Greek Cities

Greek Cities


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.


Priene: ancient street (Wiki)

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

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.


Plan of Priene

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.



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, who laid out the Peiraeus, the port of Athens on this system, though little trace of it has been found in busy modern Peiraeus.

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.

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 be allocated equally.


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.

Ancient Miletus commercial facilities

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.



Olynthos was laid out on a regular grid pattern, and the excavators concentrated on discovering that the town houses.

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.

Plan of the excavations at Olynthos. The excavations concentrated on the houses on the north hill (the top three quarters of the plan). But they found the agora in the lower part of the excavations.
In the South Hill (the bottom quarter of the plan) two badly preserved ‘civic centres’ were also found.

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. 

The presumed bouleuterion or council chamber, at Olynthos. Note the square pillar bases to hold up the hipped roof.

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.




Messene general view

View of Miletus looking south. The agora lies under the orchard, bottom left. At the centre is the temple to Asclepios and beyond it is the stadium.

Map of the Peloponnese showing ancient Messene separated from Sparta by Mount 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?

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.

Plan of central part of Messene showing agora temple to Asclepios and the stadium.

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.



Central part of excavated site showing temple in its enclosure with the council buildings to the left.

The governmental buildings at Messene with the Ekklesiasterion where the delegates could all be seated. The grand entrance is to the centre and the archive rooms to the left.

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.  But the buildings on the other three sides of the courtyard were not devoted so much to merchandise as for civic business.

On the north side were a series of dining halls  – dining always played a major role in Greek religion.  While on the western side were a series of rooms for ritual purposes, one of them being a temple dedicated to Artemis, cluttered with statues as described by Pausanias.  And on the south side, there was a bath house built in the 2nd century BC, an early precursor of the Roman-style bath house. The courtyard itself was filled with statues – Pausanias represents the Asklepium as a museum of art, mainly statue, noting that the large number of statues were ‘well worth seeing’.

The rather splendid fountain house at Messene dedicated to Arsinoe.

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.  It was fed by an aqueduct from a source in the nearby modern village.    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.

The grand stadium or race track at Messene. In the late Roman period it was turned into an amphitheatre by building a wall across the far end.

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.

Today ancient Messene lies in one of the poorest parts of Greece.  It is not at the modern town of Messene on the coast, but 20 miles to the north and thanks to a large grant from the EU it is currently being excavated. It is in a wonderfully fertile area,  and is being made into an impressive visitor attraction. The Thebans who founded it would be pleased: today, it is certainly ‘Smarter than Sparta.


Pella: the capital of Alexander the great

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

Reconstructed plan of Pella with Agora at the centre, excavated houses to the south, but to the north is the palace.

One thing absent from a Greek town is, of course, the Palace. However,  there is one semi-Greek town that does have a Palace and that is Pella, the capital of Macedonia, the home town of Alexander the Great. At first it appears to be a perfectly normal Greek town with a large agora at the centre.


Pella: black and white pebble mosaic

Pebble mosaic from Pella. Coloured tesserae had not yet been invented, but the craftsmanship of the black and white pebbles is superb.






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.

Plan of the palace centred round five courtyards. Note at the bottom (south) the grand colonnade looking down over the town.

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.

Aerial view of the partly excavated agora.

This solves the old conundrum: was  Macedonia Greek or not? Was Alexander the Great really  Greek?  The answer was half and half. Here, in his capital there is both a grandiose Royal Palace and Greek-style town laid out on Hippodamian principles with a fine agora at the centre. An agora is something you have to have if you are going to pretend to be Greek.

Reconstructed wing of the agora with shops at the front and workrooms behind.

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 the town. Look at the stoas 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 aristocracy 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 it was the agora that 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