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The Ancient Agora by Peter Xiao


To Ancient Athenians, the Agora meant the “marketplace”. The Agora, literally “the gathering place,” was the focal point of community life in the Greek city-state. It served as a multi-functioned centre: ordinary Athenians gathered here for trade and entertainment and philosophers gathered for education and philosophical discussion. The Athenian Agora is widely believed to have been constructed under the time of Solon, around sixth century B.C. It was used as the civic centre by the Athenians until 267 A.D when Athens was sacked by Heruli, barbarians from the region of the Black Sea.


The Agora contained several important function centres like the Stoa Poikile, the Temple of Hephaestus, and the Odeion, for entertainment purposes, that were constructed through its history. The Stoa Poikile was constructed around 460 B.C and served as a place of leisure for the Athenians. It was a popular meeting place for traders, philosophers and civilians. It is interesting that Stoics took their name from the building as the founder of the school, Zeno lectured at here around 300 B.C. However, it is widely believed that the Stoa also functioned as a ceremonial and memorial centre where the Athenians celebrated their military victories. Inside the Stoa, paintings include depictions of Athenians fighting Amazons and the Battle of Marathon. Professor Goldhill argues that the main function of these paintings inside the Stoa was “a state-funded self-image, designed to face the citizens' spectator with a pattern of normative imagery, to engage the viewer in the recognition of the military and political obligations of citizenship.” Thus the purpose of the construction of the Stoa could be political to reinforce democracy- the level of participation and enthusiasm among the citizens were crucial for the survival of the regime. It is true indeed that the Agora in 5th century B.C Athens served as an important political centre even after the political assemblies moving to the Pnyx.


One of the most interesting features about Athenian democracy is the practice of ostracism, the practice of banishment from the city by popular vote. The Agora was the place where the Athenians cast their vote. It has been supported by archaeological evidence that the vote for ostracism was held in the Agora as thousands of ostraka have turned up in the Agora excavations, shreds of pottery where citizens would have cast their vote on whether to exile someone.


The Temple of Hephaestus is believed to be constructed in the middle of fifth century B.C during the archonship of Pericles, at a time when Athenian metalworking and pottery making flourished and accounted for a large proportion of state income. The temple itself is widely considered as the best-preserved ancient Greek temple next to the Parthenon. Current excavations have found a marble sculpture of goddess Athena, recognizable from the Gorgon’s head on her breastplate. The worship of Athena in Athens was always religious and political and therefore the construction of the temple in the Agora could have political connotations.


Unlike the Stoa Poikile and the Temple of Hephaestus, the Odeion was constructed under the name of Marcus Agrippa about 15 B.C in Roman Athens. It was considered the most modern and convenient concert hall in the city and remained so until it collapsed in 150 A.D. The grandeur of this building was aggressively disproportionate to that of its venerable Greek neighbours.


The first formal excavation of the Agora was undertaken by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in 1929. The excavation itself was significant not because of the artefacts discovered, but rather the historical background itself. Scholars like Himilakis argue that the excavation of the ancient Agora demonstrates the rise of American nationalism and its relationship to Hellenism. After the success in the First World War, the USA has overtaken Britain and became the largest economy in the world and therefore it posed itself as the legitimate successor of the grandeur of Ancient Greece, a civilization that gave birth to the Western Civilisation in which America was now the leader. The Agora would be for the Americans what Olympia was for the Germans, Delphi for the French, and Knossos for the British. During the excavation in 1937, pottery continued to be secured in the usual abundance and variety. Pottery dating from the latter part of the sixth century was taken from a large circular pit that had been cut in the bedrock to a depth about three metres. Following 1929 an extraordinarily rich series of ancient pottery, many fine pieces of sculpture, 100000 coins, 6000 documents inscribed on marble that have found, adding greatly to our knowledge of Athenian history.


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