Athens in the period of the Second Sophistic was a city marked by the coexistence of the gloomy realities of living in provincial town deep in debts and steeped in the glory of its heroic past. It has been poignantly described as the “theme park” of Antiquity, where the Athenians had to simulate being philosophers and artists so as to evoke their illustrious ancestors. The Romans of the Late Republic and the Imperial periods were fixated with Athens. Most of the city's residents, however, were indebted to the extremely rich father of Herodes Atticus. Students from far and wide, though, kept flocking to Athens: the philosophical schools (Peripatos, Academy, Stoa, Garden) were renowned and retained their prestige. The Romans (Cicero, for example) sought to follow in the footsteps of the great men of the Past. The city’s sights were not confined to its monuments, but also included the beach where Demosthenes practiced oratory, Plato’s Academy, the tomb of Pericles, the house of Epicurus etc. Apart from the Acropolis, the Agora formed a nodal point for visitors, as attested by the itinerary chosen by Pausanias.
During the Roman period, we can distinguish three phases during which Athens is adorned with buildings: the first is the period of Augustus (30 BC-14 AD), the second is the period of Hadrian (112-138 AD) and the third is that of the Antonines (138 AD-192 AD). With the construction of the Roman Agora by Augustus, the area looses its importance as a commercial centre. For this reason, the open space in the Agora square is gradually covered with buildings (Odeion of Agrippa, SE and SW Temples, Temple of Ares etc).
Throughout the 1st and the 2nd cent. AD, Athens remains a city of impoverished citizens (most were heavily indebted to Herodes Atticus’ father). Augustus is the last in a series of eminent Romans to be fascinated by the faded glories of Athens. Each of these (Caesar, Cicero, Pompey, Marcus Antonius, Augustus) contributed to the recovery of the city Sulla had ruined.
The Agora acquires a new character in the late 1st cent. BC and the early 1st cent. AD. This period coincides with the activity of Augustus, the sovereign who self-consciously chose the past as a guide for the future. August altered the landscape of the Athenian Agora dramatically: all commercial activities were relocated to the new marketplace, the so-called Roman Agora, while, thanks to the donations of Roman benefactors, Agora was adorned with buildings and artworks, which transformed the old marketplace to an arts centre and recreation grounds. The central open square of the Ancient Agora is now covered by the Odeion of Agrippa, while Classical monuments and temples, like the Temple of Athena from Pallene, the Temple of Athena from Sunium, the Stoa of Demeter from Thorikos, are relocated in whole or partially to the city centre or used for the construction of composite buildings of an intensely classicizing quality. Such monuments are the Temple of Ares, the SW Temple, the SE Temple, the Altar of Ares and the Altar of Zeus Agoraios.
The 2nd cent. AD signals the last great peak of the Ancient Athenian Agora. During this period we have the construction of the Library of Pantainos (in the reign of Trajan), the Basilica, the Monopteros and the Nymphaeum (in the reign of Hadrian), as well as the completion of a series of other edification projects, like the Aqueduct and the Library of Hadrian. Athens in the mid-2nd cent. AD is a provincial town, which, however, manages to keep alive part of its former radiance. For a short interlude, during Hadrian’s reign, the city is the centre of the Panhellenion institution, a cultural and religious union of the Greeks.
With the end of the Antonine period the city gradually falls into decline, a process that lasts until 267, when it pillaged by the Heruli. This barbarian tribe overcame with ease the resistance of the Athenians who defended Valerian’s walls, built in 254. Under the leadership of the historian Publius Herennius Dexippus, the surviving Athenians hid in the woods.
The extent of destruction wreaked by the Heruli became evident through the excavations of the American School. All the buildings in the south side were damaged. More specifically, the greatest damages were caused, in order of severity, to the Odeion, the Middle Stoa, Pantainos’ Library, the Stoa of Attalos – especially its south section which was burned down. These buildings were later used only as quarries for building material. In the west side, damages have been detected only to the south: the Metroon and the Bouleuterion were raised to the ground. The Tholos survived and was later repaired. The Stoa of Zeus, the Temple of Apollo Patroos, the Stoa Basileios and the Stoa Poikile survived until the late 4th century and the raid of Alaric’s Goths. Damages have been also spotted in the north side of the Agora, where the Basilica was burned down. Outside the Agora area, the SE Building and the Eleusinion were destroyed, while extensive damages may also have been caused to Hadrian’s Library. Coins from the reign of Emperor Gallienus (253-268), discovered in sealed archaeological contexts, confirm the dating of the destruction.
Following the trail of the devastation, the view has been proposed that the Heruli entered in two groups. The first one crossed Dipylon, were a fierce battle was fought and damages were caused, and followed the Panathenaic Way to the centre of the Agora. The destruction in the south part of the Agora and the north feet of Areios Pagos could have been caused by a group entering through the Gates of Piraeus and approaching the Agora from its southwest edge. Perhaps a third wave launched an attack from Pnyka and the area of the Gate of St Demetrius. This group reached as far as the south slope of the Acropolis, where yet more destruction was visited.
The Athenians must have hid somewhere close to the Acropolis, for no damages were caused there. They counterattacked the Heruli, forcing them to retreat. Dexippus own work preserves testimonies of the devastation (the ‘Scythica’, FGrHist 100), where there is an extensive description of the battle. Otherwise, references are made to the obviously non-historical decision of the Heruli not to burn books, on the rationale that the Athenians’ intellectual pursuits would render them unfit for battle in the future.
Following this raid, Athens is demoted to a provincial country town, simply echoing its former grandeur.

The project "Virtual Reality Digital Collection 'The Ancient Agora of Athens'" has been co-funded in a percentage of 80% by the European Regional Development Fund and in a percentage of 20% by state funds in the framework of the Operational Programme "Information Society" of the 3rd Community Support Framework.

HellasEuropean UnionInfosoc newInfosoc