Pericles and the Agora: Ancient Symbol of Commerce and Democracy

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by writer873
published on 18 January 2012

The great statesman Pericles was credited with bringing Athens into its "golden age", at a pinnacle of culture, wealth, and influence that few other cultures have achieved in history. Under Pericles, Athens became the legendary city that we think of today, with its democratic political ideals, magnificent columned temples, and artistic innovations.

Pericles was the leader of Athens between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars, or from around 461-429 BC. After a treaty was signed with the Persians in the 450s BC, he wanted to annul the Oath of Plataia (an oath which was sworn after the Persian sack of Athens in 480 BC that no damaged or destroyed buildings and monuments would be demolished or rebuilt) and rebuild and refurbish the damaged and destroyed temples, including those in the Agora. Pericles decided that the funds should come from the Delian League, much to the displeasure of the other League members. But with Athens as the leader of the League, and the most powerful polis in the Greek world, there was likely little any of the other city-states could do to argue with him. As a result, the Agora saw a series of shrines and temples constructed, using the finest Athenian Pentelic marble and limestone during this time.

Agora of AthensTwo such shrines were known as the Triangular Sanctuary and the Crossroads Enclosure. The Triangular Sanctuary was situated in the SW Agora, and Pericles had it restored far beyond its original manifestation. Archeological evidence suggests that the area lying at a crossroads was used for ritual activity as far back as the 600s BC, in a much more rudimentary fashion, and it was likely a shrine to the goddess Hekate, a patron of childbirth and motherhood. Pericles had walls erected, using Acropolis limestone and marble.

Another crossroads shrine, known as the Crossroads Enclosure, was a sacred temple with no interior access (an abaton). It was located in the NW area of the Agora. Because of the nature of the artifacts found in the area, such as gold jewelry and loom weights, it was likely a shrine to a female deity or cult. Evidence suggests that it was known as the Leokoreion, dedicated to the daughters of Leos, an Athenian hero who sacrificed his daughters in order to save Athens from plague.

While there are several temples and shrines in the Agora that can be discussed, the one temple which cannot be overlooked is the Hephaisteion. Constructed around 460 B.C., this temple stands today on the hillside of Athens as that best preserved temple from all of ancient history. It was a shrine dedicated to the god Hephaistos, the patron of fire and the forge, and also in a minor way to the goddess Athena, who was a patron of arts as well as war, and also the patron goddess of the city-state of Athens.

The Hephaisteion is a highly stylized Doric temple and decorated with relief sculpture. It was constructed mostly of the precious Pentellic marble from the Athenian countryside, and evidence suggests that it was beautifully landscaped with bushes, flowers, and trees (thanks to the aqueduct constructed by Kimon). Excavations have uncovered planting pots laid out in a pattern around the building.

The Hephaisteion owes its preservation to its conversion into a Christian church in the 7th century A.D. Unlike many other shrines and temples from this period, it was spared desecration as a pagan temple, and therefore survives in its glory today.

In addition to the improvement and additions in the Agora, Pericles continued his plan to develop Athens into a force to be reckoned with, with his buildings on the Athenian Acropolis, in addition to his staunch promotion of the arts, literature, and most importantly his fierce encouragement of the idea of democracy, or government by the people. When Pericles succumbed to the disease that was plaguing the entire polis in 429 BC, he left behind a legacy of transformation, and a template for western civilization.

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