The Stoa of Attalos is the only example of a fully restored ancient shopping arcade. It was built by and named after Attalos II, King of Pergamon, as a gift to the city that gave him his higher education.
It’s an impressive two-storey building, 116 m x 19.4 m (381 ft x 63 ft 8 in), with a Doric colonnade on the ground floor, and an Ionic colonnade on the upper floor. There were 21 shops at the back of both floors. Today it houses the museum of the Ancient Agora, and part of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Stoas were really important for the ancient Greeks and the Romans as it was there that they used to meet, walk, shop and do business. It was completely destroyed in 267 AD by a savage tribe, the Herulians but in the 1950s, thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Stoa of Attalos, using the original materials found on site, was fully reconstructed on the original foundations!
This reconstructed ancient building is also of great significance for modern European history as on 16 April 2003 the ceremony of the signing of the 2003 Treaty of Accession of ten new countries to the European Union was conducted there.
Our democracies today are representative. We elect politicians, politicians govern us. In Ancient Athens, you were ruling yourself.
Participation was seen as a fundamental element of Democracy. Athenians that behaved as ‘private citizens’ were seen through a negative eye and actually the Greek word for private citizen is “idiotes”, which is where the word ‘idiot’ comes from!
Plato wrote that ‘one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’
It was a direct, in-your-face democracy.
So, what affected the vote of a citizen, really mattered…
In a lesser known book of Plato, we find Socrates in the Athenian Agora coming across Euthypro – a soothsayer he knew well – and the two men engage in a short conversation just outside the Royal Stoa. After sharing their news, the two men engage in an argument about morality.
Their conversation ended abruptly after Euthyphro felt a bit cornered and found an excuse to leave Socrates with the promise to finish their discussion some other time. Well… Can you blame him? It’s not just that Socrates wouldn’t let go easily… It’s also that the challenge Euthyphro was facing was a difficult one and remains so up until today.
Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? This simple question of Socrates has exercised tremendous influence in the history and study of morality.
The Euthyphro dilemma is technically an argument against the divine command theory, aimed at disproving God’s existence by raising an issue of morality. This isn’t of course explicitly declared by Socrates but I’m sure people like Epicurus would smile and nod when reading this part of the book. On the other hand, some religious people reject it as a ‘false dichotomy’ (google that) but this is actually up until today a persisting problem which also applies to meta-ethics.
Relax… We’re not going to embark on this now. I’m going to focus on an interesting detail that is somewhat irrelevant: the place that this conversation took place. Would you believe that we can pinpoint today the spot that Socrates was hanging out when he met Euthyphro?
Let’s see how the dialogue starts…
Euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Royal Stoa? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King Archon, like myself?
Socrates: Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.
Euthyphro: What! I suppose that someone has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.
Socrates: Certainly not.
Euthyphro: Then someone else has been prosecuting you?
Euthyphro: And who is he?
Socrates: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.
Euthyphro: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?
The conversation goes on. So, as we read, this dialogue takes place just outside the ‘Royal Stoa’ (Basileios Stoa). Guess what. -This stoa was excavated by American archaeologists and the traces of the building are there today! The first steps of the stoa have been unearthed.
Few passers-by today notice that quiet corner next to the busy Adrianou street but -unknowingly- countless people have had their drinks next to those same steps that Socrates was sitting, waiting for his turn outside the Royal Stoa.
The Parian Chronicle is a chronology of events, inscribed on a marble stele, covering more than 12 centuries of Ancient Greek history. Focusing a lot on events linked with the city-state of Athens, this chronicle presents us with a timeline from the year 1582 BC to 299 BC.
It’s a unique timeline that, surprisingly enough, few scholars are familiar with. Most people don’t even know that a chronicle like that exists! Let’s see a few important events we all know:
1581 BC : Cecrops becomes king of Athens
The name of the city isn’t yet ‘Athens’ but instead ‘Cecropia’, named after king Cecrops. This obviously provides us with a ‘terminus post quem’ when it comes to the famous story of the contest of Poseidon and Athena! Note that this rivarly between the two gods, as they vied for control of the city of Cecrops and its surrounding territory, Attica, is NOT mentioned in the Parian Marble.
1528 BC : Great flood of Deucalion
There are, literally, dozens of cataclysms recorded by different civilizations all over the globe. A cataclysm is seen by different cultures as an act of divine retribution, sent by God or some other deity to destroy civilization and initiate a rebirth of a new, ‘improved’ breed of humans. The most famous of those flood myths (or deluge myths as they’re also known) is Noah’s Flood as narrated in the Bible, which can be placed about a thousand years earlier than Deucalion’s Flood.
1520 BC : Greeks renamed as ‘Hellenes’.
Hellen (Deucalion’s son) becomes king of Phthiotis. His kingdom is situated in the heart of the Greek peninsula. His people are now named after him, changing from ‘Greeks’ to ‘Hellenes’, giving their name to most other neighboring populations. The Romans however continue to use the ancient name (Graikos) instead of the later ‘Hellen’. Thanks to the Romans, the name ‘Greek’ is used up until today… but only in the western world.
1294 BC : King Minos rules in Crete. King Aegeas rules in Athens
1259 BC : Theseus assumes the throne of Athens
The young hero immediately introduces a constitution and sets the foundations for Democracy. It was obviously on that same year that his father, old king Aegeus, tragically perished.
1256 BC : The Amazons invade Athens!
Theseus at the last moment, manages to stop the Amazons at the Hill of the Muses and defeats them.
1218 BC : War of Troy starts
1209 BC : Troy is conquered
907 BC : Homer appears
895 BC : Aegina mints silver coins.
From this date on, we have sound archaeological and historical evidence and we can be almost certain about the events recorded on the Parian Marble. From this year on, all dates, events and names of people are spot on! It’s very tempting to assume that all previous dates and events are correct too. I wish…
Imagine a system of taxation where only the rich contribute, while middle and lower class citizens don’t have to pay any taxes. On top of that, imagine that in this system, the rich love to pay their taxes and they sometimes compete who’s going to pay more!
Sounds crazy? The monument of Lysicratres in Athens, stands as a solid proof that this crazy idea was once a reality! It was erected by a very wealthy citizen of Athens (Lysicrates) 24 centuries ago and he was a sponsor of musical performances at the theater of Dionysus. One of those performances got him the award of first prize.
The way citizens were taxed in ancient Athens was genius! Whenever Athens was in need of cash, the state didn’t have to draw funds from the public treasury. The rich were called upon and they acted as sponsors. This is what the Athenians called ‘choregia’ or as we know it today: sponsorship.
This financial contribution rather than being enforced by the state it was seen as a voluntary gesture that showed that rich citizens did care about their fellow citizens. It showed that the rich were true citizens (polites) and not private citizens (idiotes). And that’s the level of awesomeness that the Athenian democracy reached.
When in Athens, you know you’re in the favorite city of goddess Athena.
Athena is accompanied by an owl, which over time became her symbol and one of the symbols of Athens too.
The exact reason why the owl became a bird sacred to Athena is lost in time. No story survives that gives us a clear explanation but we can piece together bits from ancient sources to understand why Athena chose the owl as her favorite animal.
The owl was meant to reveal unseen truths to the goddess (having also the ability to light up Athena’s blind side) and it enabled her to see and speak the whole truth. This was fervently believed by the Romans too -who called her Minerva. Let’s not forget that Athena frequently appeared to mortals by night – giving them advice and guidance- which made the owl a fitting companion to have by her side. The Ancient Greeks saw the bird’s ability to see in the dark, representing watchfulness, wisdom and even omniscient!
Going further into Greek Mythology, Athena was also known as a storm and lightning goddess. In Homer’s poems she’s described as “the bright-eyed goddess” linking once again the owl to Athena, due to the owls’ eyes being so distinctively large and shiny that it instantly reflected Athena with her stare of knowledge that seemed to bore into you.
There were large numbers of owls scattered all over Athens for centuries. There were so many, that the rest of the Greeks had a saying to tease the Athenians. When something was in abundance the saying was: ‘bring owls to Athens’ much like the English ‘carry coal to Newcastle’.
Surprisingly enough, there’s still a population of owls in the 21st century huge metropolis that modern Athens is nowadays!
The owl in flight was also a symbol of good luck: the sudden appearance of such an owl before the naval battle of Salamis, instantly boosted the morale of the Greek fleet. The larger part of the warships were contributed by Athens, so seeing an owl flying high above their heads, just before the battle started, that was the best omen Athenian sailors and marines could wish for!
As far back in time as 632 BC, an athlete tried to establish a tyranny in Athens. His name was Kylon. An ambitious Olympic Victor that came really close to taking over absolute power so as to Make Athens Great Again. For many, Kylon was just some guy… He wasn’t a member of the royal family his actions were not ‘dictated’ by some God. He wasn’t even some high-ranking officer of the army.
But he was armed with burning ambition, a group of dedicated friends, a few good ‘connections’ (the ruler of the neighboring city of Megara, Theagenes, happened to be his father in law) and decided to seize power. Why? As absurd as it may sound, the answer is: why not?? The amazing thing was that this is one of the earliest examples of someone trying to be #1, not because he is chosen by the gods or because he inherited this right by his king-father. He was trying, just because he could!
Bear in mind that the word ‘tyrant’ didn’t actually mean a ruler that brutally exercised absolute power. Today, when we hear of a tyrant, we think of an autocrat, unrestrained by law or constitution.
In 6th century BC Greece, things were different: for a citizen of a Greek city-state, a tyrant was someone that took control of power by the use of force, without possessing any legitimate rights. He was then judged according to his deeds and the good he did to his city. So, there could be good tyrants and bad tyrants.
What’s really unique here, is that a former nobody, could now be somebody!
From the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Great Kings of Persia, to the Mycenaean monarchs and Jewish chieftains, most rulers were ‘God sent’ chosen by some god or/and they were members of some elite social cast, like, a royal family. Most rulers up until then claimed direct descendant from some god. Either that or God personally chose them to rule over their subjects. Strangely enough (or naturally enough, if you prefer) most societies accepted this claim as almost self-evident, accepting at the same time the rule of that ‘divine’ monarch. We can see why the ‘tyrant phenomenon’ in archaic Greece was so unique and introduced new ground-breaking ideas about politics to the masses.
Kylon inspired to become a tyrant of Athens.
Unfortunately for Kylon his attempt failed. Lack of popular support followed by the violent reaction of his opponents led to the total failure of Kylon’s plan, himself barely escaping. What followed next was notoriously terrible as Kylon’s followers where all put to death! Even though they were promised safe conduct, in the end they were all executed. This savage act was so brutal that it was limiting blasphemy and it became known as ‘Kylonion Agos’ (the word ‘agos’ having a meaning of an impious crime of sacrilege and desecration) it felt as if a curse sent by the gods, fell upon the city.
Recent excavations near the south coast of Athens (at Faliron) have unearthed mass burials of around 80 men that were executed. There is a good chance that these poor men, can be followers of Kylon. All the victims are of relatively young age, they all appear to have been in good health when put to death and the most chilling detail is that all their hands were tied up.
We have to be very careful jumping into conclusions here, as the same area of Faliron, is known since the beginning of the 20th century for being rich in different burials of people that were executed in different horrible ways, most of them using the method of ‘apotympanismos’. Those condemned, were chained on a wooden plank and were left to die there exposed to the elements (much like what the Romans used to do later when they used crucifixion as a method of execution). That’s the way that the city of Athens executed criminals and those skeletons that were excavated back in 1920s by Greek archaeologists Kourouniotis and Pelekidis. Those executed may have been pirates and according to a well-documented study by professor Keramopoulos that was published in 1923, execution by chaining on a wooden board was relatively common from the 7th c. BC till the 4th c. BC
Ο αποτυμπανισμός : Συμβολή αρχαιολογική εις την ιστορίαν του ποινικού δικαίου και την λαογραφίαν -ΑΝΤΩΝΙΟΣ ΚΕΡΑΜΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ (εκδ.Εστια, 1923)
We have to wait for the forensic examination of the human remains unearthed at Faliron. This data, combined with the study of different findings that were excavated and the re-reading of ancient sources, will give us a clearer picture of the twilight of the Athenian Democracy.