Skip to main content
No. 914:
The Agora

Today, let's walk the Agora with Socrates. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Agora in ancient Athens was a 30-acre marketplace sitting below the Acropolis. Today it's a pretty landscaped park with some old stone embedded in it. Few of the visitors who climb the hill to see the Parthenon give it much attention. Yet, 2400 years ago, it was the intellectual center of the world.

Socrates originally trained near here as a stone mason. He called himself a private person -- uninterested in politics. But like so many creative people, he found his solitude in this very public place -- chatting, teaching, and moving through the swirl of people, wreathed in thought. Just outside the Agora lie the ruins of Simon the Cobbler's shop. Socrates taught his younger pupils there because only adults could enter the Agora.

Before WW-I no one was sure where the old Agora was. Athens had built up over it. In the '20s, American archeologists, with Rockefeller and Packard money, began probing. When they located the site, they cut a deal with the authorities. If Athens would relocate 5000 people, the Americans would finance the excavation.

That was a big undertaking. It's gone on for 60 years, and it isn't done yet. As archeologists have dug downward, they've unearthed over 5000 years of Greek history.

In Socrates's time, in the late 5th century BC, the Agora was girdled with great stoas -- open porchlike buildings. Below the temple of Hephaestus, god of the forge, lay the first buildings to house the processes of democratic lawmaking.

The digs yield the machinery of those times. Here's a random lot generator used to select magistrates and representatives. Random selection was how the Greeks avoided corruption in government! We find voting machines and ballot spindles. We find hemlock cups used to administer the sentence of death by poisoning.

In 406 BC Socrates was chosen by lot to chair the citizen's assembly. He was soon in trouble. Nine generals had been accused of cowardice. The assembly wanted to condemn them en masse.

Socrates infuriated the assembly by demanding separate trials. Seven years later, his enemies got even. They convicted him of corrupting Athenian youth and made him drink hemlock. He walked about the Agora until paralysis began in his legs. Today we can point to the spot where he finally lay down to die.

High on the hill are the grand buildings we know so well. But below was the new and still imperfect machinery of democracy and of everyday life. Down here was the marketplace where Socrates and others like him carried on a traffic of ideas -- some abstract, some very tangible -- the same ideas that echo through our own still imperfect, still evolving, world, 2400 years later.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Camp, J.M., The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Athens. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1986.

Fleishman, J., In classical Athens, a Market Trading in the Currency of Ideas. Smithsonian, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 38-47.

Coulton, J.J., The Architectural Development of the Greek Stoa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Travlos, J., Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.