The Athenian Agora in the Roman Era

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published on 18 January 2012

Greece became a Roman province in 146 BC after the Roman general Mummius destroyed the Greek capital city of Corinth. Athens did not convert to Roman ways so quickly, however. The city and its building programs remained relatively static in their typical Greek style. This was certainly the case in the Athenian Agora. After all, the Stoa of Attalos was constructed during this period, and there were a number of important buildings erected that helped keep the Agora relevant and functional.

Athens did not escape the clutches of Rome for long, though. A bad political affiliation and an attempted revolt against Rome with Mithradates resulted in the siege of Athens in 86 BC by the Roman general Sulla. There was much damage done to the Agora, including the destruction of several buildings. Other choices on the Athenian side, including backing Mark Antony over the future Roman Emperor Octavian (Augustus), could have led to further trouble for the city. However, the Romans so revered the Athenians' cultural and artistic accomplishments, that they were spared, and yet another recovery period was on the horizon.

The Agora saw great development in the Roman period, including the construction of many new Roman-inspired  buildings. One such building was the Odeion of Agrippa. The Odeion was a concert hall built in honor of Marcus Agrippa, who was a general who helped Octavian defeat Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC (he was also the son-in-law of Augustus). The Odeion was an impressive structure that was used for musical performances. The building was constructed before the Roman architectural innovations in vaults, and when the heavy roof collapsed under its own weight in the 2nd century AD, the Odeion was remodeled and used as a lecture hall, hosting some of the greatest minds of the time.

Another significant addition to the Roman-period Agora was the Nymphaion. It was a large and highly decorative fountainhouse named for the Nymphs, deities often associated with bodies of water. The building was filled with Roman statues, and likely held several pools and fountains. It was fed from an aqueduct built during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian.

When the Germanic Heruli sacked Athens in 267 AD, great damage was done to the Agora. Though the Athenians were able to chase them away before they destroyed the city, the Agora never really recovered. Many buildings were either damaged beyond repair or destroyed altogether.

Over the next few hundred years, there were several series of other invasions and short recovery periods for Athens. The Athenian Agora saw great periods of decline, intertwined with short periods of rebuilding. In the 5th century BC a gymnasium and philosophical schools were built, for example. As Rome fell,and as Christianity moved to the forefront, however, the Agora was largely forgotten. The Hephaisteion was converted to a Christian church (causing its preservation today), but only after the pagan statues within were properly mutilated.

From Bronze Age cemetery and neighborhood to High Classical center of commerce and politics, the Athenian Agora's evolution is a representation of the evolution of the history of Athens itself. This area  stood through the darkest periods, and the greatest triumphs, of Athens, one of the most renowned cities of ancient history. The excavations there today have uncovered the origins of our own democratic society, as well as some of the most important examples of Greek architecture ever constructed.



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