Ancient Greek Agora

From the moment people began to organise themselves into groups they had to have a place where they could meet and make decisions on matters of common interest. Such places demonstrate the existence of a community life: they were the public squares. We don’t know what they were called in pre-historic times; we do know that the Greek word for such a place is agora, from the verb agorevein (speak), which shows clearly its initial function. With the growth of trade and the use of speech in buying and selling, the verb agorevein lent its form to agorazein which acquired the meaning of “purchase”, to reflect new needs. Similarly, the movable table for transactions was then called “trapeza”, the modern Greek word for bank.

In pre-historic times, when the first settlement was established on the protected southern side of the Acropolis, the northern side was used as a necropolis, or cemetery. In a well from the neolithic period, a statuette representing a headless semi-reclining woman was found dating from the 3rd millennium BC. It is a marvellous example of primitive sculpture with the characteristic abundant flesh indicative of fertility. Many examples of Mycenean pottery were found in the same vicinity as well as a number of large jars (pithoi). Among the funeral customs of antiquity was that of enclosing the bodies of very young children in such jars, which were then buried; older children were laid straight in the ground. Only after puberty was the cremation of the body permitted. As the city grew, the graves were moved to the Dipylon area which was the potters’ district, Kerameikos, so that very few graves remained in the area around the Areopagus hill after 1000 BC.

Thus were the Agora and Speech related. Plutarch reports that the Agora first began to function as a meeting place for the residents of the federated townships during the rule of Theseus, when a Prytaneion was established. The altar bearing the sacred fire of this first official building became the symbol of newly constituted state. Other important buildings were the Bouleuterion, the Eleusinion sanctuary and the temple of Aphrodite Pandemos. The latter was a tribute built by the municipalities to the goddess with the great power over human nature. There was a great deal of traffic in the area, making it suitable for the practice of the oldest profession; the women were dedicated to the goddess thereby giving the term “pandemos Aphrodite” its meaning of prostitute. We do not know the precise location of these early sites, although they must have been somewhere in the clearing between the Areopagus and the northwestern corner of the Acropolis.

After the monarchy was abolished and the citizens acquired the right to express their opinion, a need clearly arose for more public buildings and a larger place in which the citizens could gather. The level ground east of the Areopagus was regarded as being the most suitable location for the Agora which was to have several new sanctuaries and public fountains. While the Acropolis was devoted exclusively to religion, the Agora from the very beginning assumed the function of a civic and administrative centre. No trace of these first public buildings has survived up to our time, since they are underneath the present, densely populated district of Plaka.

The establishment of colonies, which the orator Isocrates would later refer to as the best possible solution to political problems, and the resultant growth of trade made it absolutely essential to have a more convenient place to do business. Thus, early in the 6th century, Solon selected the most appropriate spot for the Agora, i.e. the site we know today. The flat ground north of the Areopagus formed a triangle with its apex facing northward and its western side protected by a plateau. On the east was the main road which started at the Dipylon Gate, the entrance to the city, and ascended to the Acropolis. In addition, the roads from the outer townships ended in this lowland near a little creek called the Eridanos.

From the first moment, it proved to be an excellent choice. The plateau was named Agoraios Kolonos, and on its slopes the first public building was erected, very possibly a council chamber. Small temples followed, as did a Bouleuterion (Council House) and a Prytaneion. Solon chose the entrance to the city as the best position for a portico and gave orders for the written laws to be kept there. The Agora was beginning to take shape.

In the second half of the 6th century, during the tyranny of Peisistratos, the site was provided with a water supply and drainage system. A monumental fountain and rainwater duct were built. Like all dictators, Peisistratos was not especially keen on the idea of increasing space for meeting and voting; instead, he filled the city with projects to benefit the public. During the years of his rule, the great road followed by the Panathenaic procession took on its final form. On the south side of the Acropolis, the people’s courthouse of the Heliaia was built and, at the northern crossroads, the Altar of the Twelve Gods.

The Persian campaign left much of the city in ruins which began to be cleared away after 460 BC, when Kimon was in power. Many new buildings were put up then, including porticoes with shops, a large Bouleuterion, special places for meetings of military leaders (strategoi) and civic administrators (prytanes), as well as altars and monuments honouring local heroes. On the highest point in the Agora, the temple of Hephaestos, the blacksmith god, was built. This Doric temple preceded the Parthenon, and also housed a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom. Thus were the two gods brought together showing the association between philosophy and art, teaching that intellectuals and artisans cannot live one without the other.

During the years that followed, the Agora became the true heart of the city. Although decisions were made in the Council of the Deme and in the neighbouring Pnyx, the draws to determine who would take part in the administration of the state were held in the Agora. The laws, their enforcement, the penalties imposed on violators, the minting of currency, buying and selling – all had their own particular spot in the Agora. Processions, races, auctions and feasts were all characteristic of this political, civic, cultural, commercial and sometimes religious centre. The streets of the growing city may well have been narrow and full of hazardous potholes and the wooden houses may have had but one ground floor room with perhaps a wooden addition above. The walls of these houses may have been brick and susceptible to thieves. Cooking fires may have been lit on the road and the lack of proper sewers may have been responsible for epidemics. But when the Athenian citizen entered the Agora, he felt that he was participating in and contributing to the miracle of his times. Philosophers, orators, politicians and citizens caused Demosthenes to say, in the 4th century, that the customary greeting between Athenians meeting in the Agora was: What’s new? At the end of the Hellenistic period, the Agora was crowded with buildings, including a recent graceful portico donated by Attalos of Pergamum. The Romans who followed began competing to build other edifices which caused the Agora to spill out beyond its initial bounds. Altars, temples, a library and gymnasium, porticoes and colonnades, all of which were open to the public, made Saint Paul say that the Athenian citizens and metoici did nothing but stroll around the Agora discussing politics. Athenaios from Egypt was also highly impressed, and wrote in his Deipnosophists that in the Athens Agora, one could find with equal ease: fruit, false witnesses, complaints, pap, pedlars, honeycomb with honey, peas, trials, lotteries, roses and irises, laws, hydraulic clocks, pimps, informers, myrtle branches…

The weakening of the Roman Empire brought barbarians. In 267 AD, the Agora was sacked by the Herulians who respected only the temple. A wall was built from the rubble of the buildings, but it could not save the Agora from Alaric’s Goths in 396. This total devastation was followed by reconstruction which kept the site functioning until 529. This was the year of the final blow against Athens, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools, which the new religion regarded with such hostility. The Agora was abandoned, its monuments fell into disuse and then decay, the site was gradually covered over by earth and mud because there was nobody to keep the drainage ducts cleared. During subsequent centuries, houses were built of the plentiful debris. On top of the buried antiquities, the lovely Byzantine church of the Holy Apostles was built in the year 1000. Meantime, the ancient temple of Hephaistos had already been consecrated to St George.

Throughout the 400 years of Turkish rule (1456-1829), the Athenians lived perched on the north side of the Acropolis, where the heart of the Polis had once beaten most proudly. Many houses were destroyed during the Greek War of Independence, especially during the siege of Athens by Kiutahi Pasha. But with the designation of the city as capital of the new Greek state, new homes were soon built on top of the ruins of older ones. The architects Kleanthis and Schubert, who had been assigned to reconstruct the capital, vainly proposed that the new city be built some distance away from the old one so as to leave the ground free for future excavations. Short-sightedness, pettiness and profit, however, proved stronger than reason. The first traces of the ancient Agora were revealed in 1859, when foundations for houses began being dug. Much later, in 1931, the American School of Classical Studies undertook regular excavations which continued until after 1945, with constant appropriations of property. It is estimated that more than three hundred thousand tonnes of earth and rubble were moved in order to bring the Agora to light. Today the ancient heart of Athens, spread out as far as permitted by the surrounding modern buildings, reveals its beauty, its eloquent ruins and its rich memories of days past, days of eternal glory.

The most impressive monument in the ancient Agora is indisputably the great Doric temple which dominates the site. Built on the top of a plateau, known as the Agoraios Kolonos, this temple is the best- preserved ancient building in Greece, having survived a great number of adventures, threats and changes including the alteration of its original name. For centuries, this temple was known as the Theseion, as it was believed to have been a temple dedicated to Theseus, a conclusion drawn from its sculpted decoration depicting the hero’s feats. This restless prince of prehistoric Athens was mythified by the Athenians, as the Attic counterpart of the Doric Hercules. Tales were invented about his birth, his achievements, his wanderings. It is said that he fell in love with the beautiful Helen when she was still a child and he an old man, and that this love pitted him against her brothers the Dioscuri, which forced him to seek refuge on the island of Skyros. There the local king Lykomedes killed him by throwing him off a cliff. After an oracle from Delphi, Kimon went to the island in 469 BC to fetch the bones of the founder of Athens and bury them properly in his ancestral city. A temple was built on Theseus’ grave and was called Theseion, which Thucydides mentioned as a place where hoplites would gather. Aristophanes used the mocking name “Theseion-frequenter” to denote people who, having nothing to do, would wander about aimlessly. Plutarch wrote that the Theseion was a refuge for slaves, but its precise location is unknown.

Pausanias refers explicitly to the large temple in the Agora as being dedicated to Hephaistos and indeed he even described the cult statues there: one of Hephaistos and one of Athena with eyes. The celebrated Roman orator Cicero greatly admired the bronze statues which had been sculpted by Alcamenes just after 421 BC, praising the artist for his skill in presenting the lame Hephaistos standing upright without showing his physical disability. This testimony is the only trace of these statues that remains today.

The temple was built after 449 BC, based on plans by an unknown architect, similar in size to the temple of Poseidon at Sounion and that of Nemesis at Ramnus, near Marathon. It is indeed remarkable that, despite all the disasters that befell the Agora during the years of the barbarian invasions, the temple was left intact. Later, under Byzantine rule, it became a church consecrated to St George. An apse was built on the eastern side, and a door was opened on the west. In about 1300, the original ceiling collapsed and was replaced with the present-day vaulted brick one, which stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the building. It may even have been due to these changes that the temple escaped destruction, particularly during the years of Ottoman rule. It used to be said that in order to permit services to be held in the church, the Turkish governor would demand the weight of the key to the building in gold. At that time, keys were huge and gold rare, which was why the building only opened once a year. Services were held solely on the feast of St George, a fact which lent the building its picturesque name: St George the Akamatis (Lazybones).

In the early 19th century, during the Revolution against the Ottoman Empire, the temple was called “thirty-two columns”; it was used to chant the Te Deum when King Otto arrived in the capital in 1834, signalling liberation from the Turks. A marvellous painting of the period shows us the young king being welcomed by the awestruck crowd, as he started out unsuspectingly along the road to his destiny. Services were held in the church for the last time in 1934, on the 100th anniversary of the new Athens; two years later its restoration as an archaeological monument began.

The temple of Hephaistos stands firmly on a foundation of three steps, the bottom of which is poros stone, the other two are Pentelic marble; the columns are of the same material, 13 on each of the long flanks and six on the facades. Outside the columns there are traces of pedestals of votive offerings and statues. On the east side, is a carved representation on the floor beside the columns which shows that some lazy people used to spend their time either playing something like modern board games or scratching the marble with the age-old destructive mania of bored people.

Although the external dimensions of the building are typical of the classical age, the interior was an unsuccessful effort to achieve the perfect symmetry of the slightly later Parthenon.

The pronaos which once existed had two columns which were removed when the building was converted into a church, and was more spacious than the corresponding opisthodomos on the west side. Another equally unsymmetrical element could be seen inside the temple, where the inner Doric columns, five columns on the flanks and three on the west, were very close to the outer walls, and appeared to diminish the space. In front of the three columns on the west side a base of grey stone shows where statues of the gods had stood. Nothing has remained of the initial marble flooring, since for some centuries now it has been the custom to bury famous citizens here. On the interior wall of the north side one can still see an Englishman’s gravestone bearing an epigram by Lord Byron.

The sculpted decoration of the temple has not been well preserved since for centuries it has been exposed to the weather and changes of season. The pediments have suffered most of all: on the east the sculptures have been lost altogether, while on the west some animal hoofs have remained which might have been part of a representation of the battle with the centaurs, a subject directly related to Theseus. The eastern metopes narrated the labours of Hercules while on the north and south side there are four relief slabs again depicting the feats of Theseus. On the exterior wall of the temple proper, there was a frieze on the facades alone, not on the flanks. On the eastern side Theseus was presented fighting against his kinsmen the Pallantides, who had disputed his hereditary right to the throne of Athens. To portray all these fighting figures, the sculptor used the entire width of the cella facade. By contrast, on the opposite, western side, the classical battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths occupied considerably less space.

Around the temple there were two rows of shallow pits at regular intervals. Even today, on the south side one can see traces of enormous clay jars half-buried in the ground; they were flower pots for the ornamental plants that adorned the site during the Hellenistic and Roman age. In a dry city like Athens, plants have always been welcome; we know that in an earlier age, Kimon himself had taken care to plant myrtle and plane trees in the Agora. There was once an enclosure round the sacred precinct of the temple, but not a trace of it remains. The same is true of the access point from the Agoraios Kolonos plateau to the lower level of the Agora; the grand staircase which used to be there has been completely destroyed.

Just north of the temple, but at a somewhat lower level, traces were found of an enormous colonnaded structure which had been almost entirely hewn out of the natural rock. Archaeologists believe it to have been a 4th-century building that was either related to the Athenian army or, because of the large number of Panathenaic amphoras found there, a storehouse for sacred oil. But the existence of strongly- built walls and a system for collecting rain water in underground cisterns makes it difficult for scholars to identify this strange building and its function. There was another building, too, on the Agoraios Kolonos: the little temple dedicated to Urania Aphrodite, the ruins of which were discovered accidentally in 1890, during the building of the railroad that was to link Athens with Piraeus.

We know that Aphrodite was a very ancient deity. The personification of love and fertility, she began in Babylon where she was worshipped as the all-powerful Ishtar. In addition to temples, the inhabitants of Babylon with its mythical wealth, had dedicated even the main entrance of this heavily walled city to their powerful protector. This is the gate which we can see restored today in the Museum in Berlin. The same divinity was called Astarte in Phoenician regions while the monotheistic Semites feared her as Ashtaroth: a divine but extremely dangerous woman who made it difficult for them to observe the strict rules in their lives. Herodotus reported, in the third book of his history, that in the land of the Phoenicians the all-powerful goddess had another name as well: Alilat. The Sumerians called her Inanna and the Persians Anahita for whom she was protectress of the water, which in their dry country was life itself. The influence of this supreme goddess spread throughout the entire Mediterranean, carried by Phoenician seamen who brought her as far as the city of Eryce on the western tip of Sicily, where she was worshipped on top of a steep rock. In the other great Phoenician colony, Carthage, she was called Tanit.

This goddess with the many names was worshipped according to the needs of the society in which her sanctuaries were located. Not only were her names different, but so were her rites: orgies, sacred prostitution, even the sacrifices of first-born children, as was the case in Carthage in the worship of the bloodthirsty Tanit. It is worth noting that the symbol of this Carthaginian goddess can be seen in Delos, on the threshold of the house of the dolphins, like a magic charm to keep misfortune away from the householders.

From clay slabs found on the coast of Syria, we learn of the correspondence of an Ugarit chief with his counterpart in Alasia, as prehistoric Cyprus was called. These relationships explain the way in which the Eastern divinity was carried to the island of Cyprus, where as early as the 12th century BC, there was a sanctuary dedicated to her near Paphos. But here the insatiable goddess changed form. She became identified with the sea and was named Pelagic.

In his Cosmogonia, Hesiod wrote some strange things about how this universal heavenly power came to be in the Helladic world. He said that Kronos castrated Uranus and threw the immortal parts of his divine father into the sea somewhere near Kythera. On that spot, a great foam was created out of which emerged the beautiful goddess. This accounts for her name in Greek, as Aphrodite means “arisen out of the foam”. The waves embraced her and brought her gently to Cyprus where she acquired yet another name: Cypris.

Associated with humankind’s most powerful emotion, Aphrodite was worshipped everywhere with zeal, as her cult conquered one region after the other. She enchanted both gods and mortals, accompanied by a retinue consisting of the mischievous Eros, the Graces, Desire and Lust. She was by her nature a fateful goddess, who could not stand to be spurned; she punished the unloved harshly, as she did Hippolytus, son of Theseus. The proud goddess tormented him and led him to his doom because the rash young man dared to prefer to worship the virginity of Artemis. In Sparta, Aphrodite was worshipped as a martial goddess, in keeping with the paramount local values, and in Athens she was exalted as Urania, heavenly protectress of the noblest form of love. There was of course the other sanctuary, in her Pandemos form, but it was as Urania, her refined form, that she was honoured on the Agoraios Kolonos, alongside the temple of her husband Hephaistos who had gone through so much during their married life. Pausanias referred to the sanctuary of the goddess and to its cult statue, a work by Phidias from choice marble, but today only a few stones have been saved on the slope of the hill beside the train tracks. In order to build this central communications line, the ruins of the greater part of this ancient building were sacrificed.

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