The Roman ruins in Athens represent the breadth of the Roman contribution to the restoration of Athens. The works of Emperor Hadrian are prominent among the theatres, monuments, propyla, libraries, water courses, bath houses and temples, the latter including Hadrian’s contribution to the completion of the monumental Temple of Zeus. The varieties of Roman ruins in Athens are easy to access because the majority of the ruins are within an easy walk of the Acropolis.
The Roman occupation of Athens was the denouement of a protracted decline in Athens’ influence. Earlier, during the fifth century BC, Athens not only celebrated magnificent victories at Marathon, Salamis and Plataeae, but from 461 BC enjoyed a golden age of intellectual and artistic achievement under Pericles. Athens fell into decline following the Peloponnesian Wars of 431- 404 BC, the finale being at Chaironia when Athens fell to the Macedonians. The final defeat was by the Romans under General Sulla in 86 BC.
An overthrow by Rome would usually result in the customary stripping of trade and commerce, and subjection to Roman governance. However, the Romans recognised Athens’ long history of cultural excellence which was embodied in its unsurpassed philosophers, artists, architects and historians, and embraced Athens as a centre of learning. The beneficiaries of the education provided by the Athenian philosophical schools and libraries included the children of wealthy Romans who sent their children to Athens.
The Roman ruins are evidence of the Roman contribution to Athens. The physical damage inflicted on the city by Sulla and the natural deterioration that had occurred over many years left Athens in a state of disrepair. No one contributed more to the subsequent restoration of Athens than Emperor Hadrian. Many of the ruins of Roman buildings and monuments exhibit features that identify Roman architecture, including the rounded arch, porticos supported by colonnades, entablatures and columns.
Menu for the Roman Ruins in Athens
The Roman Ruins in the Ancient (Greek) Agora
- Odeon of Agrippa
- Library of Pantainos
The Roman Ruins on the Southern Slope of the Acropolis
- The Proscenion of the Theatre of Dionysus
- The Ruins of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The Roman Ruins on the Acropolis
- The Ruins of the Pillar of Marcus Agrippa
- The Ruins of the Roman Shrine to Augustus and Rome
- The Ruins of the Roman Monument of Philopappus on Mouseion Hill
The Ruins of the Roman Agora
- The Gate of Athena Archetis
- The Eastern Propylon
- The Agroranomeion
- The Vespasianae
The Roman Ruins of the Works of Emperor Hadrian
- The Roman Ruins of the Library of Hadrian
- The Vaulted Bed of the River Eridanos at Monastiraki Square
- The Arch of Hadrian
- The Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus – Hadrian’s Completion of the Olympieion
- Ruins of the Roman Bath at Amalias Avenue
- Final Thoughts on the Roman Ruins in Athens
The Roman Ruins in the Ancient (Greek) Agora
The Ancient Agora is within an easy north-westerly stroll from the Acropolis. The Ancient Agora is very much a site of Athenian Greek history, but there are two distinguishable ruins of Athens’ Roman past. It would be best to visit them as part of a broader visit to the agora. They are only identified in this post but described fully within a separate post that explores the Ancient (Greek) Agora.The Odeon of Agrippa
The Odeon of Agrippa seen from the Acropoliswas a gift to Athens in the form of a music hall by Marcus Vispanius Agrippa. It was erected circa 15 BC. The Library of Pantainos
The Library of Pantainos adjacent to the Stoa of Attaluswas dedicated by Titus Flavius Pantaenus to Athena Archegetis, the emperor Trajan and the Athenian people circa 100 A.D. It was an archive for scrolls handwritten on papyrus and parchment.
The Odeon of Agrippa and the Roman Library of Pantainos only receive a brief mention here because they are subjects of a separate post that explores the Ancient (Greek) Agora. It would be best to visit them as part of a broader visit to the agora.
The Roman Ruins on the Southern Slope of the Acropolis
The Proscenion of the Theatre of Dionysus
The construction of the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus dates back to Peisistratus in the 6th Century BC. You can read about the Theatre of Dionysus as an example of Greek architecture and culture in its own post. The Romans added three elements to the theatre. These were the circular stage, the marble railing, and the the sculptured freize, or proscenion, the latter being added by Hadrian.
The Ruins of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The 6,000+ capacity Roman, marble and ceramic Odeon of Herodes Atticus which dates to 161AD is also set on the southern slope of the Acropolis. The Roman Odeon, which was used principally for the dramatic arts, was carved into the limestone bedrock. The structure still hosts both music and drama performances.
The Odeon is an excellent site to visit because it demonstrates two distinctive contributions of Roman architecture; vaulted ceilings and arches. The load of the edifice is borne in principle at the centre of each arch. The load is then redistributed diagonally, the design providing for bearing a load that exceeds anything a horizontal lintel could bear.
The stoa that can be seen in the image above to the right of the Odeon was built to Roman design but was a gift from Eumenes II, the king of Pergamum. His stoa is the subject of a separate post.
Herodes Atticus was a first century AD Athenian sophist who was much admired for his use of oratory when he entertained throngs with storytelling based on historical and comical themes. Herodes Atticus was also immensely wealthy, served as a Roman senator and consul, befriended and mentored emperors which included a friendship with Emperor Hadrian, was a patron of the arts and lent his voice and skills to various causes. It is due to these Roman connections and the date of build that we have included the Odeon as a Roman ruin. Herodes Atticus made significant contributions across Greece, another of which was the development of the Stadium at Delphi.
The Roman Ruins on the Acropolis
The Ruins of the Pillar of Marcus Agrippa
It is not possible when climbing the Acropolis steps to miss the Pillar of Marcus Agrippa. Eumenes II, the King of Pergamum, gave the instructions to build this very prominent monument in 178 BC. Marcus Agrippa had the pillar altered in the first century and replaced it with a statue of himself. You can read more about the Pillar of Marcus Agrippa in our post that explores the Acropolis.
The Ruins of the Roman Shrine to Augustus and Rome
The disrepair of the Acropolis’ buildings drew the attention of Emperor Augustus, particularly the damage that had been inflicted on the Erechtheion. The image below shows a pile of what appears to be unconsolidated ruins in front of the Partheon.
Augustus gave the direction to build the shrine when the Romans made some repairs to the Erectheion. More detail of the ruins of the shrine to Augustus and Rome is explained on our post describing the Acropolis.
The Ruins of the Roman Monument of Philopappus on Mouseion Hill
A Roman construction on Mouseion Hill, the Hill of the Muses, is the ruined pentelic marble monument of Philopappos, a Syrian prince and Roman consul. Philopappos was honoured in 116 AD with the monument for his gifts to Athens.
The Roman Ruins in the Roman Agora
The Roman Agora is located to the north-west of the Acropolis. The Ancient Greek Agora and the Roman Agora can both be seen from the Acropolis. The Roman Agora, as the name suggests, has a number of buildings and structures attributed to Roman design which are now in ruins, but nonetheless, worth visiting. We only list the Roman ruins within the Roman Agora because they are further explored and described in their own post.The principal Roman ruins at the Agora include The rectangular Agora building,
The rectangular building that was the Roman AgoraThe Gate of Athena,
The Gate of Athena was the western entrance (propylon) to the AgoraThe Eastern Propylon,
The Eastern Propylon was the eastern entrance to the AgoraThe Agroranomeion,
The Agroranomeion is a Roman construction on the eastern side that is not understoodand The Vespasianae.
The was the communal toilet of the Agora
The Roman Ruins of the Works of Emperor Hadrian
Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) was both an accomplished and diligent administrator who spent more than half his reign (11 –138 AD) travelling to the provinces to supervise their Romanisation and economic development. Hadrian was also a generous benefactor of literature and architecture. He was therefore associated with many of the great building projects throughout the Roman territories. He was particularly energetic for public works and rebuilding cities.
Hadrian’s first tour was from 121 to 126 AD when he visited every quarter of his Empire. After a little more than a year in Rome he embarked on his second journey which lasted from 128 to 134 AD. This tour was to the east and included Athens.
Hadrian had been nicknamed ‘Graeculus’ (Lat: ‘the little Greek’) as a youth due to his phil-Hellene values. When Hadrian visited Athens he rebuilt the city on a lavish scale. His legacy included being initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis and his name being carved on Memnon’s statue. He also presided as archon at the festival of the Great Dionysia, all evidence of his commitment to restoring Athens.
The Roman Ruins of the Library of Hadrian
The Library of Hadrian (132 -134 AD) was just a short walk from the Roman Agora. The dominant materials in its construction were again limestone and marble. The rectangular structure was 122 metres x 88 metres with high walls along its long sides. The unmissable columns on its western side are vestiges of the library’s Propylon. Each post-Doric column has its own base and Corinthian capital which would have supported an overhead architrave. This entrance provided access through to the Library’s eastern side and to an open, but interior, peristyle courtyard (surrounded by a colonnade). The rectangular structure was 122 metres x 82 metres with high walls along its long sides.
Pausanias’ description of Hadrian’s library in Athens stated that the library was comprised a series of rooms (called oikemata by Pausanias). These rooms stored the ‘books’ (papyrus) of the “library”, and also served as reading rooms and auditoria. On the eastern side of the Library of Hadrian the people of Athens were provided with a new, multi-purpose, public square and cultural centre that contained a garden, centrally located cistern, works of art, a library and lecture halls.
Hadrian’s library was significantly damaged during the 3rd Century by invading barbarians. However, the Romans restored the Library in the early 5th Century. Churches were built on the site of the cistern during the 5th, 7th and 12th Centuries.
The Vaulted Bed of the River Eridanos at Monastiraki Square
During construction of the Athens Metro, ruins were found at the site of the proposed Monastiraki station.
The Eridanos River flowed through Athens since the classical period. The course of the river was relatively narrow, being only 2.6 metres wide, and inconsistent. Large blocks were placed on each of its banks to create a channel so as to control the course of the river.
Hadrian converted the river into a sewer by constructing a masonry vault over it and then covering the vault with soil.
Below is an accessory image of the site. Apologies for moving too quickly on completion of taking of the image.
The Arch of Roman Emperor Hadrian
One of the most recognised works of Hadrian in Athens is the 2nd Century BC Hadrian’s Arch. This structure is a symmetrical, 18 metre high, 13.5 metre wide Corinthian style gateway of Pentelic marble. The arch was erected to celebrate Emperor Hadrian’s arrival to Athens.The arch also separated the old city from a Roman suburb.
The monument had two facades with the same features. The rounded lower arch is supported by attached columns which are crowned with Corinthian capitals. This design was used to convey honour and was typical of the Roman style. A traditional Greek Propylon, an entablature with a Greek pediment mounted on columns, was extended above the lower arch. The final appearance of the arch makes it easier to understand why Hadrian was known in Rome for his ‘greekness’.
Two inscriptions are visible on the architrave of the Arch of Hadrian above the archway.
One the west side the inscription translates to, ‘this is Athens the ancient city of Theseus’, and on the east side, ‘This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus’.
The Romans had already learned from the Etruscans (Tyrrhenians to the Greeks) how to use wedges to form arches, and when they added mortar the Romans were able to construct arches that achieved greater reach. The result was that less reliance was placed on colonnades, and buildings with more than one storey became achievable.
The Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus – Hadrian’s Completion of the Olympieion
What did a 1st Century AD Roman emperor have to do with the construction of a 6th Century Greek temple, particularly a temple as grand as that of Zeus? And how is this Greek temple relevant to Roman ruins in Athens?
The Olympieion was the precinct of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. It was Zeus to whom Pausanias referred as ‘god almighty’ and so the name of the temple recognised Zeus as supreme amongst the gods of Olympia.
The Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus was revered by ancient Athenians for it was, according to myth and tradition, built by Deucalion as a tribute to Zeus for delivering Greeks from the great deluge. The myth partly reads; “Deucalion and Pyrrha was the first king and queen of the northern reaches of Greece… who lived in the time of the Bronze Race of Mankind … Zeus was angered by their impiety and destroyed them (mankind) with the Great Deluge. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha survived the apocalypse having been warned of the impending calamity by Prometheus. Mounting a chest the couple found refuge on the dry peaks of Mount Parnassos.”
The massive temple was built over a period of 700 years. Its original build was under Peisistratus in 515 BC. The construction that proceeded was Doric and mostly of limestone. The work was interrupted during the years of opposition to tyranny and came to a halt in 508 BC. The stoppage was contemporaneous with Cleisthene’s legislation that provided a political structure for Athenians that allowed them to pursue their independence.
The work was resumed on the Temple of Zeus using marble during the 4th Century, but again was not completed.
Greece fell into decline and division after its subjugation by Macedon and subsequent losses to Rome in the Macedon Wars. However, in 175 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes succeeded the Seleucid Empire and in the year of his inauguration resumed the Olympieion’s Corinthian construction.
Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 BC, saw himself as significant and had cast on coins the epithet ‘Theos Epiphanes’, meaning ‘God Manifest’. One historian wrote of Epiphanes, “this monarch was one of the most cruel, rapacious and tyrannical princes”. He favoured Greek religion and his failures in wars against Egypt resulted in his attempts to unite his empire in Greek, or Hellenistic, culture. For example, Epiphanes attempted to force Greek ways, customs, and religion on the Jews to the point that in about 168 BC, he plundered the temple in Jerusalem and built another in honour of the Olympian Zeus. This period led to the Maccabean wars and the Jewish revolt against the oppression.
The project was not completed under Epiphanes. The project was later continued by Augustus to be completed under Emperor Hadrian who inaugurated the Olympieion in 131-132 BC.
The precinct of the Olympieion was rectangular and penetrated by a northern propylon. The temple, one of the largest in the ancient world, and being 97 metres long and 40 metres wide was essentially the size of a football field. It had two rows of 20 columns on the sides and three rows of 3 columns at the ends. Whereas the original columns installed by Peisistratus had a width of 2.4 metres, the Corinthian columns within the Roman sanctuary were only a third of that width, although an impressive 17 metres in height.
Pausanias wrote about the Olympieion;
“Before the entrance to the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus – Hadrian the Roman emperor dedicated the temple and the statue, one worth seeing, which in size exceeds all other statues save the Colossi at Rhodes and Rome, and is made of ivory and gold with an artistic skill which is remarkable when the size is taken into account – before the entrance, I say, stand statues of Hadrian, two of Thasian stone, two of Egyptian. Before the pillars stand bronze statues which the Athenians call “colonies.” The whole circumference of the precincts is about four stades, and they are full of statues; for every city has dedicated a likeness of the emperor Hadrian, and the Athenians have surpassed them in dedicating, behind the temple, the remarkable colossus.”
A large golden and iron statue of Zeus shared the cella with a statue of Emperor Hadrian and both were worshipped as equals.
Today, only 16 columns survive the original 104. The Greek pillars were sent to Rome by General Sulla when the Romans occupied Athens in 86 BC. The Genoese and Venetians removed all but 5 of Hadrian’s marble columns. The sole column that remains on the ground was unseated by a storm in 1852. This solitary column demonstrates the extraordinary skill of the Greek masons in respect of their capacity to fit and join separate units of marble without mortar to have them look, and act, as one. This is particularly the case for marble, its hardness resulting from extreme pressure and heat.
Pausanias also recorded other of Hadrian’s works in Athens; “Hadrian constructed other buildings also for the Athenians: a temple of Hera and Zeus Panellenios (Common to all Greeks), a sanctuary common to all the gods, and, most famous of all, a hundred pillars of Phrygian marble. The walls were constructed of the same material as the cloisters. And there are rooms there adorned with a gilded roof and with alabaster stone, as well as with statues and paintings. In them are kept books. There is also a gymnasium named after Hadrian; of this too the pillars are a hundred in number from the Libyan quarries.”
Ruins of the Roman Bath at Amalias Avenue
A recent excavation on Leof. Andrea Siggrou has unearthed a well preserved bath complex.The complex has been isolated by two high walls on a level site 28 metres in width.
The baths work on the hypocaust principle, a method commonly found in the buildings and homes of Romans of higher status across the former empire. The the Roman hypocaust system was primarily an underfloor heating system. Water was heated by furnaces which were located outside the building and then the water was transferred throughout the building. The warm air that resulted was ventilated through the floor and walls and ensured a satisfactory temperature inside the structure. The 4th Century Roman Bath was quite substantial with two heating spaces and nine chambers.
Final Thoughts on the Roman Ruins in Athens
The post sought to address three questions; Are there Roman ruins in Athens? What Roman ruins are in Athens? and, Where are the Roman ruins in Athens?
First, there are many first-century Roman ruins in Athens to visit. Second, the ruins are of Roman buildings, Roman monuments, Roman temples and Roman infrastructure. These represent the contribution of Rome to the restoration of Athens and the preservation of its culture. And third, the ruins are easy to get to because they are clustered in the vicinity of the Acropolis.
A visit to Athens’ Roman ruins also provides an opportunity to become familiar with the important elements of Roman architecture that had a profound influence on the Romanesque and Byzantine styles that were to follow.
Site Information, Ministry of Culture and Education, Athens
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 17 – 29, Translated by W. H. S. Jones
W.G de Bugh, The Legacy of the Ancient World
Penguin Books, England, USA, Australia, 1967