The Roman agora in Athens was a marketplace. It was located adjacent to the pre-existing Greek marketplace. The Roman agora was, however, distinctively different. Whereas the Greek agora was spaced over an area of 25 acres, the Roman agora occupied a central courtyard which featured surrounding colonnaded porticos, monumental propyla (gates) at its eastern and western entrances, and the Tower of the Winds.
The Roman agora also represented the shift to a different empire and culture. Greeks did not separate their religion from their allegiance to the state. Therefore, the integration of religion and the worship of gods and goddesses within the Greek marketplace shifted to an emphasis on commerce and trade within the Roman agora, reflecting the ascendancy of the Roman influence.
- Historical Context of the Roman Agora
- Contrasts in Culture
- Architectural Highlights of the Roman Agora
- Final Thoughts on the Roman Agora at Athens
Historical Context of the Roman Agora
Defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars resulted in the decline of the Athenian empire. The decline continued in the form of Athens’ subjugation to Macedon. Finally, the Romans occupied Athens in 86 BC under General Lucius Sulla. The Romans at first were not kind to the city of Athens. The damage that was inflicted on the impressive structures of the Acropolis and the ancient agora required repair. Nevertheless, Athens hung on to its cultural heritage.
Greek architecture had been at its zenith between the seventh century BC and the fourth century BC. Craftsmen demonstrated exceptional skills in fabricating from limestone and marble the columns and friezes which are seen on the complex monuments that populate both the ancient agora and the Acropolis. When the Romans attended to the restorations they benefited considerably from their new acquaintance with Greek style (see The Athens Acropolis).
During the second half of the first century BC, the erection of Roman buildings reduced the space within the then existing Greek marketplace. A very obvious example was the construction of the Odeon of Herodes Agrippa. The configuration of the ancient agora and the reduction in space limited the potential for the expansion of trade. Consequently, between 19-11 BC the Romans constructed their own agora. The Roman agora was in the form of an imposing building the style of which had not previously been seen in Athens. You can compare the Roman agora with the ancient BC Greek agora.
Contrasts in Culture
When you visit Roman Athens you will perceive the cultural shift from the almost ethereal, as embodied in the structures on the Acropolis and the Greek agora, to the more elaborate though functional architecture in the Roman agora.
The Greek agora had seamlessly blended religion and state affairs; in fact, the Greeks saw no distinction between religion and state. Consequently, whenever state business was conducted in their agora, provision was made through the use of temples, statues and monuments to accommodate the gods. And state business was an essential element of the ancient agora.
The Roman agora concentrated on commerce. The Roman agora, or central market place, became the central venue where business and commerce was transacted, trade secured and where citizens met to interact through discussion and conversation. It would have been populated with statues and idols of gods and goddesses, but not to the same extent as was the case of the previous ancient Greek agora. The focus of the Roman agora, or Roman forum, however, was on commerce and it was this focus that infused a changing architectural style in the city.
Additional Roman constructions and works occurred under Emperor Hadrian, and in fact, there is a substantial scattering of Roman ruins throughout Athens.
Architectural Highlights of the Roman Agora
The Roman agora featured a central rectangular courtyard surrounded by colonnaded porticos, with monumental gates at its entrances, latrines, and the remarkable Tower of the Winds,
The Central Rectangular Courtyard of the Roman Agora
The Agora during Roman times was a rectangular building (110metres x 104 metres) with an open courtyard enclosed by an Ionic colonnaded portico with shops, storerooms and offices located in the rear of the portico (Image below: George E. Koronaios)
The Roman agora in Athens was prominent. It was built to a height above the level of the agora’s eastern propylon, or monumental gateway. Structures in the agora were fashioned using ashlar masonry, a process by which all stones are worked to have the same shape, size and surface texture. The working is required to remove the variation in surfaces due to the fracturing of the limestone and marble surfaces when quarried. The advantage of using ashlar masonry is that horizontal walls built from masonry units which were flat and smooth bonded more tightly with the addition of a minimum of mortar. The resulting edifice was stronger as a result.
The image above shows the columns of the Southern Portico. The columns to the left indicate the width of the portico. The left-most columns also identify the façade of the Inner Portico. We can see that the columns that made up the colonnade of the Southern Portico each rest on a separate base and not directly on the common foundation, or stylobate. This defines the columns as being post-Doric order. The Ionic capitals supporting the architrave can just be identified on top of the columns.
The image below shows some of the ruins of the agora building’s southern inner portico.
A small fountain house was also included in the southern inner portico, behind which was a narrow stairway leading up to the road above. The stairway can just be discerned by its apparent slope in the masonry.
The Gate of Athena Archegetis, the Western Propylon of the Roman Agora
The Roman marketplace was connected to the ancient Greek agora located to its west by a marble pathway. Entry into the Roman agora from the west was via a pentelic marble propylon known as the Gate of Athena Archegetis (Athena the Leader). An inscription on the gate’s architrave relates that funds for the building of the gate were provided by Julius Caesar and Augustus in the 1st century BC and that the gate was dedicated to Athena Archegetis in 11-10 BC.
The Gate of Athena Archegetis is certainly Roman but not all the elements of traditional Greek architecture and design were abandoned in its construction. There is much about the Gate of Athena Archegetis that points to its Doric style. The columns of the structure stand directly on the stylobate and decrease in diameter as they ascend. They are segmented into drums rather than being in one length. The capitals associated with Ionic and Corinthian columns are absent, and the abacus that sits on top of the capital and makes contact with the lower surface of the architrave is plain and undecorated. The façade of the architrave is plain and whereas elements of the entablature remain, it’s insufficiently defined to make further comparisons. Nevertheless, there is certainly sufficient detail to extract the Doric properties from the Gate of Athena Archegetis.
The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora
An Ionic order marble propylon was also constructed at the opposite end of the Roman market to provide access from the eastern side. A series of shops were located adjacent to the eastern entrance and a staircase ascended from the propylon to the Agoranomeion and the Tower of Winds which were situated on slightly higher terrain.
The following image shows visitors about to step into the Eastern Portico, defined by its two rows of Ionic columns, and then up on to the level of the propylon.
The eastern Propylon has lost much of its vertical profile and only remnants of its unfluted columns remain
(Image below: George E. Koronaios).
The exact location of the Eastern Propylon can be established through aerial photos that show the footprints left by the massive columns that supported it.
An entrance was available from the southern side of the agora. A small set of five steps flanked by vertically arranged slabs ascended to a terrace below a street level entrance that was above the southern retaining wall.
The Agoranomeion at the Eastern End of the Roman Agora
The Agoranomeion was constructed at the eastern end of the Roman agora. The function of the Agoranomeion has not been clearly established. It was a public building built of ashlar masonry which appears to be limestone in the 1st Century AD. Ruins indicate that a wide staircase led to a structure which had three archways and a marble colonnade that were elevated above the rest of the agora. The image shows decorated arches above which is an architrave that spanned across them. The north and south masonry walls adjacent to the structure are still intact.
The Tower of the Winds – The Horologion
Located at the eastern boundary of the Roman Agora and adjacent to the eastern Propylon is the intriguing “Tower of the Winds”, or Horologion. This late 1st to 2nd Century BC monument was erected by Greek astronomer Andronicus of Cyrahus (Macedonia). The Tower had been constructed from marble laid on limestone foundations. A quick walk around the Tower establishes its octagonal shape. An estimate of its height by a bit of street science is about 14 metres with a radius of about 4 metres. The floor of the Tower od the Winds is constructed from what appears to be 16 marble slabs laid to complement the structure’s octagonal geometry. The walls are marble and the fully preserved roof of the building consists of twenty – four slabs. The slabs converge to a circular keystone, ensuring that any forces that arise due to the mass of the ceiling or walls are summed at a central location to enhance stability. A Corinthian capital rests on the assembly and possibly served as the base of a bronze wind vane in the form of a Triton.
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Although the monument appears quite plain, inside it presents as a real brain teaser in the absence of any advance reading when trying to determine its function. But it appears to have been a hydraulic clock with a sun-dial and weather vane, with its relationship to the eight main winds being indicated by the reliefs on the frieze around the top of the tower. Incised lines on the exterior of each of the sides of the structure correspond to an equal number of sundials. The scored channel running across the floor from the vessel on the southern side indicates a flow of water and that the mechanism would be driven hydraulically. The water was fed gravitationally from the Acropolis.
The monument served as a church during the Byzantine period and evidence exists in the form of fragments of frescoes with Christian content, dated at the 13th -14th century, which still adorn the northern and north-western side of the building’s interior.
The Agora Latrine – The Vespasianae
The Roman thoughtfully provided a 1st Century AD Public Latrine at the eastern end of the agora. The building, lobby and hall were all rectangular, containing a bench with round holes. The space was rooved but for a portal for light and daresay, ventilation. It worked in a very simple and practical system of running water, which flushed away the waste products through a deep peripheral canal to the main drain of the city. Of course, the Romans were never overly sensitive about bodily functions and so privacy was not a criterion, as the images indicate. But what possessed them to construct it directly adjacent to the “Tower of the Winds”?!
One item that is clearly missing from the Vespasianae is the humble toilet roll. It inevitably raises the question of what did the ancients use when they visited the Vespasianae. This article from National Geographic contains some interesting eye-watering details.
The date at which the Roman Agora in Athens was destroyed is not known with certainty, but the area remained in constant use until the 19th Century.
In the Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods it was occupied by houses, workshops and the churches.
Final Thoughts on the Roman Agora at Athens
Although the exact date of the Roman agora’s demise remains uncertain, its presence persisted until the 19th century. In the Byzantine and post-Byzantine eras, the area housed houses, workshops, and churches, further exemplifying its historical importance.
The Roman agora in Athens represents a historic shift in the city’s history, where culture, architecture, religion, and commerce converged. It’s both a physical testament to the impact of imperial change and the endurance of heritage.
Site Descriptions, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Athens
Ancient Greece – Roman Agora of Athens
Athens – Greece
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