The Agora and its Denizens
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.
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 "Metroön," the fane of Cybele "the Great Mother of the Gods," upon the south. Others are governmental buildings; somewhat behind the Metroön 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 stoæ.
The stoæ 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.
Cross the square, and on the opposite side is one of the most magnificent of the porticoes, the "Painted Porch" ("Stoa Poikilë"), 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.
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