The agora was the central square in the Greek polis, the setting for political meetings, markets, cults, public entertainment, and civic commemoration. The root meaning of the word is political, derived from the verb agoreuein, to speak in assembly. As a designated space the agora is likely to be as old as the Greek polis, for even the small populations of very early settlements required a central meeting place. The first references occur in epic poetry, where the word denotes an urban space held in common and frequented by male citizens (Odyssey 2.6–257). In its physical form this Homeric agora consisted of a level area brought to life by human activity, and when buildings were added to the agora in later times, the free space continued to be essential. In Homer’s description of the scenes on the shield of Achilles, a city’s elders decide a dispute in the agora while sitting on stones that are arranged in a circle around the two contesting parties (Iliad 18.497–508). The poetic image of a circular political gathering place probably reflects the real existence of such spaces, for several round meeting places of later date have come to light (Metapontum, Paestum, Acragas). Yet even in Homeric times the agora was a multivalent gathering place, not just a political center. In the Odyssey, Homer locates the agora of Scheria , the imaginary polis of the Phaeacians, at the harbor where it would have been a center of maritime commerce, and the same space is also the setting for athletic contests (Odyssey 8.1–198).
The primary use of the agora was political; the frequent translation as “market” is therefore inadequate. The agora in most cities was, in fact, a place for public speaking: there met the ekklēsia or citizen assembly, the boulē or council, and law courts. As cities grew larger and the need arose for magistracies and record keeping, the agora also became a natural location for buildings containing civic offices, including that of the agoranomoi charged with supervision of the agora itself. Associated with political institutions were altars of various deities. Zeus, god of justice and oath swearing, was widely invoked, often as Zeus Agoraeus (Metapontum, Athens, Selinus, Erythrae, Thasos, Morgantina). The agora was also the setting for altars of other locally important gods and heroes, and major temples and sanctuaries often arose nearby, as at Corinth (Apollo), Athens (Hephaestus, Demeter), Priene (Zeus), and Magnesia (Artemis).
The agora provided a convenient setting for the conduct of public and private business and for economic activity, including open-air markets for agricultural produce and commercial shops. The potters’ quarter in Athens undoubtedly benefited from its location adjacent to the city’s agora. In the Classical period bankers made their appearance, and over their tables or trapezai were conducted the new practices of lending, deposits, and exchange. In the Hellenistic era, cities and kingdoms created their own banking institutions; a building at Morgantina has been identified as such a public bank and may be typical. Among the practical functions of the agora was the provision of water, for both drinking and cleaning; a well was found in the earliest-known agora at Megara Hyblaea, and fountain houses fed by underground aqueducts are common later.
The open space and centrality of the early agora rendered it ideal for public performances. A space for choral dancing (orchēstra) existed in the Athenian agora, where early dramatic performances were also given in a temporary theater with wooden seats or bleachers. As in Homer’s Scheria, athletic competition is indicated by running tracks at Corinth and Athens. Dramatic performances eventually moved into the new architectural form of the theater, which was often located on sloping ground outside the agora; athletic contests migrated to outlying gymnasia, where nudity was more appropriate. Some forms of spectacle remained: at Athens the Panathenaic apobatēs event, in which armed men leapt in and out of moving chariots, probably continued to take place in the public center.
At least from the late Archaic period the agora became a place of civic commemoration. Pausanias saw an Archaic statue of the athlete Arrichion at Phigalia, an early public sculpture. Better known were the bronze statues at Athens of the political heroes Harmodius and Aristogiton, installed in the agora after 507 bce , then replaced thirty years later after the original group was carried off by the Persians. These are the progenitors of the many sculptures of notable individuals that now began to collect in the city center, joined by images of local heroes and, in Athens, even historical paintings protected in a roofed portico. The emergence of the agora as a civic cultural center made it an appropriate spot for intellectual discourse, public lectures, and even classrooms.
The necessity of an agora is demonstrated by its regular inclusion in newly founded cities. The earliest-known example belongs to the polis of Megara Hyblaea in eastern Sicily, founded in 728 bce and so roughly contemporary with Homer. Occupying about 41,440 square feet (3,850 square meters), the small polygonal agora is located at the juncture of the two different grid systems of the unusual city plan. The recently discovered agora of Megara’s daughter-city Selinus, founded in western Sicily a century later, is far larger—about 323,450 square feet, or 30,050 square meters—and more functional, yet still located at the intersection of two grid systems.
From circa 600 bce new cities were generally laid out with a single grid plan that allowed a number of undeveloped city blocks to be designated an agora. At Metapontum in southern Italy (c.600 bce ), the large agora consists of such a reserved space within the street grid, facing inland toward the city’s farmland. Here the agora must have served in part as a market square for agricultural produce. At Camarina in Sicily, founded 598 bce , the agora is similarly laid out, but it faces the sea as in Homer’s Scheria.
The planning solution adopted at Metapontum and Camarina became the norm. At Morgantina (c.450 bce ) the huge agora occupies six city blocks. With an area of about 323,000 square feet (30,000 square meters), the space may have been designed for a larger population than the city ever achieved (it reached a maximum of about six to seven thousand); public granaries indicate the agora’s use as a center for food storage and distribution. Later carefully planned urban spaces are found at Cassope in northwest Greece and at Priene on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor (both c.350 bce ). Whereas the public space of Cassope is placed at the city’s periphery between the residential blocks and the city wall, at Priene the small rectangular agora (about 56,000 square feet, or 5,200 square meters) is located at the very center of the city, occupying the space of two residential blocks. Though a central agora like that at Priene is not typical, it does reflect the functional and symbolic centrality of the agora in the Greek polis, also making it convenient to a greater number of citizens. Priene is often cited as a formal model for the Classical Greek city.
In the Hellenistic period, larger agoras are found in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, with grandiose examples at such places as Miletus, Ephesus, and Magnesia. Here we can see the influence of the unexcavated centers of the great capitals of Alexandria and Antioch. Characteristic are one- and two-story porticoes with shops, defining the sides of the huge rectilinear spaces, and also smaller adjacent areas given over to civic cults, specialized commercial activities (fish and meat markets), and purely political functions.
The public centers of the major cities of the Greek mainland were not shaped by regular city plans, and consequently their boundaries have not always been identified. In some cities the agoras may have been located at intersections of major roads (Corinth), or near important central sanctuaries (Corinth, Athens).
The extensively excavated agora at Athens was in use for a millennium and has provided the greatest quantity of evidence for the history and use of a public center. Most of the building types associated with the Greek agora are represented here. Over time the Athenian agora was transformed from an irregular space into a more formal one bordered by stoas, under the influence of cities elsewhere with regular plans; the process required several centuries. The west side was occupied from early times by buildings of political nature (prytaneion, bouleutērion); the precise form of these has been controversial. Of particular interest in Athens are the Stoa of Zeus, an elegant building with wings at the extremities, at the northwest corner of the space (fifth century bce); on the north side the Painted Stoa, or Stoa Poikile, containing major historical paintings on wooden panels (also fifth century bce); and on the east side, the large Stoa of Attalus, a two-story portico of Pergamene type rebuilt in the 1950s (second century bce).
Also noteworthy are the public centers of older cities in Asia Minor where in the Hellenistic period landscape features were taken into account in the irregular placement of buildings; the agora of Assos is a striking example. Older rectilinear spaces could be redesigned in the new style, as at Morgantina.
Buildings in the agora were almost always located along its edges, leaving unobstructed the free space at the center. The most characteristic building type was the stoa, a freestanding portico often of great length with a colonnade facing the central space. Entered from any point along its facade, a stoa provided a refuge from sun, wind, or rain, a place where business could be conducted, conversations continued, meetings held. When rented as shops, the rooms in a stoa produced civic income presumably amortizing the cost of construction—unless the building was a donation to the city, like the large stoa given to Athens by Attalus II of Pergamum.
As the necessity arose for more specialized building types, these, too, were placed along the periphery, sometimes masked by porticoes that provided them with a uniform facade. Among the most important were large roofed halls (bouleutēria) for the council, sometimes constructed, because of their late adoption, on private land adjacent to the agora; meeting places for magistrates (prytaneia); and courtyard buildings for offices or banks. Open meeting places for the civic assembly in built form are known at Metapontum and Acragas (round) and at Morgantina (rectilinear); theaters often served the same purpose. Other buildings appearing within agoras include theaters and granaries.