published on 02 September 2009
Model of the Agora of Athens ()

The word Agora (pronounced 'Ah-go-RAH’) is Greek for 'open place of assembly’ and, early in the history of Greece, designated the area in the city where free-born citizens could gather to hear civic announcements, muster for military campaigns or discuss politics. Later the Agora defined the open-air, often tented, marketplace of a city (as it still does in Greek) where merchants had their shops and where craftsmen made and sold their wares. The original Agora of Athens was located below the Acropolis near the building which today is known as The Thesion and open-air markets are still held in that same location in the modern day.

Traders in the Agora

Retail traders (known as kapeloi) served as middle-men between the craftsmen and the consumer but were largely mistrusted in ancient times as unnecessary parasites (in his Politics Aristotle states that the kapeloi served a “kind of exchange which is justly censured; for it is unnatural and a mode by which men unfairly gain from one another”). These retail traders were mostly metics (not free-born citizens of the city, today known as 'legal aliens') while the craftsmen could be metics, citizens or even freed slaves who had become skilled artisans.

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The Athenian agora hosted all manner of merchants, from confectioners to slave traders.

In the Agora of Athens there were confectioners who made pastries and sweets, slave-traders, fishmongers, vintners, cloth merchants, shoe-makers, dress makers, and jewelry purveyors. A special separate 'potters market' was reserved for the buying and selling of cookware as that was considered solely the provenance of women and was frequented by female slaves on task for their mistresses or by the poorer wives and daughters of Athens.

Philosophers & the Agora

It was in the Agora of Athens that the great philosopher Socrates questioned the market-goers on their understanding of the meaning of life, attracting a crowd of Athenian youth who enjoyed seeing the more pretentious of their elders made fools of. In this marketplace, one day, the young poet Aristocles son of Ariston heard Socrates speaking, went and burned all his works, and became the philosopher known as Plato. His philosophical dialogues, coupled with his founding of the Academy, the first University, and his role as the teacher of Aristotle who then was tutor to Alexander the Great, changed western philosophy. A contemporary of Plato's, Diogenes of Sinope, lived in a tub in the Agora and followed Socrates' example of questioning the Athenians on their understanding of the more important aspects of life. Diogenes is well known for searching for an honest man (though, actually, he claimed he was searching for a real human being) by holding a candle or lantern to people's faces in the agora.

Agora Gate, Ephesos

The Roman Agora

In Rome the agora would serve in much the same way as it did in Greek city-states such as Athens but was known as The Forum (literally `the place outdoors'). As in Greece, the women frequented the out-door market to shop while the men would meet there to discuss politics or events of the day. Among the most popular commodities of the Roman market was silk, both in the time of the Roman Republic and during the Roman Empire. So popular was silk that laws needed to be enacted to encourage modesty among the women of Rome who wore the sheer fabric daily to public events. In time, these laws were also applied to men who came to appreciate silk as much as the women. Latin writers frequently make fun of those their fellow citizens and their behavior at market. The Roman satirist Juvenal and the poet Horace, as well as other writers, found much of their inspiration in watching and listening to those who gathered for shopping in the open-air market.

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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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Cite This Work

Chicago Style Citation

As Footnote/Endnote:

1. Joshua J. Mark, “Agora,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified September 02, 2009, /agora/.

As Bibliography Entry:

Joshua J. Mark. “Agora,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 02, 2009. /agora/.

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Visual Timeline
  • c. 7000 BCE - 5000 BCE
    Earliest known human habitation on the Acropolis and around the Agora of Athens.
  • c. 1550 BCE - c. 1100 BCE
    Mycenaean Period. Agora established at Athens.
  • c. 1100 BCE - c. 600 BCE
    Iron Age Development, public buildings erected at the Agora in Athens.
  • 560 BCE - 507 BCE
    Further development and expansion of the Agora of Athens.
  • 480 BCE
    Sack of Athens by the Persians under Xerxes. The Agora is destroyed.
  • 460 BCE - 429 BCE
    The Age of Pericles. Athenian Agora is rebuilt, construction of Parthenon.
  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE
    The Peloponnesian Wars which leave Athens defeated and the Agora damaged.
  • 338 BCE
    The Battle of Charonea gives Athens to the Macedonian victors. Agora takes on Macedonian characteristics.
  • 159 BCE - 138 BCE
    King Attalos II of Pergamon builds the great Stoa in the Agora of Athens.
  • 146 BCE
    Roman influence over Greece begins to rise.
  • 86 BCE
    Siege of Athens by the Roman general Sulla. Agora is destroyed.
  • 27 BCE - 14 CE
    Reign of Augustes Caesar. Athens and the Agora restored.
  • 117 CE - 138 CE
    Rule of the Roman Emperor Hadrian who supports great building projects in and around the Agora of Athens.
  • 267 CE
    Agora of Athens burned by invading Herulians.
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