The Earliest Podium of Democracy
Beginning as early as 507 BC, when the reforms of Cleisthenes transferred the political power to the people, Athenian citizens, the ekklesia, gathered here to host their popular assemblies, thus making the hill one of the earliest and most important sites in the creation of democracy. At the time, the location was outside the city proper, but close enough to be convenient. It looks down on the ancient Agora, which was the commercial and social center of the city. It is at the Pnyx, at this site, that all the great political struggles of Athens of the "Golden Age" were given. Famous orators such as Pericles, Aristides and Alcibiades spoke here, within sight of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, at the vema or bema, the "stepping stone" or speakers' platform, about 3 m. (10 ft.) above the ground, surrounded by a balustrade as it is attested by holes in the bedding. It is here that Demosthenes delivered his vilification speeches on Philip the Macedon, the famous Philippics, warning the Athenians about the expansionist aspirations of the Macedonian Greek state towards the South. In front of the bema, on the supporting wall to the North, Meton, the celebrated astronomer, established in 433 BC the Heliotropion (sundial).
The Pnyx is a small, rocky hill with a large flat platform of eroded stone set into its side, and steps carved on its slope. The monument has three building phases:
- The first phase was probably constructed in the early 5th century, associated with the changes of Kleisthenes. The people apparently sat on the hillside facing a speaker's platform on the north. There were wooden seats for the members of the Council of 500, who were selected by lot for terms of a single year to run the city on a day-to-day basis, and prepare the agenda for the Assembly. The seating capacity may have been anywhere from 6000 to 13,000 people while there was room for several more standing, and the assembled citizens had a view toward the Agora, The Areos Pagos and the Acropolis Propylaea. This phase is represented archaeologically only by a few cuttings in the bedrock and a boundary stone, not found on the site, so the date and size are not certain.
- The second phase is dated ca. 400 B.C. A stepped terrace wall was created on the north to support an artificial terrace, and the people sat facing a speaker's platform on the south. Part of the stepped terrace wall is preserved, as well as a staircase with rock-cut steps leading up to it from the direction of the Agora. The size of the auditorium is not that much larger than the previous one.
- The third phase, where the Pnyx was rebuilt and expanded probably around 345-335 B.C. A new monumental retaining wall with a stepped entrance gave new dimensions to the site. The southern side of the auditorium and speaker's platform (bema) were quarried out of the natural bedrock, opposite the entrance.
On a terrace above, south of the speaker's podium, the foundations begun for 2 long stoas (arcades). It is unknown for how many more years Pnyx was used as the meeting place of the ekklesia, and certainly by the 1st century B.C. the assembly held their meetings in the Theater of Dionyssos on the South Slope of the Acropolis.
Archaeological excavations discovered the foundations of several buildings at and around the Pnyx, although nothing else remains of them. Most of these buildings were erected after the Pnyx had lost its real significance. These included the two large stoas, erected between 330 and 326 BC, the Altar of Zeus Agoraios, protector of the constitution, erected at the same time, but removed during the reign of Augustus (first century BC), and the Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, as a healer. Evidence for the sanctuary consist of c. 50 niches for votive plaques cut into the bedrock scarp east of the speaker's platform. Many of the votive plaques are carved with representations of human body parts (eyes, breasts, etc.), suggesting that this Zeus Hypsistos was a healing divinity.
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