Panoramic view of Roman Agora in the foreground of Hadrian's Library

The Roman Agora in Athens

The Roman Agora in Athens was constructed adjacent to the then existing Greek marketplace. The Roman Agora was a distinctively different marketplace. It differed in design in that it comprised a central courtyard, surrounding colonnaded porticos, monumental gateways at its eastern and western entrances, and convenience buildings. These included the Gate of Athena Archegetis, the Agoranomeion, the Tower of the Winds (or Horologion), and the Vespasianae.

The Roman Agora also represented a different empire and culture. Greeks did not separate their religion and the worship of their gods and goddesses from their allegiance to the state. Therefore, the Athenians integrated religion and the worship of gods and goddesses into the Greek marketplace. The Romans displaced this relationship and emphasised their own culture, including supervision of commerce and trade.

Brief Background History of the Roman Agora

Greek architecture was at its zenith between the seventh century BC and the fourth century BC. Craftsmen demonstrated exceptional skill in fabricating from limestone and marble the columns and friezes seen on complex monuments of both the ancient agora and Acropolis.

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 were not at first kind to the city of Athens. Nevertheless, Athens hung on to its cultural heritage, but the damage inflicted on the impressive structures of the Acropolis and the ancient agora required repair. The Romans attended to the restorations and by so doing benefited considerably from their new acquaintance with Greek style The Acropolis of Athens And Its Incomparable Architecture

The available space within the existing marketplace was reduced during the second half of the first century BC due to the erection of Roman buildings. A very obvious example was the construction of the Odeon of Herodes Agrippa. The reduced space within the ancient agora limited potential for the expansion of trade. Consequently, between 19-11 BC the Romans constructed their own agora. The Roman Agora was an imposing building in a style previously not seen in Athens. You can compare the the ancient BC Greek Agora.

When you visit Roman Athens you will perceive the transition from the almost ethereal as embodied in the structures on the Acropolis and the Greek Agora to the more elaborate though functional architecture as exemplified by the Roman works in the Roman Agora. Additional Roman constructions and works occurred under Emperor Hadrian, and in fact, there is a substantial scattering of Roman ruins throughout Athens.

Menu for the Roman Agora in Athens

  • The Roman Agora
    • Introduction – The Roman Agora
    • The Gate of Athena Archegetis and the Western Propylon of the Roman Agora –
    • The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora
    • The Agoranomeion at the Eastern End of the Roman Agora
    • Tower of the Winds – The Horologion
    • The Agora Latrine – The Vespasianae

Introduction – The Roman Agora

A panorama of the Roman Agora in the foreground of the Library of Hadrian. Seen are the Gate of Athena Archegetis (left) and the Tower of the Winds (right)
Overview of the area of the Roman Agora with the Library of Hadrian in the background

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 was unlike the Greek Agora in that it was a colonnaded building with central courtyard
The rectangular design of the Roman Agora in Athens enclosing a central courtyard

The Roman Agora, or central market place, was where Athenians shopped and citizens met to interact through discussion and conversation. The agora was also where business and commerce was transacted, and where trade was secured.

The Roman Agora was populated with statues and idols of gods and goddesses. Nevertheless, it would have been unlikely this would have been to the same extent as was the case of the previous ancient agora. 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 focus of the Roman Agora, however, was on commerce and insufficient space discouraged its occupation by numerous religious shrines.

The Roman Agora was a rectangular building with portico and colonnade that enclosed a central courtyard. Seen at the end are the Tower of the Winds and the Agoranomeion
The courtyard of the Roman Agora surrounded by the columns of the portico

The Roman Agora in Athens was prominent, built to a height above the level of the agora’s eastern propylon, or monumental gateway. The proylon was faced with ashlar masonry. This type of masonry results from working the stone to produce pieces of the same shape, size and surface texture. The working removes the surface variation that results from the fracturing of the limestone and marble 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 Doric columns supported the portico that surrounded the central courtyard
Colonnade for portico enclosing central courtyard of Roman Agora

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.

The image shows remnants of columns and monuments that were aligned along the southern portico
Ruins of the agora building’s southern inner portico

A small fountain house was also included in the southern inner portico, behind which was narrow stairway leading up to the road above. The stairway can just be discerned by its apparent slope in the masonry.

Possible area for source of fountain house
Southern portico with area of staircase and fountain house

The Gate of Athena Archegetis and the Western Propylon of the Roman Agora

The Roman Agora was located east of the ancient Greek agora. A marble pathway connected the two agoras. Patrons entered the Roman agora from the westerly ancient agora was via a pentelic marble propylon. The propylon, or monumetal gate, is 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. The gate was dedicated to Athena Archegetis in 11-10 BC.

Image shows the dimensions of the Gate of Athena Archegetis
Gate of Athena Archegetis at the western entrance to the Roman Agora of Athens

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. The columns were constructed using segments which are referred to as ‘drums’. The drums were then connected using dowels. Other columns, by contrast, were made in one piece of stone. 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 a bit undefined to make further comparisons. Consequently, it is not possible to identify all the Doric properties of the Gate of Athena Archegetis.

The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora

Image shows the location of the Eastern Propylon to the right of the Tower of Winds
Visitors to the Roman Agora about to enter the Eastern Propylon (camera side of the Tower)

An Ionic order marble propylon was also constructed at the opposite end of the agora so as 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 at the Roman Agora has lost much of its detail and only columns fragments remain
The Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora in Athens

The eastern Propylon has lost much of its vertical profile and only remnants of its unfluted columns remain

(Image below: George E. Koronaios).

A visitor passes up the stairs through the column ruins of the Eastern Propylon
Eastern Propylon at the Roman Agora

Aerial photos can establish the exact location of the Eastern Propylon. The photos show the footprints left by the massive columns that supported it.

An image of the location of the eastern propylon using an aerial view derived from Google maps
Overhead of propylon footprint – image credit Google Maps

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 triple arched Agoranomeion east of the eastern Propylon on the Agora boundary
The Agoranomeion at the eastern end of the Roman Agora Athens

The Agoranomeion was constructed at the eastern end of the Roman Agora. However, the function of the Agoranomeion has not been clearly established. The Agoranomeion was a public building built of ashlar masonry which appears to be limestone in the 1st Century AD. The ruins indicate that a wide staircase led to a structure that was elevated above the rest of the agora. The structure had three archways and a marble colonnade. The image of the Agoranomeion shows decorated arches above which is an architrave that spanned across them. The north and south masonry walls adjacent to the structure are still in tact.

The Tower of the Winds – The Horologion

Image shows the octagonal geometry of the Tower of the Winds, an ancient hydraulic clock
The Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora, Athens

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.

Click on an image for enlargement as slide show

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 frieze of the Tower of Winds is decorated with scultures of the eight major winds
The reliefs in the frieze of thenHOroglion depict the eight main winds

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

Image shows layout of the Latrine in the Roman Agora
Public Latrine with latrine seat adjacent to the Tower of the Winds

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”?!

Latrine drainage system
Practical drainage system to expel wastes from the latrine

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

The Roman Agora is an excellent example of the change of culture brought to Athens by the Romans and an example of the outstanding architectural skills that were evident at the time. The agora is also a reflection of that society which makes a visit to the Roman Agora worthwhile.

It also reinforces culture of architecture, arts, religion, commerce and mathematics that Athenians bequeathed a to the wider cultures.


Site Descriptions, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Athens

Ancient Greece – Roman Agora of Athens
Athens – Greece
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