This was the center of public life for the ancient Athenians. The word “agora” derives from the verb “ageiro” meaning “bring together” or “gather around” and, by extension, “agorevo“, to speak publicly. The word’s etymology is relevant to the multifaceted role of the ancient Agora, where the ancient Athenians played out their daily lives.
The Agora was the center of administration, of the legal process, and indeed the focal point of commercial and business life. Before Classical times, the Agora was also the area where the Citizens’ Assembly gathered and a site for theatrical and other competitions. From the Archaic period until 267 AD, when the Heruli destroyed it, the Agora was also the Athenians’ favorite meeting place for social and cultural pursuits. It was, in short, the heart of Ancient Athens.
Tholos: This is a circular building which was the social center for administration under the Democratic constitution. Fifty of the councilors, called Prytaneis, were in charge of administration, each for one tenth of the year, or 36 days. Every day, the Overseer of the Prytaneis was chosen among them by lot, and he acted as Head of State for just 24 hours.
The Prytaneis ate together in the Tholos, and also joined together for all religious rites. Before such meetings, they would make sacrifices to Apollo the Protector, and Artemis, Bearer of Light, who were worshipped in the Tholos alongside lower chthonic deities considered as protectors of the city’s public life. The standard weights and measures for commercial transactions were also kept here.
Prison of Socrates: A stone public building has been found about 100 meters from the southeast corner of the Agora, amongst the ruins of houses and workshops, and identified as the Prison of Classical times. Thirteen very small vials were found amongst the finds there, and may have been used to hold the hemlock that was administered to anyone condemned to death.
A damaged statuette of Socrates was also found. Together with the evidence from the Platonic dialogues and from Plutarch, this suggests that the stone building was the ancient prison and, as such, the spot where the great philosopher, condemned to death on a change of corrupting the young, took his last breath.
bouleuterion or Council House: In the Archaic period, the councilors met here in the open air. The Old Bouleuterion was built at the start of the 5th century BC and the New Bouleuterion at the end of the same century. In the Classical period of the Democratic constitution, 500 councilors – known as the Council of 500 – met in the Bouleuterion. Fifty councilors were chosen by lot to represent each of the ten Athenian tribes created by Cleisthenes. Their term of office was a year.
Stoa of Attalos: A two-storey stoa with shops, built in the first half of the 2nd century BC. It was built by Attalos II, King of Pergamon, in honor of his teacher, the Stoic philosopher Carneades, and of the Athenians. The stoa is 116 meters long. The columns on the lower floor are of the Doric order, whereas those on the upper floor are of the Ionic order. It was completely restored in the 1950s by the American School of Classical Studies, which has been excavating in the Agora since 1931. The stoa is now a museum for objects found during these excavations, which give a representative picture of the workings of the democratic constitution in Athens:
Exhibits that stand out particularly include:
- A resolution in support of Democracy from 337/336 BC, a time when Macedonian victory was putting this in question. On the relief, the figure of Democracy crowns Athens.
- A marble lot-holder to distribute official positions from the 3rd century AD.
- A water clock (clepsydra) to measure a speaker’s time at the law courts.
- Pottery sherds from the 5th century BC with names of prominent politicians whom their opponents wished to see ostracized. Examples are Aristeidis and Themistocles, against whom there was clearly an organized “sherd-writing” campaign which had insufficient takers among the people, as the unused sherds were thrown to the bottom of a well!
- A bronze head of Nike (Victory), from 425 BC.
- A chair and chamber pot for an infant from the end of the 6th century BC.
- A pottery jar used as a thermos from the 7th century BC.
The Panathenaic Way: This began inside the entrance gate to the city at Kerameikos, the Pompeion, passed in front of the Stoa of Attalos and the Eleusinion temple, and ended at the entrance of the Acropolis. It was the route taken by the Panathenaic procession, the most important festival in honor of Athens’ patron goddess. Every four years, at the height of summer, the whole population of Athens and the city’s leaders, accompanied by a trireme on wheels (carrying the goddess’ robe) made their way along the Panathenaic Way towards the Acropolis. This is the majestic procession that is shown on the frieze of the Parthenon.