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.

In one "circle" may be found onions and garlic (a favorite food of the poor); a little further on are the dealers in wine, fruit, and garden produce. Lentils and peas can be had either raw, or cooked and ready to eat on the spot. An important center is the bread market. The huge cylindrical loaves are handed out by shrewd old women with proverbially long tongues. Whosoever upsets one of their delicately balanced piles of loaves is certain of an artistic tongue lashing. Elsewhere there is a pottery market, a clothes market, and, nearer the edge of the Agora, are "circles," where objects of real value are sold, like jewelry, chariots, good furniture. In certain sections, too, may be seen strong-voiced individuals, with little trays swung by straps before them, pacing to and fro, and calling out, not foods, but medicines, infallible cure-alls for every human distemper. Many are the unwary fools who patronize them.

16. The Flower and the Fish Vendors. - Two circles attract especial attention, the Myrtles and the Fish. Flowers and foliage, especially when made up into garlands, are absolutely indispensable to the average Greek. Has he a great family festival, e.g. the birth of a son, then every guest should wear a crown of olives; is it a wedding, then one of flowers.[*] Oak-leaves do the honors for Zeus; laurel for Apollo; myrtle for Aphrodite (and is not the Love-Goddess the favorite?). To have a social gathering without garlands, in short, is impossible. The flower girls of Athens are beautiful, impudent, and not at all prudish. Around their booths press bold-tongued youths, and not too discreet sires; and the girls can call everybody familiarly by name. Very possibly along with the sale of the garlands they make arrangements (if the banquet is to be of the less respectable kind) to be present in the evening themselves, perhaps in the capacity of flute girls.

[*]The Greeks lacked many of our common flowers. Their ordinary flowers were white violets, narcissus, lilies, crocuses, blue hyacinths, and roses ("the Flower of Zeus"). The usual garland was made of myrtle or ivy and then entwined with various flowers.

More reputable, though not less noisy, is the fish market. Athenians boast themselves of being no hearty "meat eaters" like their Boeotian neighbors, but of preferring the more delicate fish. No dinner party is successful without a seasonable course of fish. The arrival of a fresh cargo from the harbor is announced by the clanging of a bell, which is likely to leave all the other booths deserted, while a crowd elbows around the fishmonger. He above all others commands the greatest flow of billingsgate, and is especially notorious for his arrogant treatment of his customers, and for exacting the uttermost farthing. The "Fish" and the "Myrtles" can be sure of a brisk trade on days when all the other booth keepers around the Agora stand idle.

All this trade, of course, cannot find room in the booths of the open Agora. Many hucksters sit on their haunches on the level ground with their few wares spread before them. Many more have little stands between the pillars of the stoe; and upon the various streets that converge on the market there is a fringe of shops, but these are usually of the more substantial sort. Here are the barbers' shops, the physicians' offices (if the good leech is more than an itinerant quack), and all sorts of little factories, such as smithies, where the cutler's apprentices in the rear of the shop forge the knives which the proprietor sells over the counter, the slave repositories, and finally wine establishments of no high repute, where wine may not merely be bought by the skin (as in the main Agora), but by the potful to be drunk on the premises.

17. The Morning Visitors to the Agora. - The first tour of inspection completed, several facts become clear to the visitor. One is the extraordinarily large proportion of MEN among the moving multitudes. Except for the bread women and the flower girls, hardly one female is to be found among the sellers. Among the purchasers there is not a single reputable lady. No Athenian gentlewoman dreams of frequenting the Agora. Even a poor man's wife prefers to let her spouse do the family marketing. As for the "men folk," the average gentleman will go daily indeed to the Agora, but if he is really pretentious, it will be merely to gossip and to meet his friends; a trusted servant will attend to the regular purchasing. Only when an important dinner party is on hand will the master take pains to order for himself. If he does purchase in person, he will never CARRY anything himself. The slaves can attend to that; and only the slaveless (the poorest of all) must take away their modest rations of boiled lentils, peas, beans, onions, and garlic, usually in baskets, though yonder now is a soldier who is bearing off a measure of boiled peas inside his helmet.

Another thing is striking. The average poor Athenian seems to have no purse. Or rather he uses the purse provided by nature. At every booth one can see unkempt buyers solemnly taking their small change from their mouths.[*] Happy the people that has not learned the twentieth century wisdom concerning microbes! For most Athenians seem marvelously healthy.

[*]A wealthier purchaser would, of course, have his own pouch, or more probably one carried for him by a slave.

Still one other fact is brought home constantly. "Fixed prices" are absolutely unknown. The slightest transaction involves a war of bargaining. Wits are matched against wits, and only after a vast deal of wind do buyer and seller reach a fair compromise. All this makes retail trade in the Agora an excellent school for public affairs or litigation.

18. The Leisured Class in Athens. - Evidently Athens, more than many later-day cities, draws clear lines between the workers and the "gentlemen of leisure." There is no distinction of dress between the numerous slaves and the humbler free workers and traders; but there is obvious distinction between the artisan of bent shoulders who shambles out of yonder pungent tannery, with his scant garments girded around him, and the graceful gentleman of easy gestures and flowing drapery who moves towards the Tholos. There is great POLITICAL democracy in Athens, but not so much SOCIAL democracy. "Leisure," i.e. exemption from every kind of sordid, money-getting, hard work, is counted the true essential for a respectable existence, and to live on the effort of others and to devote oneself to public service or to letters and philosophy is the open satisfaction or the private longing of every Athenian.

A great proportion of these, therefore, who frequent the Agora are not here on practical business, unless they have official duties at the government offices.[*] But in no city of any age has the gracious art of doing nothing been brought to such perfection. The Athenians are an intensely gregarious people. Everybody knows everybody else. Says an orator, "It is impossible for a man to be either a rascal or an honest man in this city without your all knowing it." Few men walk long alone; if they do keep their own company, they are frowned on as "misanthropes." The morning visit to the Agora "to tell or to hear some new thing"[+] will be followed by equally delightful idling and conversation later in the day at the Gymnasia, and later still, probably, at the dinner-party. Easy and unconventional are the personal greetings. A little shaking out of the mantle, an indescribable flourish with the hands. A free Greek will despise himself for "bowing," even to the Great King. To clasp hands implies exchanging a pledge, something for more than mere salutation.

"Chaire, Aristomenes!"

"Chaire, Cleandros!"

Such is the usual greeting, using an expressive word which can mean equally well "hail!" and "farewell!"

[*]To serve the state in any official capacity (usually without any salary attached to the office) would give the highest satisfaction to any Greek. The desire for participation in public affairs might be described as a mania.

[+]Acts of the Apostles, 17:21.

19. Familiar Types around the Agora. - These animated, eager-faced men whose mantles fall in statuesque folds prefer obviously to walk under the Painted Porch, or the blue roof of heaven, while they evolve their philosophies, mature their political schemes, or organize the material for their orations and dramas, rather than to bend over desks within close offices. Around the Athenian Agora, a true type of this preference, and busy with this delightful idleness, half a century earlier could have been seen a droll figure with "indescribable nose, bald head, round body, eyes rolling and twinkling with good humor," scantily clad, - an incorrigible do-nothing, windbag, and hanger-on, a later century might assert, - yet history has given to him the name of Socrates.

Not all Athenians, of course, make such justifiable use of their idleness. There are plenty of young men parading around in long trailing robes, their hair oiled and curled most effeminately, their fingers glittering with jewels, - "ring-loaded, curly-locked coxcombs," Aristophanes, the comic poet, has called them, - and they are here only for silly display. Also there are many of their elders who have no philosophy or wit to justify their continuous talking; nevertheless, all considered, it must be admitted that the Athenian makes a use of their dearly loved "leisure," which men of a more pragmatic race will do well to consider as the fair equivalent of much frantic zeal for "business." Athenian "leisure" has already given the world Pericles, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, and Plato, not to name such artists as Phidias, whose profession cannot exempt them from a certain manual occupation.

20. The Barber Shops. - This habit of genteel idleness naturally develops various peculiar institutions. For example, the barber shops are almost club rooms. Few Hellenes at this time shave their beards[*], but to go with unkempt whiskers and with too long hair is most disgraceful. The barber shops, booths, or little rooms let into the street walls of the houses, are therefore much frequented. The good tonsors have all the usual arts. They can dye gray hair brown or black; they can wave or curl their patrons' locks (and an artificially curled head is no disgrace to a man). Especially, they keep a good supply of strong perfumes; for many people will want a little scent on their hair each morning, even if they wish no other attention. But it is not an imposition to a barber to enter his shop, yet never move towards his low stool before the shining steel mirror. Anybody is welcome to hang around indefinitely, listening to the proprietor's endless flow of talk. He will pride himself on knowing every possible bit of news or rumor: Had the Council resolved on a new fleet-building program? Had the Tyrant of Syracuse's "four" the best chance in the chariot race in the next Olympic games? The garrulity of barbers is already proverbial.

[*] Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) required his soldiers to be shaved (as giving less grasp for the enemy!), and the habit then spread generally through the whole Hellenic world.

"How shall I cut your hair, sir?" once asked the court tonsure of King Archelaus of Macedon.

"In silence," came the grim answer.

But the proprietor will not do all the talking. Everybody in the little room will join. Wits will sharpen against wits; and if the company is of a grave and respectable sort, the conversation will grow brisk upon Plato's theory of the "reality of ideas," upon Euripides's interpretation of the relations of God to man, or upon the spiritual symbolism of Scopas's bas-reliefs at Halicarnassus.

The barber shops by the Agora then are essential portions of Athenian social life. Later we shall see them supplemented by the Gymnasia; - but the Agora has detained us long enough. The din and crowds are lessening. People are beginning to stream homeward. It lacks a little of noon according to the "time-staff" (gnomon), a simple sun dial which stands near one of the porticoes, and we will now follow some Athenian gentleman towards his dwelling.