During the rule of Solon the Lawgiver, when the Athens Agora was taking shape, its eastern side was entirely free of buildings. The Dromos cut across the area diagonally, serving as a boundary. But since the city was growing, the need for public buildings was also increasing, especially after the Persian wars. Then it was that a great rectangular colonnade was built around structures that very likely belonged to one of the Athens courthouses, as indicated by a ballot box with judges’ votes found there. During the Hellenistic period, Attalos of Pergamum donated to the city of Pallas Athena a magnificent, two-storey stoa, squaring off the Agora site and extending the business centre of the city east of the main road. These buildings were destroyed when the city was sacked by Sulla; but immediately afterwards, the Romans began a rapid reconstruction, an unerring measure taken by conquerors throughout history. On this side of the Agora, a library was built and then another stoa, beside that of Attalos. These and other structures were seen by Pausanias and Strabo when they came to Athens in the 2nd century AD.
Of the first long narrow stoa on the southeastern corner of the site, just a few vestiges remained because of the many changes the building underwent during the years after it was first built. Initially, the Stoa was on two levels along the Panathenaic Way, in order to compensate for the natural slope of the ground. It had eleven spaces for shops and a row of columns with Ionic capitals. It must have been a very busy spot, as shown by the figures of Herms, animals, and sundials carved on the first of the columns. The layabouts of antiquity also carved youthful profiles, some with lovely classical features and others created with the intent to ridicule.
The colonnade must have extended in front of the library beside it, of which nothing remains, because it was totally destroyed during the Herulian raid, but also because the wall put up afterward was built on top of the structures on this side of the Agora. Evidence of the inhabitants’ anxiety after the sack of the city are the pieces of columns lying like wounded giants, in the hurriedly built wall.
This was the 3rd century AD, when the Roman Empire was confronting the threat of fierce Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals and others, who had set out in the north, followed the river roads of eastern Europe and joined together with the nomadic tribes of the Caucasus. From there they spilled over into the Roman possessions around the Black Sea and Asia Minor. The Goths, together with their cousins, the Herulians, built a powerful fleet and sailed down into the Aegean sowing devastation. They captured Lemnos and Skyros, and destroyed Corinth and Argos while other cities were desperately and vainly building fortifications. In the sack of Athens , the Herulians destroyed everything except for the temple of Hephaistos and the sanctuaries on the Acropolis. The entire Agora was covered with a layer of ash from the buildings burned at that time. Many keys have been found which had been thrown into wells at that period, an indication of the despair felt by the frantic inhabitants. But the barbarian occupation did not last long. Encouraged by the fiery speeches of the orator Dexippus, the residents of Athens remembered how their ancestors had dealt with the Persians, and as one man, two thousand Athenians managed to expel the invaders.
Immediately afterward, they built a wall using rubble from the ruined buildings. The perimeter of this wall greatly reduced the area which the Athenians would have to protect in any future attack. The fortifications started under the Propylaea, from the position of the present Beule gate, descended to the east side of the Panathenaic Way, crossed the southeastern stoa and the library, reached as far as the back wall of the Stoa of Attalos, turned east for some meters and then turned south again, to touch the Acropolis rock. The extent of this fortification shows that the number of residents had already – dropped sharply. The wall was 11-1/2 meters high and 3-1/2 m. wide, it had two faces and the space in between was filled with column drums, inscriptions, pedestals of votive statues and sculptures of all kinds. Traces of one fortress tower and parts of a water mill have been preserved. Three gates have been identified with certainty on the west side, along the Panathenaic Way. But the most impressive part of the remaining wall, with the built-in column drums and the pieces of marble from earlier buildings, is on the site where the library of Pantainos once stood.
This was the intellectual heart of Athens , built around the end of the lst century AD. A long inscription has been found informing us that Titus Flavius Pantainos dedicated the entire structure with all its buildings and library with all its books to Athena Polias and the emperor Trajan. This same inscription enabled scholars to conclude that the building had a courtyard with rooms and roofed areas, as well as some outdoor stow. Another inscription demonstrated the strict operating regulations of the institution, which forbade the borrowing of the books on oath. Strangely enough Pausanias did not mention this library at all, ever partial to the sanctuaries of the gods and to more ancient structures. He treated the huge building next door, the Stoa of Attalos, with the same indifference.
Attalos of Pergamum, who built this magnificent Stoa, came from an adventurous dynasty which, although its roots were of Asia Minor extraction, had become fully Hellenized. Its founder was a certain Philetairos from the Pontus in whom the Macedonian Lycimachos had such confidence as to entrust his treasury to him to be kept in the fortress at Pergamum. The person who gained most from the disputes between Lysimachos and Seleucos over the division of Alexander the Great’s enormous empire was this flexible Philetairos who found himself owner of all the goods entrusted to him. He founded the Attalid state which, between 283 and 129 BC developed into a centre of commerce and letters, largely due to the use of a new writing material derived from animal skins. It was, of course, not so new; from very ancient times, highly significant writings were recorded on a piece of thin leather called a diphthera. The Persians took this word and adapted it to their own language as defter, from which comes a Greek word meaning notebook. When, under the rule of the Ptolemies, Egypt prohibited the export of papyrus, the kingdom of Pergamum perfected the technique of making diphthera, to give it a finer texture, whiter colour and the possibility of writing on both sides. It also acquired a new name, pergamini or parchment.
The kings of Pergamum were great lovers of beauty. They adorned their capital with wonderful monuments, and superb sculptures. The “Dying Gaul” in the Capitol Museum in Rome, but above all the Altar of Pergamum in the Berlin Museum, bear witness to the high artistic standards of the period. The library of Pergamum, which was said to contain some 20,000 volumes, later was given by Mark Antony to the lovely Cleopatra to enrich the library at Alexandria. Finally, Attalos III, the last of his line, bequeathed this wealthy kingdom to the people of Rome by virtue of a controversial will, thus consolidating the Roman presence in Asia.
Two of the most significant scions of the Attalids, who alternated their rule of Pergamum, had studied in Athens . Each one, at the height of his glory, donated magnificent buildings to the city of their youth: the Stoa beside the Theatre of Dionysus, called Eumenes II, and the large Stoa in the Agora, Attalos II. Built in 150 BC at right angles to the slightly earlier Middle Stoa, the Hellenistic Stoa of Attalos became the new commercial centre of Athens for the next four centuries.
To construct the enormous base, or crepidoma, on which the stoa rested, the remains of an older peristyle which may have belonged to one of the 5th century courthouses, had to be covered. The Stoa was built in two tiers; it was about 117 metres long and 20 m. wide. Its facade, which faced west. was adorned by 45 Doric columns, unfluted at the bottom, as was the custom in the Hellenistic years, while in the interior, covered area there were 22 columns supporting a roof, all of which were unfluted with Ionic capitals. The facade of the upper floor also had 45 little Ionic columns which were joined together with decorated marble slabs: parapets to protect the people. There was an inner colonnade on the upper floor, as well, corresponding to the one on the ground floor. On each of the two levels, there were 22 square rooms suitable for use as shops. Initially the stairs leading up to the second level were outside, on the two narrow sides of the Stoa, as we can see traces of them on the northern edge of the ground floor roofed area, where the vestiges of a large marble fountain were also found. The outer, southern stairway was replaced by an interior one when the library of Pantainos was built to create more space between the two buildings. It has been restored and is used today. Later, a road passed over the south side of the Stoa of Attalos leading to the Athens gate at the boundary of the Roman Agora, where the commercial centre of the city continued to be during the centuries that followed. But even when the ancient Agora was no longer regarded as the business centre, it never ceased to be the main meeting place for the residents. Strabo, who came to Athens in the 2nd century AD, called the Roman market “Eretria”, referring to the more ancient one by the same name his contemporary, Pausanias, used: “Kerameikos”.
During the barbarian invasion, the Stoa was burned as seen from marks on the south inner wall. During the subsequent fortification, the solid structure built by Attalos was deemed suitable for a city wall. Then the shop facades were built, rows of columns were torn down and fortification towers were added all along the former stoa, leaving the Agora outside the protected district. One part of the back wall was dug up in the 19th century, and after the regular excavations in 1953, the Stoa of Attalos was fully restored by the American School of Classical Studies. Today it houses a museum on its ground floor, and in the roofed outdoor area there are statues, votive sculptures, inscriptions and stelae which bring to life many details of the past life of the City.
In front of the outer colonnade of the Stoa of Attalos, in the middle of the facade, a large square base was erected for a monument depicting the king of Pergamum in a chariot. Some years after the Stoa was built, a bema (raised platform) was also put up, from which orators and Roman generals could address the citizens of Athens , another indication of how much traffic there was in the area. The large number of bases of honorary monuments on the opposite side of the Panathenaic Way proves the same thing. Right behind these monuments are the ruins of the Odeion, one of the most greatly altered buildings in the Agora, owing to the many reconstructions and additions.
From various sources in antiquity, we know that the open, triangular space in the Agora next to the Dromos, was the venue for rituals and presentations, before the theatre of Dionysus was built. There were ikria here, wooden platforms from which the spectators watched the action unfolding. A brief reference even exists to the fact that one could see by climbing up on the branches of a poplar tree growing nearby. Perhaps this previous usage, together with the existence of a playing area and a large open space, was the reason why Agrippa built the Odeion on this precise spot.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was Augustus’ son-in-law and governor of the Eastern provinces of the Empire. Late in the 1st century BC, he offered the Athenians a magnificent building for performances or even for philosophical discussions, thus winning the coveted title of benefactor of the city together with an honorary monument at the entrance to the Acropolis. The design of the Odeion reflected the Roman taste for the grandiose; it utilised the natural incline of the ground in the best possible way, giving it plenty of space on the ground, with stoae, multiple levels and two entrances. The most impressive of these must have been in the south, right in front of the Middle Stoa.
Persons entering the Odeion from this side passed under two rows of Corinthian columns, then proceeded into the main hall with its very high ceiling projecting up above the building. From this point, one descended to the 1000-seat audience area, and from there to the semi-circular marble-tiled orchestra. Above the orchestra was the stage, behind which was the other, northern entrance with a small exterior gate.
The large dimensions of this hall must have been the reason why the roof collapsed a century after it was built. In the restoration which followed, a good many rows of benches were removed from the upper section, and the hall acquired perceptibly smaller dimensions. Now it had but one entrance, that of the north side, embellished with the statues of Giants and Tritons. After the barbarian raids, the building underwent another radical change of form, to house a gymnasium. Of its old facade, only four of the gigantic statues were kept, while behind it, a large flat area was levelled off to be used as a porticoed courtyard. Even farther back, rooms and more courtyards were built and equipped with bath facilities. The large number of these disparate areas can be explained by the custom of the ancients to have classrooms in their gymnasia. This custom provided the root for the modern Greek word gymnasio meaning secondary school.
Even though the Odeion was completely destroyed, the monumental 2nd century AD entrance remained, of which we can still see the bases and the statues of two proud representatives of the world of myth. One is a Giant with a snakish form and the other is a mature, strongly-built Triton with a fishtail instead of legs.
It has been ascertained that myths were generated at the dawn of human thought. Beginning with the superstitions of the early peoples up to the symbolism of the Platonists that expressed primitive totemism and interpreted metaphysical concerns, myth passed through various stages of evolution. But it always presupposed the distant past, because only then did events take on the dimension of hyperbole. A typical example was provided by the Romans whose own mythology was comparatively poor. In addition, they were practical and victorious army commanders and administrators who had no need of heroic models, nor were they generally renowned as being lovers of speech and poetry. But they adopted the Greek religion and liked to present mythological beings in their art.
Giants and Tritons were the remnants of Greek prehistory. The former were vanquished by the gods in a decisive battle for peace, because as children of the Earth – shown by their snakish tails – they represented natural phenomena such as storms, floods and disasters. One of these was Enceladus, who was buried under the island of Sicily and every time he moved, he created earthquakes. The Tritons were considered to be marine spirits and had a dual substance of both destruction and restitution; rather like a storm followed by calm. Although Triton appears as the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite in Greek mythology, he may very possibly be of foreign origin.
A gold Mycenean ring shows some creatures wearing a strange, scaly garment. There are Babylonian ring stones and Assyrian seal stones in the British Museum, depicting forms that are half human and half fish, while at Pasargadae in Persia, a gate has been found on the jamb of which there is a relief representation of such a dual-form being. Eusebius, a 4th century Christian chronicler, mentioned similar creatures who appeared, he said, during the years of the Babylonians. Eusebius found this information in the texts of Apollodoros, a 2nd century BC historian and philosopher who was interested in the genealogy of the gods before the Flood. Apollodoros’ main source was a “Babylonian History” written in Greek in the 4th century by a priest named Berosos from Bithynia. Having access to the cuneiform texts of the Chaldeans, Berosus learned that in the very ancient times, an amphibian creature named Oannes had arisen from the sea. This strange being civilized humanity with its superior wisdom. Other Oannes also appeared from time to time, always bearers of abundance and knowledge. The Sumerians worshipped this figure as a god named Enki, while the Babylonians called the same divinity Ea, i.e. god of the waters, and believed that his palace was in the city of Eridu on the Persian Gulf. It is strange to consider the fact that in western Africa there is a tribe called the Dongons, who believe that knowledge about the movement of the stars was imparted to them by wise amphibian creatures. Then of course there is the Gorgon or mermaid of more recent Greek folklore. So it would appear that the Triton of the ancients is a timeless being, with distant alien ancestors as well as more recent local descendants.
In Pausanias’ book Boeotica, there is a very interesting reference to Tanagra. The men of the region, he said, managed to catch a Triton by trickery and beheaded it because it was annoying their wives. The traveller described the headless body, which he claimed to have seen displayed in the city, and, in fact, described an amphibian, unpleasantly anthropomorphic being. The Triton of the Odeion was a beautified version of this mythic creature which has so captured the human imagination.
In front of the gigantic statues at the entrance to the Odeion there was a large temple of Ares. Today nothing of this building has been preserved other than its outline – distinguishable from the rest of the site because it is covered with gravel – a few slabs with relief shields, and some scattered parts of columns and capitals. Many of the latter bear the characteristic notches made by Roman masons, even though the rock was cut in the 5th century, showing once more that the temple had been initially built somewhere else, and was brought here bit by bit and rebuilt together with its later altar during Roman rule. The citizens of classical Athens were not particularly interested in erecting a temple to Ares, the violent, strongly built, and not exceptionally intelligent, god of war; especially when their city was protected by Promachos Athena, she of organised defence and cool strategy. But the Romans held Ares (Mars) in high esteem as the divine leader of their legions. The prevailing opinion of scholars as to the initial position of the temple of Ares in the Athens Agora is that it was originally situated in Acharnes, where there is known to have been a sanctuary of the god. A cult of this kind would have been absolutely logical there, given that this Attic Deme was situated at the border which had to be guarded against enemy raids, and the war-loving Ares, pugnacious and always ready for a fight, was the most appropriate protector of the borders. One should also point out the mingling of two extreme states in the erotic relationship between warlike Ares and the tender goddess Aphrodite. The union of these two totally different divinities generated the all-powerful Eros, who could calm even his fierce father, and Harmony who brought the equilibrium into this contradictory world.
Pausanias gives us only one fleeting mention of the temple of Ares, because, when he passed by the site, he was mainly interested in the statues in and around it. Some of these statues have been identified in the truncated sculptures found nearby and now exhibited in the Agora Museum. Others have been lost forever: such as the 6th century statues of the tyrannicides Harmodios and Aristogeiton. These statues were booty which Xerxes took to Persia where they remained until Alexander the Great regained them and sent them back to Athens . The tyrannicides were considered worthy of respect as symbols of Democracy; they were also the first mortals to be honoured by having statues erected to them, a privilege hitherto reserved only for gods and demigods. The statues had been placed on this side of the Agora because this was probably where Hipparchos was killed. His death was decisive in bringing down the tyranny instituted by his father, Peisistratos. Thucydides told us that this bold action took place on the day of the Panathenaia, when the tyrant was supervising the preparations for the procession. We also know that the celebrants’ point of departure was the Altar of the Twelve Gods, the city’s main crossroads.
This significant Altar had been built in about 520 BC on the northern edge of the Agora, the apex of the imaginary triangle which constitutes its area. Within a walled enclosure, it had become established as the place where the underprivileged, the persecuted and even badly treated slaves sought sanctuary. Perhaps this was why Pausanias wrote that he saw an Altar of Mercy: an obvious reference to sanctuary, which led -most archaeologists to conclude that these two names referred to the same altar. Of the structure itself there are no significant traces, because the train line passed right over it. This railroad line is for visitors the northernmost boundary of the Agora, even though there were in antiquity, important buildings on the other side, which have not yet been fully excavated and studied.