The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 5: the Ancient Agora

Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I have been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

One more journey into the past in the ancient Agora of Athens, where you simply can’t escape the inspiring presence of so many layers of history. Most ancient towns of the region had an agora, or gathering-place, and the location in Athens at the foot of the Acropolis has been in use for about 5000 years, evolving from Neolithic settlements into the Classic Era as both marketplace and civic center, then taken over by successive waves of occupation adapting its uses. Its height of glory was from around 500 to 100 BC, with major construction of temples, stoa (covered walkways, with columns, to shelter merchants, artisans, and public discussions), and government buildings.

The Temple of Hephaistos is the best preserved of the Classic era temples in Greece, as it has been in continual use over the centuries, including as a Christian church from around 700 AD.  (Around 50 AD, St. Paul was introducing Christianity to the Athenians, strolling the Agora to debate with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.) The temple was turned into the first Athens Archaeological Museum in 1832. It’s not as large as the Parthenon, but quite an awe-inspiring presence.

Hephaistos (Roman Vulcan) is the ancient god of the forge, who was married to flighty Aphrodite, goddess of love. She was caught in flagrante with Ares, the god of war, when Hephaistos dropped unbreakable chains over them in their trysting bower. Those Olympians!

For those interested in more details about the temple, here’s the plaque by the temple:

The other striking building across the site is the restored Stoa of Attalos, reconstructed from 1953-1956 following the plan of the original Hellenistic edifice. It is sometimes considered the first “shopping mall,” with its sweeping open halls that housed merchants, workshops, and the impromptu debates and philosophical discussions still loved by Greeks.

The Stoa now functions as a museum for finds from ongoing excavations of the Agora, including this herm, or grave marker, for a prominent citizen. People of the time did not consider such depictions of the phallus as salacious, but rather as markers of protection originally dedicated to the gods, notably Hermes, originally a phallic god associated with luck and fertility. The first herma were piles of stones at crossroads that conveyed protection to travellers, so perhaps the grave markers evolved to petition protection for souls traveling to Hades. (That last is just my own conjecture.) They were used eventually in front of most public buildings, where they would be rubbed or anointed with olive oil for good fortune.

Below is a much earlier, Archaic herm depicting the god Hermes in his phallic iteration before his transformation as messenger of the Olympian gods:

The central portion of the Agora held a mint where the drachma coins were made. On my first visit to Greece, this ancient currency was still in use, and I have to admit I was saddened to see the switch to Euros these days. The Agora also housed buildings for the government functions of fledgling democracy: a round Tholos housed the Prytanes making policial decisions, and the Bouleteurion sheltered the groups of randomly-selected Athenian citizens who prepared laws for the public assembly. See from the Acropolis, that would be the central, partly overgrown area that now contains mostly footings of the ancient structures. (On the lower right is the roof of the reconstructed Stoa.)

What some call Philosophers Row may have witnessed the famous dialogues of Socrates and Plato, but they likely wandered throughout the Agora, teaching and debating among the hubbub of ox carts, chatting citizens, shoppers, visiting sailors and traders, and artisans.

In light of our current debates about the possible decline of literacy in the digital age, it’s interesting to remember that Socrates, as reported by Plato in the dialog “Phaedrus,” worried about the shift from memorization and oral history to reliance on writing. He thought it would erode the facility of memory, which it arguably has done, and lead students to believe that they had obtained knowledge, when they were only holding repositories of data. “They will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Scattered among the Agora ruins are beautifully-carved marble remnants, like this basin that was probably a burial casket:

And this lovely garland:

This Byzantine church on the site is well preserved, but unfortunately visitors are not allowed to enter:

When the Romans occupied Athens, they built their own agora next to the original site:

A unique structure there is the Tower of the Winds, with carvings around the eight sides depicting the spirits of the different winds:


Feet tired and spirits soaring on those warm winds, Thor and I departed Athens for the next stop on our journey. Join me next week as we land on the fabulous island of Rhodes!


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.

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