The Agora of Athens was the center of the ancient city: a large, open square where the citizens could assemble for a wide variety of purposes. On any given day the space might be used as a market, or for an election, a dramatic performance, a religious procession, military drill, or athletic competition. Here administrative, political, judicial, commercial, social, cultural, and religious activities all found a place together in the heart of Athens, and the square was surrounded by the public buildings necessary to run the Athenian government. These buildings, along with monuments and small objects, illustrate the important role it played in all aspects of public life. The council chamber, magistrates’ offices, mint, and archives have all been uncovered, while the law courts are represented by the recovery of bronze ballots and a water-clock used to time speeches. The use of the area as a marketplace is indicated by the numerous shops where potters, cobblers, bronze workers, and sculptors made and sold their wares.
Long stoas (colonnades) provided shaded walkways for those wishing to meet friends to discuss business, politics, or philosophy, while statues and commemorative inscriptions reminded citizens of former triumphs. A library and concert hall met cultural needs, and numerous small shrines and temples received regular worship. Given the prominence of Athens throughout much of antiquity, the Agora provides one of the richest sources for our understanding of the Greek world in antiquity.
Used as a burial ground and for scattered habitation in the Bronze and Iron Ages, the area was first laid out as a public space in the 6th century B.C. Administrative buildings and small sanctuaries were built, and water was made available at a fountain house fed by an early aqueduct. Following the total destruction of Athens at the hands of the Persians in 480 B.C., the city was rebuilt and public buildings were added to the Agora one by one throughout the 5th and 4th centuries, when Athens contended for the hegemony of Greece. It is during this “Classical” period that the Agora and its buildings were frequented by statesmen such as Themistokles, Perikles, and Demosthenes, by the poets Aeschylos, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, by the writers Thucydides and Herodotos, by artists such as Pheidias and Polygnotos, and by philosophers such as Sokrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Together, they were responsible for creating a society and culture that has set a standard against which subsequent human achievements have been judged. The Agora was the focal point of their varied activities and here the concept of democracy was first developed and practiced.
With the rise of Macedon under Philip II and Alexander the Great and during the subsequent Hellenistic period, all significant military, economic, and political power shifted to the East. In the spheres of education and philosophy, however, Athens maintained her preeminence. The Academy, founded by Plato, and the Lyceum, founded by Aristotle, continued to flourish. They were supplemented by the arrival of Zeno of Kition, who chose to lecture at the Agora in the Painted Stoa. Athenian cultural dominance continued throughout the Roman period, and the buildings added to the Agora reflect the educational role of the city, a role that ended only with the closing of the pagan philosophical schools by the Christian emperor Justinian in A.D. 529. With the collapse of security in the empire, Athens and the Agora suffered from periodic invasions and destructions: the Herulians in the 3rd century, the Visigoths in the 4th, the Vandals in the 5th, and the Slavs in the 6th. Following the Slavic invasion the area of the Agora was largely abandoned and neglected for close to 300 years.