State Religion: The Archon Basileus

There was no attempt in Classical Athens to separate church and state. Altars and shrines were intermingled with the public areas and buildings of the city. A single magistrate, the archon Basileus or king archon, was responsible for both religious matters and the laws; appointed by lot, he served for a year. Aristotle describes his varied duties as follows:

The basileus is first responsible for the Mysteries, in conjunction with the overseers elected by the people ... also for the Dionysia at the Lenaion, which involves a procession and contest. . . . He also organizes all the torch races and one might say that he administers all the traditional sacrifices. Public lawsuits fall to him on charges of impiety and when a man is involved in a dispute with someone over a priesthood. He holds the adjudications for clans and for priests in all their disputes on religious matters. Also all private suits for homicide fall to him. (Athenian Constitution 57)
Fragmentary Athenian (Attic) red-figure kylix (drinking cup), about 47S B.C. H.: 0.097 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 42. It was important for Athenian citizens, especially warriors departing for battle, to render the gods their due. Here, a young warrior offers a libation at an elaborate altar topped with scrolls and a palmette finial and smeared with the blood of previous sacrifices. The warrior holds a spear in one hand and a phiale (libation bowl) in the other. He wears a short tunic with a cloak over his shoulders, a helmet, and greaves. His shield, shown in a perspective, three-quarter view, is behind him.

The king archon held office in the Royal Stoa, a small colonnaded building along the west side of the Agora square. It was built at about the same time as the Kleisthenic reforms, in about 500 B.C. In addition to housing the king archon, the stoa served also to display the laws of Athens. In the late 5th century B.C. the Athenians inscribed their constitution on stones and set them up inside and in front of the Royal Stoa so any Athenian could come and read the laws of the city.

The Royal Stoa (Stoa Basileos) in the late 6th century B.C. Model by Fetros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias. Athens, Agora Museum. The earliest and simplest of the stoas that bordered the Agora, the Stoa Basileos had eight Doric columns between its two end walls; the stumps of the columns can still be seen. There were four inner columns evenly spaced within the length of the building; these, too, were Doric. Continuous benches ran along the back and across the ends of the building. The 2nd-century A.D. traveler Pausanias identified the stoa clearly: "The first (building) on the right is the stoa called Basileos, where sits the 'King' (Basileus) when he holds the annual magistery called 'Kingship'" (Description of Greece 1.3.1). Pausanias describes several clay akroterion figures on the roof of the stoa; fragments of these have been found. They represented the Athenian hero Theseus hurling the brigand Skiron into the sea, and Eos, goddess of dawn, carrying off Kephalos (compare 5.1).

In addition, several ancient texts refer to the great unworked stone (lithos) found in place in front of the building (19.3), which was used by the king archon when, as chief of the religious magistrates, he administered their oath of office: "They took the oath near the Royal Stoa, on the stone on which were the parts of the (sacrificial) victims, swearing that they would guard the laws" (Pollux 8.86) and "the Council took a joint oath to ratify the laws of Solon, and each of the thesmothetes swore separately at the stone in the Agord' (Plutarch, Life of Solon 25.2).

The stoa was the setting for events that led to the trial and death of Sokrates in 399 B.C. The philosopher was tried for impiety, for importing new gods into the city, and for corrupting the youth of Athens. These were religious matters and as such fell under the jurisdiction of the king archon. Preliminary arguments were held in the Royal Stoa, as we learn from Plato, quoting Sokrates: "Now I must present myself at the Stoa of the Basileus to answer the indictment which Meletos has brought against me" (Theatetos 201D)

Photograph of the Lithos, or Oath Stone, late 6th century B.C. L.: 3.0 m. Athens, Agora excavations. Although its top is level and smooth, the stone is unworked, a condition appropriate to its sacred function. The stone lies in front of the Royal Stoa and is clearly the stone on which magistrates stood to take the oath of office.
Reconstruction drawing of the northwest corner of the Agora, ca. 300 B.C. Drawing by W B. Dinsmoor, Jr. The Royal Stoa is at the upper left. At the upper right is the Painted Stoa, birthplace of Stoic philosophy, and in the foreground is a crossroads shrine.
Aerial view of the northwest corner of the Agora showing the Royal Stoa (left) and the Crossroads Enclosure (right).
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).