Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The Greek Agora is the most ancient referent of the western public space, along with the Roman Forum, the predecessor of our squares. It was both a market, the seat of government, a center of worship, a workspace and a venue for entertainment. But more than that, it was the birthplace of democracy (though exercised only by free men) and the space where wise intellectuals such as Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Sophocles, etc., so influential in the development of our civilization, discussed their ideas.

However, the Agora of Athens was not a rigid space and changed throughout more than 5000 years of history, particularly under the influence of the Hellenistic and Roman times. Over the centuries it was covered by earth and invaded by houses and churches, to the point that until 1930 no one knew where the Athenian agora really was located.

We'll divide this post into two parts: one dealing with the historical urban development of the Athenian Agora and the second focused on the architecture of its most notable buildings still visible. Finally, we will dedicate a post to make a comparison between the Greek agora and the Roman Forum.

The Agora is located in an area that gradually slopes upward to the south.

Notably, the Agora was a sacred space and therefore perfectly defined by milestones or horos , with the inscription "I am the limit of the agora." Its sacred character prevented some people from entering this space, like children, wicked criminals or outsiders .

It is impossible to define the agora without referring also to the surrounding landscape. The space interacts with two hills that stand in the middle of flat relief. The closest is the Areopagus, Aerios pagos or the "Hill of Ares" where the Council used to meet, and from where St. Paul gave a rousing speech. But undoubtedly the most prominent landscape feature was the Acropolis (lit. "over the city"), to which I hope to focus in a future post. Furthermore, next to the Agora is a promontory called Kolonos Agoraios, where the temple to Hephaestus is located.

Overview of the agora, with the Milky Panatea that crosses and sacred hills: Areopagus and Acropolis.

The intense relationship between the Agora and the Acropolis was not just visual, which is in itself quite intense as the Parthenon is seen at all times from everywhere, but also functional: the space was crossed diagonally by a road called Panathenaic Way, which joined the Acropolis to the Dypilon Gate, located on the northwest edge of town. Besides being a place where shows, games and races were carried out, the Panathenaic Way was also the beginning of a processional ascent to the Acropolis.

1. Acropolis. 2. Areopagus. 3. Pnyx. 4. Eleusinion. 5. Southeast Fountain House. 6. Imprisonment. 7. Roman Agora. 8. Pantainos Library. 9. Aiakeion. 10. Southwest Fountain House. 11. Middle Stoa. 12. Odeion of Agrippa. 13. Stoa of Attalus. 14. Library of Hadrian. 15. Bema Monument. 16. Tholos. 17. Monument to the Heroes Epona. 18. Metroon. 19. Bouleuterion. 20. Temple of Hephaestus. 21. Panathenaic Way. 22. Temple of Ares. 23. Patroos Temple of Apollo. 24. Arsenal. 25. Stoa of Zeus. 26. Altar of 12 Gods. 27. Royal Stoa. 28. Poikile Stoa. 29. Sanctuary of Aphrodite. 30. Street of the Kerameikos.

The land occupied by the Agora had had a symbolic meaning since prehistoric times until after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Neolithic - Bronze Age (3200 BC - 1100 BC)
The earliest evidence of occupation of the area dates from the Neolithic period, around 3000 BC, corresponding to some wells in which ceramics had been found.
In the Mycenaean period (1600-1100 BC), the Greek Bronze Age, several burial chambers were found in the area where the Agora would later develop, as well as near the Areopagus hill. At the end of this period houses began to be built.

Archaic Period (700-480 BC)
During the 6th century BC a series of political events demanded the creation of a public space, and for that regard the state expropriated this area for the creation of the Agora (which means "assembly" or "open space"). The houses located here were demolished and the area was the subject of intense landscape beautification, including the development of the Panatheaic Way where games started to be celebrated.
The spatial configuration at this time was not well defined. The first public buildings faced west, attached to the Kolonos Agoraios Hill but without any particular order, and before them stood a large open plaza.

These buildings include:
The Pritanikon, an irregular building, consisting of several rooms arranged around a courtyard with columns.

The temple of Patroos Apollo, a small temple of 16 x 10 m, presided by Ionic columns and destroyed by the Persians in 480/479 BC

The Altar of the Twelve Gods (near 520 BC), located at the northwest corner. The latter was a simple rectangular building, open on two ends and with an altar in its center. Symbolically it was referred to as the center of the city, the point from all distances to Athens were "measured" from.

Subsequently, after the democratic government was instituted, some other buildings were erected:

The Old Bouleuterion, which was the headquarters of the Citizens Council (Boule), and later was expanded to become the Metroon, the temple of the Mother of the Gods.

Basileia Stoa or Royal Stoa, the headquarters of the king (who more than a monarch was a religious authority), also in the northwest corner, a small building in comparison to what would become in later times.

The stoas were simple public buildings, rectangular in shape, consisting of a wooden covered space and preceded by a colonnade that provided an area for ​​protection against the sun.

Classic Period (480-323 BC)
The reconstruction after the Persian defeat led to the development of many buildings that consolidated the western and southern edges, forming a triangular space bounded by the Panathenaic Way. Two stoas were built, one to the west dedicated to the god Zeus and the other to the south. The most important building at the time was the temple of Hephaestus, standing on the hill and we will discuss in more detail in the next post.

Other notable buildings are:

New Bouleuterion
At least 500 people were chosen to participate in the assembly or ekklesia (from which the word "ecclesiastic"or "related to the church" derives). To this end, in a building 50 m long, an amphitheater was inscribed. The entrance, defined by an Ionic colonnade, was located perpendicular to the nave, and led to a cloister surrounded by columns.

It is the only circular building across the agora and was the seat of the prytaneis or executive committee of the Boule, used primarily as a banquet room. Built in 470 BC, it was a cylinder with 6 interior columns and a conical roof covered with terracotta tiles in a diamond shape.

Monument to the Eponym Heroes: Built at the end of the V century BC, it was a sculpture of particular importance, representing the members who gave their names to the 10 tribes of Athens .

View of the Monument to the Heroes Epona. Behind you see the Metroon and Tholos.

Hellenistic period (323-86 BC)
The Agora achieved a great development, although the Greeks were dominated by the Macedonians. Its enclosure becomes spatially defined due to the construction of the Stoa of Attalus to the east (that I will mention in the next post), the consolidation of the Metroon (150 BC) to the west and a new stoa to the south, defining a small internal square. When this space is defined, the agora becomes monumental.

South Square: this oblong courtyard was used as a commercial market. It was defined by two elongated stoas:
The Middle Stoa, located on the north, 147m long by 17.5 wide (160 BC) and the South Stoa II (ca. 150 BC), which was located parallel to the Middle Stoa, replacing a former South Stoa I built in classical times.
The square was flanked on one side by the east building and to the west by the Aiakeion, a building dating from the Mycenaean era.

In 86 BC the general Silla took Athens, destroying or damaging several buildings in the agora, particularly the South Plaza. During the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) the Agora of Athens was rebuilt as a center of imperial cult. Since then, business were not allowed anymore in its precincts and commerce was moved to a nearby "Roman Agora."
At this time, major facilities continued to be built and they occupied a prominent position in the urban space, perhaps to demonstrate the Roman imperial power.

Oideion Agrippa (15 BC), also known as the Theatre of Agrippa, was a large and luxurious structure, designed for music performances, located in the center of the space of the agora and that we will see in more detail in the next post.

Pantainos Library (100 AD): Dedicated to Emperor Titus Flavius ​​Pantainos Trajan, this structure is located at the edge of the Panathenaic Way, near the Acropolis, in order to please the Emperor. Built on uneven ground, it consists of a series of rooms around a rectangular courtyard.

Later, the Romans continued beautifying the agora with temples and monuments such as the Temple of Ares, a circular Monopteros and a house of a semicircular fountain called Nympahion in the southeastern corner of the agora.

In 267 the Heruli looted and destroyed Athens Agora. Although some buildings were rebuilt, Athens suffered new barbarian attacks at the end of the sixth century, and after that the area of ​​the Agora was abandoned.

In the tenth century the church of the Holy Apostles was erected, which is very well preserved despite centuries, and we will review in the next post.


Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Photo courtesy of dfworks


As a symbol of imperial majesty and monumentality, the Roman Forums were characterized by their imposing temples and secular buildings, as well as by the ornamentation of the space with statues and allegorical motifs.

Remains of the Basilica of Maxentius

The previous post reviewed the historical development and urban layout of the forums in Rome, and this post will explore some of its most conspicuous monuments.


"Curia" comes from"co-viri" which means "association of men" and "Senate" comes from "senex," which means "old man". The curia was originally the place where the elders of the tribes near Rome met . During the Republic, the primitive Hostilia Curia, a modest building where the Senate sat in simple wooden benches, was burned down by a mob in 52 BC.
The Curia Julia was started by Julius Caesar in 44 BC and completed by his adopted son Augustus in 29 BC.

The brick building was originally covered by marble in its lower half and stucco imitating marble at the top, in the same style as the Baths of Caracalla. It features a rectangular layout of 25.2 x 17.6 m and 15.4 m high and is slightly rotated with respect to the old Curia Hostilia, defining more clearly the spatial boundary of the forum.

In front of the facade, covering elongated stairs, was a portico of Ionic columns called Chalcidium, which was dedicated to the goddess Minerva. He also had two huge bronze doors, which were moved to the church of San Giovanni in Laterano by Borromini, during the Baroque era.

The interior is a single room that hosted up to 300 senators. On the back was the podium, a seat for the President of the Senate.

On the side walls were three niches, the central one with a semicircular pediment and the other with a triangular one.

Roof of the Curia. Photo courtesy of jere7my

The Curia we see today was restored by Diocletian in 283 AD, after being partially destroyed by fire. At this time corresponds the current decoration visible on the mosaic floor .

Photo gmcdowel

In the early seventh century it was transformed into the Church of St. Hadrian.

Photo courtesy of antmoose

In the 1930s Mussolini ordered the demolition of the church and restored the building closely to its original status.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

It is the best preserved building in the Roman Forum. It is located east of the Basilica Emilia, facing the Via Sacra. It was built by Antoninus Pius when his wife Faustina died in 141 AD.
The building rests on a podium and consists of a cella originally clad in marble, a pronaos of six Corinthian columns with capitals carved in white marble, and a height of 17 m. The frieze is decorated with griffins. The building rests on a stylobate.

Notable for the simplicity and purity of its style, which is Corinthian, hexastyle (6 columns) and prostyle (with freestanding columns in front of the buiding).
In the columns some marks can be seen, correspondent to the incisions that were made in the Middle Ages, in order to tear them down with ropes.

In the seventeenth century the temple was transformed into the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda.


This long building (109 x 48 m) was started by Julius Caesar in 54 BC, completed by Augustus in 12 BC and rebuilt by Diocletian in 283 AD. The basilica is one of the most important types of Roman architecture and was subsequently adopted in the early churches of Christianity.

The basilica rested on a podium and was surrounded by a colonnade of two levels. Its main hall, (82 x 18 m) was 3 storiess high and could be divided into four parts by removable wooden structures. It also had two smaller naves on the sides. Among its functions, it housed civil courts and shops.


Parallel to the Basilica Julia, this trapezoidal building (70 x 30 m) consisted of three naves, with the central one 12 m wide. It was surrounded by an arcade of 16 arches in each of its two levels.

It was built in 179 BC by Aemilius Lepidus and expanded through the centuries. The building came to replace the old tabernae of the Roman forum, therefore new shops called novae tabernae were included .

Temple of Saturn

Here we are, at the foot of what remains of the temple of Saturn, 8 columns of its portico. The scale is, indeed, monumental, and one can not help feeling moved to imagine the impression that this structure would had produce in ordinary Roman citizens when it was still complete.

This temple is the oldest structure in the area, dating from 501 to 498 BC and it housed the Roman state treasury. It was an Ionic temple, in whose interior the statue of Saturn, the god of agriculture, was carefully housed .

Photo courtesy of San Juan Ramon .

Arch of Septimius Severus

The Arch of Septimius Severus was erected in 203 by his sons Caracalla and Geta to celebrate the triumphs of the emperor. It is a marble gateway, richly decorated in bas-reliefs, with a main central arch and two smaller side arches (another reference to the Emperor and his sons). There are four protruding columns, and on top of the arch was originally a bronze sculpture of a chariot of the Emperor Septimius with his two sons. A curious detail is that, after the bloody Caracalla killed his brother Geta in front of his mother, he had to remove his name from all monuments in the empire.

The third and final part of this series on the forums will focus on the interesting market of Trajan, that I will review in a future post. Until then.