The Ancient Agora: Stroll Through the History of Athenian Culture

When you visit the Athens Agora you will explore ancient ruins that although worn back to ground level are still an accurate record of the history of ancient Greek life, including its culture, commerce and religion. The Agora was an amazing multi-purpose space that also produced some of the best ideas that emanated from the ancient world at the time.

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The word ‘agora’ in Greek means “an assembly” or generally “an open space in a town”. Its usage includes; “a market, place of assembly, a public place or forum, a market place”. Each of these definitions very much describes the activities that occurred within the ancient Greek marketplace in Athens.

The Greek Agora, sometimes referred to as the BC Agora, is adjacent to the nearby Roman Agora. The map below will help you to ascertain the Agora’s expanse and to identify the location of some major features within the Ancient Agora. There are over forty ruins to visit in the Agora and although the majority are only skeletal at best, they still accurately represent the ancient history and achievements of Athenian’ society. We have organised the ruins of the Ancient Athens Agora into arbitrary categories based on the major function of each.

Tap the image if using a mobile or use the mouse to hover above each location

The Agora in Athenian Culture

The culture of the Athens Agora is bound to the history of Athens. We can go back to 632 BC when Cylon attempted Tyranny and the Athenian response under Draco was to impose a series of severe but protective law codes which operated until Solon, magistrate and lawmaker, gained influence in 594 BC. Solon’s reforms were broad and as far as our interest in the ancient Athens Agora is concerned, led to the restructuring of Athenian society and progress towards democracy. He also fostered the cult of Athena and the inception of festivals. It is thought that within the same period Solon nominated the expanse now identified as the ancient Agora of Athens as the public space for Athenians. The Agora occupied 25 acres of land northwest of the Acropolis. You can read more about Solon’s influence on Athenian justice on the Areopagus in our post describing the Areopagus.

One of the principal roles of the multi-purpose Agora was to provide a social area so that the Athenians could engage in both robust recreation as well as cultural pursuits that involved expression and performance. The centre of the ancient Athens agora provided space for Greek drama, music and athletics, as well as artistic pursuits that involved expression and performance such as drama and music. The stoae and shaded areas served as meeting places for discussions by friends, businessmen and philosophers. Plato portrays the Agora of hosting youthful intellectuals who between episodes of drinking enjoyed conversation and listening to skilled philosophers from all over Greece. On the larger scale the Agora was also the venue for processions and celebrations.

The Panathenaean Way and the Panathenaea

Travellers and Athenians from the north entered Athens through the Dipylon Gate. The road became the Panathenaean Way, the primary thoroughfare that diagonally traversed the Agora. The Agora occupied 25 acres of land northwest of the Acropolis.

The Panathenaean Way (1) derived its name from its association with the Panathenaea, one of two principal cultural festivals celebrated by the Athenians.  The other was the Dionysia, a cultural festival important to the introduction of drama to the Agora and Athens, and when the population could allow themselves to be absorbed into feasting, religious experience and theatre. The Great Dionysia was preceded each day by drunken revelry as people feasted on the meat of up to 240 bulls that were ritually slaughtered for the occasion. And yet, important to democracy, it was further evidence that art was being driven by the populace and not the tyrants.

The Panathenaea was a national festival commemorated by the Athenians to honour Athena and Erechtheus. There were two Panathenaeae festivals. The Greater Panathenaea was held every four years and was an extension of the lesser, Annual Panathenaea.

Pausanias wrote, “On entering the city there is a building for the preparation of the processions, which are held in some cases every year, in others at longer intervals. Hard by is a temple of Demeter, with images of the goddess herself and of her daughter, and of Iacchus holding a torch.”

The Greater Panathenaea was distinguished from its annual counterpart by the inclusion of equestrian events such as charioteering as well as musicals and gymnastic contests. The most anticipated event common to both commemorations was the bearing of the veil of Athena from the Procession House next to the Dipylon Gate, via the Eleusinion which was situated at the eastern end of the Acropolis, to the Parthenon on the Acropolis. This part of the procession was originally intended to be included only in the Greater Panathenaea, but such was its significance to the Athenians that it was incorporated as an annual event.

Pausanias reported it as, “The procession was most splendid. The peplus was suspended like a sail from the yards on the mast of the Panathenaic Ship), which was an actual ship, very large and beautiful … The Athenians had become a seafaring people, and they wished to signify it; the time of the agrarian Athena was passed. It was considered a great sight for the populace.”

The Panathenaean Way through the Agora was the ideal route by which the spectators could view the procession. Colonnaded buildings with terraced steps that ascended to extended porticos provided seating for a large number of onlookers. Such was the importance of the procession that its details were sculptured onto the eastern frieze of the Parthenon.

Other Features of Ancient Athenian Culture in the Agora

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Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios

Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, Agora: Image by Wikidata/CC BY-SA(creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios

The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios is adjacent to the Temple of Apollo Patroos when continuing clockwise around the Agora.
The Agora community was highly oral and the Stoa of Zeus Eleuthrios was a convenient central meeting place. It provided shade and protection for contemplative philosophers such as Socrates who would slowly promenade as he reasoned or debated ideas with his companions, and for merchants or civil administrators who sought space for discussions and consultation.
Pausanias, when he visited the Agora, referred to Zeus as ‘the God Almighty’ and Zeus was deified within the Stoa with the epithet ‘Eleutherios’ to acknowledge his divinity as the god of freedom and deliverance, particularly in respect of the context of freedom from bondage and enslavement. This theme of Zeus’ divinity was very much reflected by the decorations of the colonnaded Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios which included the shields of warriors who had lost their lives either defending or liberating Athens, or preserving its independence. (Image Credit Wikidata)

Odeon of Agrippa

Odeon of Agrippa, Agora

The Odeon of Agrippa

Athenians under Roman occupation enjoyed an extension to their pleasures through a gift of a concert hall, the Odeon, in 15 BC by Marcus Vispanius Agrippa.

Library of Pantainos

Library of Pantainos: Image by George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The Library of Pantainos

The Library of Pantainos was dedicated by Titus Flavius Pantaenus to Athena Archegetis, the emperor Trajan and the Athenian people circa 100 A.D. It was an archive for scrolls handwritten on papyrus and parchment which were stored in numerous repositories built into the library’s walls. The library would have been a detailed vault of Athenian culture. It would be reasonable to assume that, given the proximity of the library to the administrative and commercial centres on the Agora, that the scrolls would have contained at least legislation, agreements and civil decisions. Evidence exists that the library also constituted a school of philosophy so perhaps books and the results of significant debates were also stored.
The library included a colonnaded paved courtyard that provided space to read outside its large internal square room. It was also surrounded by three stoae with shops behind their colonnades. The library underwent ongoing expansion in the years of Roman occupation and included a marble street that led from the Greek Agora to the Roman Agora. Two of the library’s rules have been uncovered by archaeologists, their being; “No book should be taken away,” and “ is open from the first through the sixth hour”. (Image Credit: George E. Koronaios)

The Agora in Athenian Commerce

The role of the Athens Agora as the centre of Athenian commerce was probably its most important. The city had to be fed. The open planning of the Athens Agora was ideal for marketing and business, promoting interactions and providing ready access to merchants, shops and wares. The market was more than a location for simple buying and selling. It was also the focus of commerce where substantial transactions were arranged for the importation and exportation of valuable cargoes. The trade was supervised by meticulous officials who ensured the honesty and fairness of the dealings.

It was important for Athenians that strict guidelines were imposed on the integrity of trade and commerce. The lower Balkan Peninsula is dominated by mountains rich in limestone and some of the slopes are heavily wooded. Much of the remaining terrain is rugged and unyielding. There is still a paucity of arable land today and it wasn’t any different when the Athens Agora flourished. The regions surrounding Athens were not conducive to agronomy and it was not possible to feed the population of Athens and its provinces from what the land produced. However, some produce was grown locally and it’s impossible as we move around Greece not to notice the range of produce that does respond to the local mild climate. Sheep and goats can be seen in their pastures and olive groves and vineyards are ubiquitous. Figs and pomegranates abound, as does honey. Grains can be grown and although wheat is cultivated, the soil is kinder to the growth of barley.

Crops being grown in the sediments of the Argolid Gulf
Crop production near ancient Tiryns
One of Greece’s ubiquitous olive plantations on the northern shore of the Corinth Canal
Olive plantation on the northern shore of the Corinth Canal
Land use near the ancient city of Corinth as seen from the Acrocorinth
Some available land under cultivation near Corinth

All of these traditional crops were traded in the Athens Agora but all trade and commerce had to be protected because the city depended on imports. The food supply had to be ensured not only for the citizens of Athens but also the Athenian army. It was prohibited to stockpile provisions in order to generate higher prices, particularly corn. The practice might also have threatened reciprocal food exports which included olive oil, wine and honey, or industrial exports such as woollen fabrics, ceramics, marble and articles made from precious metals. These were made possible by the skill of the local Agora craftsmen. The merchants at the Agora of Athens therefore benefitted from the maritime trade organised through Piraeus, particularly from the importation of wheat, and read custom based on established prices.

The Agora in Athenian Administration

The ancient Agora of Athens was not only the city’s social, cultural, commercial and religious heart, but also Athens’ intellectual and administrative centre.  The central area had been cleared early during the 6th Century BC and was then populated with the public buildings in the foreground of the Hephaestus. The structures that were then located in the Greek marketplace and specified for the administration of the city of Athens included parliamentary and court buildings. This precinct was important because in the new democratic society decisions were collaborative and equitable.

The religion of Athens was much integrated into civil affairs and so various divinities were assigned as the “patron deities” of government departments as well as the temples and sanctuaries that were assigned to administrative services.

Several impressive stoae were also erected to facilitate discussion and education.

The Stoa of Attalus

The Stoa of Attalus (5), the best-preserved building of the ancient Agora, concentrated the focus on the Greek marketplace as an important business and administrative centre in that it provided an important covered and sheltered place for informal meeting and assembly. The 115 metre Stoa was a gift from Attalus I, the King of Pergamum, who ascended the throne of Pergamum in 241 BC and was succeeded by his son, Eumenes II, in 197 BC. It was Eumenes II who made the generous gift to Athens of the Stoa of Eumenes on the south western slope of the Acropolis.

The Stoa of Attalus within the Greek Agora with the Odeon of Agrippa prominent
The Stoa of Attalus within the Greek Agora

Attalus I had an Athens connection in that he had studied in the schools of Athens. Pergamum achieved great wealth by defeating the Gauls and therefore avoided having to pay the ongoing tribute. Attalus I shared the wealth of Pergamum by generously funding the Stoa. The result was a stunning double-storied building of sizeable proportions. Three types of columns were used – Doric, Ionian and Egyptian – and their marble composition gleamed in the sun. 

The length of the Stoa provided an ideal scale for the incorporation into its design of a range of shops. Merchants benefitted from a guarantee of trade due to the stoa’s seductive invitation to linger and promenade. The Stoa of Attalus would also have provided an excellent vantage point to view the processions along the Panathanaean Way due to the generous provision of steps and terraces along the road front. And in keeping with the association Attalus I had with Athens, the Stoa served philosophers such as Socrates and Plato well as providing a venue for instruction. The Stoa of Attalus housed the Agora Museum which displayed archaeological finds characteristic of the uses of the Agora.

Other Features of Administration in the Ancient Agora of Athens

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The Tholos

Tholos in the Athens Agora: Image by Tomisti / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The Tholos

The literal meaning for the Greek ‘Tholos’ is ‘dome or canopy’, and so the term’s use visually describes the 5th Century round building that served as the head office of the Athenian government, headquarters for magistrates, and headquarters for the 500 senators of the Bouleuterion. It was customary for administrators at the ancient Agora to be available at all hours and so officials slept in the Tholos overnight.
One of the most important functions of administration was to supervise fair trade and commerce in the Agora of Athens and so a set of standard weights and measures was kept within the building. The Tholos did not provide for all government and civic duties but was conveniently located adjacent to the Bouleuterion to communicate with other departments.

The Bouleuterion

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The Bouleuterion

The Bouleuterion, situated very near the Tholos to expedite administration, is also referred to as the Council Chamber of the Five Hundred. The administrators within the Council House formed working groups primarily for the daily preparation and assessment of regulations and legislation.

Royal Stoa

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The Royal Stoa

The Royal Stoa was the premises of one of the principal magistrates of Athens, the Royal Archon. The magistrates were responsible for overseeing a range of matters which included the civil, administrative and legal, but particularly the religious. It has been suggested that Socrates appeared before the Royal Archon (L. archon basileus) to answer the charges brought against him.

Monument of Eponymous Heroes

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The Monument of Eponymous Heroes

Athenian democracy was based on the population of Athens being assigned to one of ten tribes (c 500 BC). The names of the tribes were those of ten prominent Athenians selected by the Oracle at Delphi. Membership of a tribe was a prerequisite for citizenship. In this context a small 4th Century limestone temple was erected for the worship of Zeus and Athena Phatrios, the principal deities of the ancestral religious brotherhoods.

Altar of the Twelve Gods

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The Altar of the Twelve Gods

The Altar of the Twelve Gods (c.550 BC) has pretty well been subsumed by recent infrastructure but it served as the zero distance marker for Athens, defining the city centre. All distances recorded from Athens were relative to the altar.

The Agora in Athenian Religion

Athenians were exceedingly religious and Josephus, a first century historian, referred to the Athenians as the ‘the most pious of the Greeks.’ The Athenians spread their worship over a large number of deities and the Agora in Athens was littered with temples, sanctuaries, shrines and statues devoted to a plethora of gods and heroes. Their worship took the forms of public sacrifices, processions, rituals and rites and to precede most events they offered public prayers and supplications to the gods. The fervour was encouraged by state control and sponsorship that emanated from the Bouleuterion. The superfluity of idols meant that the Agora was second in religion only to the Acropolis and the omnipresence of religion permeated the Greek marketplace like an invisible shroud. The ancient Greeks did not just see a building; they saw an edifice patronised by a being greater than themselves such that the building assumed a persona consistent with its patron.

Attention given to matters religious was hierarchical. Priesthoods associated with the more elite cults were claimed on ancestral grounds. Lesser gods and heroes identified with feasting and community were usually attended to by those of lower social rank. The intellectual centres in the Agora such as the schools of philosophy of Plato and Aristotle were on common ground with temples devoted to mystical and sexual ritual.

Pausanias wrote about the religion of the Athenians in the market place as; “In the Athenian market-place among the objects not generally known is an altar to Mercy, of all divinities the most useful in the life of mortals and in the vicissitudes of fortune, but honoured by the Athenians alone among the Greeks. And they are conspicuous not only for their humanity but also for their devotion to religion. They have an altar to Shamefastness, one to Rumour and one to Effort. It is quite obvious that those who excel in piety are correspondingly rewarded by good fortune.”

The Temple of Hephaestus

View of Temple of Hephaestus with foundation ruins of administration building in the foreground
The Temple of Hephaestus, Agora Athens

The Doric Temple of Hephaestus (11), or The Hephestieion, is one of the most prominent and best preserved structures that can be seen in the Agora in Athens. The original roof of the temple was supported by 34 columns. Athena and Hephaestus , the god of fire and a blacksmith who forged the thunderbolts for Zeus,  were worshipped at the Temple as patron divinities of the arts and crafts. Myth ascribes Hephaestus with calling for fire for the use in kilns for the production of pottery and for the fabrication of small articles from metals. The reality independent of the myth is that pottery and metal works have been found in the vicinity of the temple, establishing it as the precinct occupied by tradesmen – potters and blacksmiths.

Other Places Important to Religion in the Agora in Athens

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The Eleusinion

The Eleusinion

The Eleusinion (12) was probably one of the most religious sites in the Agora in Athens and was important to the Panathenaic festival because it safeguarded the sacred objects relevant to the ceremonies and sacred annual processions of the Eleusinian mysteries to honour Demeter and Persephone. You can find an excellent explanation at andrewgough.co.uk/the-eleusis-mystery/
Pausanias described The Eleusinion as, “The Eleusinion was a sanctuary built into the base of the Acropolis in 490 BC which was dedicated to Demeter and Kore (Persephone). The 11m x 18m structure not only contained statues of Demeter and Kore but also of Iakkos who was significant to the Eleusinian mysteries. The Eleusinian deities had previously been worshipped at the site in the 6th Century in an open-air setting enclosed by a wall. The sanctuary underwent further strengthening and development under Roman occupation.”

Temple of Apollo Patroos

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The Temple of Apollo Patroos

The small Ionic Temple of Apollo Patroos was identified by Pausanias and was set directly opposite the Temple of Hephaestus. Athenians were Ionians, the race originating with Ion. Greek legend identified Apollo as the father of Ion and as such Apollo was considered a patron deity of Athens, watching over the state and its civil administration and organisation. In this sense the Greek ‘patroos’ is related to ‘father’ in that it signifies ‘of one’s fathers’. The epithet therefore seems to include the sentiments not only of ancestor, but also of nourishment and protection. The Temple also had reference to Apollo’s being one of the patron deities of state in the context of the various tribes that existed in the city, mentioned in the description of the Monument of Eponymous Heroes.

Altar of Zeus Agoraios

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The Altar of Zeus Agoraios

Zeus Agoraios, the divine inspirer of oratory, was the patron deity of the Agora in Athens and was worshipped through a dedicated altar made from Pentellic marble. Nearby was the altar of the Mother of Gods, the Metroon.

The Metroon

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The Metroon

The mid-second Century Metroon is an altar of the Mother of Gods amidst an array of the Monument of Eponymous Heroes.

Temple of Ares

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The Temple of Ares

Ares was the Greek god of War and his Doric temple was installed in the Agora about the 5th Century BC.

There are still many nooks and crannies of the Ancient Agora and its adjacent areas to see to which we haven’t referred. These include the Strategeion, Heliaia, Nymphaeum, Mint and the adjacent Pynx and Prison of Socrates. And there is so much more, including the Areopagus which we haven’t forgotten!

Final Thoughts on the Ancient Agora at Athens

There are many ancient places to visit in Greece but a visit to the ancient Agora at Athens is an enjoyable way to wind back the history of a society and culture which was forging in stone the foundations of global democracy. The Ancient Greek Agora was repurposed during the Roman occupation of Athens and is populated by Roman ruins as well as having been succeeded by the Roman Agora which was constructed in an adjacent space.