The Agora—The Heart of Ancient Athens
THE intellectual community of Athens was in an uproar! New ideas were always being publicized in that Grecian city’s agora, or marketplace. However, this time it was very different. Having just arrived in the city, a certain Jewish man seemed to be “a publisher of foreign deities.” He was making remarkable statements to “those who happened to be on hand.” “What is it this chatterer would like to tell?” asked the proud Epicureans and the serious-faced Stoics. Yes, the Athenian agora was the place to hold open debates on practically any subject under the sun. But introducing strange gods—no, this was too much indeed!—Acts 17:17, 18.
That was the suspicious reaction of the Athenians when the apostle Paul began preaching for the first time in the agora of Athens. He was speaking about Jesus Christ and the resurrection. For the seemingly open-minded culture of Athens, though, what was so unusual about introducing such new concepts in the agora?
Athens Gets Its Public Square
What actually was unique was the agora itself and the pivotal role it played in the religious and public life of the Athenians. The agora of Athens is a gently sloping area of about 25 acres [about 10 ha] situated northwest of the Acropolis. It seems that early in the sixth century B.C.E., during the lifetime of the Athenian statesman and lawmaker Solon, this piece of land was designated as the site of the city’s public square. The establishment of democracy in Athens, with its increased emphasis on civic life, led to a burst of building activity during the early years of the next century. This gave the agora new life and a more significant role to play.
The Greek word a·go·raʹ has its root in a verb that means “gather, assemble.” This fits the agora’s use as the principal meeting place of the city. The agora came to be the heart of social and public life. It was the seat of civic administration and the judiciary, the chief place for marketing and business, the scene of theatrical presentations featuring Greek drama, a location to hold athletic exhibitions, and a favorite meeting place for intellectual discussion.
Would you like to take a tour through what remains of the temples, colonnades, statues, monuments, and public buildings of the agora in Athens? In an effort to examine the agora’s past, let us leave behind the noise and bustle of the modern-day city and make our way along gravel paths, in among the silent marble ruins, the carved stones, and the crumbling portals overgrown with weeds and wild herbs.
Temples, Shrines, and Patron Deities
Visitors are impressed by the presence of many temples, shrines, and sanctuaries devoted to various deities. All of this served to make the agora a major center of worship, second only to the Acropolis. During the Golden Age of classical Athens, religion had infiltrated every aspect of public life. This necessarily meant that the various divinities designated as the “patron deities” of governmental departments and administrative services were given temple sanctuaries in the agora.
Prominent among these structures was the Temple of Hephaestus. The goddess Athena was associated with Hephaestus. Both of these deities were worshiped here as patron divinities of the arts and crafts. Archaeological discoveries of metal working and pottery making around this temple have identified it with Hephaestus, the Greek god of arts calling for the use of fire. Probably in the seventh century C.E., this well-preserved temple was converted into the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, although it is not in use as such today.
Of course, the agora needed its own patron deity. This was Zeus Agoraios, the supposed inspirer of oratory to whom an embellished altar carved out of precious Pentelic marble was dedicated. (Compare Acts 14:11, 12.) A nearby altar of the Mother of Gods was flanked by a spectacular array of monuments to heroes.
A little farther along, we find a small Ionic temple. The geographer Pausanias identified it as the Temple of Apollo the Father. Why? Because according to an ancient Greek legend, he was the father of Ion, the founder of the Ionian race of which the Athenians were a part.* In this capacity, Apollo was one of the patron deities of the state administrative organization, especially in connection with the various brotherhoods that existed in the city.
Immediately to the north, we see the limestone remains of a smaller temple, built during the middle of the fourth century B.C.E. Worshiped here were Zeus and Athena Phatrios, the principal deities of the ancestral religious brotherhoods. Membership in these was almost a prerequisite of Athenian citizenship. Just across the street, we find the remains of an altar of the Twelve Gods.
In the nearby Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, the chief Greek deity was again honored, this time as the god of freedom and deliverance. This colonnade, or stoa, was a popular promenade and place of meeting. The famous philosopher Socrates is said to have met with his friends in this stoa, where they could sit and chat or stroll along. Many dedications and offerings made to decorate this stoa, such as the shields of warriors who had died fighting in defense of Athens, had direct connection with the deliverance of the city from its enemies or with the preservation of its freedom.
The Panathenaean Way
Cutting through the agora diagonally is a broad, gravelly road called the Panathenaean Way. Its name and special character were derived from the national festival of Athens, the Panathenaea. During this festival the veil of the goddess Athena was carried along this road from the Procession House (next to the city gate) to the Acropolis. A Parthenon frieze helps us to visualize the pomp and grandeur of the festival procession—the cavalry, the racing chariots, the sacrificial cows and sheep, the young men and girls bearing the equipment to be used at the sacrifice. The procession was observed by the citizens of Athens and their guests, for whose convenience the architects had made ample provision when designing the agora. For example, the colonnades with their terraced fronts and steps were skillfully positioned in relation to the processional way. The generous number of steps carved into their facades could accommodate many spectators.
“Full of Idols”
With so many temples, statues, and monuments amassed together, it is no wonder that the apostle Paul’s “spirit within him came to be irritated at beholding that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16) What Paul observed when he entered the agora must have shocked him. Phallic statues of the god Hermes were so numerous that an entire portico, known as the Stoa of Hermes, was needed to house them. Garments on other painted images of Hermes display swastikas—symbols of fertility and life. There was a statue of Venus Genetrix, the goddess of sexual love, as well as one of Dionysus that bears a number of phallic crosses. Marking the “sacredness” of the agora was a boundary stone with a basin containing “holy” water for the ceremonial cleansing of all those who entered.
In view of such a deeply religious climate, we can easily understand why Paul’s position was extremely dangerous. He was suspected of being “a publisher of foreign deities,” and the law of that time stipulated that ‘no person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods unless they be publicly allowed.’ No wonder, then, that the apostle was taken to the Areopagus to be questioned.—Acts 17:18, 19.
The Center of Administration
A round building called Tholos housed the headquarters of the Athenian government. Many chairmen of the city would sleep in this building during the night so that responsible officials were always on hand. A set of standard weights and measures was kept in the Tholos. Facilities for various departments of the administration were situated nearby. The Council House occupied a terrace cut back into the hillside northwest of the Tholos. There, members of the Council of 500 held meetings in which they did committee work and prepared legislation for the Assembly.
Another important civic building was the Royal Stoa. There the Royal Archon of Athens—one of the city’s three principal magistrates—had his seat. From there he handled many administrative responsibilities pertaining to both religious and legal matters. Most likely, it was here that Socrates was required to appear when he was accused of impiety. The ancestral laws of Athens were engraved upon the walls of a building facing it. On a stone placed in front of the same edifice, the archons, or principal magistrates, stood each year to take their oath of office.
The Stoa of Attalus
The best-preserved building of the agora is the Stoa of Attalus. As a young man, Attalus, the King of Pergamum (second century B.C.E.), had studied in the schools of Athens, as had several other scions of royal families in the Mediterranean world. Upon ascending his throne, he made this magnificent gift—the Stoa of Attalus—to the city of his alma mater.
The chief function of the Stoa of Attalus was to provide a sheltered and elegant promenade for informal association and interchange. Its floors and terrace afforded excellent places from which to view processions, while its popularity as a promenade must also have ensured its success as a shopping center. The shops were probably rented to merchants by the State so that the building served as a source of revenue.
Having been restored to its original condition, the Stoa of Attalus offers an excellent example of geometric design. Its overall proportions, the pleasing differences in scale between the lower and upper orders of columns, the interesting play of light and shade, and the richness and beauty of its materials, all serve to make it unique. Monotony is alleviated in various ways, notably by the use of three different types of column capitals—Doric, Ionian, and Egyptian.
A Place for Cultural Activities
A building that served as a stage for many cultural events in Athens was the Concert. It was the gift of Vipsanius Agrippa, the son-in-law of Roman Emperor Augustus. Its front section was paved with multicolored marble. The auditorium, with a seating capacity of approximately 1,000, had a span of about 80 feet [about 25 m] and was originally covered by a roof having no interior supports. This was one of the boldest experiments in roofing known in the ancient world! Probably, however, much of the entertainment presented there would have been questionable for true Christians, with their high moral standards.—Ephesians 5:3-5.
Likely, inquisitive individuals of ancient times visited the Library of Pantainos. Its walls were full of cabinets where handwritten scrolls of papyrus and parchment were stored. The main room of the library faced westward, and through a row of columns, one could see a colonnaded courtyard—a pleasant place to stroll, to read, or to meditate. An inscription bearing two of the library’s rules has been found. They were: “No book should be taken away,” and “[The library] is open from the first through the sixth hour.”
The Agora Today
In recent years, the agora has been almost fully excavated by the American School of Classical Studies. Resting peacefully under the shadow of the towering Acropolis, it has become a favorite place for the tourist who wants to take a brief look at the history of ancient Athens.
The nearby Monastiraki Flea Market—a few leisurely paces away from the agora and the Acropolis—is a step into yet another fascinating world. It provides the visitor with a surprising yet delightful note of Greek folklore and Middle-Eastern Oriental bazaarlike activity and bargain prices. And, of course, the visitor will see Jehovah’s Witnesses there joyfully doing exactly what the apostle Paul did more than 1,900 years ago—publicly preaching the good news of the Kingdom ‘to those who happen to be on hand.’
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Commerce in Athens
The agora was not only the intellectual and civic heart of Athens but also the city’s primary marketplace. Athens came to be a center of commerce, famous for both the value of its hard currency and the scrupulousness of its archons, who were authorized to make sure that all business transactions were honest and fair.
Athens exported wine, olive oil, honey, marble, and such industrial products as ceramics and processed metals. In exchange, it imported mainly wheat. Since Attica (the region around Athens) did not produce sufficient goods to feed its inhabitants, the standards of commercial trade were strict. The market at Piraeus (the port of Athens) always had to have enough fresh food to supply both the city and the army. And tradesmen were not permitted to store supplies in order to sell them at higher prices during times of need.