Welcome to what was once the heart of public life in Classical Athens and where democracy was born, according to historians. The Greek Agora (as opposed to the Roman Agora not far off) was represented by a bustling open square that saw many fine buildings emerge around it, from temples and fountain houses to administrative offices and stoas (covered porticos or walkways for the public).
The two notable buildings that still stand today – both of which will impress – are the rebuilt Stoa of Attalus and the Hephaesteion.
Stoa of Attalus
The best-known structure in the agora is the Stoa of Attalus, built in the 2nd century BC and dedicated to Attalus II, King of Pergamon (modern-day Antalya in Turkey) who gave it as a gift to the Athenians.
The two-floor building was around 120 meters long (almost 330 feet) with two series of columns and many shops on the backside available for rent to merchants (today the shops on the lower level are home to the Agora museum). The architecturally noteworthy stoa craftily blended the Doric and Ionic styles, featuring high-grade marble. It became a veritable meeting point for Athens’ who’s who and a busy commercial center that lasted for centuries, until the Heruli – once again the invading northern tribe – destroyed it 267 AD.
Centuries later, in the 1950s, the Stoa of Attalus became the only Ancient Greek building in Athens that has been rebuilt to its former glory, particularly since there was enough architectural evidence to achieve a very accurate recreation.
Temples of Apollo and Zeus/Athena
Officially known as the Temple of Apollo Patroos (which mean’s Apollo ‘from the fathers’), this structure once held a magnificent statue that pays homage to Apollo, designed by the famous Greek artist and sculptor Euphranor of Corinth. The cult statue was actually found in 1907 and can be seen in the nearby Stoa of Attalus. The temple itself dates from 340 to 320 BC and was built over another temple that was most probably destroyed by the Persian ransacking of the Athens.
Temple of Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria
Where Apollo Patroos means Apollo the Father, Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria were part of one big happily family (think of the word Fraternity or brotherhood). Indeed, Zeus and Athena were honored in a small one-room temple beside that of Apollo, along with a little porch that was added later on.
Today in Modern Greek Synedrion means conference, and the meaning of the word hasn’t changed much over the last few millennia. These seats were very much part of a council or meeting place that notable citizens met, perhaps a judicial body.
Temple of Hephaestus
You’re going to be impressed by this temple, which is one of the best preserved of ancient temples. The god Hephaestus – protector of ironmongers and metallurgists – was worshiped here, and so was the goddess Athena, protector of potters and artisans. Having been built somewhere around 450 BC, the temple features a chamber and antechamber surrounded by marble Doric columns. Intricate embellishments graced its exterior such as the feats of Theseus, while captivating Ionic friezes adorned its base including the fight of the Centaurs, Hercules on Mount Olympus, and the birth of goddess Athena.
Roman traveler Pausanias of the 2nd century AD reported that the temple was home to the bronze statues of Hephaestus and Athena, with ancient inscriptions about the statues corroborating his report. What saved the temple in relatively good condition – unfortunately without the statues – is that it was converted into a church dedicated to Saint George in the 7th century and remained a church until the 19th century.
Altar of the 12 Gods
Controversy surrounds who exactly the 12 Gods of Olympus (or Twelve Olympians) were – particularly since the list changed as some fell in or out of favor – but the general consensus points to the following in alphabetical order (so as not to anger the gods): Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Poseidon, and Zeus. The guest stars were Hades and Persephone as well as Hestia, although Hades wasn’t of the ‘upper’ world so didn’t make it into the mountain-biased VIP list often.
The cult of the 12 Olympians dated back to the 6th century BC, so when the Ancient Agora flourished, these gods were already mightily revered. This is why they had their almost square-shaped gazebo-style open altar, built under Peisistratus junior (grandson of Peisistratus the Tyrant) around 522 BC. This was ‘ground zero’ in older Athens (which today is Omonia Square), representing a place of worship and refuge – almost like the churches and temples in this day and age.
The poet Pindar praised the altar in his singing, the Plataeans of Central Greece sought sanctuary there from the Thebans, and Athenian general Callistratus tried to avoid execution by seeking refuge there as well. Several centuries later the altar was destroyed (3rd Century AD) and remained hidden until 1891 when excavations began to prepare for the Electric Railway (now Metro Line 1 – the Green Line). Interestingly, today a cultish following of modern Greeks still identifies with the 12 gods and their powers.
Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios
A formidable edifice dedicated to freedom once stood in this very spot, in the form of a stoa (colonnaded portico) where the likes of Socrates hung out. According to ‘The Origins of Modern Freedom in the West’, a book by Stanford University Press, “cults of Zeus Eleutherios (Zeus guarantor of freedom) were established in several Greek states to celebrate the victory over the Persians.”
This venerable stoa represented one of these cults, appearing as a ∏ or pi-shaped edifice with a double set of columns, Doric on the outside and Ionic within, complete with wall paintings by famed Ancient Greek artist and sculptor Euphranor. While in ancient times Socrates was said to have visited this place often, a few centuries later the Romans added two chambers to this stoa for shrines to worship their emperors, Hadrian and Augustus, linking them as well with the glory of Zeus Eleutherios. This is a good example of how the conquering Romans respected Greek civilization, to the extent where they tried to expropriate most of it in their name.
Keeping in mind that the word ‘Bouleuterion’ means council, every day 500 council members used to meet here, where a formidable square building once stood, dating to the early 5th century BC (there was an even an older one before that).
Church and state were not separated in this case, as the building was used to worship the Mother of the Gods complete with her statue inside, in addition to being used for passing laws that the people voted on and storing archives.
The strange overlapping between the Mother of Gods and the archives can be seen in the remains of a newer building (from only 150 years BC) called Metroon – from the word Meter or Mother – used to store financial records, laws, catalogues of votive offerings and other legal documents. Sadly the new building was lost in AD 267 by the invading Heruli tribes from Northern Europe. But all is not lost: fast forward a couple of millennia, and you’ll find out that today’s public record and archive offices all over Greece are still called Metroon! Mother knows all.