JEFFREY RUSTEN: Before we walk down from the Acropolis, let's look at the city below and around us. Ancient Athens was much smaller than the modern city, but it was still expansive. In the age of Pericles it had massive city walls with 10 gates leading in all directions. On the southern slopes of the Acropolis, was primarily the sanctuary of Dionysus and the adjoining theater where the Athenians watched the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes. On the North, was the most important district, where the Sacred Way led down from the Acropolis through the city, before splitting into different directions, one leading to the sanctuary at Eleusis, 14 miles to the Northwest, where the Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated. It was along this Sacred Way that the Panathenaic procession traveled up every four years to worship on the Acropolis at the old shrine of the Erechtheum.
But now we're going to follow this road down from the Acropolis through the rest of the ancient city, or at least the part of it that is as yet been excavated. This road passes through two other major public areas of classical Athens, the agora and the Ceramicus, the cemetery just outside the walls. The agora wasn't excavated until the 1890s by archeologists. It didn't seem nearly as glamorous as the Acropolis. Few marble structures are to be found here, and much of what remains dates from hundreds of years after Athens' glory days. But it turned out to contain some of the most instructive remains of Athenian daily life in history. The agora, which means gathering place-- from it we get the word for fear of crowds, "agoraphobia," was the marketplace of the city and the heart of Athenian culture and gossip. It was also the center of Athenian government which was uniquely aimed at mass participation.
In the earliest days, Athens had been ruled by kings. Later, it established a non-dynastic executive called an archon, meaning just a ruler, a preeminent leader who was given authority to set the laws for a limited period of time. One such archon was named Dracon, from which we get the word draconian laws, and they were very severe first laws that he set. Another archon was Solon. But this system was subverted temporarily in the late sixth century BC by a military ruler named Pisistratus, who established himself as a tyrant. Tyrant is a Greek word too. Athens under the tyrants became a stronger city, in fact. Its first public buildings were erected under Pisistratus.
But when that family was overthrown, the Athenians determined never again to submit to such one-man rule. And in the year 506 BC, an archon named Cleisthenes is said to have introduced the first features of popular government that would come to be known as democracy, meaning literally, mass rule. Although this system has just reached its 2,500th birthday, we have come to know the details of many of it only from a treatise by the philosopher Aristotle, which was discovered just a century ago. It was also just in the past century that the agora excavations unearthed the artifacts of Athens' democracy in action.
The first thing Cleisthenes did was to divide the citizen population into voting groups by tribes. Each of the 10 tribes was named after an Athenian hero, and it contained a mixture of people from the sea coast, from the city, and the countryside to prevent sectional conflicts. The tribe was the citizens' political base. You voted together with your tribe you served in the military together, and you served together in public offices. Here in the agora were discovered the remains of a stoa, or covered portico containing statues of the 10 tribal heroes. This is where notices for each tribe were posted and it became the gathering place for fellow tribesmen in the city.
Another feature of Athenian democracy was that offices were filled not by election, but by lot. The presiding officers of the assembly-- we called the boule, or the Council-- consisted of 50 tribesmen chosen completely by lot for each tenth of the Athenian year. They had to prepare the agenda and call the meetings of the citizen assembly, and so they needed to be on call for any emergency. During their time of service, one third of the Council lived in the agora. They slept and took their meals in the Tholos or Roundhouse, as Aristotle tells us. And sure enough, the Tholos has now been discovered in the agora excavations.
In this democracy, public decisions were made not by officials, and not even by elected representatives, but every public decision was made by the entire citizen body meeting in assembly. The council summoned all the citizens to walk up from the agora to the hill opposite the Acropolis called the Pnyx. This area has probably been much altered since the fifth century BC, but there's still carved out of the limestone hill, a platform for a speaker. Any would-be political leader who wished to persuade the people to go to war, to make a peace treaty, or impose a tax had to stand here and make his case publicly. As a result, the most frequent term for a politician, rhetor in Greek, actually meant public speaker. Pericles was a rhetor, nothing more.
We can see that the Athenian democracy, although it granted citizenship only to a very limited group of males-- not to speak of the fact that they saw nothing wrong, as generally in the ancient world, in owning prisoners of war as slaves-- this democracy was in some other ways actually more radical than our democracy today. In theory, every citizen had a voice in deciding every public issue, and the system of lottery was meant to prevent the growth of individual power.
Preventing tyranny was the goal of still one more democratic institution. Whenever individuals were felt to be growing too important in the city, the assembly could call a special vote. The man receiving the most votes as a danger was sent into exile for 10 years. He himself was unharmed and his property was returned to him after his exile, but he was banned during this period from political activity. Most of Athens' most important political leaders were exiled in this way, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon. Even Pericles himself only narrowly escaped it. Since votes were cast by scratching names on broken pieces of pottery called ostraca, the institution was named ostracism. After a vote, the used ostraca must have been dumped in landfill in public places, because that's the only way to explain the presence of hundreds of these fragments, each with the name of a prominent politician, discovered in the agora excavations. We have hundreds of fragments with the names of Aristides, Themistocles, Miltiades, Cimon, and Pericles. Clicks
The final institution of democracy was the court. The main feature in keeping with the principle of mass participation was a large jury with hundreds of members. One case had as many as 6,000 jurors. Unlike today there were no judges to direct the case or lawyers to present it. The jurors listened to the principles with minimal rules of procedure or precedent, and the majority vote determined the outcome.
To prevent bribery, not only were juries large, frequently up to 500, but they also were chosen entirely by lot. In his treatise, Aristotle describes for us the machinery of choosing jurors by tribes. And sure enough in the agora, this stone allotment table has been discovered, which is exactly what he describes, along with the bronze plates that were inscribed with individual names from each tribe. The individual's name plates were inserted in random patterns, again chosen by lot, in the various slots, and then another lottery found a random selection of possible jurors from the patterns in the slots.
Other paraphernalia of the court had been discovered as well, such as this water clock that marked the time. A party could speak only until the water ran out. Or the voting disks. The hollow center was for acquittal, the solid center for condemnation. And the juror would have both disks. He held his hand over the center to keep it secret, dropped one into a container for valid votes, and the other into a container for discards.
Just as important as politics and trade in the agora was the marketplace of ideas. Philosophy in Athens grew out of the free-for-all of discussions that took place here daily. The most famous denizen of the agora was Socrates, who spent most every day here asking questions of anyone who would listen. In the next century, a particular school of philosophers became so identified with one particular stoa in the agora, that they became known as the stoics.
Before we leave the agora with its meager architectural remains, we should notice the two substantial marble buildings on each side of it. On top of the hill to our west, is a beautifully preserved small Doric temple, also dating from the fifth century BC, dedicated to the Hephaestus. Hephaestus was the patron of metal workers, and well-suited to the industrial and manufacturing establishments that surrounded the agora. On the east side, one ancient structure was completely reconstructed in the 1950s. Its original, like many of the remains here, dates from long after the age of Pericles. Since it was a business and government center, structures in the agora were always being torn down and rebuilt. This was a stoa presented to the Athenian people by a foreign King, Attalus of Pergamon, but enough of it was preserved to make possible a complete rebuilding. And since in these excavations, there was nowhere to put a modern structure for a museum without covering something ancient, it was cleverly decided to rebuild an ancient building for the purpose. So this stoa is where you can find on display all the objects we've just been looking at today.
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2500 years ago, the city of Athens experienced a century of brilliant philosophy, drama, politics, and art that still resonates today. Athens was the first democracy, a great military and economic power, and left behind a richly documented history and culture. Professor Jeffrey Rusten leads a tour through the ancient city as reconstructed by archaeologists and historians.
This video is part 5 of 6 in the Ancient Athens series.