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artist's conception of agora at Athens, c. 400BCE

Oxford English Dictionary. agora.

[etymology: Ancient Greek "assembly," "gathering place"]

1. A public open space where people can assemble, esp. a marketplace, originally in the ancient Greek world; the structures enclosing such a space.

2. In extended use: an assembly for discussion or decision; (hence) any environment or world of social intercourse, exchange, or commercial dealings.

cf. marketplace. 1. An open space in a town where a market is or was formerly held.

2. fig. Any place or environment where ideas, etc., are sought or exchanged. Usu. with distinguishing word designating the type of environment.


from Michael Kimmelman, "The Craving for Public Squares." New York Review of Books 7 April 2016.

 . . . By the sixth century BC, the agora in Athens was a civic center, and with the rise of democracy, became a center for democracy’s institutions, the heart of public life. In ancient Greek, the word “agora” is hard to translate. In Homer it could imply a “gathering” or “assembly”; by the time of Thucydides it had come to connote the public center of a city, the place around which the rest of the city was arranged, where business and politics were conducted in public—the place without which Greeks did not really regard a town or city as a town or city at all. Rather, such a place was, as the second-century writer Pausanias roughly put it, just a sorry assortment of houses and ancient shrines.

The agora announced the town as a polis. Agoras grew in significance during the Classical and Hellenistic years, physical expressions of civic order and life, with their temples and fishmongers and bankers at money-changing tables and merchants selling oil and wine and pottery. Stoas, or colonnades, surrounded the typical agora, and sometimes trees provided shade. People who didn’t like cities, and disliked democracy in its messiness, complained that agoras mixed religious and sacrilegious life, commerce, politics, and theater. But of course that was also their attraction and significance. The agora symbolized civil justice; it was organic, changeable, urbane. Even as government moved indoors and the agora evolved over time into the Roman forum, a grander, more formal place, the notion of the public square as the soul of urban life remained, for thousands of years, critical to the self-identity of the state. . . .


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