Greek Cities

Greek Cities

But what were Greek towns like outside Athens? There is always a tendency to allow the story of Greece to be dominated by Athens, but Greece was made up of many cities, so we need to look at some of the other Greek cities. However other cities are not always easy to understand because Greek cities of the classical period tend to be covered by cities of the later period, and so many cities available for study tend to be small cities that failed and were therefore abandoned. Nevertheless, there are a number of cities that enable us to get some ideas of what a typical Greek city looked like.


Priene today. The city lies on the steeply sloping hillside, with the main roads running along the hillside

The best-known is Priene which lies in Ionia in what is today south west Turkey – opposite Miletus.  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. 

Plan of Priene

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.

The bouleuterion or Council chamber at Priene with the restored seating for the Councillors. Note the altar at the centre.

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.

 At the back was a long stoa. The stoa is one of the least recognised forms of Greek architecture, but it was the outstanding architectural form in the agora. It is essentially a long colonnade, with columns in the front, a stout wall at the back and a roof over the top, all done in the best architectural style. There was often a row of rooms along the back wall, which served as shops and warehouses or storage for the market traders.  Sometimes there is a double row of rooms or even a second storey —  there is a very fine reconstructed example in the Stoa of Attalos at Athens, seen in the header.

But it was far more than a market hall. It was a place where the citizens could gather together and gossip, rather like the baths in the Roman world, or the pub in modern Britain. And it was the place where philosophers gathered  — indeed one school of philosophy, the Stoics was named after their main meeting place in the stoa. The most famous stoa at Athens was the so-called Painted Stoa, which became a sort of art gallery because the walls were adorned with so many famous paintings.

Higher up in the town at Priene  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.

Miletus – and Hippodamus

At an early stage, the Greeks devised an element of town planning on a rigid grid system. According to Aristotle this was invented by Hippodamus of Miletus (498-408 BC), who laid out the Peiraeus, the port of Athens on this system, though little trace of it has been found in busy modern Peiraeus.

Many new cities were founded by the Greeks, either as colonies sent out from a mother city or as synoikisms, the bringing together of villages into a town. And in both cases it was necessary to allocate houses to the new inhabitants and the ideal was to have all the houses at same size so everyone could have an equal allocation.

Plan of Miletus showing the harbour and the commercial facilities. It also shows the grid layout of the town reconstructed from the excavations shown in solid.

A good example of this was Miletus itself, which was captured and destroyed by the Persians in 499  but restored 20 years later when a new town was laid out on Hippodamian principles which apparently covered the whole of the peninsula.

Plan of the commercial area with the harbour to the left. The north Agora consisted essentially of a long stoa where goods could be unloaded. Further storage facilities were provided in the three aisled Grand Stoa in the South Agora. (Redrawn from How the Greeks Built Cities by R.E.Wycherley)

There were two marketplaces, the first being a long stoa, built facing the long inlet that formed the main harbour.  Behind it was a small courtyard, and further south was the very large South Agora again with a long stoa on the eastern side, with three rows of shops and warehouses along the back wall.

Later, a third great building was erected, the theatre, facing out onto the sea: like other major theatres  in Greece, the theatre had a magnificent view, and became the third major feature of a town. It is perhaps interesting to note the progression of importance in the way that the Greeks laid out their towns. The earliest towns began with a magnificent, extravagant temple, often on the outskirts of the town for it was with the temple that the town wished to establish its importance.

Then in the sixth and fifth centuries, the agora became the centre of attention, , representing government and commerce when these became to major features of attention. And then in the fourth and third centuries,  entertainment became a most impressive feature of the town and huge theatres were built. Thus when St Paul in the first century A.D. caused a riot at Ephesus because of his preaching,   it was in the theatre that the rioters came together and St Paul was nearly lynched.


The excavations at Olynthus concentrated on the houses, which were laid out with great regularity along the street.

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.

Olynthus was laid out on two hills, the North Hill and the South Hill. Most of the main excavations were on the North Hill, where a possible agora was found at the southern end of the excavated area.

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. 

Greek houses tended to be divided between the men’s quarters and the women’s quarters  –  in which they are very different to Roman houses. The men’s quarters are centred round the andron, or men’s room: in this well-known example from Olynthos, the andron is in the bottom right corner, entered from an ante-room. The top half are the women’s quarters with the kitchen at the top right.

A typical Greek house – house A vii 4 from Olynthos. The andron, or men’s room is bottom right, with the women’s quarter at the top, with the kitchen top right.

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 uncertain. 

The building interpreted as the agora at Olynthus. The Council chamber is at the far end, beyond which the serried ranks of the houses can be seen

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.


All overview of Messene. The  Agora, which has not yet been excavated, is under the orchard at the bottom left corner. At the centre is the Temple of  Aesculapius, with the Council chamber to the left. Beyond is the magnificent Stadium, or race track,  later converted into an amphitheatre.

Map of the Peloponnese to show ancient Messene, separated from Sparta by the steep mountain ridge of Taygetos

One of the most fascinating examples of a new town formation is Messene.  Messene is a neighbour of Sparta, if neighbour is the right word, for they are separated by a fierce mountain range of Taygetus.  But in the 7th century BC, the Spartans conquered the Messenians and turned them into helots, that is virtual slaves, and the Spartan successes of the 5th and 6th centuries were built on the slavery of the Messenians.  Eventually in 371 BC, Sparta had its comeuppance and was conquered by the rising power of Thebes. The Thebans freed the Messenians, and a new town was founded called Messene which the Thebans determined was going to be ‘smarter than Sparta’. What did this new town look like?

The Temple of  Aesculapius at Messene set within the central courtyard. The Council chamber and administrative buildings are to her left – note the actual Council chamber forming a small theatre.

They began with a great innovation.  Both an agora and a temple were needed,  so why not combine the two and put the temple in the middle of a large courtyard?  Then leave a big space to the north for a proper agora.

And so in the centre of the town, they built this new complex with a splendid temple in the centre.  It was built in the Doric style – the Messenians like the Spartans were Dorians and spoke Greek with a Dorian accent (imagine the Dorset accent, –  but more so), so they had to build their temple in the Doric style even though it was a bit old fashioned.  It was dedicated to the local god who happened to be called Asclepius, who is normally considered to be the God of Healing with his headquarters at Epidaurus.  But at Messene, he was the local god.  He was a son of Zeus, the king of the gods, who when visiting Messene, seduced the local king’s daughter — as one does if one is a visiting god — and the offspring of the union was called Asclepius.

Plan of the excavated part of Messene with the Temple at the centre with the unexcavated Agora adjacent, with the theatre next to it. At the bottom is the Stadion or race track, later converted to an amphitheatre.

However it was also intended to be a sort of agora, because on the eastern side the council offices were constructed.  There was a grand entrance way in the centre and then on the one side a very large Ekklesiasterion, or council chamber with seats for more than 500 people.  However this was not for the local town council, for the 4th century was a time when Leagues were being established, and Messene was the centre of the Achaean League,  and this was where the delegates from all over Achaea, the north western part of the Peloponnese, would assemble.  And on the other side of the entrance way were two rooms which served as archive rooms where the records of the League could be preserved. 

The agora itself lay to the north and has not been excavated apart from a very impressive fountain house adjacent to the northern side dedicated to Arsinoe. It was a long rectangular structure over 40 metres long, reminding us that the provision of a fountain with pure water was an important function of an agora.  Adjacent to the Fountain house, the corner of the northern stoa of the agora has been excavated, hinting that the agora itself must have been a large and impressive structure.

View of the stadium or race track, with Mount Ithome behind.

Adjacent to it was the theatre, quite a small one by Greek standards, but no doubt sufficient.  The other main structure however was the stadium, built to the south and now impressively restored, together with evidence that in the 4th century AD, the Romans converted it into an amphitheatre.



General view over the excavated area at Pella. The columns surround the centre of one of the private houses. Many of Alexander’s generals came back rich with loot from the Persian Empire and built grandiose houses.

.At first sight, Pella appears to be the perfect Greek town with a rectangular layout and the Agora at the centre. But on the low Hill to the North, lies the very extensive Palace

But the really interesting town is Pella, the capital of Macedonia and the home town of Alexander the Great. There is always a big question: were the Macedonians Greek or not, and the architecture provides the answer. For the one thing that differentiates a Greek town from a barbarian town is whether it has an agora or a palace. Pella has both.

The agora was surrounded by shops and one side has been excavated and the shops have been restored (over- restored?)

At first, Pella appears to be a perfectly normal Greek town with a large agora at the . To the south of the agora, a number of wealthy houses have been excavated with splendid pebble mosaics,– coloured tesserae had not yet been invented.  The administrative buildings were on the north,  while in the south-west corner was the archive building where numerous sealings inscribed ‘Pella exchange’  were found.

The Palace was laid out round three or more courtyards which have been only partially excavated. There is room here for an extensive bureaucracy

However on a low hill to the north, was a grandiose palace. This had five separate courtyards which formed the real administrative centre as well as a grandiose Royal residence with their suites of banqueting rooms and baths.

This solves the old conundrum: was  Macedonia Greek or not? Was Alexander the Great really  Greek?  The answer is half and half. Here, in his capital there is a Greek-style town laid out on Hippodamian principles with a fine agora at the centre. But there is also a grandiose Royal Palace. Pella  was a bastard.

 If therefore you are visiting a Greek town, don’t spend too much time on the temples:  temples are indeed fascinating, but it is the agora that was the heart of the town.  Look at its relation to the rest of th where market trading and the gossiping took place. Look at the Council house and the administrative buildings. Remember that in Greece, one-man rule was rare: the opposite of democracy was an oligarchy and the Council house would be where the leading citizens would meet and try to perpetuate their rule. Look for the fountains and the law courts. And then look for the theatre and the temples, and see what was their relation to the agora. For the agora was the heart of the town, and this must be the starting point if we are to understand how a Greek town really worked.

On to Hellenistic Greece

28th June 2020, revised 24th April 2021