The Roman Agora: the first commercial centre of Athens

Alkistis Choremi
Head of Department in First Ephorate of Classical and Prehestoric Antiquities.

After the middle of the second century B.C and particularly after the year 146 B.C., Romans had completed the conquest of Greece. As it being expected the Roman rule caused a lot of changes in the Greek cities, changes regarding the government, the economy, the everyday life. The first century B.C. is regarding Athens as a period of political and economical instability. As it is widely known the inhabitants of Athens sided with the king of Pontos, Mithridates, and against the Romans. This had as a result that the city was besieged and sacked by the troops of the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 86 B.C. The literacy sources mentioned that a great part of the city was demolished, especially around the Ancient Agora. The monuments were destroyed and the sculptures and artefacts were pillaged and transferred to Rome. The recovery from such devastation was arduous and quite slow. However, Athens during that period still remained an attractive place for illustrious and wealthy Romans, philosophers, and poets such as Pomponius Atticus, Cicero, Horace, Ovidius, and Virgil. All the above persons had visited Athens because they wanted to see and admire the magnificent buildings and statues in the Acropolis and Agora. Also they wanted to walk in the park of Academy and particularly they wished to hear rhetorical and philosophical lectures. The donations they had offered regarding the repairs and restorations of the monuments were considered as a proof of their respect and affection towards them.

During the second half of the first century B.C. a significant change took place in Athens. This was the transformation of the Ancient Agora, particularly the square of the Ancient Agora; the focal point regarding the political, economical and cultural life of the city was now filled with new buildings. At this place they were transferred and established monuments from other places such as the temple of Ares from Pallene and the altar of Zeus from Pnyka. It also established a magnificent building, Herodes Agrippa's Odeum, devoted to Augustus' son in law. After the filling of the square of the Agora with new buildings, merchants and artisans lost a great vital space especially during a period in which the commercial needs were increased. It is also worth noticing that after the 80 B.C. more merchants were coming to Athens because Delos great market was destroyed during the II Mithridatic War. Hence, the market that flourished around the square of the Ancient Agora was now transferred in a new place, 80 metres to the East. At this point was established for the first time a new architectural type building coming to Greece for the first time, as it will be mentioned below. Also it worth noticing that by the end of the first century B.C. small shops and houses in the northern side of the Agora were demolished in order to ensure that there would be more space for new public buildings. This fact took place at the same period with the establishment of the New Agora and it made clear that there was an intention all shops were gathering in one specific place and particularly in a close type building. Therefore, a shopping centre, as we mean it in nowadays,was established for the first time.

The establishment of the new Agora was undoubtedly necessary and the Athenians had the initiative to establish it by sending their ambassador Herodes of Marathon to Julius Caesar. Herodes achieved to gain financial support from Caesar in 51 B.C. Hence, in 47 B.C when Caesar visited Athens the plans were completed and had already started the establishment of the new building, but the Roman civil wars and economic crisis that followed had as a result to stop the project.

After the Aktion naval battle (31 B.C.) and the Octavian Augustus victory over his opponent Mark Anthony, Athens managed to stand again economically and therefore construction activities started again not immediately though. Athenians, faithful to their democratic ideas, they were constantly uneasy with the Roman dominion despite benefices and privileges that Romans had offered to them. Therefore, followed a decade of coldness and anti-Romanism. Only at 19 B.C. Augustus reconciled with the Athenians during his visit to Athens and after his diplomatic triumph against the Parthians. Then thanks to the intervention of Eucles an Apollo’s priest, Augustus granted money for the new market place, which since then is well known as the Agora of Caesar and Augustus or simply the Roman Agora.

Plan 1
The spot in where the new building was founded was the area, which Strabo called Eretria. The place previously was used as an open market place as so many other places around the Ancient Agora. These open markets hadn’t specific boundaries and their names were determined by the goods sold there: Fish-market (ιχθυόπολις), cloak-market (ιματιόπολις) etc. This was the common practice before the Hellenistic period, i.e. before Stoas were founded: the Middle Stoa, the South Stoa II and the Stoa of Attalos. These Stoas determined accurately and normally the boundaries of the ancient Agora. Moreover, they localised the commercial activities in the southern part namely south square between the Middle and South Stoa II. Therefore, the merchant section was separated from the rest area in which other activities such as religious, political, or social were took place (plan 1).

The enclosing of the Ancient Agora with Stoas which were not connected, took place after the second century B.C. in many cities of Greece and particularly in Asia Minor and has a result the creation of a closed market with continuously yard. During the same era they were building in Italy similar buildings, the so-called Fora (markets), such the Forum Julium, built by Caesar in Rome, which was almost identical to the Roman Agora of Athens. Those edifices were similar regarding their architectural and structural evolution. Their only difference though was that Forum Julium was established for public affairs, as the Roman historian Appianus mentioned, while the Roman Agora of Athens was used only for trading. Although this crucial difference, both buildings had wide columned yards surrounded with galleries and a high surrounding wall, which was not so common in the architectural tradition of Rome and Athens.

Caesar, before his visit to Athens in 47 B.C. had established in Alexandria and in Antioch two similar Caesarian buildings, which means devoted to the new rulers cult. Moreover the Alexandrian building, as it is referred to sources, was established on the foundations of a previous Ptolemaic building, which served the same purpose. As it seems the Hellenistic edifices were the predecessors for the following Roman fora. Finally, in the Athenian building there were no clear evidence but only some indications that there was a sanctuary of imperial cult. However it is worth noticing that only the half building is preserved.

Picture 1

The Roman Agora even though was an independent and prototype structure, irrelevant to Ancient Agora,; it was placed in the space close to it and the streets around it. The western monumental Propylon, i.e. the gate of Archegetis Athena, was established in the crossroad of two important ancient roads and particularly in the axon of the road, which came from Acropolis and was directed to the North, and at the same time on the street which leads from the Ancient Agora and is directed to the East (plan 1, picture 1). The Roman Agora regarding its architectural shape and its incorporation in the urban web of ancient Athens, was Roman but concerning its styles, the methods of construction and its separate architectural parts it emerged from the classical ancient Greek tradition.

The ancient literacy sources do not mention the monument. It is a mystery why Pausanias the ancient traveller (2nd century A.D.) who had visited and described with all details the Ancient Agora and Hadrian’s Library, mentions nothing about the Roman Agora. This can be explained by the fact that Pausanias' main aim was to describe the ancient buildings associated with the history, the cults and the ancient legends of Athens and had no interest to describe the everyday buildings.

Plan 2

Picture 2
The Roman Agora is established among the Pelopida, Markou Aureliou, Polygnotou, Dioskouron and Epameinonda Streets and almost its half part is preserved nowadays. The northwestern part and its colonnade are under the neighbouring roads and houses north of the archaeological area until the Dexippou Street (plan 2). The rectangular yard measures 111 x 98m and an Ionic style colonnade surrounding the four sides, shops and storing houses at the back of the colonnade. In the southern side and perhaps in the northern there was an internal colonnade standing on Doric columns without fluting. Two propylaea, one established in the western side constructed according to the Doric order, i.e. the Gate of Archegetis Athena, and the other established in the eastern side constructed according to the Ionic order, standing also on columns without fluting. Both were the main entrances of the building (picture 1 and picture 2). None of the propylaea were established in the main axon of the yard. The western one was placed south of the axon because at this point there was the end of the main street from ancient Agora. The eastern one was established south enough with respect to the line of the same road, which possibly diverged to southeast (plan 1). A little later, when a new building, the so-called Agoranomeion (market inspector’s office) established few metres to the east, the propylaea were the monumental entrance for those who came from the Agora.

Picture 3
At the centre of the south side there was a fountain attached with a water supply tank at the back (picture 3). Next to it there was a staircase, which lead on the passing road over the ancient revetment wall. Here perhaps there was one more entrance. East of the staircase were two rooms of unknown use (plan 2). The yard was built with sandstone bricks. In nowadays are preserved the eastern and southern side of it. The latter among others was built as a buttress supporting the slope of the hill. Both sides provide an idea of how the external façade of the yard was. Fragments from the northern colonnade were excavated and now are preserved inside the archaeological area, which is enclosed by the Pelopida, Panos and Hadrianou Streets. Fragments were also found in the basement of a shop, which is located at the corner of Panos and Dexippou Street. Those streets are located precisely on the stylobate of the northern colonnade. Another part of the yard was excavated in the square of St. Gregoroussa but unfortunately it was buried again.

Picture 4

Picture 5

The stylobate, the columns of the colonnade and the eastern propylaeon were constructed by grey marble from Hymettos instead of bases, capitals, simae and the western propylon, which were constructed by Pentelic marble. For economic reasons some of the architectural parts were in second use as it seems from the variety of dimensions of the capitals and of bases of the colonnade’s columns, the variety of edge tiles as well as of yard’s bricks with diverse heights. The whole structure of the monument and particularly the total absence of mortar as a connecting material has as a result the dating of the building been placed at the early Roman period. However the only safely dated part is the western propylon thanks to an inscription on the above part of the colonnade. On the inscription is stated that the building was established from the Julius Caesar and Augustus' donations and was dedicated by the Athenians to Athena Archegetis during the tenure of Nikias (11/10 B.C.) (picture 4 and 5).

The text of the inscription follows like this:

In the past researches and studies had not made clear the accurate dating of the Roman Agora neither the chronological relation of Archegetis propylon with the rest of the monument. Moreover, regarding the dating of the monument scholars had reached in different conclusions. Some claimed that in the beginning it was built in the area during the later Hellenistic era or first Roman period a stone structure and the gate was established much later in order to adorn the entrance. In addition the gate itself was a triumphal apse separate from the edifice that was placed on the road which connected the Ancient with the Roman Agora. Recently, in his study, Michael Hoff, an American archaeologist, clarified some chronological and structural problems of the monument. According to Hoff, Julius Caesar made the donation in 51 B.C. in order to balance his offer with the Pompey’s donation to Athenians. Moreover, Caesar wished to gain the favour of the Athenians who had sided with Pompey; however the continuous civil wars had as a result the majority of the money being spent before any structure in the area was established. Hence Augustus made his donation when he visited Athens in 19 B.C during his return from Asia after his diplomatic victory against the Parthians. At this time started the establishment of the monument, which was completed during the tenure of Nikias in 11/10 B.C.

Picture 6

From 19th-century etchings and drawings by Le Roy and by Stuart and Revett, particularly by their notes that present on the top of western propylon like an antefix a statue depicting Lucious Caesar, Augustus grandson, on his horse. Lucius was the son of Augustus' daughter Julia, adopted by his grandfather in 12 B.C. and he held the title of Caesar until the end of his life in 2 A.D. Unfortunately, the base with the inscription and the statue, that two travellers had seen, were lost. It also mentioned that in the pediment of the propylon was established a smaller statue of Gaius Caesar, brother of Lucius, who also was adopted by Augustus. In the western propylon and in other places there were statues of Augustus himself and other members of the imperial family, according to inscribed statue’s bases, which have seen the travellers. In addition Stuart and Revett mention an inscribed base from the statue of Livia, Augustus' wife. Livia was presented as Venus but unfortunately her statue was also lost. During the excavations of 1930-31 an Augustus' portrait was found and now is kept in the National Museum of Athens (no 3758) (picture 6). In the National Museum of Athens are also portraits of Lucius Caesar in natural size (no 3606) and of Gaius Caesar (no 3665). Gaius' portrait is a part of a relief and is smaller than natural size, however both portraits were found in Athens. It is quite possible though that these are the portraits coming from the Roman Agora, since in Athens was established only one statue of Lucius Caesar and the head of Gaius Caesar from the relief might be the one, which travellers reported in a pediment of a monument’s entrance.

During Hadrian’s reign (117-138 A.D) it seems that some changes and restorations took place regarding the monument and perhaps then its yard was paved with slabs. Around 100 A.D. with slabs was also paved the street which connected Ancient Agora and Roman Agora; it was also encircled with galleries containing shops on their back side. Since this street was five metres below the western Propylon, at its eastern edge was built a ramp that led to the interior of the Roman Agora through the middle passage of Propylon, as the excavations of 1985 revealed.

In the north doorjamb of the main entrance of the western Propylon there is an inscription referring to an emperor’s Hadrian decree regarding orders relating the tax obligations of oil merchants. The position of the decree in the main entrance of the Roman Agora aimed on the one hand to remind to the oil producers their tax dues, which reached in some cases to 1/3 of their production, and on the other hand to reassure that the city would always have a sufficient amount of olive oil for sale. From this inscription is deducted that there was the main entrance of the oil market.

Moreover, quite interesting are the engraved inscriptions that were located in some columns and on the stylobate of the south colonnade, inscriptions such as: «ΑΓΑΘΗ ΤΥΧΗ, ΤΟΠΟΣ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΙΟΥ», «ΤΟΠΟΣ ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΗ, ΕΥΤΥΧΕΙΤΩ» etc. These inscriptions defined the places («τόπους»), the positions where certain merchants sold their products or they had shops in the internal space of the colonnade. In nowadays, the visitor can hardly see an inscription in the south colonnade’s stylobate between the 11th and 12th column opposite to the fountain. These inscriptions along with the Hadrian’s decree in the northern doorjamb of the Archegetis Athena’s Gate and the circular holes, which were used as measures, on the south stylobate helped to identify the monument since the excavations began during the previous century.

In the eastern side of the east Propylon a staircase led to a naturally higher level on the top of which were built three buildings connected directly to the Roman Agora. Those buildings were the Agoranomeion, the Vespasianae and the Winds’ Tower or Kyrrestos’ Horologion.

Picture 7

The Agoranomeion was established in the middle of the 1st century A.D. (pict. 7). Nowadays, are preserved a wide staircase, a part of its façade with three gates having arched lintels from Hymmetos marble and also parts from the northern and southern walls, which were built with big sandstone bricks. Unfortunately, a big part of the eastern side of the building is beneath the Markou Aureliou Street and hence we cannot complete its ground plan. On the architrave of the façade was an engraved inscription on Pentelic marble, referring that the building and the west Propylon was dedicated to the Archegetis Athena and the deified Sebastoi. A part from the inscription is preserved in its place on the monument, two double size fragments are inside the monument and a third one is preserved on the Acropolis at the western of Parthenon. Unfortunately, the first words of the inscription are missing and therefore the name of the building is not saved. The French archaeologist Paul Graindor was the one who identified the edifice with that of the Agoranomeion. The identification was based on an inscription, which was found on an arched lintel made by Hymettos’ marble. This lintel at the first sight seems to be similar to the ones of the Agoranomeion, however it is smaller and perhaps belongs to another building. It is worth noticing here that this inscription as well as the other two, which are referring to the Agoranomeion, were discovered next to the west Propylon of the Roman Agora, where presumably was the Agoranomeion, in the street which probably connected the Ancient and the Roman Agora.

The American archaeologist Michael Hoff proposed the identification of the building with that of the edifice of Sebasteion, because of the inscription referring the deified Sebastoi (Σεβαστοί Θεοί). In other words, he believes that this was a building, probably a basilica, which served the imperial cult, the cult of the emperors and their family members. The imperial cult existed in Athens already from the early Roman period, as it is attested by inscriptions in the Acropolis and in the theatre of Dionysus referring to priests of God Caesar and God Saviour at Acropolis «ΘΕΟΥ ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ», «ΘΕΟΥ ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ ΕΠ΄ΑΚΡΟΠΟΛΕΙ». There is also the temple of Augustus and Rome on the Acropolis, the altars dedicated to Augustus, which were founded in Plaka, not far away from the Roman Agora and also the inscription, which was revealed on a pedestal in the gate of Archegetis Athena referring to Augustus' wife Livia as Venus.

The inscription on the façade of the building, which refers to the deified Sebastoi, using the plural form, must be dated in the Claudius’ era who was officially deified along with his wife around 60 A.D. Another clue regarding the dating of the building during the second half of the first century is the arched lintels, which they resemble the ones on the stage of the Dionysus' theatre, built in Nero’s era. According to Hoff this façade is probably a later stage of a previous one, which seems that always connected directly to Roman Agora and was a part of it. However, in order to have an absolute confirmation about the identification of the building of Agoranomeion with that of Seb

asteion, we need to complete the excavations at the eastern side.