From the Roman Agora to Hadrian’s Library (the long way!)
Our third suggested walk around the centre of Athens may not involve heavyweight tourist attractions like the Parthenon or Syntagma Square but it is a very pleasant walk involving some of the oldest parts of Athens. It also involves some strolling of the Plaka so there is always something to see of interest in these busy streets. Our starting point is the Plaka hotel (the blue triangle on the map below) and the first destination is the Roman Agora which became the centre of city life at the end of the first century BCE.
The Sites visited on this walking tour.
- The Roman Agora & the Tower of the Winds
- Socrates prison
- Philopappos Monument
- Ancient Agora
- Temple of Hephaistos
- Stoa of Attalos (Ancient Agora Museum)
- Hadrian’s Library
- The Roman Agora & the Tower of the Winds
It is easy to become confused by the fact there are two ancient ‘Agoras’ in Athens. The original agora of Athens we will encounter on our way back down the hill after visiting the Philapappos Monument. Our first site on our walk is the Roman agora which came into the use when the ancient agora of the Classical Age of Greece became too full of other memorials and buildings that it was no longer convenient as a gathering place for citizens or as the major market-place for the city. It is only a five minute walk away from the Plaka Hotel.
It was originally a 112 metre long paved square that runs east to west, parallel to Hadrian’s library which I have left for the walker to inspect on the way back home (Feel free to rebel and check it out at the same time as your visit to the Roman Agora.) The building of the Roman Agora owed a lot to the finances provided by Julius Caesar himself and his heir to the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar. Perhaps they had a conscience for the earlier sacking of Corinth and Athens by their Roman Military forebears.
The site of the Roman Agora today is of course difficult to understand given its long and varied history. It was pillaged along with Hadrian’s Library when the Heruli were in town in 267 CE. During the period of the Byzantine Empire (337-1453) and the Turkish occupation (1453-1821), the area’s use as a market place ceased and the site was covered in houses and other structures. One example of this is the Fethiye Mosque, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo above. On this spot during the 8/9th century, a Christian Basilica was erected. With the arrival of the Turkish army, this site was rebuilt as a Mosque in 1453. The current mosque was built in 17th century and its use as an Islamic Mosque lasted until Greek Independence. It has had many and various uses since then until it was finally restored and renovated in 2017.
Another building, almost in the centre of the earlier photo is the Tower of the Winds and has been part of the background of the Roman Agora, perhaps even before the agora itself was established. It is a marble clock-tower and is said to have a ‘water-clock’as part of its interior. It has sun-dials and a weather vane and it is considered the world’s first meteorological station.
This Agora was most likely surrounded by large galleries with entrance gates on all sides. The most spectacular remnant left is a gate or propylon called the ‘Gate of Athena Archegetis’ and is the second most prominent remains after the ‘Tower of the Winds’. It was built in 11 BCE from funds provided by Caesar and his adopted son.
If you resist the temptation of viewing what is left of Hadrian’s library, our walk takes us up Filopappou Hill that is a companion to the Acropolis. Check your map and you will see that a paved footpath will take you quite the distance as it skirts the Ancient Agora. Our next stop is the so-called Socrates Prison.
- Socrates prison
At the bottom of the Hill of Muses you will come across the site of the ancient cave/rooms that someone, perhaps an early tourist operator, decided was the Prison of the famous Greek Philosopher, Socrates. The best candidate for the prison used by the Athenians for imprisoning this famous individual is down in the centre of Athens. There are a lot of these structures cut into this hill and those around it and they hale back to ancient Athens.
It is probably a good idea to be reminded of this great man as you wander around his city. Socrates was born in 470 BCE and his developed method of questioning his students about issues of good government and the nature of the Gods is considered the foundation for Western systems of logic and philosophy. He lived during a dramatic time in Greek History; he was born not long after the Persian Wars had ended and he grew up at a time when Athens was at its most dominant in the region. Unfortunately along came the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) which destroyed the futures of the great cities of Athens and Sparta. Socrates served in the Athenian army in 3 significant battles in that war. He was tried in 399 by the Athens state on two charges; ‘Impiety’ (he challenged the nature of the Greek Gods) and corrupting the youth of the city-state (presumably by making his students think for themselves about the nature of the universe). He was found guilty and he refused to avoid the death-penalty by going in to exile. He died amongst his friends after drinking a ‘poisoned chalice’. There is a lot the modern world could learn from this famous philosopher and educationalist from Athen’s classical age.
- Philopappos Monument
From Socrate’s prison it is a pleasant walk up the hill to the Philopappos Monument. Originally it was called the Hill of the Muses but is on today’s maps as Filopappou Hill. Our destination is a monument erected in 117 BCE to Gaius Julius Philopappus, a Syrian Prince who originated from that area of the Roman Empire and became an Athenian citizen. He was also a Roman Magistrate and was clearly loved by the citizens who supported his wife in erecting his tomb and a two storey monument on top of the hill. It was built on the same site where a 6th-century BCE priestly poet and mystical seer was buried.
The actual grave of Philopappos has disappeared over the centuries but the monument is still amazingly in place, if a little battered. The frieze in the centre of the monument depicts Philopappos as a consul riding on a chariot being led by important citizens. The niches above the frieze once contained some of his famous ancestors.
Gaius Julius must have been a very respected citizen because his tomb was built with clear views of the Parthenon and the rest of Athens. Within a short walk of the monument you can also get great views of Pireaus, the famous harbour of Athens.
4. Ancient Agora
From the Philopappos Monument, you walk back down the hill past the Prison of Socrates and return via the paved footpath that runs between the Aeropagus and the Acropolis. You will be able to enter the Ancient Agora at the top corner, approximately where the Panathenaic Way ended as it made its way from the ancient walls of Athens, through the Ancient Agora and up to the Acropolis (Check Appendix 1 for more info on the famous route). This road existed from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE and was the processional way for the great parade that was the highlight of the Panathenaic festival during the golden age of Athens. The images below are of the Ancient Agora taken from the Aeropagus.
The Agora that visitors walk through today was excavated in the 1930s after more than two and half thousand years of almost continuous building and destruction. Walking around the Ancient Agora of Athens today is very confusing as the destruction over the millennia has left very little for the tourist to comprehend apart from two major buildings discussed in the next two sections. If you have only a little time to devote to this section of Athens, a pleasant walk through the Agora would be great with two stops; one at the Temple of Haiphaistos and the other at the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos. For those who need to know more about the story of the Ancient Agora, book a tour, get a good map and/or do some research at http://agora.ascsa.net/ !
- Temple of Hephaistos
This temple situated in the Ancient Agora of Athens was dedicated to the God of metal-working, craftsmanship and fire, Hephaistos. It was built in the 5th century BCE, having started around the time the Parthenon was being built, but not fully functioning until 415 BCE. It is one of the most well preserved Greek Temples still standing in the modern world and is largely intact due to the fact that it was converted to a Greek Orthodox Church in the 7th century and so was maintained by the Church until 1834. This temple has a connection with Greek Independence as the first King of Independent Greece was welcomed to his new country at the Temple of Hephaistos. ‘New’ countries like Greece that arose in the nineteenth century, having been a colony of the Ottoman Empire, needed a king and since kings had to have blue blood (none available in Greece), they had to import a king from Bavaria. Otto was the second son of Ludwig I of Bavaria and was installed as king five years after independence in 1834.
There is a similarity between this temple and the Parthenon which was built round about the same time; around the facade there were installed metopes that depicted the ten Labours of Hercules. They are very difficult to decipher today but in 1770 a French architect/archaeologist, Julien David le Roy, visited Athens for three months to draw the ancient buildings there, particularly the Parthenon. The image below right is his diagram of some of the metopes on the Temple of Hephaistos. He also drew the much larger image of this temple (below left) within its context of the time.
- Stoa of Attalos(Ancient Agora Museum)
The other major building in the ancient agora is the Stoa of Attalos. It was basically the equivalent of a modern shopping mall where there were offices, stalls and workrooms for the merchants of the agora. There were a number of buildings erected in the agora during the Roman occupation by wealthy individuals wanting to contribute to the development of Athens. One of them was Attalos II of Pergamon (159 to 138 BCE) who had studied philosophy in Athens before becoming king of his home city. He donated the Stoa as a gift to Athens for his education.
Like the rest of the agora, the Stoa was destroyed by the Heruli in 267 CE. Parts of the ruins were preserved in the fortification walls of Athens. The Stoa was fully reconstructed between 1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as a faithful replica of the original building within the limits of current Archaeological knowledge. It houses a museum devoted to Athenian democracy so if you have already checked out Hadrian’s Library, why not spend some time strolling this great museum!.
- Hadrian’s Library
If you haven’t visited the remnants of Hadrian’s Library, this is a good time to do it on the way back to your hotel or the Plaka for a drink and a meal after a long day touring Athens. The Roman Emperor Hadrian was very keen on rebuilding Athens as attested by the remains of his ‘Gate’ and the library that he sponsored. His library was started in 132 CE and he clearly spared no expense on this once magnificent building. A Roman library wasn’t a lending library in the modern sense but a storage place for papyri (three storeys no less), a reading room as well as a meeting place, a site for guest lectures and philosophical gatherings. The centre of Hadrian’s Library contained a garden and a pool for the philosophical schools to contemplate in peace and tranquility. Of course when the Heruli descended on Athens, there was little time for peace or tranquility as they destroyed large sections of this library. It was repaired early in the fifth century but the arrival of Christianity to Athens meant that a good site like this was needed for building churches. There have been three different churches built on this site over the centuries. The diagram above left (courtesy of H.Consoli, R. (2015, October 17). Plan of Hadrian’s Library. Ancient History Encyclopedia) illustrates the original Hadrian’s Library as well as the fifth century church that was built inside its walls.
APPENDIX 1: AN ALTERNATIVE MAP OF TODAY’S WALK AROUND ATHENS
Thank you http://agora.ascsa.net/ for the original image.