The Archaic Athenian Agora: Gateway to Classical Athenian Democracy

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published on 18 January 2012

The early Athenian Agora served a series of very different purposes than it did in its halcyon days of ancient history. The area that came to be the Agora was in use as a cemetery from the Bronze Age (approximately 3000 B.C.) until the end of the 7th century B.C. It was also a residential area during this time. This is evidenced by the discovery of remains of wells that would have been dug for homes.

Political shake-ups in the continuously developing city-state of Athens led to a seizure of power by Peisistratos in the 560's B.C. Though he was cast out twice, in 545 B.C. he was able to solidify himself as tyrant of Athens. Upon his death in 527 B.C, his sons Hippias and Hipparchos began co- rule of Athens. This time is known as the period of the Peisistratids, and it was during this time that a great deal of building and organization took place in the Agora. Homes gradually were replaced by structures with political, religious, and social significance.

Agora of AthensAltar of the 12 Gods [Number 16]

Largely believed to be a place of sanctuary for Athenians, and those who wished to solicit Athens' help. It was the central point from which all major distances from Athens were measured.

The SE Fountainhouse

The fountainhouse was the major source of water for Athenians. It was a source of clean water, which allowed people to fill their containers from a spout, rather than the backbreaking task of lowering containers into deep wells. It helped to reduce illness due to contaminated well water, and was a social gathering place for the women of the city. The fountainhouse was operated using terracotta pipes and collared joints, which have been unearthed in excavations.

The Panathenaic Way

This was a major thoroughfare of Athens. It ran for the Dipylon Gate to the Acropolis, which was the route of the Panathenaic Procession. This was a major festival and procession that honored the goddess Athena, the patron goddess of the city.

The Heliaia [Number 5]

This building was the main law court of Athens. It would have held up to 2,500 members at one time.

When the reign of the Peisistratids ended in 510 B.C., a new sheriff in town by the name of Kleisthenes introduced radical new reforms. A new thought on government was beginning to take shape: democracy, or government by the people. Kleisthenes's reforms implemented 10 tribes of Athens, which were to contribute equal administration of the city-state. As a result, several new buildings were erected in the Agora in order to accommodate the needs of an evolving Athens.

The Boundary Stones

The Athenian Agora became an officially defined space thanks to the addition of marble horoi, or boundary stones. These were placed at the entries to the Agora, as well as at the corners of border buildings in the Agora.

The Bouleterion [Number 11]

This was the Senate House, and its construction was necessary in order to help put into practice the new democratic ideas of Kleisthenes. In this large building, 500 Senators, or the Boule, represented by 50 annually elected members from each tribe, met there daily (save for religious days) in order to propose and pass new Athenian laws.

The Royal Stoa [Number 17]

This is where the Archon Basileus presided. He was the second commanding officer (sort of a Vice President perhaps?), whose role was to settle mainly social conflicts, as well as preside over religious ceremonies and festivals.

When the Persians sacked Athens in 480 B.C., it was in response to their embarrassing defeat at Marathon 10 years earlier. There was massive destruction to the Agora's buildings, including reckless destruction of the temples. When the Athenians eventually won the Persian Wars in 479 B.C, they vowed never to rebuild those precious temples struck by the hands of barbarians. It was a constant reminder of the price they paid for victory.



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