for a couple of hundred years but then the river silted up again, so in the 1st century AD it was again abandoned, and only discovered in the 19th century by archaeologists, who found it a treasure house, as the local stone is a very fine marble. Between 1895 – 9 it was excavated by a German team led by Theodore Wiegand.
It was a small town of around 6,000 persons, only 15 hectares in extent, and near the centre there is a very fine agora with a long stoa or covered colonnade along one side, while at right angles there is the bouleuterion, or council chamber, the place where the boule or council, met. This is very well preserved, as it was cut into the hillside, with the steep ranking seats. The bouleuterion is often the main feature of a Greek agora, as it was the place where the council met and thus where the administration functioned, and it was therefore a major part of the functioning of the Greek agora.
Higher up in the town was the theatre, while the third main public building was the temple to Athene. This was paid for by Alexander, for though the foundation of the site was organised by the local Persian ruler in around 350 BC, twenty years later, Alexander the Great swept through and offered to pay for the Temple to Athene, providing that it was dedicated to him. He paid, and it was dedicated. The town flourished for 300 years after which the river silted up and it was abandoned for which archaeologists are very grateful.
Another well known excavated town is Olynthos in northern Greece in the Chalcidice where the three fingers of land project down into the Aegean. Olynthos was founded in 432 by the local King Perdiccas as an act of synoikismos, or bringing together a number of villages to form a town. It flourished for a hundred years until it fell foul of the expansionist policies of Philip of Macedon who destroyed it in 348 BC, leaving it as an open site for the archaeologists. And in the 1930s it was excavated in four seasons by the Americans under D.M. Robinson.
The excavations were unusual in that they focused not on the public buildings but on the houses and the domestic life of the city, and thus they form the basis for much discussion as to the nature of the Greek town house. Olynthos was arranged on two hills. The southern or smaller hill was the original settlement — indeed the excavators found a Neolithic village underneath – but the main new settlement was on the rather larger northern hill.
The houses were tightly packed together on a grid system, as laid down by Hippodamus. However at the southern end is a large open space which is interpreted as the agora, with a large building with central colonnade adjacent, which may be the bouleuterion. There are also possibly two possible “civic centres” on the southern hill with a large building built of ashlars which may have been another bouleuterion – though how far Olynthus may have been democratic is surely uncertain.
But in the excavated area there are no other public spaces: no temples have been excavated, neither is there a theatre, though it may be that the excavators in the 1930s were concentrating on the houses. I think that in the 1930s there was a feeling that too many Greek temples had been excavated and not enough houses, so they excavated just the houses. But they did find possible agoras on both the northern and the southern hills.