The agora, a public gathering place in Greek city-states*, played a very important role in ancient Greece. In the agora, Greeks came together to trade goods, to learn about and discuss issues of common concern, and to make decisions about their community.
The Role of the Agora. The Greek agora served many functions. Most importantly, it was the center of political life in the community. The leaders of the polis, or city-state, met there in a governing council known as the boule. Any decisions made by the boule would be presented for approval at a formal meeting of citizens held in the agora. This decisionmaking process was the essential element of democracy in Greece.
The agora also served as a place of worship. In ancient Athens, for example, the agora contained numerous altars, small shrines, and temples. Before entering these sacred places, Athenians had to purify themselves through various rituals. Anyone considered impure could be denied entrance to the agora. Those barred from the agora would also be excluded from participation in the decision making of the polis.
Lastly, the agora was a lively commercial and social center. It served as a public marketplace where merchants bought and sold goods and where citizens shopped. People also drew water at the agora’s public fountains. As the main public area of the polis, the agora provided opportunities for citizens to gather and exchange information—and gossip—and for teachers to hold informal outdoor classes. These commercial and social activities were an essential part of everyday life in ancient Greece.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Buildings and Layout. In earliest times, the agora was simply an open space within a city. However, over the years the Greeks erected buildings, arranged in a complicated layout, in these public places. Some agoras covered one or more city blocks near the heart of the city. By the 400s B.C.,agoras usually consisted of a number of public buildings, temples, and monuments to important citizens, as well as shade trees. While private homes were modest in size and design, structures in the agora tended to be quite large and lavish. By the 100s B.C., many Greek agoras had expanded in scope to include theaters and even racetracks.
An important feature of most agoras was the stoa, an open gallery* with a wall at the back and columns in front. In many cases, the agora was enclosed by several stoas, which provided shelter from sun and rain and space for merchants to set up shops. Students also met with their teachers in the stoas. In fact, the school of philosophy known as Stoicism was named after a particular stoa in Athens where that philosophy was taught. Between the stoas, or sometimes incorporated within them, were fountains, monuments, religious shrines, and public buildings such as law courts and government offices.
The ancient Greeks enjoyed the life of the agora, but some of their enemies did not feel the same way. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, King Cyrus of Persia described the agora as the place where Greeks “gather together, swear oaths, and deceive each other.” The ancient Romans created a similar open space, the Roman forum, as the focal point of urban society. (See also Architecture, Greek; Cities, Greek; Forum; Government, Greek.)
* gallery a roofed promenade, or place for strolling