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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Pnyx in Athens

What is the Pnyx?

The Pnyx is a central hill in Athens that was used as the official meeting place of the Athenian political assembly under the democracy.


Pnyx

Pnyx History

The huge semi-circular hill of the Pnyx has been identified as the place where Athenian citizens convened to attend the assembly’s meetings and participate in their own government. The assembly was the fundamental institution of Athenian government, and the hill played a prominent role in the city’s democracy, to the extent that the words ‘Pnyx’ and ‘assembly’ became synonymous. Here, the most important political decisions in the history of the ancient city were taken, and the people of Athens could listen to the great orators and politicians making their famous, and often lengthy, speeches.


The assembly of the people, called the Ekklesia, was only open to male Athenian citizens, who were called to take decisions and to vote on the laws proposed by the Council. (Non-citizens were allowed to come up here to spectate but were divided from the assembly members by a series of hurdles.) The assembly also elected magistrates and other officials and voted on financial, religious and military matters, such as declarations of war. Around 6,000 people attended the meetings held every month on the Pnyx. While initially being part of the assembly was considered a great honour, over time the meetings became more and more frequent and were seen as boring and time-consuming. In the 4th century BC, the great statesman Pericles introduced a payment for participation to encourage attendance, especially by non-wealthy citizens who often could not afford to miss an entire day of work to participate in the meetings.


Athenian citizens could face huge penalties if they missed important votes. Before each gathering a group of slaves was ordered to go out into the Athenian marketplace and herd reluctant citizens to the meeting by walking behind them with outstretched ropes wet with red paint: citizens found with paint on their clothes could suffer a punishment or not receive the remuneration paid for attending.


The area underwent several architectural phases: initially the citizens, gathered in a semicircle, were sitting on the natural slope of the hill, facing the city. During the 5th century BC this seating arrangement was reversed, with the people now sitting with their backs to the city. In this way the participants were no longer distracted by the view of the Agora and of their houses and fields, as happens in a work of famous comic playwright Aristophanes. They were thus forced to focus more on the speaker and the matters discussed during the meetings. The auditorium was also rebuilt and expanded to host larger crowds and a defensive wall was constructed in the 4th century BC.


The Pnyx kept its important political function during the Hellenistic Period (from the late 4th to the late 1st century BC), but at some point the meetings of the assembly were moved to the Theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis. In the Roman period, the sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, a healing deity, was placed on the hill, investing the history of the Pnyx with religious as well as political significance.


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