The Athens Agora was the heart of the Athenian state. The main works, which pertained to the administration, took place elsewhere, in Pnyka, where the Public Assembly (Ecclesia tou Dimou) convened and since the 4th century, these works took place in the theatre of Dionysos. The Agora was where the administrative activities of the Athenian state took place: the Boule (senate) and the state’s records were housed in the Bouleuterion and the adjacent Metroon. Despite the fact that the Vouli convened often (as often as it was permitted by the religious prohibitions), the authorities of the representatives elected by lot were not particularly broadened. Power was undertaken by the prytanies, the body of 50 statesmen from each tribe that were responsible periodically for the administration: the prytaneis were housed and fed in the Tholos, where they also performed their duties.
The Athenian Mint was at the heart of the Agora, where the city’s coins were cut. Also kept there were the panathenean amforae and the oil that was offered, along with other trophies, to the victors of the Panathenean games. Finally, and most importantly, in the area of the Agora, in various points, important resolutions, the Ecclesia and the Vouli decisions, news on the tribes’ activities, military orders and statutes were being posted.
More than 7,500 inscriptions have been found in the Athens Agora. Most of them concern laws, treaties made between Athens and other states, honorary resolutions for private citizens and ally cities, construction cities, lists of vessels from the sanctuaries, which were comprised by the treasurers (and for which they reported to the authorities) and many more.
One of the measures taken by the Athenian democracy in order to protect itself from tyranny was ostracism, the exile for 10 years of a significant Athenian selected by the demos. It is specifically mentioned that this measure aimed to impede the way to the tyranny of Ipparchos, son of Harmos and grandson of Ippias, from his daughter’s side. This person, possibly because in 510 he was under age (below 30 years old), was not exiled together with the other Peisistratides, but remained in the city. Ipparchos managed to be elected as an eponymous arhon in 496. He was finally ostracized in 488/487. He did not return to the city in 480, when those exiled were revoked, because he had obviously taken shelter in the court of Xerxes, as his grandfather had also done, and he was sentenced to death in absentia.
The fact that 20 years had to pass between the measure’s conception and its first implementation raises the question on whether the reason for its enactment was the right one. In any case, Aristotle later mentioned that the measure lost its importance, when a politician with no interest in tyranny, Xanthippos, was exiled. Xanthippos was Pericles’ father and had allied with the Alkmaionides by marrying into the tribe. During the years, the political leaders of Athens used the measure of ostracism improperly, when the political disagreement was so heightened that one of its protagonists had to be distanced in order to reach a solution.
The measure provided for the following: the demos gathered in the Agora, in an open area which was ceremoniously designated by a rope (περισχοίνισμα). Originally, it voted on whether the measure of ostracism had to be implemented during the current year. The votes were fragments of pots, called ostraca (potsherds), on which was inscribed or written by ink, the name of the politician that each Athenian wished to ostracize. The politician who received the majority of votes was exiled for 10 years and he was obligated to leave the city within 10 days, without been deprived of his political and ownership rights for the rest of his life. There are two different views regarding the electoral procedure: either 6,000 votes where required in order for the procedure to be valid or the dominant candidate had to receive 6,000 positive votes. The first view is considered as the most probable by most historians. However, for one and only person, in one and only voting, 4,400 ostraca have been found. This person was Megacles Hippocrates of Alopeke (he was ostracized in 487/486, as reported by Aristotle). Second in rank, with a great difference, was Kallis Kratios of Alopeke (700 ostraca). It is possible that he is the third follower of the tyrannical party who was exiled, whose name is not mentioned by Aristotle (486/485).
The ostracized person could reside outside the city’s boundaries (before the Persian Wars, he could even stay in Salamina, which was not a demos, although part of the Athenian state). Eretria was a popular destination.
Based on Plutarch’s testimony, two counts were made. One was made to determine whether 6,000 votes were gathered and the second was made to determine who should be ostracized. If the first condition was not met, then obviously the second count was not made and therefore, it was not known who was the least popular politician.
The Athenians came to the vote with their ostraca already inscribed, but they held it so that no one around them could see. It is possible they held them between their index and middle finger and used the other hand to hide the side with the letters. It should be noted that some ostraca have letters on both sides. We do not know how it was determined if someone had voted twice or had cast two ostraca. It is likely that a police force would check the voters within the designated area. Maybe the risk was not worth it, if the punishment was grave.
The archaeologists in Athens have found 10,500 ostraca in total, 9,000 of which were in Keramikos (they were washed by the waters from the Agora). The majority of the remaining ostraca were found in the Agora, while some of them were found in the Acropolis. 180 of them bear Themistocles' name, written by 14 people in total. However, these were never used. It was believed that these ostraca were prepared by members of the party that opposed Themistocles. In fact, there is a much simpler explanation: the 14 inscribers were hard-working men that expected to make a little extra money by selling them to the illiterate or to those that hadn't found ostraca in due time. At the year during which this particular lot was create (at the end of 480 B.C.), Themistocles was not up for a vote, so the ostraca remained unused and were thrown away together with few other ostraca that had different names inscribed on them.
Due to the findings in Keramikos and Agora, we have much information on ostracism: on many occasions, the ostraca mentioning different names come from the same vessel, demonstrating that they were used during the same year. Ostraca for Megaklis (he was exiled in 487/486 as a member of the tyrannical party) have been found to belong to the same vessel with ostraca bearing the name of Aristeides Xenophilos, Ippocrates Anaxileos, Themistocles Neocleous Frearrios, Kallikratis Lambrokleous (completely unknown otherwise), Kallias Kratios from Alopeki. During the decade of 480 B.C., also exiled were Xanthippos Arrifronos (Pericles’ father) [484 –he was voted on the same year as Themistocles], Aristides of Lysimachos (the “just”) [482 – Ippokratis Alcmaeonides, Themistocles and Kallixenos of Aristonymos were also voted on that year], Themistocles was voted during the decade of 470, Kallias Didymiou was voted on 471, Cimon of Miltiades was voted between 471 and 461. Another well known name is Leagros Glaukonos. On 442, Pericles of Xanthippos and Thucidides of Militos were also voted. A later source mentions that even Cleisthenes himself was ostracized, but this is apparently a ruse.
It is interesting to note that many of the ostraca contain comments against those voted off: swearing, accusations for medism, effeminacy, incest, as well as small pictures with which imaginative Athenians decorated their vote. One of them, apparently during a time of desperation, voted against Famine.
The judicial activity which took place in the Agora is also the most important factor for the operation of the Athenian Democracy. In Aristophanes’ comedies, the elderly citizens were depicted as being obsessed with going to court, who only think about when they get to reside in a court room and receive a rather large payment for their services. The number of courts in the Athenian state and the fact that there was no organized body of judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers, but any citizen could be in any of these positions, makes the judicial activity a rather important part of the Athenian state, especially during the 4th century, when the political disputes were judged in the courtroom, due to the legislation of graphé paranomōn (the public action against unconstitutional proposals) but also the law on atimia (the loss of some or all rights, outlawry).
One particularly interesting element of the judicial life in Athens is mentioned by Plutarch and is attributed to Solon’s legislation: the lower class, thétes, which could not be elected, nor did it have any land property, maintained the right to participate in the constitution of the courts. Maybe this condition was insignificant until Pericles established a salary for the judges, therefore offering one more reason to the lower classes in society for participating actively in the exercise of judicial power.
The courts of Athens were multi-membered: usually the bodies of judges had 501, 1001, 1501, 2001 judges. Eliaia, the most important court in Athens, is said to have had 6,000 judges, but not everyone tried all the cases, as the judges were determined by lot.
The archaeological survey has brought to light a number of objects that relate with the judicial practice: judicial pinax, klepsudra, i.e. hydraulic clocks that kept the time of speech, as well as a cleroterion from the 3rd century B.C., which was used for the allocation of judges in the courts, as well as for the selection of arhontes.
On the contrary, it is quite impossible to identify the courts mentioned in more than 300 references mentioned in the ancient literature, where important speeches were given by important orators such as Demosthenes, Aischines, Lysias or Isaios, due to the architectural particularities that these buildings were likely to have had.
In order to house the vast number of judges, the constructions should have been quite simple, inside courtyards, which would be complemented internally by a row of arcades surrounded in turn, by large courtyards. Such constructions have been excavated in Agora, but these identifications remain hypothetical or, in the worst case scenario, have proven to be mistaken. Therefore, for example, the enclosure which was before identified with Heliaia, is considered today to have housed the open-air sanctum of the hero Aiakos.
A series of buildings that were undoubtedly of judicial character have been excavated in the area were later the Stoa of Attalos was built. These are buildings A, B, C, D, E and the Square Peristyle. From the area where the remains of these buildings were excavated, come most of the aforementioned findings relating with the justice system.