Ancient provides a pretty broad frame of reference provided you can get your head around it. The shock of the importance and awe of the Ancient Agora site solidifies its place in Greek history. Now a field of humble ruins for the most part, this heart of the ancient city of Athens continues to tell its story all these centuries later.
The Ancient Agora was the center of Athenian democracy for more than 800 years. It was here that the most important administrative and judicial functions and political assemblies took place. Speeches were given, political announcements made, and a place for demonstrators to gather. Close your eyes and envision the chaotic scene.
The Agora, meaning ‘to assemble’ or ‘to gather’, was a 10-acre rectangle on the northwest slope of the Acropolis, home to social and religious activities, and featured a bustling marketplace – can you hear the sellers hawking their wares to the crowds? It also hosted theatrical performances under the stars, and was the site of numerous athletic competitions. Excavations show the area has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic Period (3,000 BC). Now that’s ancient!
Archaic Period – 700-480 BC
The Archaic Period – much younger than the ancient period – and onwards is the timeline in which the Ancient Agora expanded and developed with more public buildings, temples to the gods, fountains, statues and tree-lined boulevards. Stoas were an important architectural element of most main buildings. These covered walkways provided shoppers and ruling officials protection from the sun and rain and offered much welcomed shade. The massive columns holding up the stoas were perfect for leaning against to rest a bit or maybe even engage in some good old-fashioned gossiping.
With the establishment of a democratic government and reforms in 508/507 BC, extensive building began in earnest. The Agora’s first and main buildings included the erection of the Old Bouleuterion (council chambers) the Royal Stoa (seat of the ruler), and the well-preserved Painted Stoa (Temple of Hephaestus) on a hill overlooking the ancient Agora grounds. The Agora, however, would reach its peak during the first two centuries after Christ.
The Ancient Agora was repeatedly destroyed and pillaged throughout its history. Its persecutors included: the Persians (480 BC), the Romans under Sulla (86 BC), the Herulians (267 AD) and the Slavs (580 AD). In the tenth century AD, following a long period of desertion, a Byzantine neighborhood formed in the Agora area, and the small Church of the Holy Apostles – which is charming and quaint – was built.
Invaders again destroyed the area in 1204 AD as well as in 1826-27 during the Greek War of Independence. By the late 19th century, the Agora was buried under the new city of Athens. Site excavation began in the 19th century and continues today.
The long Attalus Stoa is now a museum filled with excavations from the Agora. The most important exhibits are connected with the functions of Athenian democracy, which date back to the Classical (8th century BC) and Late Classical periods (300-600 AD).
Because the museum presents the daily life of its citizens, many of its findings on display were discovered in houses and shops of the Agora, as well as in tombs because part of the area was an early cemetery. Figurines, coins, lamps, everyday cookware and utensils, and inscriptions to and sculptures of various gods are also exhibited.
Also unearthed and displayed are clay-created public measures, official bronze weights, part of a marble ballot box, jurors’ ballots, a clay water clock used for timing speeches, important inscriptions denouncing tyranny, and names of ancient politicians etched in stone and marble.
In the marketplace center was the Odeon of Agrippa, constructed in 15 BC, and used for musical performances. Later on, lectures were delivered from it as well, including teachings of St. Paul. It was destroyed in 267 AD and rebuilt as a gymnasium. Not only did the new space feature athletic competitions, but also educational forums as well as entertainment venues.
Imagine the monuments and temples springing up on all four sides of the agora hemming in the bustling square. Sprinkled with temples and altars among trees, statues and fountains, Athenians had ample opportunity to make an offering to their gods before going about their daily business. They met their friends here, did their shopping, listened to discussions with revered philosophers, took in plays and concerts, and probably enjoyed a goblet or two of sweet red wine in a nearby tavern. Imagine being one of these social magnets! The Agora was not simply for the wealthy or strictly for men; on the contrary, middle class and even lower middle class men and women routinely gathered here.
Church of the Holy Apostles
One of the most “modern” structures is the charming little Church of the Holy Apostles. It was constructed around 1000 AD on the ruins of an ancient temple atop a sacred spring, and commemorates St. Paul’s teaching in the Agora.
This church became the prototype for later Athenian – and Cypriot – churches in that the floor plan consists of four equal arms topped by a single dome and featuring tall horseshoe-shaped window arches. Bricks creating Kufic calligraphy script, popular in Muslim mosques, encircle the church’s eaves. Over the years, 17th century Byzantine-style frescoes have been uncovered, and though badly faded, have been restored as best they can to their original state. At the top of the dome is a painted icon of Jesus, which appears in every Greek Orthodox church.
Temple of Hephaestus
Perched on the top of Agoraios Kolonos Hill and overlooking the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus, in all its grandeur, also known as the Theseion.
It is a smaller version of the famed Parthenon; built between 460 and 415 BC (during the reign of Pericles and prior to the Parthenon) with the same pentelic marble and the same 13 columns on its long side and six on its narrow side. According to the sign at its base, an unknown architect designed the temple.
Following decades of wars and destruction, the temple was one of a handful that still had a roof. During the early years of Christianity (7th century), the temple was converted into the Church of Saint George. During the Ottoman rule, the Turks allowed the church to remain open but permitted services only once each year – on St. George’s Day. Sometime after 1821, the temple was used as a museum; the first national archaeological museum of modern Greece, until the 1930s.
If walls could talk, think of the stories and secrets this grand temple could tell.
To an extent, history repeats itself, but not necessarily in the same form. Now that the Ancient Agora for the most part is no longer, other areas of Athens have become hallmark locations of what once was the case for the Agora. For example, people shop at the Central Market now for their fresh fruits and vegetables; modern malls for clothing; Syntagma Square is the government center of Athens; the light rail has replaced the Panathenaic Way, the main street of Athens that led from the Ancient Agora up to the Acropolis; and Monastiraki Square is the new hub of social life for modern day Athenians.
It’s a shame the Ancient Agora site is not better preserved, as the scattered ruins do not do its storied history and importance justice. Then again, consider what ‘ancient’ takes into account, and the awe value quickly returns.