Chapter III. The Agora and its Denizens.
13. The Buildings around the Agora. - Full market time![*] The great plaza of the Agora is buzzing with life. The contrast between the dingy, dirty streets and this magnificent public plaza is startling. The Athenians manifestly care little for merely private display, rather they frown upon it; their wealth, patriotism, and best artistic energy seem all lavished upon their civic establishments and buildings.
[*]Between nine and twelve A.M.
The Agora is a square of spacious dimensions, planted here and there with graceful bay trees. Its greatest length runs north and south. Ignoring for the time the teeming noisy swarms of humanity, let our eyes be directed merely upon the encircling buildings. The place is almost completely enclosed by them, although not all are of equal elegance or pretension. Some are temples of more or less size, like the temple of the "Paternal Apollo" near the southwestern angle; or the "Metroon," the fane of Cybele "the Great Mother of the Gods," upon the south. Others are governmental buildings; somewhat behind the Metroon rise the imposing pillars of the Council House, where the Five Hundred are deliberating on the policy of Athens; and hard by that is the Tholos, the "Round House," with a peaked, umbrella-shaped roof, beneath which the sacred public hearth fire is ever kept burning, and where the presiding Committee of the Council[*] and certain high officials take their meals, and a good deal of state business is transacted. The majority of these buildings upon the Agora, however, are covered promenades, porticoes, or stoe.
[*]This select committee was known technically as the "Prytanes."
The stoe are combinations of rain shelters, shops, picture galleries, and public offices. Turn under the pillars of the "Royal Stoa" upon the west, and you are among the whispering, nudging, intent crowd of listeners, pushing against the barriers of a low court. Long rows of jurors are sitting on their benches; the "King Archon" is on the president's stand, and some poor wight is being arraigned on a charge of "Impiety"[*]; while on the walls behind stand graved and ancient laws of Draco and Solon.
[*]The so-called "King Archon" had special cognizance of most cases involving religious questions; and his court was in this stoa.
Cross the square, and on the opposite side is one of the most magnificent of the porticoes, the "Painted Porch" ("Stoa Poikile"), a long covered walk, a delightful refuge alike from sun and rain. Almost the entire length of the inner walls (for it has columns only on the side of the Agora) is covered with vivid frescoes. Here Polygnotus and other master painters have spread out the whole legendary story of the capture of Troy and of the defeat of the Amazons; likewise the more historical tale of the battle of Marathon. Yet another promenade, the "Stoa of Zeus," is sacred to Zeus, Giver of Freedom. The walls are not frescoed, but hung with the shields of valiant Athenian warriors.
In the open spaces of the plaza itself are various alters, e.g. to the "Twelve Gods," and innumerable statues of local worthies, as of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the tyrant-slayers; while across the center, cutting the Market Place from east to west, runs a line of stone posts, each surmounted with a rude bearded head of Hermes, the trader's god; and each with its base plastered many times over with all kinds of official and private placards and notices.
14. The Life in the Agora. - So much for the physical setting of the Agora: of far greater interest surely are the people. The whole square is abounding with noisy activity. If an Athenian has no actual business to transact, he will at least go to the Agora to get the morning news. Two turns under the "Painted Porch" will tell him the last rumor as to the foreign policy of Thebes; whether it is true that old King Agesilaus has died at Sparta; whether corn is likely to be high, owning to a failure of crops in the Euxine (Black Sea) region; whether the "Great King" of Persia is prospering in his campaign against Egypt. The crowd is mostly clad in white, though often the cloaks of the humbler visitors are dirty, but there is a sprinkling of gay colors, - blue, orange, and pink. Everybody is talking at once in melodious Attic; everybody (since they are all true children of the south) is gesticulating at once. To the babel of human voices is added the wheezing whistle of donkeys, the squealing of pigs, the cackle of poultry. Besides, from many of the little factories and workshops on or near the Agora a great din is rising. The clamor is prodigious. Criers are stalking up and down the square, one bawling out that Andocides has lost a valuable ring and will pay well to recover it; another the Pheidon has a desirable horse that he will sell cheap. One must stand still for some moments and let eye and ear accustom themselves to such utter confusion.
15. The Booths and Shops in the Agora. - At length out of the chaos there seems to emerge a certain order. The major part of the square is covered with little booths of boards and wicker work, very frail and able to be folded up, probably every night. There are little lanes winding amid these booths; and each manner of huckster has its own especial "circle" or section of the market. "Go to the wine," "to the fish," "to the myrtles" (i.e. the flowers), are common directions for finding difficult parts of the Agora. Trade is mostly on a small scale, - the stock of each vendor is distinctly limited in its range, and Athens is without "department stores." Behind each low counter, laden with its wares, stands the proprietor, who keeps up a din from leathern lungs: "Buy my oil!" "Buy charcoal!" "Buy sausage!" etc., until he is temporarily silenced while dealing with a customer.