Hellenistic Athens

The Stoa of Attalos at Athens – a modern reconstruction of the 2nd-century BCE building / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Charalambos Bouras
The Late Professor Emeritus of Architecture
National Metsovian Polytechnic School of Athens


The city of Athens was without doubt the most important cultural centre of the Ancient World’s Classical Period. Later, during the Hellenistic period, and despite a decrease in its importance due to the advent of new political centres and cultural forces, it did not cease to be an important city and an essential centre of considerable artistic radiance. In the new Hellenism that emerged from Alexander the Great’s expeditions, the city occupied a special place for its heritage. These reasons (among others) make examining its urban planning, architecture and art during that time particularly interesting.

On this topic there is already an almost thirty-year old individual scientific study: the relevant chapter in Yiannis Travlos’ invaluable work on the planning evolution of Athens. Since then the subject has matured and a great deal of its details were clarified in 1971 with the publication of the Bildlexikon for ancient Athens, again thanks to Travlos. The only partial improvement of this picture involved the area of the Hellenistic Agora, and came with the short scientific syntheses in the books of Thompson-Wykerley in 1972, and more recently in John Camp’s.

Our knowledge of Hellenistic Athens can be further enhanced by the archaeological findings of the last 17 years – the time that has elapsed since Travlos’s Lexicon. These findings come both from systematic excavations (mainly in the Marketplace, published in Hesperia) and from accidental ones (all over the city, published in the Annals of the Archaeological Bulletin). The still incomplete interpretation, dating and correlation of these findings prevents their immediate utilization for synthesizing a new picture of the city’s planning and architecture. On the contrary, some recent studies that interpret certain well-known monuments are particularly welcome for this purpose.

323 BC, the year conventionally accepted as the beginning of the Hellenistic period, leaves out the orator Lycurgus (Λυκούργος) and the many works that were produced in Athens during his time. As also suggested by Travlos, the bottom limit of the period we will have to be placed at the year 86 BC, when Athens was pillaged and seriously damaged by Sulla (Σύλλας).

However, our purpose here is not so much to upgrade the image of the Hellenistic city by enriching it with new direct or indirect information, as it is to examine whether it participated in the new style of the era of Alexander’s Diadochi. In other words, our wish is to examine to what extent the city adopted the then current ideas as to its planning and architecture, whether it pioneered in anything during that period, and, finally, how the architectural and artistic events that took place here can be interpreted historically.

Urban Planning

Up until the end of the ancient world, Athens retained its old unregulated dynamically created since the Archaic and the Classical periods planning system. Our knowledge of that system is limited; still the general principles from which it emerged are obvious. Acropolis was the initial core. Some main streets started at its entrance, as well as from the road immediately surrounding it, proceeded radially throughout the city and came to an end at the city wall gates. In doing so, they left some free areas, the most important of which was Agora. As we shall see, the Hellenistic years brought only limited changes. During that time, the city preserved its old city wall borders, the gates at which the roads ended and its old neighbourhoods. We have some idea of the form of its planning network, with its winding paths and the accumulated surrounding habitats, from older excavations, (e.g. that of the hill of the Nymphs, or of the Areopagus), but also from more recent ones. There is evidence that, during the Hellenistic years, resistance to changes in the built environment was high, and that the practice of repairing old buildings dating from the Classical era was common. This unwillingness for radical changes could be attributed to the financial difficulties of the era; however, it could also be seen as an expression of conservatism and attachment to the norms, of the great productive era that had preceded it. For instance, in the Hellenistic years are retained not only the great official shrines of the City (Άστυ), but also smaller (and rather only locally important) ones such as Aglaurus’ (Άγλαυρος); the worship of local deities is renewed, whereas that of newer ones emerges.

Any changes (in the shape of extensive destructions and degradations in architecture) seem to involve the countryside only and are due to the war campaigns that took place around the city during the 3rd cent. BC.

An overall picture of the city’s residential areas (in which the drawbacks of its antiquity become obvious) is given in Pseudo-Decearchus’ (Ψευδο-Δικαίαρχος) famous passage on Hellenistic Athens. However, immediately afterwards in that same description follows a discussion of the city’s impressive monuments, to which we should have directed our attention.

Faced with a general Hellenistic tendency towards regularity on the one hand (i.e. organization of buildings and free spaces into a system of intersecting axes), and towards large (both in width and length) roads surrounded by utility buildings on the other, the city of Athens, despite the inherent difficulties posed by its irregular design, responded quite satisfactorily. Its modernization was the product of generous donations from the abroad; however, it is also obvious that the intentions and the programming to achieve this existed within the city itself.

Agora is the most well-known case. The systematic excavations and publications of the American School help us to follow its development. Around 180 BC, the huge Middle Stoa (Μέση Στοά) radically split Agora into two, separating what was called ‘south square’ (with its commercial character), from the rest of the area, that retained its social and political functions. In this manner it responded to the old Aristotelian requirement for making out one marketplace for the civilians and another for the merchants. The Middle Stoa had a clear north-to-south orientation and enclosed the communal area of Agora to the south. The intention for regularity is proven on the one hand by the demolition of the older “South Stoa I”, so that its successor, “South Stoa II” would become parallel to the Middle Stoa; and on the other by the erection, twenty years later, of the Stoa of Attalus (Άτταλος) (pic. 1), with its axis strictly vertical to that of the Middle Stoa. The completion of the Hellenistic programs even later on seems to have given the communal area of Agora an almost regular shape, surrounded exclusively by colonnades, with spaces between the buildings. In that manner it preserved a lot of its classical buildings, still managing to adapt to the general demand for regularity. Onians’ accurate observations of the existence of other axis relationships in the Athenian market, confirm the theoretical intentions of the era.

The same spirit of Hellenistic planning solutions seems to have characterized the road that connected the Dipylon (Δίπυλον) with Agora, the one referred to as “Road” (Δρόμος). Relatively early information provided by Pausanias (Παυσανίας) and Hemerius (Ιμέριος) convince us that it was 20 metres wide and encircled by galleries of commercial character, Hermes’ Gymnasium, Dionysius Melpomenos’ (Διονύσιος Μελπόμενος) temple, Eubulides’ (Ευβουλίδης) great offering and a host of statues. Sadly, the archaeological testimony is very poor and any representations are totally schematic. Moreover, the dating is on the whole somewhat vague: the galleries of a road certainly much older (given that it had been part of the Panathenian Procession) are dated after 86 BC, even though their materials had been used before, perhaps in the same location. Still, the great offering of Eubulides is testimony to the importance of the complex during the Hellenistic years.

Vague also is the archaeological evidence for another complex of stoa buildings of the Hellenistic era, erected north of the Acropolis in the immediate vicinity of Kyrrestos’ Solar Clock (Ωρολόγιο του Κυρρήστου) and of the Agoranomeion (Αγορανομείο): the two-level stoa, whose parts were used for the repairs of the inside of the Parthenon much later; and another similar one, arranged in parallel a bit further to the north, presumably related to the “Romeus’ Stoa” (Στοά του Ρωμαίου), known from its inscription. Both of these galleries were identical in style to those of Attalus and of Eumenes (Ευμένης). Although it is still too early for conclusions, it is certain that one more complex of rectangularly shaped utility buildings was incorporated into the planning network of Athens during the 2nd century BC.

Other planning interventions for the erection of utility buildings in Hellenistic Athens, in line with the spirit of that age, could be the Garden of the Muses and the stoa of Eumenes. The former is related to the program of Theophrastus (Θεόφραστος) close to the Lyceum (Λύκειον), with galleries, gardens, and walkways; unfortunately however, archaeological testimony for it is extremely poor. The latter (pics 2 and 3) is the realization of a grandiose Pergamene idea of a gallery building and a huge walkway combined with a theatre, which called for the demolition of a string of old residences in the area south of the Acropolis.

The absence of new holy complexes could be seen as the reason for not encountering in Hellenistic Athens what Pollitt called ‘theatricality in the architecture of the era.’ Indeed, Pericles’ (Περικλής) great program in honour of the city’s patron goddess (with the prestige that it had conferred upon the city) served all immediate and less immediate needs, as well as the city’s intentions. Consequently, the Hellenistic temples in Athens were few, small and isolated. Thus, the intention for dramatic views and unexpected changes in a visitor’s architectural impressions did not have the opportunity to manifest. Acropolis was the ancient power symbol and a stable point of reference for the whole City. Its shape didn’t lend itself to the Hellenistic pattern of constant accession with a variety of impressions. Any possible preferences for scenographic impressions were thus materialized by the galleries, with their various honorary and memorial monuments arranged at their fronts.

One should also examine the degree to which Athens was then modernized in terms of urban planning. Whether, in other words, it developed common facilities for its citizens, along the lines of the new urban centres of the time. Evidence from excavations, especially from those covering the entire the city is on this matter invaluable.

Despite Decearchus’ words of the city being “poor in water” («…ξηρά πάσα, ουκ εύυδρος…») it would seem that the situation in terms of water supply had improved markedly compared to the classical years. Excavations reveal the building of water aquaducts, one of which, notably, was constructed as a monument at the point where it met the city wall. It is also well established that within the city there were wells, water reservoirs, but also Hellenistic baths.

As already discussed, during the Hellenistic years, no changes were made to the road network. Nevertheless, circumstantial excavations have provided a lot of information about the roads, especially concerning repairs, new layerings and revetment walls that date from that time. The same more or less goes for the cemeteries that were used outside the city at the time, and on which there is also a lot of fresh information. These relate to the roads, but rarely do they present any architectural interest.

The traces of Athens’s fortification do not seem to have changed after the time of Conon (Κόνων) and their drastic improvements in the late 4th century. However, excavations show that the new fortification practices of the Hellenistic years did have an impact on Athens, since in many places one can discern wall fortifications and the building of protective stank. It would seem that around the same time the Long Walls (Μακρά Τείχη) between Athens and Piraeus are abandoned. One of the scientific gains that resulted from the recent circumstantial excavations would have to be the now accurate representations of the walls’ course at the northern and eastern border of the Hellenistic city.

The Hellenistic tendency for introducing impressive plastic works in public areas (which, at the time, was fully materialized mainly in Pergamum), was combined, in Athens, with the old local tradition of attributing honour via the erection of memorial-honorary monuments – usually statues on pedestals. When we read Pausanias we realize that the important sculpture works had become, in Athens, landmarks and played a decisive part in the character of the city’s free areas, thus making for an impressive and dramatic urban planning style.

Perhaps the most impressive of these honorary monuments were the three identical, extremely tall, prismatic pedestals on which stood brazen four-horse chariots with statues of kings of Pergamum. These were exchanges through which the Athenians showed its gratitude to the kings for some serious benefactions. Only one has been retained in good condition – the one in front of the Acropolis Propylaea, known by its posterior name as “pedestal of Agrippa” (Αγρίππας), (pic. 4). The second one used to stand in front of the Stoa of Attalus, and, according to recent excavations, the third one was placed at the northeastern corner of the Parthenon.

Equally impressive, not in terms of height, but of length, must have been the complexes of statues, which were placed in Athens during the Hellenistic years. Mainly from Pausanias, we learn about Attalus I’s great offering close to the southern wall of the Acropolis, with a lot (if relatively small) statues that depicted a battle of giants, amazons, and scenes from battles against the Persians and the Galls. Eubulides’ offering also showed a scene with a multitude of faces, 26 metres in height and placed along the monumental road, which, as was noted earlier, joined the Dipylon with Agora. Although very little remains of that offering, it is clear that both the style of the marble statues and the work being intended as a prominent urban planning element place it among the most important works of the Hellenistic era.

Finally, a comparable incorporation of plastic works, in complexes or not, during the same period is Theophrastus’ complex in the Garden of the Peripatetic (Περιπατητικοί), close to the Lyceum.

Regarding Architecture

We can comprehend Athens’ role in the development of Hellenistic architecture, by examining issues of morphology and typology in the various (and variously important) Athenian buildings.

The major innovation of the time in the area of architectural morphology is the propagation of the Corinthian rhythm and its use in perimetric temple colonnades. This innovation begins in Athens.

Indeed, the temple of Olympeion (Ολυμπίειον), which Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Αντίοχος ο Επιφανής) began to rebuild after 174 BC above the stereobate of an archaic building, was the first column-surrounded temple of Corinthian rhythm. The role played by the Athenian building as direct or indirect model seems to have been decisive, given that the rhythm, which during the 4th century was only confined to the buildings’ interiors, emerged as the first choice of preference during the Roman times. Despite the intentions of Antiochus, the importance of the Olympeion for Hellenistic architecture is indeed great.

A second building, along with its architecture, confirms Athens’ pioneering character in matters of rhythm. Five years ago, Joachim von Freeden put forth some convincing arguments, claiming that Andronicus Kyrrestos’ famous Solar Clock is not a Roman construction, but a much older Hellenistic one. This means that the column capitals at its entrance, with the pointed reed leaves on their upper sections, not only precede the rest of their instances, but also that they are purely Hellenistic creations, simplified derivatives of the Corinthian capitals. As it would also seem, capitals of this form were used here later, and were generally associated with Athens. However, Kyrrestos’ Solar Clock displays formal originality, both in its details, and as a whole. So strong is that originality that it has come to be mentioned in ancient sources – despite the fact that it did not serve as a direct model for other buildings.
The fact that, apart from the Olympeion, no other new temples were built in Athens at that time prevents us from studying here the evolution of the other two rhythms of the period. It is possible that some idiosyncracies of the 4th century BC (for example using grey marble from Hymmetos [Υμμητός] combined with marble from Penteli [Πεντέλη]) continued. Still, except for ascertaining the good technical execution of architectural forms in marble, it is somewhat difficult to trace, in the city’s architecture, classicist phenomena comparable to those that can be observed in the city’s sculpture.

The intentions of the Hellenistic era for monumental dimensions and for the development of fronts in the form of plain surfaces manifest in Athens in the galleries, as already discussed. Most of these, of course, are not to be credited to the Athenian architecture; their Pergamene origin is obvious not only from their famous donators, but also from a host of other elements. It was through these that the scenographic taste of Pergamum was brought into Greece. In the Stoa of Attalus (pic. 5), behind an array of pedestals and statues, one could see a vast, neutral marble front, 1350 square metres in range, organized so as not to disrupt the established analogical relationships, and adding a luxury never before encountered in a utility gallery.

The obvious use of arches is also regarded as a Hellenistic novelty. Although it had already been used in Priene (Πριήνη) to highlight a gate, in Athens (where it is introduced with the Pergamene buildings) we encounter it a lot earlier in the so called “gate of the cavalry battle”, on one of the entrances to Agora, together with the trophies and the mounted statue of a victory. If the suggested representation is accurate, we have here a deliberate use of an arch as a sign of triumph. The Athenian gate can thus be regarded as a pioneering work that heralds the Roman triumphal arches, two centuries later.

Improving the buildings’ functionality was also among the objectives of the Hellenistic architecture. During the 4th century BC and the Hellenistic era, a lot of buildings are erected or modernized in the Athenian Agora, precisely in order to improve them in terms of functionality. Among these one can distinguish the Oplotheke, the new Bouleuterion, and the City Metroon.

In the case of Basileios’s (Βασίλειος) Stoa, some functional additions actually deduct from the building’s form. Modernization is also witnessed in the Gymnasiums’ and in Dionysus’ theatre, whose phases IV and V are identified as Hellenistic – but not the background building.

Perhaps even more interesting, though, are buildings with special functions, related to the then new scientific advances – the knowledge that started out in Alexandria and involved the exact measurement of time. Thus Kyrrestos’ well known Solar Clock was built to house such a measuring system, while, at the same time, the oldest hourglass in Agora was modernized so that it could make use of the new knowledge.

The Athenian residences have already been discussed in terms of urban planning. Cheap construction, difficulties in dating and various fragmentary excavations have made studying the Hellenistic house in an individual separate way difficult. It seems, however, that luxury houses were not unknown in Athens. Recent circumstantial excavations throughout the city bring to light an impressive number of houses remains (usually incompletely dated) which make a good study subject. Very roughly, it can be said here that only one of a house’s areas is identified, i.e. the men’s communal area (ανδρών), with its standardized ground plan (usually with seven settees on a perimetrically elevated base) and a well looked after construction (mosaics or plaster on the floors). Notable also is the discovery of colour coatings which reproduced the well known Hellenistic system of imitation of equally-structured wallwork as found in houses in Delos (Δήλος) and in Pella (Πέλλα). Pompeion’s (Πομπείο) repaired apartments in the Hellenistic period confirm this way of decorating the inside of a living room in Athens as well.

The events in the Athenian political history for the 240 years after Alexander’s death are quite familiar. William Scott Ferguson’s book on the subject (which proposes a division into seven periods) has not lost its value. Obviously, after the battle of Chaeronea (Χαιρώνεια) and the solidification of the Macedonian power with the Asian expedition, Athenians saw their old dream of hegemony collapse. With the democratic nature of their political regime going through lurches, but with no essential changes in the internal administrative structure, Athens gradually entered an era of decreased activity, in the shadow of the great political powers of the time, i.e. the Macedonians, and the kings of Egypt and of Pergamum, of Rome and of Pontos.

The new conditions had already brought about an interdependence of the economies of the various cities. For a long while Athens maintained excellent relations with the great powers of the time, and from what it seems, retained the role of an important trade centre, despite the decline of the old way of production. Socially, the new economy elevated a new class of businessmen, merchants and artisans/labourers; however, the part played by the old Athenian aristocracy (and not only on cultural matters) was not small at all.
The practice of donations by the kings of the East becomes of decisive importance to the city’s architecture and generally its appearance. These donations are not confined to Athens only. It has been suggested that these were not just political acts of philhellenic character, but that they also served financial objectives. In any case, mainly after 197 BC mainly, donations allowed the realization of great programs that modernized and decorated the city.

This practice, in a way, overturns the generally accepted view that the arts, architecture in particular, evolve together in a thriving economy. Indeed, in Hellenistic Athens, funding of the great projects came from the abroad – large sums of money were invested, for the sole reason that the city still retained its prestige as Greece’s cultural centre.

This phenomenon has been repeatedly commented on. It is related to the city’s uninterrupted function as an educational centre (mainly in philosophy and rhetoric art), with the great ease with which philosophers, scholars, and artists were able to move, and, finally, with the city’s importance as a centre for the arts, but also for the commerce and the export of works of arts, and artifacts in general. Mainly, however, it is about the competitions among the Successors in the cultural arena, and their strong tendency for self-promotion in a place of Pan-hellenic renown. At the same time, the Athenians were over-generous in acknowledging the donations of kings – which also had both direct and indirect impact on artistic sponsorships.

Newer studies have showed that some of the then donated buildings were Pergamene, not simply in terms of their architectural types but also in terms of their construction. Accepting donations usually meant accepting foreign architectural ways as well.

Despite the adversities of the period, Athens of the Hellenistic times preserved its radiance. Its great name in all cultural matters helped it then and also later on, during the period of the Roman emperors. As showed earlier, Athens adapted to the general style of the times, but it did retain its own light. With a vast cultural tradition behind it, and despite the fact of endorsing foreign models in many ways, it did not lose its originality – it even managed to pioneer in some areas. It could be argued thus that as a centre it functioned in a dual fashion: sometimes endorsing foreign ideas unaltered, and others spreading out its own. In any case, a lot of generations following Alexander the Great saw Athens as the educational centre of mainland Greece par excellence, the place that offered both its citizens and the many foreigners it was host to a high quality of living and the feeling that they took part in the best that the Hellenic world had to offer.