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By the People, for the People? Structural Reactions in the Landscape of Roman Athens

Joshua R. Vera

The University of Chicago

When Sulla sacked Athens in 86 BC, he initiated a process of urban development that permanently redefined the local landscape—including many of the most famous objects and places that memorialized classical Athenian culture. In the piecemeal reconstruction of the city center during the period between Sulla’s invasion and Hadrian’s extensive renovations in the 120–130s AD, an unprecedented series of projects effectively filled in the center of the Agora, pulled the focus of everyday life eastward toward an expanded new core, and ultimately transformed the way viewers experienced the civic space. Although no surviving literature tells us how these changes affected the lives of the local community, I argue that subsequent developments in the built environment provide a window into the activities and negotiations of the Athenians under the Roman Empire.

Throughout these years, the locals were continuously building and rebuilding in, on, around, and between the larger structures attributable to Roman and/or aristocratic sponsorship. By examining the archaeological and epigraphic records of the American School’s excavations in the Agora, I have identified certain ‘structural reactions’ that are indicative of adjustment, adaptation, and/or acclimation to the more obvious monumental changes. In key transitional areas on the edges of the Agora, I highlight public works evidently initiated and executed by the Dēmos (the civic council of the Athenian people, such as it was during this period) that stand out as efforts of local memorialization. In conjunction with these projects, I pinpoint prior or concurrent benefactions from private and/or imperial sponsors, which seem to have driven the choice and timing of the comparatively pedestrian works carried out by the civic council. I present here three pairs: the renovation of a staircase in front of the Hephaisteion that appears at the same time as Claudius’s monumental new ramp for the Acropolis (40s AD); the embellishment of passageways at the northwestern and eastern entrances that were carried out after the handsome new “library” of the aristocrat Pantainos (c. 100 AD); and the erection of civic offices in the southwest corner of the Agora that seem to respond to the elaborate reorganization of the city center by Hadrian’s architects (130–140s AD).

Previous considerations of these developments, offered primarily by archaeologists situating this evidence within the established phases of construction in Athens, have focused almost entirely on the larger objects that appear during this period, known collectively as the “itinerant temples” (Thompson 1962; Thompson and Wycherley 1972; Shear, Jr. 1981; Dinsmoor, Jr. 1982). Only on a preliminary basis have scholars considered the effect of these changes on the activities of the region surrounding the Agora, and the implications of this data for the social and religious experience of the community (Walker 1997; Alcock 2002; Dickenson 2016). I propose that the priorities of the Roman-era Athenians can be discerned in these ‘reactive’ construction efforts, and that the projects represent an assertion of their continuing viability as actors in the ongoing development of their civic landscape. These areas traditionally were significant for their religious activities, so the physical interaction of new construction with existing sacred objects provides insight into both their use and symbolism for the locals. Therefore, the Athenian decision to monumentalize the access points around the most prominent memorial objects that survived from their classical heritage, and particularly at the times when the efforts were undertaken, reveals a possible strategy to emphasize these old places and landmarks in new layers of the landscape. By identifying the ways in which the locals adapted, adjusted, and acclimated to the new, "Romanized" image of their city, we can establish the extent to which such developments should be interpreted as a reflection of contemporary cultural priorities—and whose priorities these truly were.

Session/Panel Title

Winning the People

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