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Politics, Trade and Philosophy in the Heart of Classical Athens
In one of Plato’s famous philosophical dialogues, Phaidros teasingly points out to Socrates that he talks like a tourist rather than a native. The ancient agoras were essentially a place of gather and exchange, either of material goods or just of ideas. As a keen “word merchant”, who advocated that only an examined life was really worth living, Socrates spent the best part of each day of his life in the Agora of Athens, where the heart of the city’s civic, political and commercial heart beat.
Based on various ancient literary sources, such as Plato, Aristophanes or Xenophon, we will try to stage various episodes of the philosopher’s life, following Socrates’ footsteps around the surviving ruins of the Athenian Agora, and addressing various issues of space management, philosophy, political and social ideology at the heyday of Classical democracy, in the process.
Socrates seems to have left his most distinct footprints in and out the numerous colonnaded porticoes, or stoas of the Agora, such as the Royal, the Painted or the South Stoa or the Stoa of Zeus. Stoas were gathering places with a multi-faceted role, thus by definition much frequented: either serving as the seat or dining place of superior magistrates, or as a law court or as an exhibition room for state degrees, official paintings or war trophies, or just as a venue for political and philosophical discourses, or housing the banker’s tables, public offices, or shops. Many Platonic dialogues were in fact staged in Agora stoas, while Zeno, the founder of Stoicism taught his philosophy in the Poikile or Painted Stoa overlooking the Athenian Agora, one century or so after Socrates himself.
Associated by an oracle with the cult of Zeus Agoraios while still a child and contrary to various accusations of impiety that led to his conviction and death, Socrates was often seen sacrificing on the altars of the Agora, such as the Altar of the Twelve Gods; he must have also often visited its temples, such as the Temple of Athena and Hephaistos, marveling at their statues and wondering about the nature of divine.
Meanwhile, Socrates will also lead us along the administrative buildings lining the west side of the Agora. Though not really eager to participate in public affairs, Socrates was elected by allotment in 406/405 BC to serve in the Council of 500 or Boule (we have to look for the Old Bouleuterion and State Archive underneath a Hellenistic complex, but the New Bouleuterion is still to be seen) which prepared legislation for the Assembly (the Ekklesia or House of the Assembly of the people of Athens may be found to the west of Agora proper); being once in charge of the Assembly, Socrates is reported to have refused to pass an illegal vote, rather than betray his bouleutic oath, thus manifesting his profound piety once again! Socrates would have also dined at the nearby Tholos, the seat and official residence of the 50 prytaneis who held the presidency of the Boule on behalf of their tribe (the foundation of this very rare circular building may be discerned to the south of the two Bouleuteria). The Tholos also housed the headquarters of the Thirty Tyrants slightly later; when Socrates was allegedly summoned by the Thirty to the Tholos and asked to bring in a fellow citizen for execution, the philosopher decided to just go home instead! Socrates must have been seen on numerous occasions reading notices set up on the base of the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes, which thus also served as the official noticeboard of ancient Athens; the formal accusation of impiety against Socrates would also have been posted here.
Socrates held many of his philosophical discussions in the open square of the Agora near the benches set up by casual merchants, trading every imaginable commodity and attracting swarms of customers; or in the surrounding shops and workshops, especially Simon’s shoe shop, which we were lucky to identify during excavation through Simon’s labeled cup. The setting of such “dialogues”, much like the surviving Platonic ones, is moreover to be sought in various houses, during private banquets or symposia, such as those of Andocides or Agathon on the Street of the Marble Workers beyond the southwest fringes of the Agora. Our tribute to Socrates and the Athenian public and private life at the end of the 5th c. BC will culminate around the legal proceedings leading to his end, mainly in the alleged site of the most important court, Heliaia, where Socrates was trialed and sentenced to death; and in the State prison where he was eventually executed, drinking the hemlock most willingly, and defending his ideas to the very last minute.
This article is written by Anthi Dipla, Archaeologist – Tour guide.
The tour is organised by #KedrosTravel
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