The Roman Agora in Athens

The Roman Agora in Athens was distinctively different from its predecessor, the Ancient (or Greek) Agora. The Roman Agora represented a different empire and culture. Greeks did not separate their religion and the worship of their gods and godesses from their allegiance to the state, and so any shift away from services, religion and the worship of the gods and goddesses to an emphasis on commerce, trade and Roman power was not unnoticed.

Brief Background History of the Roman Agora

Greek architecture was at its zenith between the seventh century BC and the fourth century BC, and craftsmen demonstrated exceptional skill in fabricating on both the Ancient Agora and Acropolis complex monuments, columns and friezes from both limestone and marble.

The Athenian empire declined following its defeat by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian wars, then its subjugation to Macedon, and finally the occupation of Greece by the Romans in 86 BC under General Lucius Sulla. The Romans were not kind to the city of Athens on invasion and although Athens hung on to its cultural heritage, the impressive structures of the Acropolis and the ancient Agora required repair. The Romans attended to the restoration and benefited considerably from their acquaintance with Greek style (see The Athens Acropolis).

During the second half of the first century BC the space within the ancient Agora was reduced due to the erection of Roman buildings. A very obvious example was the construction of the Odeon of Herodes Agrippa. Given that the Romans had seized the commerce and trade that was the driver of the Greek Agora, and that this ancient Agora could no longer offer the space required for commerce, the Romans constructed their own Agora between 19-11 BC in the form of an imposing building which had not previously been erected in Athens. You can compare the Roman Agora with the ancient BC Greek Agora.

When you visit Roman Athens you will perceive the transition from the almost ethereal as embodied in the structures on the Acropolis and the Greek Agora to the more elaborate though functional architecture as exemplified by the Roman works in the Roman Agora. Additional Roman constructions and works occurred under Emperor Hadrian, and in fact, there is a substantial scattering of Roman ruins throughout Athens.

  • The Roman Agora
    • Introduction – The Roman Agora
    • The Western Propylon of the Roman Agora – Gate of Athena Archegetis
    • The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora
    • The Agoranomeion at the Eastern End of the Roman Agora
    • Tower of the Winds – The Horologion
    • The Agora Latrine – The Vespasianae

Introduction – The Roman Agora

A panorama of the Roman Agora in the foreground of the Library of Hadrian
Overview of the area of the Roman Agora with the Library of Hadrian in the background

The Agora during Roman times was a rectangular building (110metres x 104 metres) with an open courtyard enclosed by an Ionic colonnaded portico with shops, storerooms and offices located in the rear of the portico (Image below: George E. Koronaios)

The Roman Agora was unlike the Greek Agora in that it was a building with central courtyard
The rectangular design of the Roman Agora in Athens enclosing a central courtyard

It was, as the name suggests, the central market place where Athenians shopped, where business and commerce was transacted, trade secured and where citizens met to interact through discussion and conversation. It would have been populated with statues and idols of gods and goddesses, but not to the same extent as was the case of the Ancient Agora. The Greeks saw no distinction between religion and state. Wherever state business was conducted, provision through the use of temples, statues and monuments was made for the presence of the gods. And state business was an essential element of the Ancient Agora. The focus of the Roman Agora, however, was on commerce and insufficient space discouraged its occupation by numerous religious shrines.

The Roman Agora was a rectangular building that enclosed a central courtyard
The courtyard of the Roman Agora surrounded by the columns of the portico

The Roman Agora in Athens was prominent, built to a height above the level of the Agora’s eastern Propylon. It was constructed of ashlar masonry, a process by which all stones are worked to have the same shape, size and surface texture. The working is required to remove the variation in surfaces due to the fracturing of the limestone and marble surfaces when quarried. The advantage of using ashlar masonry is that horizontal walls built from masonry units which were flat and smooth bonded more tightly with the addition of a minimum of mortar. The resulting edifice was stronger as a result.

The Doric columns supported the portico that surrounded the central courtyard
Colonnade for portico enclosing central courtyard of Roman Agora

The image above shows the columns of the Southern Portico. The columns to the left indicate the width of the portico. The left-most columns also identify the façade of the Inner Portico. We can see that the columns that made up the colonnade of the Southern Portico each rest on a separate base and not directly on the common foundation, or stylobate. This defines the columns as being post-Doric order. The Ionic capitals supporting the architrave can just be identified on top of the columns.

The image below shows some of the ruins of the agora building’s southern inner portico.

The image shows remnants of columns and monuments that were aligned along the southern portico
Ruins of the agora building’s southern inner portico

A small fountain house was also included in the sourhtern inner prrtico, behind which was narrow stairway leading up to the road above. The stariway can just be descerned by its apparent slope in the masonry.

A small fountain house was a part of the Romans agora's southern portico
The fountain house in the southern portico of the Roman agora

The Western Propylon of the Roman Agora – Gate of Athena Archegetis

The Roman Agora was connected to the ancient Greek Agora to the west by a marble pathway. Entry into the Roman Agora from the west was via a pentelic marble Propylon known as the Gate of Athena Archegetis (Athena the Leader). An inscription on the gate’s architrave relates that funds for the building of the gate were provided by Julius Caesar and Augustus in the 1st century BC and that the gate was dedicated to Athena Archegetis in 11-10 BC.

Image shows the dimensions of the Gate of Athena Archegetis
Gate of Athena Archegetis at the western entrance to the Roman Agora of Athens

The Gate is certainly Roman but not all the elements of traditional Greek architecture and design were abandoned in its construction. There is much about the Gate of Athena Archegetis that points to its Doric style. The columns of the structure stand directly on the stylobate and decrease in diameter as they ascend. They are segmented into drums rather than being in one length. The capitals associated with Ionic and Corinthian columns are absent, and the abacus that sits on top of the capital and makes contact with the lower surface of the architrave is plain and undecorated. The façade of the architrave is plain and whereas elements of the entablature remain, it’s a bit undefined to make further comparisons. Nevertheless, there is certainly sufficient detail to extract the Doric properties from the Gate of Athena Archegetis.

The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora

Image shows the location of the Eastern Propylon east of the Tower of Winds
Visitors to the Roman Agora about to enter the Eastern Propylon (camera side of the Tower)

An Ionic order marble propylon was also constructed at the opposite end of the Agora to provide access from the eastern side. A series of shops were located adjacent to the eastern entrance and a staircase ascended from the Propylon to the Agoranomeion and the Tower of Winds which were situated on slightly higher terrain.

The following image shows visitors about to step into the Eastern Portico, defined by its two rows of Ionic columns, and then up on to the level of the propylon.

The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora has lost much of its detail, only columns fragments remain
The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora in Athens

The eastern Propylon has lost much of its vertical profile and only remnants of its unfluted columns remain

(Image below: George E. Koronaios).

A visitor passes up the stairs through the column ruins of the Eastern Propylon
Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora

The exact location of the Eastern Propylon can be established through aerial photos that show the footprints left by the massive columns that supported it.

An image of the location of the eastern propylon using an aerial view derived from Google maps
Overhead of propylon footprint – image credit Google Maps

An entrance was available from the southern side of the Agora. A small set of five steps flanked by vertically arranged slabs ascended to a terrace below a street level entrance that was above the southern retaining wall.

The Agoranomeion at the Eastern End of the Roman Agora

The triple arched Agoranomeion east of the eastern Propylon on the Agora boundary
The Agoranomeion at the eastern end of the Roman Agora Athens

The Agoranomeion was constructed at the eastern end of the Roman Agora. The function of the Agoranomeion has not been clearly established. It was a public building built of ashlar masonry which appears to be limestone in the 1st Century AD. Ruins indicate that a wide staircase led to a structure which had three archways and a marble colonnade that were elevated above the rest of the Agora. The image shows decorated arches above which is an architrave that spanned across them. The north and south masonry walls adjacent to the structure are still intact.

The Tower of the Winds – The Horologion

Image shows the octagonal geometry of the Tower of the Winds, an ancient hydraulic clock
The Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora, Athens

Located at the eastern boundary of the Roman Agora and adjacent to the eastern Propylon is the intriguing “Tower of the Winds”. This late 1st to 2nd Century BC monument was erected by Greek astronomer Andronicus of Cyrahus (Macedonia) and had been constructed from marble laid on limestone foundations. A quick walk around the Tower establishes its octagonal shape. An estimate of its height by a bit of street science is about 14 metres with a radius of about 4 metres. The floor of the Tower is constructed from what appears to be 16 marble slabs laid to complement the structure’s octagonal geometry. The walls are marble and the fully preserved roof of the building consists of twenty – four slabs. The slabs converge to a circular keystone, ensuring that any forces that arise due to the mass of the ceiling or walls are summed at a central location to enhance stability. A Corinthian capital rests on the assembly and possibly served as the base of a bronze wind vane in the form of a Triton.

Click on an image for enlargement as slide show

Although the monument appears quite plain, inside it presents as a real brain teaser in the absence of any advance reading when trying to determine its function. But it appears to have been a hydraulic clock with a sun-dial and weather vane, with its relationship to the eight main winds being indicated by the reliefs on the frieze around the top of the tower. Incised lines on the exterior of each of the sides of the structure correspond to an equal number of sundials. The scored channel running across the floor from the vessel on the southern side indicates a flow of water and that the mechanism would be driven hydraulically. The water was fed gravitationally from the Acropolis.

The frieze of the tower of Winds is decorated with scultures of the eight major winds
The reliefs in the frieze depicts the eight main winds

The monument served as a church during the Byzantine period and evidence exists in the form of fragments of frescoes with Christian content, dated at the 13th -14th century, which still adorn the northern and north-western side of the building’s interior.

The Agora Latrine – The Vespasianae

Image shows layout of the Latrine in the Roman Agora
Public Latrine with latrine seat adjacent to the Tower of the Winds

The Roman thoughtfully provided a 1st Century AD Public Latrine at the eastern end of the Agora. The building, lobby and hall were all rectangular, containing a bench with round holes. The space was rooved but for a portal for light and daresay, ventilation. It worked in a very simple and practical system of running water, which flushed away the waste products through a deep peripheral canal to the main drain of the city. Of course, the Romans were never overly sensitive about bodily functions and so privacy was not a criterion, as the images indicate. But what possessed them to construct it directly adjacent to the “Tower of the Winds”?!

Latrine drainage system
Practical drainage system to expel wastes from the latrine

The date at which the Roman Agora Athens was destroyed is not known with certainty, but the area remained in constant use until the 19th Century.
In the Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods it was occupied by houses, workshops and the churches.

Final Thoughts on the Roman Agora at Athens

The Roman Agora is an excellent example of the change of culture brought to Athens by the Romans and an example of the outstanding architectural skills that were evident at the time. It is also a reflection of that society.

It also reinforces that Athenians bequeathed a culture of architecture, arts, religion, commerce and mathematics without which the world would simply be poorer.

References:

Site Descriptions, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Athens