Ancient Greek Agora South SideMay 2, 2020
From pre-historic times, there was always a road that crossed the south side of the Agora, even before it became the centre of the City, and which still exists today, beyond the archaeological site. In the 6th century, two significant structures were located at either end of this road: to the west, the main Athens courthouse, the Heliaia, and at the other end, the monumental fountain Pausanias called the Enneakrounos. After the Persian Wars, the Southern Stoa and the Mint of the Athenian Republic were added. During the Hellenistic years, it became the commercial centre of the city, with three colonnaded areas forming a large rectangle open on the west side near the courthouse. Other structures included: a new southern Stoa, aligned with the Heliaia, a small eastern Stoa which was the official entrance to the complex, and a stately Middle Stoa which can still be distinguished by the reddish colour of its ruined columns. Unfortunately, the successive capture and destruction of the Agora, and the restorations which followed, altered the original layout of the site, since the same building material was re-used on new buildings. Crucial dates in the various changes were the siege of Athens by the Roman general Sulla in 86 BC and the Herulian raid in 267 AD. After the 3rd century, the south side of the Agora ceased to be the commercial centre, and the ruins of old porticoes were covered by other buildings. Finally, in about 1000, this pagan site was hallowed by the building of the lovely Byzantine church of the Holy Apostles. All these changes make it somewhat difficult to understand the chronology of the south side of the Agora as seen today in its excavated ruins.
Of the stoae on this side of the Agora, the long Middle one stands out. Built in the 2nd century BC, it occupied an east-west position, was about 148 m. long, 18 m. wide and was surrounded by 160 unfluted Doric columns. The interior of the building was divided in two lengthwise by another long colonnade. Characteristic marks have been found on the sides of some columns which testify to the existence of a wall joining them together, up to a certain height, creating a back wall to the shops housed in it. A similar low wall probably connected the interior columns leaving passageways at certain intervals. This large stoa was built on top of some older ruins, and then later, as more interior space was required, the initial layout was changed. The public offices were built in the 2nd century AD, and rested on the north part of the Stoa right next to the ancient boundary mark.
Then the narrow sides east and west were opened out and the Middle Stoa became the shortest route for citizens to take as they crossed from one end of the Agora to the other or, if they wished to leave by the central Panathenaic route which cut across the site diagonally. Finally, by the 5th century AD, most of the remains of this structure had been covered over by various unrelated buildings, thus chronicling the decline of the Athenian Agora.
The visitor to the site can identify the ruins of the Middle Stoa immediately owing to its red stones and the remains of three rows of columns. Stepping through the fallen wall and crossing the width of the stoa, one can see to the left the old rainwater drain which used to be under the ground. Across the way and a little higher up is the base of a poros stone wall; these are the minimal traces remaining of the great Athenian court of Heliaia.
The Heliaia was one of the first buildings to be constructed on the road through the south side of the Agora. The courthouse may initially have been an open space, but in the early 5th century, a large square structure was built with thick walls, many rooms and an inner colonnade. On the exterior western wall was a public fountain, the largest in the Agora, the monumental construction of which showed that it served the needs of many citizens. On the north wall of the Heliaia vestiges are discernible of another type of fountain dating from the 4th century: it was a water clock, which is why the fountain was called Clepsydra. The water came underground from the large fountain to the west; it passed through a hole in the wall of the Clepsydra and filled its deep basin before finding the corresponding outlet on the opposite side. This overflow appears to have activated some system which indicated the time. The existence of such a device on the wall of the main Athens courthouse confirms how important it was for the citizens to know the exact time of the trials. This hydraulic clock ceased to function when the Middle Stoa was built, as this spot became the entrance to the city’s commercial centre. The extensive building in the space in front of and beside the Heliaia did not affect the courthouse at all. It was greatly damaged during Sulla’s siege and rebuilt only to be totally devastated in the 3rd century AD.
The dispensing of justice was one of the major concerns of the citizens of Athens. We know that courts existed as early as prehistoric times: from the supreme court of the Areopagus where murders primarily were tried, to the people’s court of the Heliaia, founded by Solon the Lawgiver in the 6th century. But the most novel aspect of the Attic courts was certainly that of the Phreattys in Piraeus, where trials were held of persons who were not allowed to enter the state of Athens. In such cases, the judge and jury stood on the beach while the accused, with Solomon-like logic, would be in a boat beside the shore.
Trials took place only on days considered to be favourable; they should never coincide with the convening of the Assembly of the People, since the citizens participated in both of these state functions. Although any citizen who wished to do so could attend the Assembly, jurors were selected for the courts by complex procedures, beginning with the annual draw of six thousand men, the Heliastes, i.e. 600 from each tribe. These free citizens had to be more than 30 years old, and to have no penalty or fine outstanding. After their election, the Heliastes received their juridical identification card: a metallic plate containing their name, their father’s name, the Deme to which they belonged, and the letter of the alphabet that represented their tribe. All these elected citizens had to be ready to present themselves at the courts for the entire following year.
To determine who would go to which courts, the Heliastes had to go through another draw held using the stone allotment machine found on the Agora site. These machines were a miracle of inventiveness to prevent corruption, and avoid the possible bribery of public officials, by applying the very simple measure of non-permanency. Nobody knew in advance when and in what court he would serve, or even whether he would serve.
On the previously appointed days on which certain cases were to be tried, the preparation would begin very early in the morning with the setting up of the allotment machines. These large upright stone plaques had horizontal rows of holes grouped in columns and each column was under a letter of the alphabet indicating the tribe. One machine that was found to have 11 columns even though there were only 10 tribes, has made scholars hypothesise that there may have been occasional temporary tribes: perhaps to honour some important figure of the times.
On the left side of the machine was a pipe starting at the top in the shape of a funnel and ending with a narrow opening at the bottom. Black and white cubes would be placed in this pipe. Each Heliastis would already have placed his metal card in the container representing his tribe, from which names would be drawn at random. In this first draw all tribes took part, other than the one which held the office of prytanis at that time. The persons whose names were drawn would place their cards under the relevant letter on the allotment machine. There were as many cubes in the pipe as there were names in the shorter column, while the cards which were at the bottom of this smaller column were automatically cancelled. Each cube that fell concerned the horizontal row for all ten tribes. A white cube meant election, a black exemption from judicial duties for the day.
The employee responsible then took the identity cards of the citizens who had been thus selected and presented them to the Archon in confirmation of legality. Then another draw followed which determined the court at which each one was to present himself. The entrances to the courts each had a different colour, and this was why the judges of the day would take a rod with the colour of the court in which they were to serve. In this way, there was no possible justification of error; as for the rods, symbol of judicial authority, they may possibly have been an echo of the royal sceptre from the much earlier times, when the hereditary leader was also the judge. After this draw as well, the cards were sent to the court where their owners were to serve. The Heliastes got them back after the trial, along with their fee.
At the entrance to each courthouse, the judge of the day was supplied with two ballots, metal discs with a raised part in the centre. The one was was solid, meaning acquittal, the other had a hole in it, meaning conviction. The total number of judges always had to be an odd number, so as to avoid the problem of a tie vote which would have made it difficult to enforce decisions. Citizens being charged, having already gone through a preliminary examination by the Archon, would come to face the final decision.
The procedure for each trial started with the plaintiff explaining why he had brought the charges. Then the accused spoke in his own defence, after which the judges would vote “innocent” or “guilty” according to their conscience. If the accused was judged to be guilty, a new procedure began, with the plaintiff first proposing a sentence, then the convicted person would counter-propose another; ultimately the judges would vote on which of the two opinions they considered most correct. There was always a water clock which restricted the time people could speak, both the plaintiff and the defendant, to six minutes.
There were various types of sentences. The most common were: a cash fine, deprival of civic rights, seizure of the convicted person’s property, even exile. There were also moral penalties, such as e.g. forbidding unfaithful wives to wear jewellery. The penalty of imprisonment did not exist then as a means of correction, although there are known cases of citizens who were condemned to death for acts of blasphemy, treason against the homeland or failure to obey the laws. This ultimate punishment was carried out either by flinging the condemned person over a precipice, starving him to death or obliging him to take poison, as in the case of Socrates.
The trial of the great philosopher has given us not only a wealth of information about the judicial system of Athens, but also a psychological profile of its citizens, as seen in their opposition to someone who defied the rules of the community. Procedure may have been flawlessly observed, but the irony of the accused, regarding the flagrant lack of serious charges, may very likely have led some of the Heliastes to vote against him, since there were only thirty more votes against him than votes to acquit him. Certainly, a major moment in the pioneering people’s court of Athens was the day on 399 BC when the convicted Socrates prepared to present himself to the prison for those condemned to death and addressed a magnificent message of forgiveness to his judges saying: “The time has come for us to part – I to death and you to life. Which of us is going to something better, no one knows but God”.
At a fair distance from the Heliaia, at the northwestern foot of the Areopagus, the ruins of the prison have been identified, where the events which we know so well from the Platonic dialogues “Criton” and “Phaedon” were enacted. In the former, Socrates’ favourite pupil Criton proposed that his teacher escape, because for religious reasons his execution had been postponed. It was the custom in Athens that every year the ship Paralos would sail to Delos for the feast of Apollo. When the boat was on this sacred mission, it was not permitted to take human life because Apollo, as god of light, loathed death. The wealthy Criton, wishing to save the philosopher, came to the prison and revealed his plans. Then in a dialogue of remarkably condensed ethical content, Socrates refused to be saved and explained the reasons why a shameful escape could never be equal to an honest death. And that, if the citizens, in order to gain a few years of life, considered disobedience to the laws as a minor offence, then the State would collapse.
The dialogue “Phaedon” described the last day of Socrates’ life and at the same times, provides us with details about the prison, which have been confirmed by excavations, such as that the philosopher washed before drinking the hemlock. Indeed, on the floor of one of the prison rooms, a hole was found for a basin and pitcher which would have been full of water for the use of the prisoners.
Having already bade farewell to the members of his family, the condemned man discussed with his friends, as he waited for dusk, the customary hour for executions. His composure and the sorrow of those present have given us moments of incomparable tension and calm: two contradictory elements which characterised Socrates’ whole life.
At the appointed time, the guard appeared, having already mixed the poison.
We do not know exactly what else was in the hemlock; but it seems to have been prepared in small amounts, as would appear from the tiny, thimble-like cups found on this site. Socrates drank the liquid calmly and began walking up and down his cell to hasten the action of the poison, which brought a slow paralysis starting from the lower limbs until it reached the heart. When his legs started to give way, he sat on the bed, still talking. But when the paralysis crept higher, he asked his pupils to withdraw because the moment of death is ugly and should not be seen by anyone. When he was alone, Socrates covered his head with his robe and quietly gave up his spirit.
East of the Heliaia, the South Stoa I was built in the 5th century, following the direction of the public road. This point was higher than the level of the Agora proper and would certainly have offered a panoramic view of the temple of Hephaistos and the other buildings on the site. Today we reach the level of the South Stoa by walking up some stairs from the site of the ancient courthouse.
The excavations have shown clearly that this stoa had fifteen rooms, almost equal in size, the back wall of which was the stone retaining wall for the public road. The rooms were divided by brick walls and opened out onto a double colonnade overlooking the open space on the north side. There seem to have been twice as many outer columns as inner ones. Very few traces have remained of this colonnade, although the rooms can be clearly distinguished. On the floor of one room is an elevated section around the walls, a feature characteristic of symposium halls, as the couches of the dinner guests were raised slightly higher than the floor. This detail, as well as the position of the stoa next to the courthouse, has led archaeologists to speculate that this may very possibly have been quarters for public officials, who would not or could not be absent from their posts. Let us not forget that many of them came to the Agora at dawn to perform their civic duties.
The South Stoa I was abandoned during the Hellenistic period with the creation of the business centre, and quite a bit of the material from this site was used to build the South Stoa II, on a line with the renovated Heliaia, and forming a rectangle with the other Stoae on the site. The facade of this building consisted of thirty Doric columns; one facade touched the wall of the Heliaia and the opposite one was incorporated into the Eastern Stoa, where the official entrance to the complex from the main Panathenaic Way was located.
The back wall of South Stoa II rested on part of the retaining wall that supported the older, South Stoa L In its centre was a recess for another public fountain. The wall of South Stoa II is a typical example of the many vicissitudes of structures on this site. Its bottom part was built of carefully cut poros stone; on top of this is masonry from the Hellenistic period; the Romans covered one part of it with mortar and finally it was used to support a later aqueduct. The Stoa itself was abandoned during the Roman years and became a working area for the masons who had been assigned to improve the Agora. The commercial centre moved eastward toward the Stoa of Attalos and the new Roman Agora; the entire south side was allowed to fall into ruins and, in the general indifference, to be partially covered by other buildings.
In Attica, with minimal rainfall, it has always been important to secure an adequate water supply. From Plutarch we learn that Solon had instituted laws encouraging the residents to dig wells in times of water shortage. The office of the Epoptis (Superintendent) of the fountains was an elected one and the citizen entrusted with it had the power to impose fines on persons caught taking water illegally from the state water pipes. When Themistocles was elected to this office, he took the money obtained from these fines and commissioned a bronze statue showing a girl carrying water from a fountain. He saw this same statue adorning the city of Sardis in Asia Minor, having been plundered from Athens during the Persian Wars, during his later exile from the place of his birth. Plato, in his Laws, pointed out that the overflow from the fountains should properly be used to water public gardens. Even the Roman architect Vitruvius left instructions about how to find underground water and what kind of pipes should be used to distribute it. The 400 or so wells which have been uncovered in the Agora have shown us the extent to which this vital detail of survival concerned the Athenians. This was even expressed in art, for there were quite a few cases of vase painters being inspired by the charming procession of girls to the nearest public fountain and the wonderful balance of full water jars carried on their young heads.
Often the walk to the fountain was of particular significance, such as in the case where water was being carried to bathe a bride-to-be. Then women, preceded ceremonially by a flute-player, would go to the Kalliroe spring. Thucydides noted that this spring was along the course of the Ilissos river, near the present day chapel of Ag. Photeini, a district which was until fairly recently called the Kalliroe Rema. During the years of Peisistratos, a fountain was built which Herodotus referred to as Enneakrounos. Some centuries later, the traveller Pausanias wrote about the famous fountain of the same name in the Agora, which was built near the only natural spring on the site. These three different references have given archaeologists rich grounds for dispute.
Indeed, right beside South Stoa I, the ruins have been found of a magnificent fountain from the 6th century BC, built by Peisistratos. The presence of groundwater was confirmed both by the dampness of the ground close to the surface and by the other fountain buildings nearby. It is likely that there was a very ancient spring here with a constant flow of water at all seasons of the year – a true “kalliroe” (good flow) – which gave Peisistratos an opportunity to offer his fellow citizens yet another public work to preserve his fame for posterity. Perhaps there was more than one fountain called “enneakrounos”, which means “nine spouts”. In any event, this was the best known and perhaps oldest fountain in Athens, as shown by an archaic pipeline which supplied it with water from some point to the east. The building was long and narrow and probably roofed, having an entrance with three columns on the northern facade and a regular wall at the back where the water pipe ended. On the inner sides of the Enneakrounos, there were basins over a marble floor which the terracotta pipes would fill with water. The residents of the district would come to these basins to fill their water pitchers, which were round in shape with a small base and narrow mouth, equipped with three handles: two in the middle to assist the lifting of the vessel when it was full of water, and one near the mouth to help empty it. The water was brought to the homes by servants, mainly girls, although in “Lysistrata” there is a line in which the heroine, an Athenian lady, complains about the crowds at the public fountain.
The sufficiency of water in the area is also confirmed by the ruins of a structure which was right beside the Enneakrounos, and which many scholars have identified as the state Mint. There are traces of a courtyard which had rooms around it, with a running water installation and a furnace for casting metals. But the most important finds were bits of unprocessed copper which was usually used in the minting of coins. Part of this building was covered in later years by a magnificent Nymphaion, the Roman equivalent of a Greek fountain.
Nymphaia were initially sanctuaries dedicated to nymphs, charming fairies of the Greek pantheon. There were dryads of the forests, naiads of the waters, nereids and oceanids of the waves. Since nymphs were closely linked with nature and water, it became customary to build their sanctuaries on water sources and call them nymphaia. This impressed the Romans and gave them the opportunity to use the same term for the monumental buildings with which they adorned cities under their rule, and at the same time, to make practical use of the waters. A characteristic example of such a Nymphaion was the large fountain called Peirene at the entrance to the Agora in ancient Corinth. Somewhat similar, but on a smaller scale, was the Nymphaion in the Athenian Agora: it was semicircular in shape, with a northern facade and a very thick wall in which there were probably niches designed to receive statues of their owners; another well known Roman custom. The excavations here turned up the statue of a young woman, considered to be the 2nd century AD copy of an original from the classical period. The indolent position and delightfully unkempt female figure holding a pitcher in her left hand offer eloquent testimony to the tedious task of carrying water every day, even for a nymph.
But the existence of water was responsible for yet another change of worship on the site where, in about 1020 the lovely Byzantine church of the Holy Apostles was built. This was the period when Athens had become an insignificant village in Christian Byzantium, and its inhabitants, who had gathered around the rock of the Acropolis at “Rizocastro”, built churches to exorcise the taint of their forefathers’ idolatry, using the plentiful, choice building material provided by the ruins of the ancient monuments. The water on the site would have been regarded as “Agiasma” (holy spring) making it particularly blessed.
Among the other Athenian churches built at about the same period – Kapnikarea, Sts Theodore and St Eleutherios beside the Cathedral – the church in the Agora is distinctive for its height and its tall narrow dome. It is a cruciform church, each arm of which ends in an apse. Later a narthex was added on the western side, increasing the space available for liturgical needs, but built at a lower level than the church proper because of the uneven ground. There were three stairways from the narthex to the church: a main entrance and two side ones. The wall paintings we can see today in the narthex belonged to one of the demolished churches in the area and were brought here when the church of the Holy Apostles was restored in 1956. At that time, all later additions were removed, as services had ceased to be held there in 1952.
The interior of the nave is dominated by a dome supported on four columns with different capitals. Three of these columns were built during the restoration; the only original one is the first one on the right; its capital is decorated with lotus leaves. There are traces of 17th century wall paintings which had been plastered over, but were preserved when the church was restored with love and care by architect J. Travlos. The work was funded by the American School of Classical Studies which had undertaken the entire excavation of the ancient Agora, and proved that Athenians had never stopped living and worshipping their gods on this site.
North of the Byzantine church are the remains of the Roman Nymphaion together with the drain, which passed under the ground of the Eastern Stoa and the commercial centre to join up with another in the Heliaia area and ending in the main pipe near the Tholos. But this point in the Eastern Stoa underwent enormous changes owing to the various buildings which covered it during the post-Byzantine period. Today we can make out traces of an octagonal building as well as a few giant grinding stones with the characteristic notches signalling their function.
Right behind the church of the Holy Apostles is what remains of a temple built during the Roman years with material from older, abandoned sanctuaries. This was shown by some Doric column drums that have been identified as belonging initially to the temple of Demeter at Thorikos, near Laurion. This detail, as well as the parts of a large statue found on the site of what must have been the inner shrine of the temple, make it very likely that the building was the temple of Demeter that the tireless Pausanias reported having seen near the most sacred Eleusinio.
The name of the goddess Demeter is derived from Earthmother, and indicates her mission clearly: to feed the faithful like a mother, blessing the grains which were called “demetriaka” (the modern Greek word for cereals) after her. Thus, when Pluto, god of the Underworld, kidnapped Demeter’s only daughter, Persephone, the goddess became angry and stopped fostering vegetation. A terrible famine fell upon the land and the people begged Zeus to intercede. Then the father of the gods decided that Persephone should come up to earth for eight months, and spend the other four months in Hades with Pluto. This was because the sly god of the underworld had given her a red pomegranate seed, binding her to him eternally. This myth enabled the ancient Greeks to explain the vegetation cycle: the dark earth received the seed, held it for a few months and then returned it to the earth as a living plant.
When Demeter lost her daughter, she began looking frantically all over the world for her. The search lasted for nine days and ultimately led her to Eleusis where she was looked after by people who tried to give her back her zest for life. Nobody recognised her of course, since the goddess had disguised herself as a poor old woman. When she found her daughter again, Demeter did not forget the city which had given her shelter during the days of her suffering. She gave the parents of the Eleusinian family of Eumolpides the exclusive right to be her priests and conduct her rites, and she granted the young Triptolemos her winged chariot so that he might go round the world and teach mortals how to cultivate cereals. Because of Demeter’s favour, her Mysteries came to be established in Eleusis, and at the same time it became the custom to call the goddess’ sanctuaries Eleusinia.