Most of us, I’m sure, if we were asked to conjure up an image of life in a Roman town would think first of public spaces like the forum, the amphitheatre, or bathhouses, possibly lined with marble columns and statues. Anybody who has visited an ancient Roman city whether in the eastern Mediterranean, in Italy, North Africa or Britain will have seen the remains of such buildings that have been unearthed by archaeologists.
Public spaces have been excavated at hundreds of sites for well over a century and a half so it would be a reasonable assumption that we by now understand almost as much as we possibly can about what they were used for and what public life in Roman towns was like. You might then be surprised to hear that I think that the nature of Roman public space is actually something that is very poorly understood and that my new research project is all about trying to find ways of using archaeology to understand it better.
To illustrate some of the things that I think we have got wrong both in thinking about ancient public spaces I’d like to talk a bit here about one of the better known Roman period public buildings to have survived at Athens – the so-called Roman agora. To put in a shameless plug, this is a much condensed version of an argument I’ve made in my book about the changing use of Greek agoras in Hellenistic and Roman times that was published last year.
The Roman Agora was constructed about 80m to the east of the old Classical agora, which had served as the heart of Athenian public life since at least the fifth century BC. We know that the Roman Agora was paid for by funds given to the city by Julius Caesar and then, presumably because the money had run out, by the first Roman emperor Augustus, because an inscription on the still standing western gateway tells us so. This was a period in which Rome was consolidating its hold on the Greek world and was itself undergoing a political crisis as the Republic came to an end and one man took up a position of supreme power. Bestowing benefactions on a city like Athens, which was famous for its illustrious and rich cultural heritage, was one way of assuring Greek loyalty to the new regime.
The Roman agora consisted of a fully-enclosed courtyard surrounded on all four sides by Ionic columns, with rows of shops and a second entrance on the eastern side. We can be fairly confident that the building served as a food market for various reasons: a decree inscribed just inside the east entrance from the time of Hadrian (2nd Century AD) had to do with the sale of olive oil, weights and measures for ensuring fair trade were found within the building, a number of inscriptions set up by “agoranomoi” (market inspectors) were found nearby. Graffiti has also been found scratched into parts of the colonnade which have been interpreted as ancient traders staking a claim to particular spots where they were allowed to ply their wares. Part of the complex lies underneath modern buildings but substantial areas have been excavated in the course of various campaigns since the late 19th century.
When it comes to interpretations about the building’s impact on the public life of the city some large leaps of reasoning have been made. It has been widely accepted that the creation of the Roman Agora meant that the old Classical agora now lost its commercial function. The development has been linked to a supposed infilling of the old square by various new buildings at around the same time and has been presented as evidence of the civic decline of Athens under the Roman Empire. Calling the building the ‘Roman Agora’ reinforces the idea that this new building in some way took over something of the function of the old agora. Indeed I’ve often heard people – visitors to Athens, but also historians and archaeologists – talk as though the agora in Roman times had moved to a new location.
I see some serious problems with this way of looking at things.
For a start we don’t know at all what the Roman Agora was called in antiquity. I think it probably was thought of as an agora but it is highly unlikely anybody called it the ‘ROMAN agora’. Both squares continued in use so there is no reason to think that the Roman period Athenians thought of it as taking over as the main public square of the city. It was quite common by this time for cities to have more than one agora and although one usually had a more political, the other a more commercial function, the distinction between the two was rarely absolute.
There is also actually very little evidence that the Roman Agora took away any trading activity from the old square let alone that it took away all commerce. There was still plenty of room on the Classical Agora, in among the new buildings, for a crowd of tens of thousands of people to have gathered so there’s no reason to think that temporary market stalls couldn’t have been erected there. The magnificent Stoa of Attalos constructed to line the eastern side of that square in the mid 2nd century BC was most likely a grand shopping arcade and it carried on being used in Roman times. Admittedly it probably wasn’t where lowly goods like grain, meat and vegetables were sold – it was more likely for luxury products that needed to be stored behind lock and key within its shops – but it was a commercial premises nonetheless.
Even more importantly there are some very good reasons for thinking that the place where the Roman Agora was built was already the location for a commercial market before that time. A row of butcher’s shops, or taverns that predated the Roman agora were found just to the west of it. In addition, the famous Tower of the Winds, like the Stoa of Attalos constructed in the mid 2nd Century BC, stood just to the east of where the Roman Agora was built, was a public clock and weather station. The obvious place to have set up such a building would have been in a public market space. So, far from taking commerce away from the old Classical agora it seems rather more likely that what the construction of the Roman Agora actually did was to provide grander premises for a function that was taking place on exactly the same spot, for at least the preceding century, perhaps for much, much longer.
The consensus view of the impact of the Roman Agora on Athenian life turns out then to depend on some rather bold assumptions that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. It is certainly far too simplistic to see the building as evidence of civic decline.
For cities throughout the Roman Empire conclusions about the nature of public space often rest on similar ‘common sense’ assumptions and archaeological evidence is often used in a similar way to reinforce preconceived ideas about social and cultural life. The Roman Agora at Athens is just the tip of a very large iceberg of things about Roman public space that we don’t understand as well as we think we do.
I some upcoming posts I’m planning to pursue this subject further, to cast more darkness over things we thought we already knew and, hopefully, to offer some light in the form of suggestions for new directions might take in investigating the subject.
In the meantime if you have any comments on what you’ve read here I’d be glad to hear them.