ancient athens

Athens is the most famous of the ancient city states in Greece. Athens had the most powerful Polis, the most brilliant artwork, and extraordinary philosophers. Starting from the 19th century excavations were done with great diligence. From the testimonies of ancient writers and historians like Herodotus and from the excavated traces of the buildings a graphic designer was able to draw a reconstruction of the ancient town center, the Agora (marketplace) and the surrounding buildings.

The Agora of Athens was a large public square northwest of the sacred hill of the Acropolis. The open square was gradually surrounded by many administrative buildings, temples, altars, stoas and fountain houses. It received its final form in the 2nd century CE. The Agora was the heart of public life in the city. Here Greek democracy was born and flourished. It was the seat of administrative officials and the judiciary, a religious centre, and also a place where religious ceremonies, commercial transactions, theatrical and musical events and athletic contests took place.

Here important roadways met, the most important being the Panathenaic Way, cutting diagonally through the central square of the Agora. Along the course of the Panathenaic Way went the procession of the Great Panathenaia every four years.

The Royal Stoa, one of the earliest and most important public buildings of the Agora, was probably constructed in the 6th cent. B.C. It is a small building, with a double colonnade on the east side. In the 5th cent. B.C. it was rebuilt and two projecting wings were added. The Royal Stoa served as the headquarters of the Archon Basileus, second in command of the Athenian government and the official responsible for religious matters and laws. Here, inscribed copies of the full law code of Athens, of Draco and Solon were on display. On a stone in front of the building the archons stood each year to take their oath of office, swearing above all to preserve the laws.

The meetings of the council of the Areopagus took place in the Stoa. According to Plato, Socrates was indicted for impiety in 399 B.C. in the Royal Stoa. In the 4th cent. BCE the statue of Themis (the goddess of justice), which is exhibited in the museum of the Stoa of Attalos, was placed in front of the Stoa.

In the open area of the Agora next to the Panathenaic way stands the Altar of the Twelve Gods. According to Thucydides, it was built during the archonship of the younger Peisistratos (522/1 BCE), son of Hippias. The altar stood within a rectangular sacred enclosure, with a paved foundation and a stone superstructure of low vertical posts and slabs; those next to the entrances bore carved reliefs. It was dedicated to the twelve gods of Olympos.

It is from the altar, standing as it does next to the Panathenaic Way and at the intersection of several important roads, that milestones from the city record their distances. It was also a celebrated place for refuge. It was kept in repair until the 4th cent. B.C. but was destroyed in the 3rd cent. CE. Since the opening of the electric railway in 1891, the largest part of the monument has been preserved under the railway lines and only its southwest corner is visible.

At present, however, only the Temple of Hephaistos and the Stoa of Attalos remain. The temple survived, because it was temporarily converted into a church and the stoa has been completely rebuilt according to old descriptions. Nowadays it houses a museum, where artefacts from various periods of Athenian history are displayed.

The Temple of Hephaistos, the well-known “Theseion”, dominates the hill of Kolonos Agoraios on the west side of the Athenian Agora. It is a Doric peripteral temple, with pronaos (fore-temple), inner shrine, and opisthonaos (rear temple). The inner shrine had an interior colonnade.

This temple is the best-preserved Doric temple in mainland Greece. It was designed by an unknown architect and was constructed in the years 460-415 BCE. The temple was dedicated both to Hephaistos, patron of metal-working, and Athena Ergane, patroness of arts and crafts. It carries a lavish amount of sculptural decoration. The east side has ten metopes showing the Labors of Herakles, and the easternmost metopes of the longer sides show the Labors of Theseus. The frieze above the pronaos shows a scene from a battle, with gods present, and that of the opisthonaos shows the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The two pediments had also sculptural decoration. According to Pausanias (2nd cent. CE), the sanctuary had two bronze cult statues, believed to be the work of Alkamenes (prob. 421-415 BCE).

In the 7th cent. CE the temple was converted into the church of St George. In the early 19th century the church was used as a burial place for Protestants and many European Philhellenes. The building remained in use through 1834, when it was the site of the official welcome of King Otto. From then until the 1930’s it was used as a museum.