Building Democracy in Late Archaic Athens

Citation with persistent identifier: Paga, Jessica. “Building Democracy in Late Archaic Athens.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).


Democracy emerged in a specific time and place: ancient Athens, at the end of the 6th century B.C.E.  Its unexpected appearance came at a time of uncertainty, making its robust success surprising and provoking scholars for generations to consider how this demotic form of government was able to succeed.  My current research centers on the relationship between the built environment of Athens and its political regime, with particular focus on the late 6th and early 5th centuries B.C.E.


In 508/7 B.C.E., after years of stasis and uncertainty, the city of Athens was rocked by a momentous occurrence: the passage of a series of reforms that resulted in the creation of what has come to be known as the world’s first democracy.  Exactly how the Athenians did this – how they implemented the reforms, how they adapted them over time, how the new political regime began to flourish so rapidly, how it succeeded despite the odds – is still a fundamental question 2,500 years later.  My book, Building Democracy in Late Archaic Athens, provides a novel answer to these questions by attending to the built environment broadly, and monumental architecture specifically.  The results of the reforms transformed the very nature of what it meant to be Athenian and their far-reaching effects would come to leave their mark on nearly every aspect of society, including the structures at which they prayed and in which they debated legislation.

The book investigates the built environment of ancient Athens precisely during this time, the Late Archaic period (ca. 514/13 – 480/79 B.C.E.).  It was these decades, filled with transition and disorder, when the Athenians transformed their political system from a tyranny to a democracy.  Concurrent with the socio-political changes, they altered the physical landscape and undertook the monumental articulation of the city and countryside.  Interpreting the nature of the fledgling democracy from a material standpoint, my book approaches the questions and problems about the early political system through the lens of buildings.

The focus on monumental structures erected during this particular time period demonstrates how the built environment worked to facilitate the functioning of the nascent political regime.  Architecture, in this formulation, both reflected and contributed to the success of the young democratic state.  While Athenian democracy – its institutions, ideology, and capabilities – has been intensively studied, little attention has been paid to the intersection between built structures and the political system during its earliest phases.  My book draws attention to a pivotal period of Athenian political history through the built environment, thereby exposing the richness of the material record and illustrating how it participated in the creation of a new democratic Athenian identity.

The book offers two fundamentally distinctive elements.  The first is an in-depth analysis of the intersection between monumental building and political governance.  I demonstrate the deep and layered connections between the historical and political context of Athens and the built environment and how the emergence of democracy was entwined with the shaping of the polis.  The final chapter offers a comprehensive consideration of how scholars can use the Late Archaic building program to ask and answer questions about the functionality, robustness, and capabilities of the nascent political regime that emerged following the reforms of 508/7.  When scholars have sought to understand these topics in the past – how the reforms were implemented, how the political regime came to flourish, why it was successful – the built environment is frequently overlooked.  This book places these structures at the center of the discussion and thereby offers new avenues of interdisciplinary investigation into an old, but still highly relevant, topic.

The second distinctive element is the identification of what I have termed a Late Archaic building program.  This distinct period of architectural activity is evidenced by extensive chronological recalibration and personal autopsy of structural remains and ceramics.  For the first time, this book identifies this period as one of intense and comprehensive building activity.  Designating this period of architectural innovation as such challenges traditional understandings of ancient building programs, particularly their attachment to tyrants, autocrats, and kings.  Several sites and structures that have not been widely published in English or have not been extensively studied are presented alongside more familiar buildings, such as those on the Athenian Akropolis and in the Agora.  Many of the structures are controversial in their dating and reconstruction, and these controversies are acknowledged and, in some cases, resolved.

The implications are thus twofold.  In the first place, this book offers an increased understanding of a hitherto unacknowledged period of building activity.  Secondly, the book facilitates a more robust consideration of the nature of the political regime brought about the Kleisthenic reforms, rooted in the built environment.

Following a brief introduction, the first chapter focuses on the buildings of the Athenian Akropolis.  A brief survey of earlier building activity is provided in order to consider how the Akropolis looked at the time of the reforms and to highlight some of the problems and controversies in the architectural material, such as the issue of the “H-Architecture” (the Bluebeard Temple or Hekatompedon) and its successor, the Old Athena Temple.  The chapter closes by placing the Akropolis buildings within their broader topographical and historical context, including calculations of the financial cost of all this building activity and a reflection on the unified theme of military ascendency enshrined in the structures.  While at the CHS, I confirmed several aspects of restoration and elevation for the Bluebeard Temple and Old Athena Temple and deepened my argument regarding issues of pollution and military conquest.

The second chapter focuses on the Athenian Agora, the civic center and marketplace of the polis.  At the heart of this chapter is the issue of when the government buildings and functions shifted from the Archaic (Old) Agora to this new area, and how the new buildings articulated the changed political landscape of the polis.  As with chapter one, this chapter progresses monument by monument.  Three buildings in particular are highlighted – the Old Bouleuterion (Council House), the Stoa Basileios (magistrate’s office), and the Southeast Fountain House – due to their unique forms and decoration (in the case of the first two), their crucial functions for the polis, and their siting within the Agora.  The Old Bouleuterion is a hypostyle hall, a particularly interesting architectural form.  While at the CHS, I explored the history of this building type in greater depth, in preparation for a talk I gave in March 2019.

Chapter three includes buildings in the astu (city center) of Athens, excluding the Akropolis and Agora; this includes places such as the Ilissos River area, the Pynx, and the Sanctuary of Dionysos Eleutherios.  The chapter concludes with an examination of the sight lines and viewing axes that crisscross the city, connected to and independent of the roadways and paths.  These sight lines, axes, and roads link various parts of the city together via the built environment, thereby underscoring relationships in both architectural form and function.  During my semester at the CHS, I experimented with viewshed analysis tools to strengthen the visual and kinaesthetic links presented in this chapter.

In chapter four, the focus of attention is the demes (villages and towns) in the Attic countryside.  In total, 12 demes and one independent sanctuary (Brauron) are considered.  The deme structures include sacred buildings and civic or infrastructure projects, like fortification walls and theatral areas.  After mapping the demes with building activity, I identify a pattern of border articulation and highlight the expression of demotic identity reflected and engendered in this attention to the countryside.  While at the CHS, I was able to locate excavation notices for a newly discovered structure in the deme of Xypete that augments my argument in this chapter of the book, as well as consult the recent publications of the Zea Harbour Project.

The final chapter of the book addresses the links between the built environment as outlined in the previous chapters and the historical context of the early democracy.  In total, 42 monumental structures were built in a 28-year period.  This represents an incredibly high level of coordination, exploitation of resources, and financial expenditure that Athens had not seen prior.  This chapter therefore draws attention to the economic ramifications of such building activity, before turning to a consideration of the term “building program” and what it implies about demotic agency.  The chapter concludes by evaluating what the building activity tells us about the state of the new government system in the Late Archaic period.

A brief epilogue closes the book and reflects on the generative role of monumental architecture with respect to demotic governance, with specific attention to the concept of causal efficacy and architectural agency.  There are also three appendices, including a catalogue of sites and monuments.  At present, I plan to include approximately 80 images, a mix of photographs, line drawings, and maps, many of which are my own creations.  While at the CHS, I was able to process the photographs and update the maps using Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Lightroom.

In addition to revisions of this book manuscript, my time at the CHS was also devoted to processing and analyzing data from the Contrada Mango Project, for which I serve as Field Director.  The sanctuary at Contrada Mango is an Archaic-Classical religious site at Segesta, Sicily, dedicated to an as-yet unknown deity.  The site is important for several reasons, but our particular interest there is in investigating the relationship between the indigenous Elymian inhabitants and their Phoenician and Greek neighbors, as made manifest in the material remains.  The sanctuary housed at least one, if not two, impressive monumental stone temples within its large temenos.  The temples and precinct walls were built with painstaking care and precision, and their Greek architectural forms raise interesting questions about the relationship between the Elymians of Segesta and their nearby Greek rivals at Selinous.

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