One approaches the site of the ancient Agora today by descending a wide stairway to the right of the temple. At the edge of the plateau, the American School of Classical Studies which conducted the excavations has put up a chart assisting visitors to find their way around the site.
Some of the first public buildings from Solon’s rule were constructed on the west side of the Agora thereby creating the nucleus of Athens’ administrative centre. The Bouleuterion (Council House) was built first together with the adjacent Prytaniko; the first sewage ducts were installed and the boundaries of the site were marked with inscribed stelae. During the 6th century, buildings had been erected on top of pre-historic graves, and were covered over in turn by subsequent structures.
The first building we meet, to the left at the bottom of the steps, is the raised floor of the Tholos. In the 6th century a rectangular edifice with an internal colonnaded courtyard was built on this site and used as a refectory by the assembly members. It was called the Prytaniko to distinguish it from the initial Prytaneion which must have been still in use when the old agora was situated on the slope of the Acropolis. The Prytaniko was destroyed during the Persian wars and replaced by the Tholos, which then became the official Prytaneion. This circular structure was absolutely dependent on the adjacent Bouleuterion, the seat of the Assembly of the Five Hundred. The annually elected members were always divided into groups of 50 representatives from each tribe and in this form they presided on a rotating basis for a period of 36-39 days. This period was called the “prytaneia”, during which the members had the right to free meals at the Prytaneion, where they performed their duties. About one-third of them remained there continuously, even at night, in the event that some emergency decision had to be made. Every day near sunset, the prytaneis drew lots from among themselves to choose the epistatis (supervisor), who was the supreme archon for 24 hours, as he held the state seal and the keys to the state archives.
The Prytaneion was in essence the administrative seat of the Republic of Athens because the prytaneis had full control over military, political and financial matters. They even had the right to express criticism of the newly elected officials. They received ambassadors from other cities, studied the reports of the strategoi (military leaders), assigned contracts for public works and organised the sales of property seized from penalized citizens. The weights and measures of the state were kept in the Prytaneion; another duty exercised by the prytaneis was to keep close check on the measures of weight used in the market to prevent profiteering. They also had the power to arrest dishonest tax collectors and to take judicial decisions to impose fines of up to 500 drachmas. But the most significant task of the prytaneis was to prepare the bills to be passed; first the bills went to the Boule for drafting and then to the Assembly of the Deme for final approval.
The enormous weight attached by the Athenians to the duties of the prytaneis can be seen in Socrates’ defence, in which the philosopher cited his earlier refusal to pass a death sentence, by withdrawing from the Tholos while he was serving his term as prytanis during the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. In this way, Socrates believed that he had performed an act of resistance to oppressive power, even though he knew that his punishment for refusing to perform his duty would be exemplary. He himself proposed, with a large measure of irony, that the most appropriate sentence for the charges against him would be to oblige him to eat forever in the Prytaneion, near the citizens who already enjoyed this privilege.
The Tholos with its characteristic round shape was built after 470 BC. It had a simple entrance to the east and its ceramic tiled roof was supported by six poros stone columns, the bases of three of which have been found. The floor was earthen and the thick walls were built of stone. On the north side of the building was a small room that served as a kitchen; next to it traces have been found of a makeshift roasting pit. During the Roman years, the Tholos acquired an a outer gate, the floor was paved with marble slabs and the initial pyramidal roof-with a shape that made the Athenians call the building “skias”, i.e. sunshade -was replaced by a flatter one. Whatever remains on this site today is from the Roman era.
The classification of the population of Athens into ten tribes from Denies drawn at random was, as pointed out earlier, one of the more inventive measures taken by the reformer Kleisthenis in the 6th century. The members of every tribe elected fifty delegates annually to the Boule or Assembly of the Five Hundred thus weakening the power of the oligarchic families. Herodotus was the first to use the term isonomia (equality in law), denoting the fact that all male citizens of the tribe took part in the draw with an equal possibility of being elected. The same person could not be elected two years in succession. The members of the Boule took a strict oath before entering the Bouleuterion and wore myrtle wreaths as an indication of their office. During their term as bouleutis (member of the Assembly) they were relieved of all military obligations, and occupied a position of honour at theatrical performances and feasts. At the daily sessions of the Boule, decisions were made by raising the hand, and the members were remunerated with five obols for each time they attended. The election of the ten military leaders, one from each tribe, was also held there. This was an extremely important office for the running of the city and the colonies.
Elections to annual offices were held by a draw, and there had to be at least two candidates for each office. The usual system was to use as many black and white pebbles as there were candidates. As the name of a citizen was drawn from one container, the vote fell into the other. White meant election, black rejection. Among the various artefacts found in the region were small square clay tiles, cut in such a way that two pieces could be put together to make one complete piece; these might be evidence of another manner of election.
Any request by a citizen for settlement of a private matter of debt to the state had to be in writing and had to be checked by three secretaries elected by the Boule. There were also secondary state officials to ensure full transparency in the handling of public funds.
Apart from being a legislative body, the Boule also had executive powers. It could decide to call an emergency meeting of Athenians to ostracise a politician who showed dictatorial tendencies. If such an action was decided upon, an open space in the Agora was enclosed on the predetermined day, leaving ten openings to be used as entrances, one for each tribe. The citizens would present themselves at the entrance corresponding to their tribe and would hand over the potsherd (ostrako) on which they had written the name of the public person they believed to be dangerous. Then they would enter the fenced area where they remained until the end of the voting. The used potsherds were considered to be worthless after they had been counted, and for this reason, many of them were found under the main road through the Agora where they had been dumped as an under layer for the dirt road.
The primary use of this part of the Agora can be seen from the tablets found in the area, recording the written decisions of the all-powerful Boule. We can read the names of citizens penalized by the confiscation and sale of their possessions, together with tablets containing a detailed inventory of each of these men’s assets. Mention was made of the fact that these assets were sold off by responsible clerks and the sales tax was paid, about 1% of the total value of the goods seized. In the Agora Museum one can see such charts of state buying and selling. But votes were also found containing favourable mention of Assembly members who honoured their tribe during their prytaneia, as well as friendship treaties with neighbouring cities. From ancient texts we know that in the Bouleuterion there was a column bearing an inscription to the effect that any citizen who killed a traitor would not be punished. We still have the incised vote against the tyranny of the Archon Phrynichos in the 4th century. A clay water clock was found nearby in which the flow of water from one container to the other determined the time permitted for speeches. Some letters can still be discerned from the inscription telling us that this utensil was the property of the tribe of Antiochis, to which Socrates belonged. Another indication of its use was the marking of two XXs which means a period of about six minutes. That was all the time the speakers had.
The ruins of the Athenian Bouleuterion rest on top of other, older buildings. One of them was the prehistoric sanctuary of Gaia, the Mother of the Gods, together with the traces of a structure from the early 6th century which was probably the first rudimentary council chamber under Solon. A little later, the Old Bouleuterion was constructed, a square building with graduated wooden seats on three sides and a large entrance on the side facing the Prytaniko. The Persians destroyed this building when they invaded Attica, but it was later restored and continued to function until the end of the 5th century. This can be concluded from Xenophon’s Hellenica in which he described a dramatic meeting during the grim years of the Thirty Tyrants. In about 400 the New Bouleuterion began being built, right behind the old one, which very likely became the archives, taking the name Metroon, temple of the Mother of the Gods. There the votes of the Boule were kept, written on papyrus and ready for the first discussion.
In building the New Bouleuterion, part of the rock of the Agoraios Kolonos had to be cut. The edifice was smaller than its predecessor, with its back to the side of the hill and its seats turned eastwards. The early wooden benches may have been replaced later by stone ones. It was then that the roofed courtyard was built to the south of the building, creating an impressive entrance to the chamber. A two-tier marble gate, with two Ionic columns on the top part and four on the bottom, was part of the plan for the site. This gate rested on the southeastern corner of the Old Bouleuterion on which were found the remains of a fountain and the bases of votive statues. The problem of supplying water to the site obliged the masons to hew two cisterns out of the rock for rainwater; they were connected underground to a similar structure near the Tholos.
In the second century BC, the Old Bouleuterion was rebuilt. The old building was torn down and covered over by four rooms in a row, incorporating the sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods. This area was then exclusively turned over to the Athenian’s registry office. The largest of these rooms had two stories and an inner colonnaded courtyard with an altar; an upper room looked out onto it. Perhaps these were the reading rooms of the archives. An elegant Ionian portico of which only the foundation remains, adorned the entire facade of this grouping which is generally called the Metroon.
The civic buildings ended here, leaving a space vacant to permit an unhindered view of the temple of Hephaistos. Almost no trace remains of the stairs leading up to the temple entrance, but we can still see a group of semi- circular poros stone seats carved in the 5th century. These benches were carefully built, but we do not know what their function was. It might have been a meeting place for the citizens alongside the central stairway leading to the sanctuaries of the Agoraios Kolonos.
During the early years when the Agora was taking shape, and the buildings were still few and scattered, another sanctuary had been built some distance from the old temple of the Mother of the Gods, and dedicated to Patrons Apollo. The god was worshipped here in his attribute as father of Ion; his mother was the local princess Kreousa, and as a consequence, Apollo was considered to be father of all Athenians. Initially put up in the 6th century, the little temple was rebuilt in the 4th, with four Ionic columns on its facade and an additional small room on its north side, entrance to which was through the cella. Pausanias mentioned the cult statue in this temple, a work by the sculptor Euphranor; it was found nearby and can be seen today in the restored stoa of Attalos. The god was portrayed in a standing position wearing women’s clothes, as was the practice of musicians in antiquity, and possibly holding his lyre.
Incorporated into the temple of Patroos Apollo was most of a 4th century building identified as the sanctuary of Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria. Archaeologists drew this conclusion because of an inscription on an altar which, although found some distance away, fits perfectly in the temple’s altar space. The protectors of the clans were worshipped together with their forefather Apollo, perhaps this was where the feasts of the Apatoureia in the month of Pyanepsion, i.e. our October, were held. This significant Athenian feast was a distant memory from the time when the clans were still very important because the strength of the group lay in the bonds of kinship. The Apatoureia was initially the official recognition of newborn boys by their relatives, and for this reason, the feast was held nine months after Gamelion, the traditional month of weddings.
On the first day, all the members of the clan would gather together from the various demes in which they were living, to enjoy a meal together. On the second day animals offered by the infants’ fathers were sacrificed. The priest who performed the sacrifice had the prerogative of taking a leg, a side and an ear from the slaughtered animal together with half a drachma. The third day of the feast was the most important and was called koureotis showing clearly that some of the child’s hair was cut. One cannot help thinking that some of the details from the Apatoureia are similar to our baptism today. It seems that each tribe had its own day for recognising its new members, but this day was always in the month of Pyanepsion. These boys participated in the same feast when they became 18 years old and were registered officially in the city rolls. The formal part of the puberty feast was exactly the same as that for infants, except that the priest was given an additional silver drachma. Knowing the enormous significance attached by the Athenians to the title of free citizen, one can understand how important was this sanctuary to the Phratrioi (clan) gods.
Right next to the cluster of temples of Patroos Apollo and the Phratrioi gods, a large building, initially almost 50 metres long, has been revealed resting on three steps. It was the portico of Zeus Eleuthereus, which took its name from the statue of the protector god of that supreme value, Freedom (eleutheria).
And here the history of the Agora was repeated with the ruins of early buildings being covered over by later ones. The Portico of Zeus was built in the 5th century as its foundation dates from then; it was trapezoidal in shape with wings extending out at both ends. It should be noted that this is one of the first applications of this architectural plan which became very popular in subsequent centuries. Especially during the Hellenistic years, lateral projecting wings became a particularly popular feature of buildings, as the long facades were seen to be recessed, creating a variety of lines pleasing to the eye. In the Stoa of Zeus Eleuthereas an outer colonnade surrounded all the facade and the wings, giving the impression that the latter were little temples incorporated into the edifice. There were pediments on the wing facades, and at the corners of the roof, were statues portraying Victory. One of these, found at the southern corner of the portico in fairly good condition, is a lively young figure flying against the wind with her light garment billowing in harmonious folds. Pausanias saw a statue of Zeus Eleuthereus in front of the main part of this portico. The round shape of the base of this statue caused archaeologists to suppose that the archaic altar of the god might have been used subsequently as the most suitable pedestal for the cult statue.
In the inner covered area an Ionic colonnade, parallel to the outer Doric one, separated the portico and its wings into two parts while supporting the roof at the same time. Some square bases of these columns have been preserved, within which some little trees have now sprouted. At the time of Pericles, the building had a stone facing on its western wall, and a bench was built around the interior to accommodate passers-by. Here Pausanias spoke of the painted decoration on the middle and side walls, also works by Euphranor. The ancient traveller was particularly impressed by the representation of Theseus with the Deme and Democracy. The Greeks liked the human figures representing their ideals; on this spot, the founder of Athens was depicted attesting to the values of the City.
During the Roman years, the back of the Portico changed its appearance, as the natural rock was once again hewn out to make way for two additional rooms. Nobody knows for sure what these later extensions were used for; perhaps it was a place for some contemporary cult. The modern visitor can see only the ground plan of the portico and the south wing together with very few parts of the original columns. The north side was also sacrificed for the needs of the electric railway. For this reason, the visitor who reaches the fence at the tracks and wants to continue walking on the archaeological site, must turn around and go back toward the statue of Hadrian.
When Pausanias came to the Agora, he reported having seen a statue of the emperor Hadrian in front of the Portico of Zeus. This statue, which was discovered by excavations to be lying on top of a drainage duct, where it had been placed as a covering slab during the Byzantine period, was reerected on a new base near where it was found, even though it is headless and rather battered.
Poplius Aelius Hadrian, emperor of the Roman world from 117 to 138 AD, became ruler of the vast empire when it extended from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. He was a clear-sighted military man who fortified the outposts of the empire to protect its citizens from enemies; he was also highly educated, and as such was a patron of the arts and letters. Poet and mystic, he was the preeminent philHellene. This is why he is always presented with a short beard like the Greek philosophers. He respected local customs and laws everywhere, particularly in Greece where he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries and in fact built a bridge on the road to Eleusis so that the faithful would have easier access to the sanctuary of Demeter.
Athens was Hadrian’s favourite city, which is why he gave the order that a great library be built near the Agora, and that an aquaduct be constructed, the reservoir for which was high up on Lycabettus Hill and is still used today. He also erected a triumphal gate near the temple of Olympian Zeus, which was completed only after being in a semi-finished state for centuries. But the love of this great Roman for Athens was shown most clearly by his founding of the Attic Panhellenio. This was a congress to join all Greeks together, both from mainland Hellas and from the diaspora. The condition for participation was the proven authenticity of the delegates’ descent. Hadrian’s initiative was intended to help Hellenes with alien customs to regain their cultural identity by recognising the forgotten values of their forefathers. Standing humbly before the breadth of Attic knowledge, Hadrian wanted to be portrayed in official statues dressed in an imperial cuirass upon which was always the same scene: two winged Victories flanking the goddess Athena, with her sacred animals the snake and the owl right and left, while she herself was standing on the back of the Roman she-wolf which suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of ancient Rome. This scene portrayed most eloquently the definition of “the victor who was vanquished by the defeated”, i.e. this special relation created between Rome and Hellenism.
Behind the statue of Hadrian is a large base for an altar dedicated to Zeus Agoraios. The quality of the masonry and the fine decoration indicate that this work was done during the classical age in Athens, although there are marks of stone fittings characteristic of the Roman period. These masons’ marks placed to assist the correct positioning of architectural members, might possibly be evidence that the altar was initially located at some other spot and was brought to its present site to adorn the Agora during Roman times.
In front of the altar of Zeus Agoraios facing the Bouleuterion, the visitor can see what remains of a very significant structure in ancient Athens. It is the base of a monument entitled Eponymous Heroes, mentioned by Pausanias, and about which Aristotle has given us a fair amount of information. This was the place where the announcements made by the City to the citizens were posted, a site very likely chosen for its proximity to the Metroon and the Boule.
The monument of the Eponymous Heroes had a long narrow pedestal on top of which stood ten bronze statues of honoured heroes who were especially associated with local myths. At each end of this base there were believed to have been bronze cauldrons, an indication of worship because each hero represented the tribe which had taken its name from him. Around the pedestal was a stone fence consisting of vertical stakes with a hole at the top to support horizontal wooden boards. Under each statue, officials would hang wooden slates with the announcements of concern to the members of the corresponding tribe. Thus the Athenian citizen could stand in front of the statue of his tribe’s hero . and read the information which interested him. Here was recorded: the names of citizens who had to present themselves for some service, the names of young people whose turn had come for military service and announcements of court rulings. Also posted there were the drafts of laws, so that the citizens would learn about them in good time and be able to vote dispassionately at the meetings of the Assembly of the Deme. Even though the administrators obliged the citizens to participate in public affairs, it was the latter who had the responsibility of informing the interested parties. Aristotle tells us that on this monument were also written the names of citizens who had distinguished themselves for the public benefit either in battle or in the performance of their duties; they were models to be emulated.
Right behind the statue of Hadrian and all along the length of the buildings on the west side of the Agora, passed the drainage duct, an important and highly functional work. This arrangement for rainwater runoff proved to be vital in Attica, with its seasons of sudden rain, which in no time fills the dry river beds. Just how important it was became clear after the gradual abandonment of the area in the post Byzantine years. When the city became smaller and its Agora declined, nobody looked after clearing the drainage ducts which gradually filled with soil and mud, spilling out over the site and covering the abandoned buildings and sanctuaries. The slope of the ground shows that, as early as prehistoric times, there was a natural ditch between the Acropolis and the Pnyx which gathered the rainwater and channeled it into the Eridanos stream north of the site on which the Agora was subsequently built. In the early 6th century BC stones were laid on the floor of this water-carved ditch.
But it wasn’t until a century later, i.e. early in the 5th century, that the Agora acquired an effective drainage system. The old duct on the south side met up with another which descended from the inhabited area, the hill on which the observatory is now located, and together the waters flowed into the central channel running in a straight line along all the western side until it joined up with the Eridanos. The duct was built on three sides, and was covered on top with large slabs; it was also used for the wastes from the public buildings. The careful construction with the polygonal rocks explains how it was kept in such excellent condition. Its functionality has been proved over time as the central duct in the Agora is still used to drain the area on rainy days.
The place at which the three central drainage ducts meet, still covered at quite a few spots by large slabs, is near the Tholos, at the point where the western and southern sides of the site come together. The careful visitor can see one of the official boundaries of the Agora in a nearby ditch lower than the present ground height. It is a square rock with a rough surface and smooth edges with an inscription telling us of its use, according to the custom of the times. In the angular script of 500 BC, this boundary stone informs the passer-by: “I am the limit of the agora”.
How simple was this declaration and how significant! For this was not just the demarcation line of an area, but at the same time it was a barrier to entry by those who did not meet the conditions for access to a sacred place. We know that entrance to the Agora was prohibited to any citizens who had been convicted or who owed fines and, of course, to those who had been ostracised. The fact that the base of a water basin was found very close to this boundary point, may indicate that people entering this venerable area of the city went through some sort of simulated cleansing.
Right in front of this stone boundary, at the ground level of the Roman years, there is a small grouping of three rooms identified by the archaeologists as civic offices. The officials in these offices supervised the unhindered move t ment of goods in the market, as confirmed by the sculptured examples of the ceramic tiles which were found there. Any citizen who doubted the quality and size of a tile he had bought, could compare his with the official samples showing the correct dimensions. This was the city’s market control service.
Access to the civic offices was from the north side of the largest room where there were steps and the bases of columns, testifying to the existence of a gate. The room at the entrance was connected by an interior door to the adjoining room, which in turn opened onto the third one. The latter, although it was the smallest of all, had a minimal toilet with underground drainage linked to the central drain. The strange layout of these rooms, which decreased in size from east to west, was interpreted as the need to leave more free space at the entrance to the Agora. Moreover, the civic offices were added in the second century AD when the Agora was full of buildings, thus giving it its final form.
This may have been the last time the city’s architects observed the original order in positioning buildings according to their use. Observing the diagram of the entire site, we note that the west side was dedicated to religion with its various sanctuaries, the south to justice with the courthouse of Heliaia and at the point of access to these significant functions, the administrative buildings were constructed.