In the Agora sanctums, sacrifices were made by private citizens and organizations. Nevertheless, few sanctums were the location of important religious celebrations, as the main religious center of the city was the Acropolis and the area extending on its south side. However, due to the centrality of the Agora’s position in the athenian landscape, due to its symbolism as the heart of the city but for practical reasons as well, the Agora was also the theatre of various activities during celebrations that were concluded in other locations.
The most important ceremonies that were performed in the Athens Agora are as follows:
1. Celebration in honor of Hephaestus and torch relay
The celebration in honor of Hephaestus took place in the god’s temple. The date of the celebration in the Athenian calendar is not known. It is possible that it took place during the last month of spring (Mounihionas). A fragmented inscription dating in 422 B.C. regarding the reorganization of the celebration has provided most of the information available.
The most important events relevant to this celebration are the dithyrambic dances in honor of the god, the torch relay and the procession towards the sanctum, which culminated with the sacrifice of a significant number of goats. The existence of such a ceremony in the celebration can be explained by Hephaestus’ role as a god of fire.
2. Ceremonies during Great Panathenaea
The celebration of Panathenaea took place during the month of Ekatomveonas, the first month of the Athenian calendar in the summer (July). The procession happened on the 28th of the month, the day of the goddess’s birthday. However, every four years, starting from the reorganization of the celebration in 566 B.C. by the eponumous arhon Hippoclides, the Great Panathenaea took place and they included religious ceremonies and sports games.
The Great Panathenaea celebration mostly concerns the Athenian Agora, as the greatest part of the procession went through the city’s commercial and administrative center, through the so-called Panathenaic Way. Moreover, a series of athletic and sporting events as well as secondary events during the procession were located in buildings and various parts of the Agora. At the same time, this is the best documented religious event connected with the Agora as well as the best known celebration of the Athenean state. Information about this celebration has been available from the archaic until the roman period.
This celebration became particularly glorious during the reign of Peisistratos’ sons and especially, Ipparchos (527-514 B.C.), and later on, during the reign of Pericles, who built the Auditorium in 442 B.C. as athlothetis. At about the same time, the panathenean procession was depicted in the Ionian frieze of Parthenon. The Great Panathenaea was particularly glorious also during the Hellenistic period, with the participation of kings from the Hellenistic kingdoms of the East.
The duration of the celebration is unknown. Based on the ceremonies and the various games, it should have been at least about three days. It is possible that the completion of the games took about one week. In a recent study, it was argued that the celebration together with the after-celebration must have lasted for 8 days, from the 23rd until the 30th of the month, during which time the Popular Assembly appeared not to be convening. In the 2nd century A.D., according to orator Ailios Aristides, the duration of the celebration was four days. Months before that, the city sent special messengers called spondoforoi, to all the greek cities in Greece, Asia and Italy, calling the Greeks to participate. During the Hellenistic period, the messengers traveled as far as the Persian Gulf and North Africa.
The celebration of Great Panathenaea, as any other great celebration, included the procession which ended at the goddess' sanctum and culminated with hundreds of sacrifices. An important element of the procession was the circumambulation of the peplos to the Acropolis, where it was used to dress the goddess’ statue which was kept in the Erechtheum. As a dress of the goddess, it was a unique, exquisite item, which was woven by the Ergastinai (women workers) that belonged to the aristocratic families of the cities. The abb was set by the priestesses and the Arrephoroi 9 months earlier, during the ceremony of the Chalkeia. The wool peplos contained topics from the Clash of the Giants (the battle between the Giants and the Gods of Olympus for power), and in particular the battle between Athina and Engelados. The peplos had vivid colors (blue and yellow, according to the sources) and it was worth seeing on its own. It was renewed every four years. With the construction of the goddess’ colossal statue, the peplos became huge in dimensions and it was placed as the sail of a large ship, on wheels, and priests and priestesses bearing golden and colorful garlands were the crew. This chariot-ship was taken from Dipylon until Elefsinion. To that point, the peplos was removed and it was transported by hand to Athina’s sanctum in the Acropolis, while the chariot was kept in Areios Pagos, where Pausanias saw it on his way to the Acropolis. There are testimonies for this ceremony to have taken place during the 4th century B.C. and it is possible that it was not a part of the usual Panathenaea celebrations.
In the center of the Parthenon’s frieze, over the temple’s east entrance, there is a complex of five figures: two young girls are approaching a glorious woman from the left. This woman is usually identified as a priestess of Athena. Each girl has a stool with a pillow on top of her head. Having his back turned to the goddess, a bearded man unravels the great peplos, with the help of a servant.
The Great Panathenaea was the best opportunity for the city of Athens to show its grandeur. Every citizen, women and metoikoi, of all ages, as well as parties of other cities, participated in the procession, having distinct roles.
Ten Athlothetai were responsible for the organization of the celebration. Their tenure was 4 years, but they had no other responsibility. Their role was to organize the procession, the musicians, the gymnic and equestrian games, to arrange the making of the peplos and the awards and finally, to offer these awards. They would eat in the Tholos, at the state's expense, and would start the final preparations on the 4th of the month.
The procession starts from the far end of the city and moves towards its religious center. Already since the archaic period, the starting point was the area of Kerameikos, within the walls of Athens, while during the 5th century, the processors were gathered in the so-called pompeum, where the special emblems and objects necessary for the various ceremonies in honor of the goddess were kept. The procession came into the Agora from the northwest corner and then turned south-southeast, crossing the wide street (10-20 m.) known as the Panathenaic Way, to the Acropolis. The Panathenaic way was paved during the roman period.
In the head of the procession were the priests and the canephoroi (basket-carriers), daughters of the most aristocratic families of the city that bore the "canoun", a basket containing offerings such as seeds and branches, on top of their heads. Behind them were the diphrophoroi, holding stools and parasols, possibly to accommodate the canephoroi during the procession. The canephoroi must have been particularly well dressed, with rich clothes and valuable jewelry. At the time of Lykourgos, the Athenian state provided golden jewelry to all 100 canephoroi.
The Ergastinai were placed among the first ranks of the procession. Inscriptions mention that up to a hundred Ergastinai could have been working around the year in order to make the goddess's peplos, although in the Parthenon frieze, this group of women is depicted as only four girls walking empty handed. Next to them there are young girls holding vessels, as well as an incensory, both of which were necessary for the sacrifice.
The presence of military is particularly strong in the procession. The Parthenon frieze emphasizes the presence of young equitant Athenians and bearded, fully armed men on four-horse chariots. During the procession, in the centre of the Agora, they gave a rather risky performance, stepping off the chariot while it was running at full speed. This exercise was called apobatic contest and the participant was the apobates. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the apobates only combined the chariot with walking, i.e. at some point en route (in Eleusinio), he stepped off the chariot and continued to run on foot until the end. According to literary testimonies, this sporting event took place independently from the other equestrian games in the Agora. Written sources regarding the procession focus more on the pedestrian parts rather than the equitants and the chariots.
The elders, the so-called thalloforoi, also participated in the procession. They held green branches, probably from the olive trees in Athens, and they were selected based on their good looks. The non Athenian citizens, the metoikoi, also participated. The younger people, since they had no right to participate in the armed parts of the procession, carried trays with offerings, wearing red garments. They are the so-called skaphephoroi (tray-bearers). The trays were state property, were made of silver or copper and contained sweets and beehives. The daughters of the metoikoi carried vessels with water, while the freedmen and other barbarians carried oak-tree branches. As far as the allies and the Athenian colonists and the klirouhoi, they participated in the procession with a delegation, which offered the goddess a bull and suit of armor. The allies were obligated by law in 426/425 to participate. On the 4th century, it appears that only the colonists were participating in the procession.
The procession did not follow a rectilinear course to the Acropolis, but stopped in various spots in the Agora, in sanctums and altars, in order to perform dances and offerings. This is mentioned by Xenophon, for the late 5th/ early 4th century, but the stops are not exactly known.
The end of the procession in the Acropolis culminated with a sacrifice in the altar in front of the Parthenon, at least until the mid 5th century B.C. Around 425 B.C., the number of sacrifices was huge, considering that only 400 colonies and ally cities were obligated to participate in the celebration. The city itself spent quite an amount of money for the sacrifice of a great number of cattle. It has been argued that the name of the month comes from the 100 animals that were offered to the goddess in its duration.
The meat was cut up and distributed, first to the officials and the most important parts of the procession (canephoroi), while the rest was cooked and offered to the people, not in the Acropolis but in Kerameikos, where the procession had started.
The fire was lit using the torch of the winner from a remarkable torch relay. It started in the altar of Eros in the Academy, outside Dipylon and it is likely that it ended in the start of the steep slope leading to the Acropolis. The total distance was about 3 km, which is why some writers have dubbed it “the long road”. The winner received a hydria and 30 drachmas. This tradition dates back to the era of Peisistratos, who built the particular altar.
The sporting events originally took place in the Agora and around 330 B.C. they were moved to the stadium that Lykourgos built in the area of Ilissos. In the north part of the Agora, there were findings pointing to the starting point of the events and positions for 10 runners, who run across the Panathenaic way (for that reason, it was also called a road). On either side of the road, the winners (tribes or persons) set dedicative inscriptions in honor of their victory in Panathenaea (even if the events took place in the Stadium, the Auditorium or the Racetrack, i.e. outside the Agora). The following sports were included: stadion (running), the pentathlon (discus, javelin, jump, running, wrestling), wrestling, boxing and pankration. There were also three age categories: boys, non bearded men, men. It is also likely that the running of enlisted men existed since the 4th century.
The equestrian games were another important part of the celebration, as demonstrated by the presence of equitant youth on the Parthenon frieze. The games were divided in two categories: those that were open to everyone and those that were open only to Athenian citizens. The riders’ event fell into the first category and two-horse and four-horse chariots fell into two categories, horses and colts. The games that were specifically for Athenians, the so-called πολεμιστήρια, included the apobatic contest, stohastikon javelin throw, racing with military attire in chariot and horse and a procession with two-horse chariots. A particular game was a mock cavalry battle, called “antipassia”. Most of these events were held in the Athens racetrack, which on the 5th century, was somewhere near Neo Faliro.
The team sports, where all ten Attica tribes participated, also held a special position in the Great Panathenaea sporting schedule. The most important sporting event was the πυρριχείος, the armed dance first danced by Athena in order to celebrate the victory of the gods over the Titans. The three age categories that apply to the individual games can also be found here. The next event was the ευανδρίας, a type of beauty contest for boys, which was an exclusively Athenian activity. Each tribe participated with a group of its most good looking youth. The height and the physical force as well as beauty played an important part. The boat race most likely took place in Pireaus and in particular from the main port until the port of Mounichia.
The celebration included, since the time of Ipparchos, rhapsodic games. The rhapsodists contested in the by heart recitation of rhapsodies from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Each rhapsodist had to continue from where the last rhapsodist had stopped, so that during the games, the entire epic would be heard. The music games were also particularly important. However, since 442 B.C., when Pericles built the Auditorium which bears his name, in the south incline of the Acropolis, all the art games were moved there. They used to take place in the Agora, approximately in the middle of the great square, in a point which is called the orchestra. Holes have been found where the stakes for the wooden rows, the so-called ικρία, were placed. In the theatre of Dionysos were given performances of tragedies in the form of tetralogies.
The inscriptions and the panathenean amphorae provide valuable information regarding the awards. These awards were clay amphorae, decorated using the black-figure technique, filled with oil from the sacred olive trees of Attica in the Olive Grove, which, according to tradition, came from the very first olive tree planted by Athena herself in Attica. Only the musicians received a different award. The guitar players received olive tree garlands covered with gold and money. The value of the garland and the amount of money varied according to their position in the final rank. The pipe players received awards of somewhat lower value as well as less money, while the harp and pipe players only received garlands.
The first two winners of the sporting games received awards that varied from 60 to 5 amphorae. In the equestrian games, the awards were greater. In the group games, only the winning team received an award. In the πυρρίχιο και τον διαγωνισμό της ευανδρίας, the winning team received an ox and 100 drachmae. At the time of Aristotelis, the contestants of the winning team in ευανδρία, also received a shield.
According to a recent theory, the schedule of the celebration was as follows:
Day 1: Musical and rhapsodic games
Day 2: Boys and adolescent (not bearded) sporting events
Day 3: Men equestrian games
Day 4: Equestrian games
Day 5: Group events by tribe
Day 6: Torch relay and pannychis (all night). Procession and sacrifice.
Day 7: Apobatic contest and boat race
Day 8: Awards, celebrations
There were no balconies or seats, except for a restricted part where the temple of Apollo Patroos was built on the 4th century. In the mid 3rd century, Demetrios, a politician who was a friend to the Macedonians, descendant to Demetrios Falireas, built a pedestal taller than the Arcade of the Ermes, in order for the Corinthian hetaira who was his lover to be able to watch the Panathenea procession, thereby causing great indignation.
3. Meeting of the candidate mystics of the Eleusinian Mysteries
The Greater Eleusinian Mysteries was one of the greatest celebrations of the Athenian state. It took place in the month of Boedromion, at the end of the summer. It is characterized by a centrifugal procession, which connects the center of the city with the city’s far end, which was the demos of Eleusis. In the area above the market, probably as early as the late 6th century B.C., there was a sanctum which was dedicated to the two goddesses of Eleusis, Demeter and her daughter, the city's Eleusinio. Sacred objects were transferred there from the sanctum in Eleusis, so that during the procession, they could be placed in their original position. From the 4th century onwards, the city’s teenagers went to Eleusis on the 13th of the month and returned on the 14th, accompanying the priestesses with the “sacred things” inside round-shaped boxes called “kistai” (cists), which were tied with red ribbons. While reaching the Eleusinio, the official with the title of Φαιδυντής (Καθαριστής) of the two Goddesses, went to the Acropolis in order to announce to the priestess of Athena that the sacred things have arrived safely to the city. It is possible that the procession went through the city of Athens, but there is no such mention.
The celebration of the Greater Mysteries started on the following day, on the 15th of Boedromion, with the ceremony known as the Agyrmos (gathering). Arhon Basileus, the supreme religious leader of Athens, who was in charge of the celebration of the Mysteries of Eleusis, called the demos to a festive gathering in the Painted Stoa, where, in the presence of the most important officials of the Eleusis sanctum, the Dadouchos and the Hierofant, took place the official ceremony for the inauguration of the celebration of the Mysteries. There gathered anyone who wished to be initiated and prorrhesis took place, a procedure which was, after the classical period, the duty of a special official, the preacher, who came from the sacred family of the Kerykes. Upon the official announcement (prorrhesis), which was written by the two supreme officials of the Eleusis sanctum, the Arhon Basileus called the candidates for initiation to present themselves. The content of the proclamation is not exactly known. Those who did not have clean hands, that is who had shed human blood or were the cause of sacrilege were forbidden to participate. Men and women, free men and slaves were allowed to participate, but no barbarians were allowed. The participants should also speak some Greek, so they could understand the sacred words to be repeated during the initiation. However, in the later years, all Roman citizens were allowed to participate. Moreover, the candidate mystics must not have evil in their souls and should have lived according to human and divine justice. Those who did not meet these terms were called to abstain from the initiation. Of course, the fear of sacrilege rather than the authorities was the main reason for excluding those unwanted. It is, however, mentioned, that some well known people, such as Apollonios Tyaneus, were excluded from the procedure.
It is probable that at this point there was some sort of record of the candidates, which most likely had to prove that they had been initiated to the Lesser Mysteries, which were held in the sanctum in Agrais, on the banks of river Ilissos. They were also asked to pay their contribution to the initiation, which at the end of the 4th century was about 15 Attica drachmae, approximately corresponding to 15 wages of an unskilled worker. The candidates also had to pay an amount on a daily basis during the celebration to all the involved officials and the Mystics, to the personal guides of each mystic, who accompanied him and came from two sacred families, the Kerykes and the Eumolpidae. The mystics were obviously responsible for guiding the candidate mystics as to which sacrifices and ritual acts had to be done so that they would be prepared for the initiation. The amount gathered was particularly high: an inscription dating in the 4th century mentions that the amount of 15,000 drachmae had to be delivered to the priestess of the two goddesses, in order to cover the celebration's expenses. The remainder of the amount that was gathered by the officials was apparently shared among themselves. In total, it can be assumed that the candidates for initiation were about 1,000 at a time.
Later on, the candidates were allowed to enter Eleusinio and see the “sacred things”, after they had washed their hands with holy water in a basin outside the sanctum.
On the following day, the Mystics organized a procession that was directed to the sea at Faliron, so that they would be cleansed with sea water and be fed with meat of pig, which was the sacred animal of Demeter. The other celebration ceremonies do not concern the Agora. The use of the Agora and the Painted Stoa (Stoa Poikile) during the Agyrmos seems to have been of more a practical than of religious nature, as it was easier to hold such a big crowd closer to the seat of the Arhon Basileus, the Basileios Stoa (Royal Stoa) and it was also easier to access from the city's Eleusinio, which is exactly over the Agora.
4. Celebration of Savior Zeus
This celebration was the last one of the calendar used in Attica and it took place on the last day of the month of Skiroforion. It included a sacrifice to the statue of Zeus, possibly in the Agora, in front of the Stoa of Zeus. All the city officials, led by the Arhon Basileus, participated in this sacrifice. Therefore, all administrative activities, as well as the courts, ceased during that day. It is not known whether the people of Athens also participated in the celebration or if this only involved the officials who had to receive or deliver the authority (including the 500 statesmen). Essentially, this was the inaugurating ceremony of the new year, an expression of gratitude from the city to Zeus for his protection during the past year as well as an expression of the anticipation for a prosperous following year. The earliest mention of this ritual can be found in a speech by Lysias, dating back to 382 B.C.
5. Wine drinking contest and Sacred Marriage during the celebration of Anthesteria
The Anthesteria were celebrated during the month of Anthesterion, from the 11th until the 13th, which corresponds approximately to the end of February. The celebration includes various activities in many parts of the city, but the centre of the festivities was the sanctum of Dionysos Limnaios (in the Marshes), in the area of the river Ilissos banks. The celebration is a combination of domestic and public activities. The latter include two celebrations worth mentioning, which took place in the Athens Agora. The first activity, on the second day of the celebration, Khoes, took place in the Thesmotheteion, i.e. the seat of the officials who were known as the thesmothetai. This location was recently identified by Camp with the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios. This activity was a wine drinking contest: the participants, under the aegis of the arhon basileus, had to drink straight off the reel, the content of one khou (approximately 3,2 lt), while seating at a table. The winner received a flask of wine (like Dikaiopolis in Akharnians of Aristophanes). The ceremony took place in a closed space. On the contrary, the sacred marriage was a combination of ceremonies in both closed and open spaces.
The sacred marriage was the secret union of Dionysos with Basillina, the wife of the Arhon Basileus. It took place in the Boukoleion (Bull’s stable), a building which has not been identified yet and is close to the Agora. Nevertheless, the ceremony included the procession which accompanied Basilinna as the god's bride to the Boukoleion, from the sanctum of Dionysos. It is likely that the procession crossed the Agora.