The Ancient Agora of Athens

One of the most significant archaeological sites of Greece and Athens, in particular, lies right in the middle of the Greek capital’s city center and stands as a true example of ancient Greek culture and excellence.

The Ancient Agora of Athens, as it is called, due to its size, feels like it most often remains unexplored by the average visitor who only walks around its premises, hears a story or two, and moves on to the next site. Let’s fix that. Here is an in-depth exploration of the Ancient Agora of Athens, its history, and its buildings, that will transport you back in time and introduce you to the everyday life of ancient Athenians.

In ancient times, the Ancient Agora of Athens used to be the center of the public life of the locals. The word ‘agora’, meaning ‘market’, comes from the verb ‘agorw’, which in Greek translates to ‘I speak publicly.’ The etymology of the word is related to the multifaceted role of the ancient Agora.

The Agora was the seat of administration, justice but also the main place for trade and business. In the pre-classical years, the Agora was an additional gathering place for the Church of the Municipality, the people of Athens, and at the same time, a stage for theatrical competitions and sports performances. In all eras from the archaic years until 267 AD, when it got completely destroyed by the Heroes, the Agora was also a popular destination for the social and spiritual get-togethers of the Athenians. 

Here is a breakdown of the buildings that the Ancient Agora used to host during its peak:

The Administrative Center of Ancient Athens

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Tholos: A circular building that was the social seat of the democratic administration of the 50 Rectors who each ruled for one-tenth of the year (36 days). Every day, a draw took place to decide the head of the Rectors, whose term would then only for 24 hours. In Tholos, prior to the meetings, the co-rectors used to make sacrifices to god Apollo and goddess Artemis, who were worshipped there along with the Phosphores, chthonic lower deities, who protected the public life of the Athens. 

The Ancient Detention Center, also known as ‘Socrates’ prison’: About 100 m from the southwestern end of the Agora, among the ruins of houses and laboratories, a crippled public building has been identified as the place were the Detention Center of classical times was located. Any building material at the site is scarce due to burglary.

Among the findings the excavations brought to life, there are 13 very small vessels, perhaps used to store the venom for those sentenced to death. A worn-out statuette of Socrates was also found; this, along with the testimonies of the Platonic Dialogues and Plutarch, suggests that this is where Socrates was kept and where he eventually left his last breath.

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Vouleftirion: In the archaic years, the deputies met in the open space of Vouleftirion, the name of which translates to ‘Parliament’ in Greek. In the Classical Era, the Parliament consisted of 500 deputies, which is why Greeks usually refer to it as ‘ the Parliament of Five Hundred.’ In order for the Parliament to form, each of the 10 tribes of Athens selected 50 of its representatives by drawing a lot. The term of each member of the Parliament lasted for one year.

Mitroo: A building that dates back to the Hellenistic times, Mitroo used to be the registry of Athens. All the votes, written on papyrus, leather, or wooden boards, were deposited in there, along with any other official documentation of the times. In order to arrange and store these documents, the State of Athens used to hire a special officer. In the same building where the public documents were kept, people also used to worship the Mother of Gods Rea - Kyvelis, which is why the great goddess used to be depicted in Greek Mythology as the ‘guardian’ of the archives.

The Temple of Apollo Patroos: A small Ionian temple built during the 4th century BC, and dedicated to "Patroos" Apollo, father of Ionas, ancestor of the Ionians and therefore of the Athenians. Apollo Patroos was one of the patron deities who protected the organization of the Athenian state and was associated with the Athenian fraternities.

The Temple of Fratrius Zeus and Athena Fratrias: These adjectives that were given to the gods come from the word ‘fratir’, which means ‘brother’ and were given to Olympian Zeus and Athena because they were worshiped as gods-protectors of the Athenian fraternities. In front of the entrance of the neighboring temples of Patroos Apollo, Zeus Fratrios, and Athena Fratrias, was the altar to which the members of each Athenian fraternity commonly offered sacrifices, to honor their patron deities.

The stoa of Eleftherios Zeus: A place of rest for the Athenians with wonderful paintings by painter Euphranoras. It was built in the 5th BC.

Vassilios Stoa: Also built in the 5th century BC, Vassilios Stoa can now be seen buried under the train tracks of the modern train of Athens. It was the seat of the king of Athens, who only had religious and judicial power. Here, there were inscriptions with all the laws of the Athenian state, from the time of Solon onwards.

Pikili Stoa and Ermon Stoa: On the north side of the Agora was the Pikili Stoa and Ermon Stoa. Pikili Stoa included magnificent paintings by painter Polygnotos, such as the one depicting the battle of Marathon. In addition, it gave its name to Stoic philosophy since its founder, Zeno, taught here.

Altar of the Twelve Gods: It was built in the 6th century . and served as a starting point for measuring distances.

Central Area

The Temple of Areos: Probably the work of the unknown architect who also built the Temple of  Hephaestus in Thission during the middle of the 5th century BC. Initially, the Temple of Areos was located in the Athenian district of Acharnes, but it was transferred to the Agora, by order of the emperor Augustus. In front of the pile of ruins of the temple, lies the Complex of tyrant-killers Armodios and Aristogeitonos, who killed the tyrant Hipparchus, an act that eventually led to the liberation of Athens from the tyranny of Peisistratus and therefore to the creation of the free republic. The Athenians loved the two killers and the area was considered sacred and a place of immunity.

The monument of Famous Heroes: Long pedestal with a railing of the 5th century BC on which the citizens rested. The statues of the heroes of the ten tribes were erected at the monument. It was the information center of the Athenians, as that was where public announcements were hung.

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The Galleries (South I - South II - Middle gallery): Built from the 5th to the 2nd century BC, the Galleries had shops, offices, and banquet halls. Near the Middle Stoa, the findings of a shoe factory were discovered, attributed to the popular shoemaker of the time, Simon, a friend of Socrates, who, according to Xenophon, was frequented by the Athenian philosopher.

The Agrippa Conservatory: As its name suggests, the Conservatory was built by Agrippa in 15 BC, with a capacity of 1,000 spectators and a two-story gallery. The large open gallery was supported by giant statues of tritons and giants. The sculptures used to mimic the enormous trunk of Poseidon from the western pediment of the Parthenon. The Conservatory suffered severe damage in the middle of the 2nd century AD, and although it was rebuilt immediately, it was destroyed yet again in 267 AD, rebuilt during the 4th century AD, and finally abandoned during the 5th century.

Eastside

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Attalos Gallery: A two-story gallery consisting of shops, which was built by king Attalus II, in honor of his teacher, a Stoic philosopher, Carneadus, and the Athenians. The gallery is 116m long. The ground floor columns have been built in Doric style while the floor columns follow the Ionic style. It was completely restored in the 1950s by the American School of Archeology, which since 1931 has been conducting excavations in the Agora. The Stoa now functions as a museum. The exhibits were found in the excavations of the Agora and give a representative picture of the democratic practices of ancient Athens.

Panathinaion Street: It used to start from the district of Keramikos, pass in front of the gallery of Attalos and the Elefsinio, and ended at the entrance of the Acropolis. It was the route of the procession of the Panathenaic Games, the most significant celebration of the Athenians in honor of their patron goddess. Every four years, during the summer, the Athenians, led by the leadership and the wheeled trireme (which carried the veil of the goddess), went up Panathinaion Street and walked on the Acropolis. This majestic procession is depicted on the frieze of the Parthenon.

The Church of the Holy Apostles of Solakis: One of the most beautiful and earliest temples of the medieval era, it dates back to around 1,000. It is a four-column cruciform with side niches. On the exterior walls, it has a beautiful false ceiling decoration. It was restored to its original form by the Samuel M. Kress Foundation in New York. 

Pantainos Library - Late Roman Wall - Elefsinio: On Panathenaic Street, towards the Acropolis, on the southeast side of the market, we see traces of the walls that were built shortly after the destruction caused in 267 AD. Nearby was the famous Elefsinio, the Athenian branch of the great mosque of Demeter and Persephone in Elefsis. Together with the Parthenon and Thissio, it was one of the most revered shrines in Athens. Every year, the day after the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the ‘Parliament of Five Hundred’ met in this place.

Now that you have gathered all that knowledge, you’ll never look at the Ancient Agora of Athens in the same way. What’s more, if you visit Athens, you’ll know exactly what to look for and you’ll be able to watch the rich heritage of Athens come to life at the place that used to be the center of Democracy. What are you waiting for? It’s as if you’ve just become your own guide!