Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Athenian Agora

Model of the Athenian Agora ca. 500 B.C. Model by Petros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias, Athens, Agora Museum.

Our second example is the agora, or city center, of Athens (Greek agora = Latin forum). Unlike Pompeii, Athens has been continuously inhabited since antiquity - a situation that presents numerous practical problems to the archaeologist. The agora, located on low ground to the northwest of the acropolis, or high city, was covered with modern houses when excavations began in 1931. Over the years to the present, land has been bought, houses demolished, inhabitants and businesses relocated in order that this important sector of the ancient city be brought to light. Although the excavations have revealed remains from hundreds of years, from the Bronze Age well into the Middle Ages, the Athenian agora is distinctive for the quantity of written records that have helped in understanding the findings. Frequent mentions in ancient literary texts, notably a detailed description by Pausanias, a second century AD traveller, have been complemented by over 7500 inscriptions, on stone and on potsherds, discovered here. Ruins and texts together give a detailed view of the public life of ancient Athens.

What did this city center look like and what went on here? Let us concentrate on the fifth century BC, the golden age of ancient Athens. The Persians had sacked the city in 480 BC. Rebuilding soon began in the agora. Boundary stones marked the entrances; two found in situ were inscribed, ``I am the boundary of the Agora.'' In mid-century, a Temple to Hephaistos was built on the western hill that overlooks the Agora. Along the base of this hill, major civic buildings were erected: two bouleuterions, old and new, for meetings of the 500-member city council; a tholos, or round building, for the monthly delegation of 50 council members that ran the daily affairs of the city; and `stoas', or free-standing porticoes, offering shelter from sun and rain for a variety of commercial and legal activities. The south side of the agora was framed by an additional stoa, an enclosure for law courts, a fountain house (where the public could obtain fresh water), and a mint (coinage, invented in Lydia, in western Asia Minor, in the late seventh century BC, had quickly become a standard feature in Greek cities). The north side was marked by a stream, and, in the northwest, by the painted stoa, in which panel paintings (now lost) depicted the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Private houses and shops, randomly placed, formed the east side. Cutting diagonally across the central space was the Panathenaic Way, the processional route to the Acropolis used during the annual festival for Athena, the patron goddess of the city. To the southwest of the agora lay a prison, houses, and workshops representing a wide range of industries: pottery, terracotta figurines, metalworking, sculpture and marble-working, shoemaking, and wine shops. 

Of the many objects found in the Agora, those dealing with voting are particularly striking. They include ostraka, potsherds inscribed with the names of men whom people felt should be voted into exile because they were suspected of plotting to seize the government. This practice of ostracism was used from c. 487 to 415BC, in Athens. Another fascinating item is a fragment of an allotment machine used for the selection of jurors and magistrates, a stone slab containing rows of slots for the tags of potential jury members. A crank system released a ball from a tube full of black and white marble balls. If white, the first row of jurors would serve that day. If black, that row would not serve. And on it went, ball after ball, until the required number of jurors had been filled.

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