The Agorē in Epic and Archaeology

Ruins of the agora at Troy / UNESCO World Heritage Centre

By Dr. Jim Marks / 11.30.2012



Descriptions of communities in the early Greek epics—like descriptions of places, people and things in general—tend to be cursory and formulaic. One of the features that does recur in the descriptions of communities is a collective meeting place, the agorē.[1] Nearly every community in which a significant portion of the Ilias or Odusseia is set—including Troiē and the camp of the Akhaioi before it, Odusseus’ Ithakē and the Phaiēkes’ Skheriē—is said explicitly to possess an agorē. Further, the epics stage numerous pivotal scenes in this setting, including the quarrel between Akhilleus and Agamemnōn in the Ilias (1.54, 305) and Tēlemakhos’ denunciation of the Suitors in the Odusseia (2.10, 257). In addition, an agorē is mentioned in connection with the temporary camp of the Trōes before Troiē (e.g., 18.254) and the Cities on the Shield of Akhilleus (18.497, 531) in the Ilias; with the city of the Laistrugones (10.114), Nestōr’s Pulos (3.31) and Eumaios’ native Suriē (15.468) in the Odusseia; as well as with Hesiodic Askrē (Theogonia 89), the Eleusis of the Homeric Hymn 2 eis Dēmētran (296), and even the gods’ home on Olumpos (Ilias 8.2). Finally, its mention in similes and other hypothetical expressions makes clear that the agorē is not only part of the physical landscape of the epic world, but it is also embedded deeply in its culture.

The significance of the epic agorē is reflected in turn in the fact that it is more than simply a place for assembly: it is a monumentalized space, sometimes said to be adorned with stone, and associated with two other recurring features of the Homeric community, city walls and temples. This space serves as the main arena for the expression of public opinion and for the instigation of collective action, and is attended by specialized institutions and practices.[2] As such, the epic agorē, like its counterparts in the real world, embodies the uniquely collective aspect of the ancient Greek polis.

The Agorē in Epic

An examination of three agorai in pre-Classical Greek epic will serve as an introduction to the nature of this space and its institutions, and as a basis for comparison with what is known from the material record about the emergence of the agorē in historical Greek communities. In the full account of the epic polis from which the present discussion is excerpted, the other agorai that appear in the epics, in particular those at Troiē and at the camp of the Akhaioi, can be seen to mirror the three described here in terms of their physical features, location relative to other monuments, and associated institutions. The overall picture of the epic agorē that emerges from this analysis suggests that it is part of a schematic pattern that includes the aforementioned walls and temples, and that took shape as the early Greek epic tradition was adapting to the emergence of the polis as the normative form of community among its audiences. The epics claim to recreate a distant past, but that past takes as its point of reference the world in which epic poets composed and performed.[3]


“Palace of Odysseus”, Ithaca / Wikimedia Commons

The agorē at Ithakē receives probably a more detailed description—or rather accrues the most detail over the course of a narrative—than any of those that are mentioned in the early epics. This community, where over half the Odusseia is set, seems to be conceived as a typical, if provincial, polis. As mentioned, the agorē is chosen by Athēnē as the place where Tēlemakhos is to denounce the Suitors (Odusseia 1.90, 272, 372, 2.7). At the appointed time, he does as the goddess instructs:

αἶψα δὲ κηρύκεσσι λιγυφθόγγοισι κέλευσε
κηρύσσειν ἀγορήνδε κάρη κομόωντας Ἀχαιούς.
μὲν ἐκήρυσσον, τοὶ δ’ ἠγείροντο μάλ’ ὦκα.

At once he ordered the clear-voiced heralds
to summon to the agorē the long-haired Akhaioi.
The former summoned, and the latter assembled very quickly.
Odusseia 2.6-8

Though the assembly has not been convened in years (2.27), there is no question that the citizens of Ithakē are familiar with its procedures, and there are still officials at the ready to make the necessary arrangements. Once he arrives at the agorē, Tēlemakhos finds the people already assembled, and takes his place:

ἕζετο δ’ ἐν πατρὸς θώκῳ, εἶξαν δὲ γέροντες

and he sat in his father’s seat, and the elders gave way
Odusseia 2.14

Odusseus, it is revealed, has his own seat (thōkos) in the agorē. There is no indication that his is the only seat, which fact suggests one facet of the institutionalization and monumentalization of the epic agorē: permanent seats are maintained by at least the dominant families on Ithakē.

The elder Aiguptios at the very beginning of the assembly poses a question regarding the purpose for which it was convened. After raising the possibility that Ithakē is under attack (30), he then asks of whoever has issued the summons,

ἦέ τι δήμιον ἄλλο πιφαύσκεται ἠδ’ ἀγορεύει;

or does he declare and speak about some other public matter?
Odusseia 2.32 (cf. 2.44)

As is often pointed out in discussions of Homeric society, this question reveals a conceptual distinction between public and private.[4] The agorē as the regular arena to discuss such public concerns as taking measures for the defense of the community against an invasion, but a private issue could be the occasion of an assembly—though Aiguptos’ first, instinctive reaction is to assume otherwise.[5] In any case, the point is made: the agorē at Ithakē, even if it has fallen into desuetude, is still felt by the characters to be the place for discussion of especially public, but also private, affairs.

When it is Tēlemakhos’ turn to speak, more institutions of the agorē manifest themselves:

στῆ δὲ μέσῃ ἀγορῇ: σκῆπτρον δέ οἱ ἔμβαλε χειρὶ
κῆρυξ Πεισήνωρ πεπνυμένα μήδεα εἰδώς.

And he stood in the middle of the agorē, and a skēptron was placed in his hand by
the herald Peisēnōr, a man who knew wise counsels.
Odusseia 2.37-38

Here a respected official carrying the title of kērux is in charge of enforcing order in the assembly by limiting the right to speak to one individual at a time, which right is enshrined in an artifact, the skēptron.[6]

Tēlemakhos proceeds with a denunciation of the Suitors that includes an appeal to the gods:

λίσσομαι ἠμὲν Ζηνὸς Ὀλυμπίου ἠδὲ Θέμιστος,
ἥ τ’ ἀνδρῶν ἀγορὰς ἠμὲν λύει ἠδὲ καθίζει

I pray by Zeus Olumpios and by Themis,
she who both seats and dissolves the agorai of men
Odusseia 2.68-69

The linkage of Themis, the personification of righteous, or at least orderly, behavior and the agorē seems well-established; thus for example the same goddess acts as kērux and convenes a pivotal divine assembly in the Ilias (20.4, discussed below). In the midst of the fierce debate that ensues, Zeus sends a pair of eagles as an omen into “the middle of the much-speaking agorē” (μέσσην ἀγορὴν πολύφημον ἱκέσθην, 2.150); for, since the people gather there, the agorē is an obvious place for the gods to communicate with them (and therefore a natural place to locate a temple, as will be seen below). With nothing resolved—for resolution would effectively end the Odusseia at Book 2—another of the Suitors “dissolved the agorē” (λῦσεν δ’ ἀγορήν, 2.257).

Later in the narrative, the sense of the location of the agorē in the community of Ithakē becomes more clear when Tēlemakhos chooses it as the place to make arrangements for his guest, Theoklumenos:

αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἀγορὴν ἐσελεύσομαι, ὄφρα καλέσσω
ξεῖνον, ὅτις μοι κεῖθεν ἅμ’ ἕσπετο δεῦρο κιόντι.

But I myself will go to the agorē, so that I may call
a stranger [Theoklumenos], who followed along with me from there as I was coming here.
Odusseia 17.52-53

Tēlemakhos proceeds from his family’s home to the agorē and finds it thronged with people (πουλὺν ὅμιλον, 67): this is clearly a public space, and it is at some distance from the home of the ruling family. Tēlemakhos’ friend Peiraios meets him there together with Theoklumenos, whom Peiraios has brought “through the city to the agorē” (ἀγορήνδε διὰ πτόλιν, 72), suggesting that the agorē is figuratively, and perhaps literally, in the center of the community. Later, after Theoklumenos delivers a dire prophecy concerning the Suitors, they in response demand that he be sent from Odusseus’ house “to go into the agorē” (εἰς ἀγορὴν ἔρχεσθαι, 20.362).

Finally, near the end of the Odusseia, after the families of the dead Suitors have collected the bodies of their sons, they assemble spontaneously:

αὐτοὶ δ’ εἰς ἀγορὴν κίον ἀθρόοι, ἀχνύμενοι κῆρ.

And they themselves went to the agorē, all together, anguished at heart.
Odusseia 24.420

As at the agorē convened by Tēlemakhos near the beginning of the Odusseia, a public debate takes place between partisans of the Suitors and those of Odusseus (Odusseia 24.421-466). Roughly half of those assembled decide to arm and confront Odusseus and his supporters, while the rest apparently remain in the agorē (464-466) before proceeding to the edge of the polis (πρὸ ἄστεος, 468) for the final showdown.

From all of this an idea of how the agorē at Ithakē was conceived can be deduced. It is an open space where people meet for public business as well as private (2.32, 44-45; 16.361-362) that seems to be centrally located within the polis (17.72), and to be some distance from the house of the most powerful family (2.9-13; 16.343-362; 17.61-64).[7] Within this space, large numbers of people, or at least men, gather (17.67), young and old (16.361), and at least some of the more influential citizens are assigned special, permanent seats (2.14).[8] A general (as opposed to private) meeting at the agorē is announced to the citizens throughout the city by kērukes, “heralds” (2.6-7, 37-38) at the request of an influential citizen (2.7); the preferred time is morning (1.372). Alternatively, the people may gather at the agorē spontaneously (24.420). The kērukes moderate discussion by handing a special staff (skēptron, 2.37) to a speaker. In sum, a host of institutions and practices is associated with the agorē on Ithakē.

It is noteworthy that the agorē on Ithakē, though depicted outwardly as largely a tool of the ruling elite, nevertheless seems to possess real authority in its own right, up to and including the ability to exile the powerful if they commit serious crimes (16.381).[9] At least theoretically, it appears, this decision-making body is responsible to some abstract notion of justice, as is reflected in the appeal by Tēlemakhos to Zeus and Themis in his denunciation of the Suitors (2.68-69).[10]


The Hellenistic keraton at Delos. / Photo by Steven Lowenstam, Creative Commons

After Odusseus is shipwrecked on the shores of Skheriē, the island and polis of the Phaiēkes, he befriends a local princess, Nausikaa, who describes for him her city:

ἔνθα δέ τέ σφ’ ἀγορὴ καλὸν Ποσιδήιον ἀμφίς,
ῥυτοῖσιν λάεσσι κατωρυχέεσσ’ ἀραρυῖα.

and there they also have an agorē, a fine temple of Poseidōn adjacent,
[the agorē] with its stones quarried and hauled in and set fast
Odusseia 6.266-267

This is a remarkable level of monumentalization: Skheriē is to be sure a supernatural community, but the epic tradition is able to envision a paved[11] agorē and the enormous effort that would be required to carry out and maintain such construction. Further, as alluded to above, the agorē here is associated spatially with other monuments, a temple and city wall. As he enters the city for himself, Odusseus observes with wonder

λιμένας καὶ νῆας ἐΐσας
αὐτῶν θ’ ἡρώων ἀγορὰς καὶ τείχεα μακρὰ

harbors and symmetrical ships
of the heroes themselves and their agorai[12] and the great walls
Odusseia 7.43-44

The ruler of the Phaiēkes later convenes an assembly, in the course of which the agorē at Skheriē can be seen to share many features with the one at Ithakē:

τοῖσιν δ’ ἡγεμόνευ’ ἱερὸν μένος Ἀλκινόοιο
Φαιήκων ἀγορήνδ’, ἥ σφιν παρὰ νηυσὶ τέτυκτο.
ἐλθόντες δὲ καθῖζον ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοισι
πλησίον. ἡ δ’ ἀνὰ ἄστυ μετῴχετο Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη
εἰδομένη κήρυκι δαΐφρονος Ἀλκινόοιο,
νόστον Ὀδυσσῆϊ μεγαλήτορι μητιόωσα,
καί ῥα ἑκάστῳ φωτὶ παρισταμένη φάτο μῦθον:
δεῦτ’ ἄγε, Φαιήκων ἡγήτορες ἠδὲ μέδοντες,
εἰς ἀγορὴν ἰέναι, ὄφρα ξείνοιο πύθησθε …
καρπαλίμως δ’ ἔμπληντο βροτῶν ἀγοραί τε καὶ ἕδραι.

And the sacred might of Alkinoos led them
to the Phaiēkes’ agorē, which had been built by them beside the ships.
And when they had come they sat on polished stones
close together. And in the city Pallas Athēnē went about
in the guise of a kērux of clever Alkinoos,
devising a return home for great-hearted Odusseus,
and so she stood by each man and spoke a word:
“Come on, leaders and counselors of the Phaiēkes,
go to the agorē, so that you may learn about the stranger.” …
And quickly the agorai and seats[13] were filled with mortals
Odusseia 8.4-12, 16

The agorē is also where the Phaiēkes hold their games:

βὰν δ’ ἴμεν εἰς ἀγορήν, ἅμα δ’ ἕσπετο πουλὺς ὅμιλος

and they went to go to the agorē, and a large throng followed
Odusseia 8.109 (cf. 8.156)

In this capacity the Phaiēkes’ agorē is also called an agōn:[14]

αἰσυμνῆται δὲ κριτοὶ ἐννέα πάντες ἀνέσταν
δήμιοι, οἳ κατ’ ἀγῶνα ἐῢ πρήσσεσκον ἕκαστα,
λείηναν δὲ χορόν, καλὸν δ’ εὔρυναν ἀγῶνα.

And all nine officials in charge of the games rose up,
men selected for public affairs, who carefully arranged each thing for assembly,
and they smoothed a place for dancing and marked off the lovely assembly.
Odusseia 8.258-260

Like the agorē on Ithakē, then, the one on Skheriē features seats (8.6, 16), is administered by public officials (kērukes, 8.8; kritoi, 8.258), is broadly attended (8.109), and is the locus of public action.[15] In a sense, Skheriē is simply a more sophisticated version of Ithakē: the special seats here are of polished stone (ξεστοῖσι λίθοισι, 8.6),[16] the agorē itself is paved (6.267), and the office of kērux is supplemented by that of the kritos (258). And whereas the citizens of Ithakē are shown worshipping in a “dusky grove of Apollōn” (20.278), the Phaiēkes have built for themselves a temple of Poseidōn, abutting their agorē (6.266). Further, there is a thematic connection that parallels the physical proximity here that links the agorē that serves as the locus of public action, the harbors and ships that provide the Phaiēkes with their livelihood (7.43, 8.5), and the temple to the sea god to whom they look for protection on the seas.


Mount Olympus / Wikimedia Commons

A consistent theme is suggested by the foregoing examples (and is corroborated by other epic agorai not discussed here): community action by the characters in an early Greek epic is discussed and implemented at an agorē. This theme asserts itself even when the community is not a human one. Thus in the Ilias, the king of the gods, Zeus, like the human commanders Agamemnōn and Priamos, summons his subordinates agorēnde “to the agorē” in order to communicate his plans to them. This occurs at pivotal points in the narrative, for instance when Zeus issues a ban on the other gods’ intervention in the Trojan War:

Ζεὺς δὲ θεῶν ἀγορὴν ποιήσατο τερπικέραυνος
ἀκροτάτῃ κορυφῇ πολυδειράδος Οὐλύμποιο

Zeus who joys in the thunder made an agorē of all the gods
on the topmost peak of very rocky Olumpos
Ilias 8.2-3

The gods’ agorē is, like those of mortal characters, both the act of assembly, and also a physical space of the sort that can be depicted in an artwork such as the Hesiodic shield of Hēraklēs:

θεῶν δ’ ἕδος ἁγνὸς Ὄλυμπος·
ἐν δ’ ἀγορή, περὶ δ’ ὄλβος ἀπείριτος ἐστεφάνωτο
ἀθανάτων ἐν ἀγῶνι

and the gods’ holy seat, Olumpos;
and on it the agorē, and boundless wealth was set around it
in the assembly of the gods
Aspis 203-205

Other assemblies at the divine agorē recur throughout the early epic corpus.[17] Although the divine meeting place is not referred to specifically as an agorē in the Ilias until the beginning of Book 8 (8.2), and is only referred to using one of the previously mentioned synonyms in the Odusseia (5.3), it is clear that the meeting space thus described in the passages cited above is the same meeting space for the numerous other times that the gods meet on Olumpos for discussion[18].

The most detailed description of the meeting place of the gods is associated with the pivotal point in the Ilias when Akhilleus returns to battle:

Ζεὺς δὲ Θέμιστα κέλευσε θεοὺς ἀγορήνδε καλέσσαι
κρατὸς ἀπ’ Οὐλύμποιο πολυπτύχου· ἣ δ’ ἄρα πάντῃ
φοιτήσασα κέλευσε Διὸς πρὸς δῶμα νέεσθαι.
οὔτέ τις οὖν ποταμῶν ἀπέην νόσφ’ Ὠκεανοῖο,
οὔτ’ ἄρα νυμφάων αἵ τ’ ἄλσεα καλὰ νέμονται,
καὶ πηγὰς ποταμῶν καὶ πίσεα ποιήεντα·
ἐλθόντες δ’ ἐς δῶμα Διὸς νεφεληγερέταο
ξεστῇς αἰθούσῃσιν ἐνίζανον, ἃς Διῒ πατρὶ
Ἥφαιστος ποίησεν ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν.
ὣς οἳ μὲν Διὸς ἔνδον ἀγηγέρατ’· οὐδ’ ἐνοσίχθων
νηκούστησε θεᾶς, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ἁλὸς ἦλθε μετ’ αὐτούς,
ἷζε δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι, Διὸς δ’ ἐξείρετο βουλήν·
τίπτ’ αὖτ’ ἀργικέραυνε θεοὺς ἀγορήνδε κάλεσσας;

But Zeus ordered Themis to summon the gods to an/the agorē
from the many-folded peak of Olumpos; and so she went everywhere
and ordered them to return to the home of Zeus.
Nor therefore was any of the rivers absent, apart from Okeanos,
nor indeed any of the nymphs that inhabit the beautiful groves
and the springs of rivers and grassy meadows,
but they came to the home of Zeus the cloud-gatherer
and sat in the polished colonnades, which for father Zeus
Hēphaistos had made with his knowing craftsmanship.
So they were assembled within Zeus’ house; nor did the earth-shaker
fail to hear the goddess [Themis], but from the sea he came among them,
and sat in their midst, and inquired into the plan of Zeus:
“Why, shining thunderer, did you call the gods to an/the agorē?”
Ilias 20.4-16

In this extended treatment, further parallels between the divine and mortal agorē become apparent. In terms of its location, the gods’ agorē is close to the home of Zeus (20.7), unlike the ones at Ithakē and Skheriē, but like that of the Trōes, which is near the home of Priamos (Ilias 2.786-795), and that of the Akhaioi, which is near the quarters of Agamemnōn (7.382-383). The “polished colonnades” (ξεστῇς αἰθούσῃσιν, 11) in which the gods sit recall the polished stone seats of the Phaiēkes (Odusseia 8.11). The duties of kērux are here performed by Themis (4), the divine personification of established order, who as discussed above is associated with mortal agorai elsewhere (Odusseia 2.69, Ilias 11.807).[19] Even on the level of the structure of the scene, the question put to Zeus by Poseidōn (16) mirrors that of Aiguptos at the agorē on Ithakē (Odusseia 2.28-29), while the broad, egalitarian nature of this assembly in Ilias 20 mirrors that of the assembly convened by Akhilleus in Book 19 (compare 20.7-9 with 19.42-45).

The community of the gods is presented in the epics as an idealized polis: protected by a fortification wall (Ilias 5.749=8.393), the inhabitants gather at their communal agorē, where they discuss their collective future. Perhaps more than any other of the evidence presented here, the divine agorē demonstrates how deeply embedded in the consciousness of epic poets and their audiences this conception of society had become by the time the epics were achieving the forms documented in the manuscript tradition. For in depicting Olumpos, poets were constrained neither by any historical reality, nor, as far as can be determined, any very specific vision of the gods’ home that was current in ancient Greek theology or folk belief. The appearance of an agorē in the archetypal community on epic Olumpos, then, is a pure manifestation of how, according to the epic tradition at the time of textualization, things should be and had always been.

Hypothetical Agorai

Hector brought back to Troy. From a Roman sarcophagus of c. 180–200 AD. / Photo by Marie Lan-Nguyen, Louvre Museum, Paris

In addition to serving as a setting in the epics, agorai also appear in similes. In one instance, the sound of Hektōr’s horses is compared to

Ζεύς, ὅτε δή ἄνδρεσσι κοτεσσάμενος χαλεπήνῃ,
οἳ βίῃ εἰν ἀγορῇ σκολιὰς κρίνωσι θέμιστας,

Zeus, when indeed he has become angry and turns his rage against men
who in an/the violent agorē make crooked judgments
Ilias 16.386-387[20]

Again, as with the invocation of Themis, the agorē is associated with an abstract notion of justice. In the Odusseia, Odusseus describes how he waited for Kharubdis to disgorge his ship’s timbers, which happened

ὄψ’· ἦμος δ’ ἐπὶ δόρπον ἀνὴρ ἀγορῆθεν ἀνέστη
κρίνων νείκεα πολλὰ δικαζομένων αἰζηῶν,

late; but at the time when a man gets up from the agorē
 for his evening meal
after judging many disputes of vigorous men pleading their cases
Odusseia 12.439-440[21]

In this case, it is not the abstract justice of Zeus that is invoked, but the kind of quotidian image with which the Hesiodic Erga kai Hēmerai engages (29-30).

These similes, like most of those in the early epics, create images of the world in which the audience lives, in contrast with the notionally distant past in which the heroes live.[22] In regard to the significance of the agorē, however, the distance between illud tempus of the heroes and the id tempus of the similes is collapsed: in both temporal frames, it is assumed that a community worthy of the name dedicates a space for the shared use of all the citizens for assembly and discussion, and for judgment. Nevertheless, crucially, the language of the agorē and its institutions bridge that gap. The epic heroes may be superhuman, but in the final analysis they inhabit the kinds of poleis in which their audiences lived. Epic warrior-culture is also an “agorē-culture.”

The extent to which the agorē and associated institutions that involve collective action have become embedded in epic society is further reflected in formulaic speech. Consider for example line-initial expressions for entering the agorē: ἀλλὰ σύ γ’ εἰς ἀγορήν (Ilias 19.34) οἵ τέ μοι εἰν ἀγορῇ (Ilias 19.88) αὐτὰρ ὅ γ’ εἰς ἀγορήν (Homeric Hymn 2.297) αὐτοὶ δ’ εἰς ἀγορήν (Odusseia 24.420, 16.361) εἰς ἀγορήν (Odusseia 1.90, 20.362, 16.377; 8.12) ἔν τ’ ἀγορῇ (Theogonia 430) ἐν δ’ ἀγορή (Aspis 204) A related set of expressions is used for convening the agorē:[23] ἀγορήνδε καλέσσατο (Ilias 1.54) εἰς ἀγορὴν καλέσας (Ilias 19.34) ἀγορήνδε καλέσσαι (Ilias 20.4) ἀγορήνδε κάλεσσας (Ilias 20.16) εἰς ἀγορὴν καλέσαντα (Odusseia 1.90) εἰς ἀγορὴν καλέσας (Odusseia 1.272) ἐξ ἀγορῆς ἐκάλει (Odusseia 10.114) εἰς ἀγορὴν καλέσας (Homeric Hymn 2.297)

Especially suggestive is the formula “putting on an agorē” that appears as a periphrasis for “holding a meeting” in the Odusseia:

ἦμος δ’ ἠέλιος κατέδυ ἐπὶ κνέφας ἦλθε,
δὴ τότε κοιμήθημεν ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης
ἦμος δ’ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
καὶ τότ’ ἐγὼν ἀγορὴν θέμενος μετὰ πᾶσιν ἔειπον

And when the sun went down darkness came on,
then indeed we slept at the edge of sea’s surf.
And when early-born rose-fingered Dawn appeared,
even then I [Odusseus] held an agorē and spoke among them all
Odusseia 9.168-171=10.185-188; 9.171=10.188=12.319

Here discussion means staging an agorē, even if only at a temporary site on an unknown shore. This metonymy, by which the designation for the activity is derived from the physical location, indicates that institutions associated with the agorē are taking on a symbolic life of their own.[24]

The Epic Agorē: Preliminary Conclusions

This impression is strengthened by the embedding of assumptions about social life that is to be found in scenes set at the agorē. One example is the time of day at which an agorē is convened. As observed earlier, the regular time is morning (Ilias 2.48, Odusseia 1.372, 9.170 = 10.187 = 12.316); gathering later in the day is termed “out of order” (Odusseia 3.137-138). Further, as has been seen, special public officials (kērukes, kritoi) play key roles in managing the agorē (Ilias 2.52, 38, 786-787; 9.9-13; 18.503; Odusseia 2.6; 8.8, 258-260), including stewardship of a staff, skēptron, described variously as “golden” (e.g., Ilias 1.234), “inherited” and “immortal,” (2.46), that helps to enforce order (see in particular Ilias 2.80, 101-107, 182, 265; 7.412; 14.939.38; Odusseia 2.38, 80). Indeed, these elements have been formalized to such an extent that it is possible to speak of an assembly type-scene, which is to say a flexible narrative pattern that can be used to describe, and may have been used to construct, epic assemblies.[25] The centrality of the agorē to the action is in turn manifest in its central location within the community, whether at Ithakē (Odusseia 2.10, 24.420), Skheriē (Odusseia 6.266, 7.44, 8.5), the imaginary polis on Akhilleus’ Shield (Ilias 18.497), or at Troiē (Ilias 7.435-436).[26]

The picture of the agorē that emerges from the epics, then, is schematic and stylized. The poems show no apparent interest in depicting a specific agorē in a specific polis. Not every community mentioned in the epics possesses an agorē, but one does appear in connection with every community in which a significant portion of an epic narrative is set—in the poleis of Askrē, Eleusis, Ithakē, Pulos, Skheriē, and Troiē, the “pseudo-poleis” of Olumpos and the Greek camp at Troiē, along with a number of minor and hypothetical communities, including Eumaios’ Suriē, the Laistrugones’ Tēlepulos, the cities on Akhilleus’ shield, and in similes.

The epic agorē is, in sum, ubiquitous. In order for a member of the audience at a performance of an early Greek epic to understand what is going on in the major scenes in the epics, he or she must therefore have had some sense of both what an agorē looks like and of the kinds of activities that go on there. By extension, translators and their reading audiences, when rendering the epics into other languages, consciously or not, rely on contemporary ideas about communal space when making sense of the agorē.

The Agorē in the Material Record of Early Greece

Although Greek communities all through the ages, like communities generally, will have included places where people could gather for discussion, worship, trade and other group activities, the articulation of these spaces differed over time. Bronze Age Mycenaean communities seem to have created such areas as palace, rather than public, space, and the same seems to have been true, on a much smaller scale, in Early Iron Age communities.[27] Beginning in the eighth century, however, as a brief survey will demonstrate, open space in a few Greek communities starts to become transformed into true public space.[28] It should therefore be possible to identify a historical period that corresponds to the monumentalized and institutionalized epic agorē of the type that appears in the epics.

8th Century BCE


Ruins at Dreros / Wikimedia Commons

What is thought to be the earliest material evidence for an agorē has been found on the southern edge of the Greek world, in Crete. At Dreros, on a space between two citadels, a flat, 23 x 40 meter rectangle, bounded at one corner by a flight of seven steps, has been identified as the first archaeologically visible Greek agorē.[29] The area appears to have been part of a complex that included a temple with which it was aligned and two approach paths. The steps seem to have served as public seating, perhaps for religious as well as political purposes, and in this respect they recall the stone seats at Skheriē. The site was certainly later, if not from the first, dedicated to Apollōn Delphinios and associated with the aforementioned temple, as well as with a building that may have served government functions (prutaneion). Pottery from the temple dates to the last quarter of the eighth century, while legal inscriptions on the wall of the adjacent temple of Apollōn, together with an inscription that references “Zeus Agoraios” that date from the latter half of the seventh century establish the function of the space at least by this time.[30] Elsewhere in Crete, at Amnisos, the port of Knossos, a putative agorē has been identified in proximity to a shrine of Zeus Thenatēs that has been dated to the eighth century.[31]

The other contemporary agorai are to be found on the eastern side of the Greek world. At Zagora on Andros, a community founded in the late ninth century and deserted around 700, an open space has been identified as potentially belonging to a complex that included a chieftain’s residence and a temple or shrine, possibly dedicated to Athēnē.[32] Slightly later than Zagora, though resembling it in important respects,[33] is Emporio on Chios, which was settled in the late eighth century and abandoned (except for its temple of Athēnē) some time in the seventh; there an open space for assembly may have been located on the acropolis.[34] Finally, the excavators of Old Smyrna in Ionia suggested that an area just inside the city wall was left open when the town was reorganized around 700 BCE to serve as an agorē; this area was also associated with a temple of Athēnē.[35]

There are, then, only a few sites where agorai may have been established by 700 BCE, all of them at the edges of the Greek world.[36] Moreover, the validity of the identification of the agorai at each of these sites has been called into question. It is not unlikely that Dreros and a few other eighth century Greek communities had agorai and associated institutions that were comparable to those in Homeric communities, and it is all but certain that some early agorai await discovery or are irrecoverable. What is equally clear, however, is that the agorē cannot be considered a common feature of Greek communities in the eighth century.

7th Century BCE

Ruins at Lato / Wikimedia Commons

The polis of Lato in the east of Crete was, like that at Dreros, built around two acropoleis, at the saddle between which was located a cluster of public buildings (though those excavated so far date only to the third or fourth century) at a space that modern excavators have termed an agorē; this space was apparently associated in the seventh century with some sort of hero cult or shrine that would be the site of a later temple.[37] Further toward south central Crete, at Gortyn, an inscription refers to the agorē, for which two sites have been proposed; as elsewhere its establishment coincided with the synoecism of surrounding villages and the construction of temples, here in the course of the seventh century.[38]

Also in this century, a number of the new colonial foundations began to establish agorai. At Megara Hyblaia in eastern Sicily, where the earliest pottery dates from the second half of the eighth century, the settlement seems to have been arranged from the start in a grid pattern, and it is sometimes concluded that an agorē was part of the original plan.[39] However, there is also evidence that not one but several grids were overlaid on the site and harmonized in the course of the city’s first century, which suggests to others that the archaic agorē at Megara Hyblaia was only established during the reorganization in the mid-seventh century.[40] Founded perhaps a century after Megara Hyblaia, Selinous, on the southwest coast of Sicily, also seems to have elaborated a complex of public buildings centered on an agorē, though rather earlier in its history.[41] At Metapontion in southern Italy, on the other hand, an agorē is associated with the very first layout of the city at the end of the seventh century.[42]

What might at first appear to be a variety of different settlement patterns in Magna Graecia has been explained by archaeologists in terms of a more or less simultaneous trend among the western Greeks. Thus, although Megara Hyblaia, Selinous and Metapontion were founded at different times, the monumentalization of public space that brought about the association of shrines and temples with a centrally located agorē occurred, not as an organic development requiring several generations in some cases, less in others, but rather as a product of the needs, desires, and probably of the agonistic and emulative instincts, of late seventh century poleis.[43] That this process is particularly evident in colonies is natural, since new foundations, unlike those that had grown up organically back in Greece, could be planned and shaped to reflect the ideals and preconceptions of the colonizers and their native polis.[44]

An apparently similar trend is apparent in the seventh century Aegean on the island of Paros. At Koukounaries, an earlier site was abandoned and a new one developed in the seventh century that included a putative agorē.[45] An agorē may also be indicated at a similar and contemporary settlement on the islet of Oikonomos off the shore of Paros; here it abuts the fortification wall.[46] On the north Aegean island of Thasos, a seventh-century agorē has been identified in proximity to an apparently later temple of Apollōn.[47] To the south, the island of Thera may also have been the site of an agorē, though the conjecture appears to be based largely on comparison with the Theran colony of Cyrene, founded in the second half of the seventh century.[48] Finally, at Vroulia on Rhodes an agorē appears to have established on the edge of what was apparently a small and short-lived but nevertheless carefully planned community; here too the space is in proximity to the fortification wall and shrines or a temple.[49]

The evidence for the agorē in the seventh century, then, is more widespread than that for the eighth century, but it remains limited. At perhaps a dozen sites, the existence of an agorē is certain or nearly so, and there are a few other possibilities.[50] Since Zagora and Emporio were both abandoned by about 700, the only sites for which there is inconvertible material evidence for functioning agorai in Greek communities in the seventh century are Dreros, Lato and Gortyn in Crete, Megara Hyblaia, Selinous and Metapontion in Magna Graecia, Thasos in the north Aegean, Paros and Thera in the Cyclades, and Vroulia on Rhodes. There is however little archaeological evidence for agorai on the Greek mainland before the sixth century, and it seems unlikely that significant numbers of earlier agorai remain undetected.[51] In other words, the agorē was not a normative feature of Greek life in the eighth century, and is unlikely to have been so before the second half of the seventh. It is only from this latter point that “agorē-culture” can be considered a truly Panhellenic phenomenon—one exampled across Greece, and therefore meaningful for Panhellenic audiences.[52]

εἰς ἀγορὴν κυδιάνειραν: Some Preliminary Conclusions

In the material record of early Greece, evidence for the collective decision to create, adorn and maintain an agorē goes hand-in-hand with that for other developments in the use of space that are signifiers of the polis. Specifically, at the same time that the agorē began to become a common feature of Greek poleis, so also did monumental places of public worship—temples—and monumental defensive works that protected most or all of a community, and these features also are exampled rarely before the mid-seventh century.[53] The emergence of agorē-culture was a slow process: by around 700, only a few communities seem to have begun to feel the need to “say something” about the internal workings of their institutions by establishing agorai on a scale that is archaeologically visible.[54] By 600, many communities across Greece were making statements in this language; by the end of the sixth century, Greek culture could truly be considered an agorē-culture, the first in the world to create consciously a public sphere.[55]

The early Greek epics, according to the analysis put forward above, assume an understanding of this language. These poems were composed and performed for audiences for whom it was natural that common people, heroes and gods alike, from Ithakē to Olumpos and all points in between, live in communities with defined public space for debate, space that was itself monumentalized and associated with other public monuments, in particular temples and city walls. Institutions such as the office of herald and preconceptions such as the proper time of day for meeting, along with formulaic language, suggest how deeply the agorē has become embedded in the epic tradition, which is of course one reflection of Greek culture itself.

For the epic agorē is in the final analysis defined not so much by its monumentalization as by its status as public space. This is the true significance of the “staging an agorē” formula in the Odusseia and, by way of further example, of the remonstration against eavesdropping on others’ disputes in the agorē in the Erga kai Hēmerai (29-30). This physical space, open to all those possessing at least some direct political influence (female characters do not attend the epic agorē), is analogous to the space created by epic performances. Just as epic poetry is overtly public poetry (in contrast with, for example, sympotic poetry), it privileges the public spaces in which its characters live.

My overall argument can be summed up as follows. The representation of poleis in archaic Greek epics corresponds to an attenuated and vague, but coherent reflection of the material and social conditions of the poleis inhabited by or at least known to those for whom the early epics were composed and performed. The nature of these audiences was heterogeneous: because the epics took shape during performances at religious centers frequented by people from different communities, they relied on assumptions that were meaningful for most or all audience members and peculiar to none. Put another way, the epics generated an abstraction of “Greekness” that was acceptable in a large portion of the Greek-speaking world at the time when the epics were taking the forms in which we have them. This Panhellenic ideology includes assumptions about what it means to live in a community: characters live in places defined by circuit walls and a ritual matrix of urban and rural religious sites; they worship at Panhellenic shrines as well as local temples; and their public lives center on an agorē.


[1] ἀγορή is by far the most common term; synonyms include th(o)ōkos (e.g., Odusseia 2.26), aguris (Odusseia 3.31), hedrē (Odusseia 8.17), phēmis (Odusseia 15.468), agōn (Ilias 7.298), eirē (always plural; Ilias 18.531); hedos (Aspis 203), homēguris (Homeric Hymn 4 eis Apollōna 92).

[2] Thus Kenzler 1999:17: “Und bereits in den homerischen Epen wird deutlich, daß ein geordnetes Zusammenleben ohne die Agora nicht vorstellbar gewesen ist.” For the agorē as a defining feature of ancient Greek society, see Detienne 2000; Hammer 2000:337-338; Mazarakis Ainian 2000:109-137; Raaflaub 1997:9-20, 1993:54-55; Hölkeskamp 1994 and 1997; van Wees 1992:28-31, 33, 323 n11, 326 n27; Ulf 1990:164-171.

[3] The phenomenon of “homeostasis,” on which see the classic formulation of Ong 1982:46-8: “Oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance … oral traditions reflect a society’s present cultural values rather than idle curiosity about the past,” cited by Morris 1986:87. See already Parry 1971=1935:454-455: “…the mind, since it cannot think in a vacuum, must necessarily carry over to its comprehension of the past the notions of the present.”

[4] See for example Van Wees 1992:33.

[5] The distinction is not entirely clear-cut: when elsewhere in the Odusseia (21.15-17) Odusseus is said to have traveled to Messenē with a claim against the whole people (πᾶς δῆμος, 17), he at least visits the household of the ruler (οἴκῳ ἐν Ὀρτιλόχοιο δαΐφρονος, 16), though it is not specified whether he pleads his case there or perhaps at an unmentioned but implicit agorē.

[6] For the role of the skēptron in assemblies see in particular Ilias 1.101-109, 2.185-186.

[7] On this separation see Scully 1990:101.

[8] In addition to here and at Ithakē, permanent stone seats for at least the more distinguished members of the community are to be found as well as in the agorai at Pulos (Odusseia 3.31), Olumpos (Ilias 8.439, 456), and the City at Peace on Akhilleus’ shield (Ilias 18.504).

[9] On the powers of the epic agorē see for example Saïd 2011:84; Crielaard 1995:243-244; Scully 1990:101-102. In non-Homeric accounts of Odusseus’ return, the hero is himself exiled by the Suitors’ families, for which see Marks 2008: 83-111, and Akhilleus seems to have been driven from the army of the Akhaioi by public opinion after his killing of Thersitēs in the Cyclic Aithiopis (Proklos p. 68.1-10 Bernabé).

[10] Scully 1990:102 connects the citation of Themis here with the use of the epithet “sacred” to describe the “circle” of the agorē depicted on the Shield of Achilles (Ilias 18.503-504).

[11] For ῥυτοῖσιν λάεσσι κατωρυχέεσσ’ ἀραρυῖα meaning “paved,” see Hainsworth in Heubeck et al. 1988:310-311 ad 6.267.

[12] The force of the plural (cf. Ilias 2.275, 788; Odusseia 8.16) is unclear.

[13] Or, as a hendiadys, “the seats in the agorē.”

[14] On agōn see above n1.

[15] This agorē is also presumably where the queen of the Phaiēkes, Arētē, “settles disputes for men” (ἀνδράσι νείκεα λύει, Odusseia 7.74). The similarity between the agorai on Ithakē and Skheriē is discussed by Scully 1990:101-102.

[16] See Dubbini 2011:28-29 on the significance of such language for the monumentalization of public space in the early polis.

[17] The divine agorē: Odusseia 5.3, Ilias 8.439, Homeric Hymn 2 eis Dēmētran 92, Homeric Hymn 3 eis Apollōna 92, Homeric Hymn 4 eis Hermēn 325-332, Theogonia 802-804.

[18] Indications about the location of these divine council scenes is found at Ilias 1.439-611, 4.1, 15.84-85, 22.166-87, 24.22-142; Odusseia 1.26-7, 5.3, 5.7, 12.377, 13.125-59, 14. 472-488.

[19] For the connection between Themis, Zeus and the agorē in this passage see Kenzler 1999:196-200, 206-208; cf. 48-49. E. Cook 1995:97 n11 suggests that the concept of themis serves to connect the gods as the guarantors of law with kings and judges as its enforcers.

[20] On this simile see recently Tsagalis 2012:331-333. Janko IC 4: 364-366 rightly discounts the view that the passage represents a later (and interpolated) view of the gods; for a similar formulation, see Theogonia 80-87. Cook 1995:45 n75 connects this passage with a divinely enforced cycle of transgression/warning/punishment.

[21] On the symbolic force of this simile see De Jong 2001:311 ad 12.428-441.

[22] On the temporal frame of Homeric similes see e.g., Edwards 1987:103.

[23] Compare the less frequent formula for ending an agorē: λῦσαν/εν δ’ ἀγορήν (Ilias 1.305, 19.276; Odusseia 2.257).

[24] Thus Hölkeskamp 2002:318-319 speaks of “the ‘institutionalization’ of the agore and indeed the polis” in the Homeric poems. As Farenga 2006:45 puts it, such a formula as “putting on an agorē” “provides a narrative bridge modeling conduct at everyday councils.”

[25] Marks 2008:159-166; Beck 2005:191-195; De Jong 2001:45-47 ad Odusseia 2.6-259.

[26] On the central location of the epic agorē, with special reference to Skheriē as “an impression of what the poet and his audience thought a city should look like” [emphasis in original], see Crielaard 2009:351.

[27] See for example Kenzler 1999:304-326.

[28] In the words of Lang 2002:15, “From the Archaic period onwards a spatial division within the settlements is conspicuous. … One of its consequences was that every domain received its own architectural shape often connected to specific functions. At the beginning the agora could be described with simple feature [sic] as an open square, surrounded by buildings with cultural function. … In the later Archaic period the agora received an architectural form which expressed its essential function as political, administrative, economic, communicative and traffic focus of the town.”

[29] For the excavation see Demargne and van Effenterre 1937:10-15. Interpretation: “The earliest known agora in the Greek world,” Coldstream 2003 [1977]:279; Crielaard 2009:365 “earliest-known spatially defined agorē in the Greek world.” Compare the more cautious assessment of Sjögren 2008:143, that the site is “probably not an agorē in the Classical meaning,” but “should be regarded as one of the earliest examples of planned open spaces in Crete,” and the outright scepticism of S. Miller 1978:97, who asserts that it is “not at all securely identified” and Hansen and Fischer-Hansen 1994:2 who conclude that “interpretation…must remain uncertain.”

[30] Sjögren 2008:208: 83-84; McDonald 1943:61.

[31] Kenzler 1999:69-70; Mazarakis Ainian 1997:335-336; as he observes (368), the cave of Eileithuia at Amnisos is mentioned in the Odusseia (19.188-190).

[32] For the agorē see Mazarakis Ainian and Leventi 2009:218; Coldstream 2003 [1977]:315; Morris 1998:22-23; Kenzler 1999: 4-75; Mazarakis Ainian 1997:171-176 discusses the religious architecture. For the identification of the chieftain’s residence, see Cambitoglou et. al. 1971:31; Fig. IV shows the proximity of the putative agorē to the temple (buildings H30-31).

[33] Kenzler 1999:76.

[34] One of the excavators, Boardman 1967:249, laments that “the one thing not identified … is the agora,” though he suggests one may have been located near the chieftain’s megaron, citing as corroboration the passages from the Ilias that locate the Trojan agorē near the residence of Priamos (2.786-795, 7.545-347). Coldstream 2003 [1977]:315, 433, citing Boardman’s speculation, asserts that “at Emporio the open space [for assembly] is on the acropolis, between the sanctuary of the patron deity Athena and the megaron of the leading nobleman.”

[35] Nicholls 1958-1959:75-79, 124-125. The excavators’ clearest statement on the subject seems to be the famous “imaginative reconstruction” of the seventh century city drawn by Nicholls and presented by J. Cook 1958-1959:15 Figure 3. Kenzler 1999:84 comments on the frequent comparison of Old Smyrna to Skheriē that serves as part of the basis for positing an agorē at the historical site. See also Snodgrass 1980:157, Coldstream 2003 [1977]:315.

[36] The absence of agorai on the mainland may of course reflect in part the difficulty of distinguishing an eighth century stratum; see for example the case of Eretria in Euboia discussed by Walker 2004:105 and Kenzler 1999:96-97.

[37] Perlman 2004:1173-1174; Kenzler 1999:112, and 67-69 discusses the tendency to cite the Cretan evidence in connection with the Homeric epics. For the layout of the urban center of Lato, see Gaignerot-Driessen 2012:61 Figure 1. For the public buildings see Coldstream 2003 [1977]:315; Hansen and Fischer-Hansen 1994:63-65; S. Miller 1978:78-86; for the comparison between Lato and Dreros, see Willetts 1976:151.

[38] Discussion and bibliography in Sjögren 2008:143, 204 n598; see further Coldstream 2003:402, 406-7; Perlman 2000:71-72. Martin 1951:229-232 postulates that the so-called “Pythian” agorē at Gortyn was founded in the seventh century but “plus tard, un héroon fut éléve sur l’esplanade et maintenit le caractère traditionnel de l’agora” (230).

[39] Thus for example De Angelis 2003:17-20.

[40] See the conclusions of Osborne 1998: 260. Svenbro 1982 distinguishes five separate grids, which he suggests may correspond to the five villages that composed the mother city, Megara. Morris 1998:23 argues that “It was not until after 650 that the area around the agorē [at Megara Hyblaia] began to look like late eighth-century Zagora, as the original plots of 100-120 square meters were filled by courtyard houses”; similarly Snodgrass 1980:157. Hall 2007:47 points out that “in reality there is little compelling evidence that it [the agorē] served this function much before its monumentalization a century later.” See further Kenzler 1999:89-91, 104.

[41] De Anglis 2003:128-131 (especially Figure 41), 143.

[42] Crielaard 2009:365-366; Hansen and Fischer-Hansen 1994:65-67; Adamesteanu 1979:305 cites a sixth-century inscription containing the words Διὸς ἀγορά.

[43] Di Vita 1990:349 points to a general pattern of reorganization early within a few generations of the initial foundation of colonies. In like manner Bergquist 1992:123, quoted by De Angelis 2003:143, argues with respect to the colonies on Sicily that “sanctuaries regarded as architectural ensembles are a contemporaneous phenomenon, irrespective of whether the city was a colony of long standing or a recently founded sub-colony.”

[44] Hölscher 2012:174 speaks eloquently of the significance of the Greek colonies: “This is the contribution of the newly founded colonies: to testify more clearly than the old-established centers the way in which all Greeks conceived their living spaces.”

[45] Schilardi 2002:231-232 describes it as “an open space, free of buildings.”

[46] Schilardi 2002:233, 237; elsewhere (1983:182) he comments on the precocity of the Parian communities: “Both sites at Koukounaries and on the Oikonomos inlet display advanced characteristics” that “cannot be readily explained at this stage.”

[47] Osborne 1996:234-236; Grandjean 1988:292-299; Graham 1978:71; R. Martin 1951:236, 390-391; however, as these scholars acknowledge, the argument for so early a date is connected to an inscription mentioning Arkhilokhos, and is therefore contaminated by poet’s biographical tradition. The chronology at Thasos is difficulty owing to fourth-century reconstruction; Grandjean:294 and Graham:66-70 detail how the attempts to date certain structures to the first half of the seventh century require that the pottery sequence be ignored.

[48] Martin 1951:235-236.

[49] Whitley 2001:171; Kenzler 1999:79-80; Lang 1996:193-194.

[50] Other possible candidates, for which the evidence is even more equivocal and disputed than the sites just discussed (see n36 above), include: Phaistos and Prinias: Sjögren 2008:143; Syracuse: Kenzler 1999:85-86; Athens: Papadopoulos 2003; Thebes: Symeonoglou 1985:137; Corinth: Kenzler 1999:93-94; Argos; Kenzler 1999:94-99.

[51] See the tabulations by Lang 1996:65 and Martin 1951:Tableau 1.

[52] On Panhellenism see Nagy 1990:52-81, and recently 2009:51-54.

[53] The extensive evidence that corroborates this statement belongs to the larger project from which the present essay is excerpted, but for an overview see the tabulations of Mazarakis Ainian 1997:420-424 for temples and Frederiksen 2011:201-206 for walls.

[54] See for instance Whitley 2001:191: “The creation of an agora on this scale [referring to Dreros and Megara Hyblaia] represents a conscious descision to create urban space. Previously the only areas within a settlement reserved for the community as a whole were its sanctuaries.”

[55] On the creation of public space see Whitley 2001: 174; Hölscher 1999: 11-23, and 37-38 on the significance of the agorē as a space of “neutrality” in the historical Greek polis; see also Morris 1987: 7-8. On the nature of archaeological evidence for the differentiation of public and private space see Sjögren 2008: 138-157.


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