Monday, February 5, 2018


Christopher P.  Dickenson, On the Agora: The Evolution of a Public Space in Hellenistic and Roman Greece (c. 323 BC – 267 AD). Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 398. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. xvii, 480. ISBN 9789004326712. $194.00.

Reviewed by Samantha L. Martin-McAuliffe, University College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume is a welcome addition to scholarship on the planning and development of the Greek agora. It joins a growing list of recent studies that are reappraising the agora as both a formal architectural type and a complex, evolving political institution.1 The monograph under review is a revised version of one portion of Dickenson's 2012 doctoral dissertation from the University of Groningen examining the transformation of the Greek agora between the Hellenistic and early Roman imperial periods. It consists of a substantial introduction followed by four main chapters, arranged chronologically and covering the years between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the arrival of the Herulians in Greece in 267 AD. Overall, it offers a very broad and comparative synthesis of the urban design and function of agoras in no less than seventy sites across the Greek mainland and the islands of the Aegean.

The Introduction provides a detailed review of the literature and raises some key questions that perennially vex scholars working on the topic of Greek agoras, including not only the multifaceted interpretation of the term agora itself, but also the problems inherent in the use of modern architectural typology. While the former is addressed in detail, the application of typological classification systems within the study of ancient architecture remains unchallenged. To some extent, the exceptionally wide chronological and topographical breadth of this project necessitates the use of formal typology at least in part, since otherwise the sheer quantity of the material would be unmanageable. Although this method remains the dominant approach to studying ancient architecture and urbanism in general, it should be acknowledged that it does little to help us comprehend the environment and rich meaning inherent in a particular building or the contexts that evolve from changing social considerations. Ultimately, the material studied in this volume is gathered as evidence for addressing a key overarching question: whether or not the monumentalisation of agoras during the Hellenistic and Roman periods should be read as testimony to the decline of the Greek poleis. This inquiry is the central leitmotif of the book.

Chapter One ('The Early Hellenistic Period. 323 BC – 197 BC') is book-ended by two case studies: Pella and Kassope. Sandwiched between the analyses of these two sites is a broad discussion of a number of buildings that were typical of Greek agoras. Here, in addition to bouleuteria, monumental entrances, temples and shrines, special attention is allocated to the stoa, which not only served as a bounding device for civic space in the Classical and Hellenistic periods but also later emerged as a building block of Roman urbanism. Importantly, in this chapter, Dickenson also draws attention to the pitfalls of nomenclature. In arguing that the modern practice of assigning architectural labels or names to ancient buildings can be misleading, especially when an original name has been lost, he again touches upon the dilemma of typology. This section of the chapter could have been enhanced by a critical analysis of the difference between recognising a structure in very specific terms by a name and identifying it as part of a broader family of buildings. Of course, the Greeks themselves referred to buildings as types, but there is a crucial distinction between cases where names convey an understanding and degree of recognition and those where they function as part of an academic classification system.

The second chapter ('The Late Hellenistic Period. 197 BC – 31 BC') is largely given over to three discrete case studies: Messene, Athens, and Thasos. Unsurprisingly, these focus upon the increasing enclosure of the agoras in an architectural sense as well as the segregation of urban space into political and economic spheres. In the section on the Athenian Agora, Dickenson offers a provocative reappraisal of the spatial impact of the construction of the Stoa of Attalos, contending that the building did not so much define as redefine the edge of the square. He proposes that the eastern topographical limit of the civic centre in the Classical period extended all the way to the area later occupied by the Roman Agora. Scholarly acceptance of this revisionist theory will require not only a sea change in our interpretation of Athenian urbanism and primary testimonia, but also, as Dickenson himself admits, the literal moving of mountains: most of the area situated between the Stoa of Attalos and the Roman Agora has not been systematically excavated. Yet beyond this proposal lies another important discussion that sheds light on a much smaller monument, the bema. Here Dickenson skilfully builds upon existing scholarship that has shown how the colonnaded façade of the Stoa of Attalos was enlisted as a theatrical backdrop for the bema, and by extension, Roman oration.2 Dickenson further contends that the placement and use of the bema testified to the Roman reinterpretation of the civic centre in a broader sense. He extends this discussion to posit that a number of statue bases, and even parts of buildings, at other sites could indeed be reassessed as bemata. Particularly compelling is his consideration of the prow monument in the agora of Thasos, which he suggests was a bema that emulated the Rostra in the Forum Romanum.

The examination of bemata is picked up again in Chapter Three ('The Early Imperial Period. 31 BC – 97 AD'), where they are used to support the argument that the agoras of Greek cities continued to serve as settings for legal proceedings and public proclamations during the Roman period. Spanning 130 pages, this is the longest chapter in the volume, and it covers an enormous amount of ground. A detailed analysis of the forum at Corinth is provided, and this sets the scene for further investigations into two specific architectural forms that rise to prominence in this period, macella and odeia. Examples of these building types are drawn from several cities, such as Athens and Corinth, as well other sites like Thasos, Philippi and Mantineia. The discussion of the monumental Odeion of Agrippa in the Agora of Athens is used as the platform for returning once again to the question of how open space in Greek agoras was transformed and appropriated in the Roman period.

Chapter Four ('The High Imperial Period. 97 AD – 267 AD'), revisits the theme of architectural enclosure, paying close attention to the deployment of colonnades – stoas as well as porticos – to delimit, unify and monumentalise public spaces. Here Philippi and Thessalonki are used as case studies. Other forms of architectural aggrandisement also are considered, namely propyla, paved streets and nymphaea. Although the Romanisation of Greek cities has been addressed by a multitude of scholars, both through thematic surveys and detailed case studies, Dickenson marshals the material evidence to dispute a specific viewpoint: that the monumentalisation of Greek agoras in the Hellenistic and Roman period signalled the decay of civic life as it had been understood in the Classical period. In contrast, he interprets the building activity within agoras, especially the inclusion of odeia and libraries, as evidence of cultural efflorescence.

The volume ends with a concluding chapter that challenges the scholarly sentiment that agoras metamorphosed into museums in the Roman period. In refuting this trope, Dickenson offers a thoughtful cross-examination of Pausanias. Just as museums provide a curated view of a collection, Pausanias presents a selective account of Greek sites. As Dickenson shows, while Pausanias' testimony is an invaluable resource, it does not provide a clear picture of how people interacted with monuments. Given the title of the volume under review, some readers might be forgiven for inferring that Dickenson would follow some of the approaches laid out by Setha Low in her well-known study of public plazas, especially her work on the ways politics and culture shape the urban realm.3 Dickenson does indeed refer to Low, but there is no explicit dialogue between the two books. This is a pity, because historians of ancient architecture may have much to gain from seeing how anthropologists unpack the ways that social practices contribute to – and sometimes constitute – the order of public space.

Covering so many sites over such a wide range of time is an ambitious undertaking. Considering the span and complexity of the material, more use could have been made of figures, both plans as well as photographs. The attribution of several figures, in particular site plans, is ambiguous, and although a series of maps numbering the sites discussed in the volume is provided in the introduction, the geographic features of these images are not labelled. This discrepancy may pose some issues for students or readers working outside Greek antiquity. Overall, this volume provides a thorough presentation of the transformation of the Greek agora during the Hellenistic and Roman periods on the mainland. It will surely be an excellent reference for students and scholars who are working on civic architecture and urbanism.


1.   For example Barbara Sielhorst, Hellenistische Agorai: Gestaltung, Rezeption und Semantik eines urbanen Raumes. Urban Spaces, 3. Berlin, München, Boston: De Gruyter, 2015, reviewed in BMCR 2017.02.33, and Markus Wolf, Die Agora von Solunt: öffentliche Gebäude und öffentliche Räume des Hellenismus im griechischen Westen. Sonderschriften des Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Rom, Bd 16. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2014, BMCR 2014.11.35.
2.   The setting of the bema, in particular the use of the Stoa of Attalos as a backdrop to Roman oration, is discussed in S.L. Martin-McAuliffe, "Architecture as Palimpsest in the Athenian Agora," Scroope: Cambridge Architecture Journal 19 (2009), 88–93.
3.   Setha M. Low, On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

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