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The Agora: History, Architecture & Importance

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we shall explore the importance of the agora of ancient Athens, along with the importance it held, as a nodal center for Athenian trade, philosophy, and civic life.

Center of it All

What is the most central location in your town? I don't speak strictly of its geographic center, but where is its most important area? Likely you have a main street, or if you live in an older city perhaps even a town square. Regardless of what city or town you live in, there is likely some place where public life is at its most vibrant.

In ancient Athens, public life was at its most vibrant at the agora. In this lesson, we will explore the agora, how it changed over time, and its importance to ancient Greek life.

Beginnings

Ever since Athens was first settled, sometime around 3000 B.C.E., the agora has been inhabited. During the Neolithic period, it was more or less the entire settlement: people built homes on it and it was also used as a burial area. It was not until the 6th century B.C.E. that the agora became a public arena.

The word 'agora' is commonly translated as market, but it also means 'open place for assembly.' For ancient Athens, both of these translations would prove correct. An open location near the center of Athens, the agora began its time as a public place where the residents of Athens could convene together. Any number of important civic events could cause Athenians to flock to the agora, from public announcements and proclamations by the government to less formal affairs like public debates.

Trade and Philosophy

In the heyday of ancient Athenian culture and power (roughly 500 B.C.E. to the mid-300s B.C.E.), the agora was the center of all aspects public life. It was the center of economic life and served as a bustling marketplace.

Traders from across the Greek countryside and other more faraway locales came to the agora to hawk their wares to the prosperous Athenians. Virtually anything one could purchase in the ancient world was available at the agora, including jewelry, clothing, fish, exotic foods, and even slaves. The agora became such a developed marketplace that designated areas were set up for each type of ware. For example, there was a pottery market which was closed off from the rest of the agora and only open to women.

But the agora never lost its place as the center of other forms of public life either. Philosophers also populated the market. Some expounded upon their views to anyone who would listen, others taught acolytes they had garnered from previous trips to the agora, while still others took to heckling traders and shoppers alike. Most did some combination of these at one point or another.

Many of the ancient Greek philosophers you have heard of today got their start in the agora of ancient Athens. Socrates, for example, attracted quite the following and often heckled those with which he disagreed, though he is revered today as one of the fathers of western philosophy. Others including Aristotle and Plato philosophized in the agora, and you can be sure there were many which we have never heard of.

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