Classical Athens saw the rise of an achievement unparalleled in history. Perikles, Aeschylus, Sophokles, Plato, Demosthenes, Thucydides, and Praxiteles represent just a few of the statesmen and playwrights, historians and artists, philosophers and orators who flourished here during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., when Athens was the foremost city-state in Greece. Collectively they were responsible for sowing the seeds of Western civilization. Even when her power waned, Athens remained the cultural and educational center of the Mediterranean until the 6th century A.D. Throughout antiquity Athens was adorned with great public buildings, financed first by its citizens, and later with gifts from Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors. Nowhere is the history of Athens so richly illustrated as in the Agora, the marketplace that was the focal point of public life.
A large open square, surrounded on all four sides by buildings, the Agora was in all respects the center of town (Fig. 1; and restored drawing). The excavated buildings, monuments, and small objects (Fig. 2) illustrate the important role it played in all aspects of civic life. The council chamber (Bouleuterion), public office buildings (Royal Stoa, South Stoa I) and archives (Metroon) have all been explored. The lawcourts are represented by the discovery of bronze ballots and a water-clock used to time speeches. The use of the area as a marketplace is indicated by the numerous shops where potters, cobblers, bronze-workers, and sculptors made and sold their wares. Long stoas (colonnades) provided shaded walkways for those wishing to meet friends to discuss business, politics, or philosophy, while statues and commemorative monuments reminded citizens of former triumphs. A library and concert hall (odeion) met cultural needs, and numerous small shrines and temples received regular worship. Here administrative, political, judicial, commercial, social, cultural, and religious activities all found a place together in the heart of ancient Athens.