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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Ancient Agora in Athens

What is the Ancient Agora?

The Ancient Agora in Athens was once the heart of civic activity and public life in ancient Athens and featured government buildings, law courts and temples.

Ruins of an ancient marketplace at the ancient agora in Athens

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Ancient Agora History

Originally, part of this large open area was used as a cemetery. It then became the main marketplace of ancient Athens, heart of its commercial life, where citizens could assemble and traders could come to sell their products and conduct business. Financial transactions were regulated by specific rules with special magistrates, the agoranomoi, appointed to supervise the marketplace, being responsible for the correct operation of the market and the collection of taxes. All kinds of products were sold here: food, clothing, household equipment, perfume, jewellery, horses and even slaves, who were made to run naked around the Agora in order to exhibit them.

In ancient Agoras, it was very common to find popular market buildings called stoas, which were colonnaded, offering shelter from the elements, with rooms that could be used as shops or offices for merchants or bankers. In the Athenian Agora there were several stoas: one of them, now home to the Agora Museum, was donated in the 2nd century AD by Attalos II, a king of Pergamon who had studied in Athens. (The stoa was meticulously restored in the 1950s, giving you a good sense of what the structure might have looked like 2,000 years ago.)

Entrance to the marketplace at the ancient agora

With the development of democracy, the Agora also became the political and legal centre of Athens, where citizens met to conduct government business and law courts operated. The bouleuterion (or council house), where the city’s governing body regularly held meetings to draft laws and discuss public issues, was situated here, together with various other buildings housing civic offices, law courts and archives.

The Agora was also used for a variety of other functions, such as public gatherings, theatrical performances, military training, and athletic and equestrian competitions; philosophers met here and Socrates spent his days questioning his fellow citizens in this location. Even though Athens’ sacred centre was the Acropolis, many religious ceremonies also took place in the Agora and several buildings dedicated to the cult of heroes and gods were situated here. On the west side, on the low hill overlooking the Agora, you can still admire one of the best-preserved buildings of antiquity, the Doric Temple of Hephaestus, which survived so well because it was later adapted and used as a Christian church until the 19th century.

The citizens were called to vote in the Agora when they wanted to ostracise someone. Ostracism was a method used to exile for ten years, by a regularly held vote, citizens who were considered too powerful and dangerous, jeopardising Athens’ democracy. Citizens had to scratch the name of any man they wanted to exile on potsherds known as ostraka. Many of these have survived, bearing the names of several prominent Athenian politicians who suffered this fate, and are now on display in the Agora Museum, together with the bronze voting ballots used to cast votes in elections and courts.

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