Steps lead down into the area of the ancient agora (open from sunrise to sunset), one of the loveliest archaeological spaces in the Aegean—a just compromise of mature plane trees and flowering vegetation which embellish, but do not obscure, the readability of the remains. This space, which projects into the theatre-shaped cavity of the hill behind, was the main square of the ancient city, an area of about 100m x 80m bounded by stoas and buildings on all four sides. It evolved organically over several hundred years and for that reason has a characteristic irregular ity of plan—almost rectangular, yet with no perpendicular corners; apparently symmetrical, but in reality not. A glimpse at the area’s plan shows both how the buildings (though symmetrical in themselves) jostle at odd angles with one another, and how the right-angles of the layout seem always to tend towards the obtuse or acute. This is an interesting, but common characteristic of the physiology of urban space in the Ancient Greek world.
The building immediately to your left on entry (note, again, the strangely irregular trapezoid plan) was added in the 1st century ad: it is a paved and colonnaded court containing a stone exedra, which would have supported important honorific statues. Further dedications would have been placed on the pedestals along the east wall, to left and right of the exedra. This was a type of building designed principally so that meetings of the citizenry— both political and casual—took place in the presence of admonitory monuments to the good and great. The building’s back wall is the outside wall of the northwest stoa of the agora. As you take the steps up into the agora proper, note the perforations in the threshold made in Roman times, for the fixing of gates to close off the area when necessary. Although many elements are from earlier or from later periods, the shape of the area in front of you is principally that given to the space in the 4th century bc.
To the left, the base of the northwest Doric portico extends for almost 100m: its original height is indicated by the two re-erected, Doric columns. This is an early 3rd century bc building of simple design, but fine construction. It possessed no shops, rooms or offices in its back wall; it was simply an elegant shaded colonnade—a ‘cage’ of light and dark—surmounted by a dignified entablature with triglyphs, and a frieze with a running garland-design between lion-head water-spouts (fragments of which are visible on site); it had a hipped roof, supported by large gabled beams and covered with marble tiles. The base of the portico has a lower course of rusticated blocks, while the upper courses are finely dressed: every detail is given attention. In front of it can be seen the bases of 13 altars or statues: once again their alignment is curiously just off parallel in relation to the portico. Note also how, immediately to the left at the top of the small flight of steps (i.e. at its south, front corner), this portico awkwardly abuts another colonnade, the southwest portico, at an angle of 78Β°, necessitating the clumsy juxtaposition of two columns a few centimetres from one another. This is furtherevidence of the organic and serendipitous growth of the area, which evolved without any master plan. The south west portico was probably built in the late 1st century bc, i.e. about 250 years after the northwest portico: the alignment of both may have been dictated by the presence of pre-existing streets. This later portico possessed large interior spaces—probably administrative offices—whose entrance thresholds can be seen to the right-hand side.
Both porticos gave onto the main square, a shadeless area populated with a number of shrines, monuments, altars and honorific statues, of all shapes and sizes, circular and rectangular, and laid out in a manner that again seems almost random. These date from different periods: a 4th century bc sanctuary of Zeus Agoraios (north corner); a row of 1st century bc exedrae bearing statues and decrees (west corner); and a monument to the family of Augustus, of early Roman Imperial times (centre). Near to this, just east of the centre of the northwest portico, is the circular marble base of the altar of Theagenes (often also ‘Theogenes’), one of the more colourful heroes of Thasian history. Fragments of the dedicatory inscription (now in the museum) enumerated his frequent sporting victories in the ‘heavy’ sports. This altar appears to have been the site of frequent animal sacrifice.
THEAGENES OF THASOS
Theagenes—like the fabled Milo of Croton, before him—illustrates the immense importance that victorious local athletes had for the self-esteem of their native towns. Theagenes was twice an Olympic victor: for boxing in 480 bc, and again in 476 bc for the ‘pancration’, which was a perilous combination of boxing and wrestling, in which no holds were barred and everything might be permitted with the exception of biting and gouging of eyes. To kill your opponent was to lose the victory; the art was to reduce him to with in a breath of extinction, and then relent—drawing the agony out in the most artful way, so as to please the crowd. It was an event which was hugely popular with the spectators and was, for some, the culmination of a visit to the Games. Pausanias adds that Theagenes was also three-times victor at the Pythian Games, nine times at the Nemean, ten times at the Isthmian, and accumulated a total of 1,400 victor’s crowns during his life. It is possible that repeated victory in an event as demanding and potentially lethal as ‘pancration’ led some to believe in the immortality of these unstoppable athletes; undoubtedly too, their cult overlapped in some ways with the veneration of Hercules, the strong-man of Greek mythology, from whom they were often thought to have descended— especially as here in Thasos where there was already a vigorous, pre-existing Herculean cult. Theagenes was not always heroic in the best sense, however: Pausanias also relates that he was censured by the judges during the 75th Olympiad for deliberate cruelty to his adversary, Euthymus, in the boxing event: he was ordered to pay a large fine both to the sanctuary of Zeus and to his opponent in what is one of the first recorded instances we have of an athlete being fined.
It is an interesting fact that the statue erected here in the agora to Theagenes was believed to possess no table healing and divine powers. Pausanias tells the story thus (Descrip. VI, 11, 2–9): after Theagenes’s death, one of his opponents came each night to the agora to vent his frustrations physically on the statue raised in the champion’s honour. This came to an end when the statue fell on top of him, killing him. The people of Thasos , following the laws of Draco of Athens who had prescribed exile for those (including inanimate objects) culpable of murder, threw the statue into the sea and thought no more about it until their island was afflicted not long after with severe drought. They sought advice at Delphi in the face of this problem; the Oracle reminded them that they ‘should remember their banished’. Only on a second later supplication was the Oracle more explicit, ex plaining to the mystified Thasians that they had in excusably neglected their ‘banished’ hero Theagenes. Dredging the statue from the sea with the aid of fishermen, they returned it to the agora, and paid it the respects of a divinity with sacrifices, thereby ensuring the passing of the drought. Pausanias goes on to say that afterwards a great many revered statues were raised to Theagenes in other parts of Greece which likewise were believed to have the ability to heal and cure.
A third side of the agora, to the southeast, is also bounded by a long stoa of a yet different design from the other two. To the left of the path are the bases of the colonnade which gave on to the open area of the agora. The well constructed, stone drainage channel, taking the water from the roof into regularly spaced circular drains, is visible just beyond. To the right of the path are the foundations of a long interior hall with a central row of columns which may have supported a second floor above. At its far northeastern end, and at a slightly oblique angle to every thing else, is the base of the monument to Glaucus, identified by an early 6th century bc inscription (now in the Museum), carved in ‘boustrophedon’ manner (alternately from left to right and from right to left), declaring: ‘I am the monument to Glaucus ‘¦ dedicated by the sons of Brentes’. Somewhat like the Lapis Niger in the Roman Fo rum, this was the most venerable monument in the public area and, as the principal memorial to one of the city’s founders, must similarly have been a focus of civil identity, pride and unity. Glaucus—a friend of Archilochus and frequently addressed in his verse—accompanied the poet and his father in the original colonising mission to Thasos from their native Paros.
A few metres to the left (west) in the corner of the open agora is the base of another monument with the carved prow (or stern) of a ship decorated with stylised waves at its base. It stood originally in the middle of a rectangular exedra with stone benches on the inside of its three sides. On it must have stood some naval victory monument, perhaps similar to the Nike or ‘Winged Victory’ of Samothrace: this was a not uncommon type of votive monument for the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc. It is worth noting that the implied direction of the waves is a little unorthodox for the prow of a forward-moving boat, and it may be recalled that the monument of Agesander at the foot of the acropolis of Lindos clearly depicts only the stern of a ship. But perhaps the waves here are no more than a way of conveying the propulsion of the vessel in a purely rhetorical manner.
Returning back to the eastern corner, just beyond the monument to Glaucus, the path leads out through an ancient doorway and underneath a stretch of modern street into a particularly interesting corner of the excavations. This is generally called the Passage of the Theoroi: it is a narrow paved stretch of street which opens out into a small area with two municipal water sources beyond—an area that was of ritual, official and practical significance in Antiquity, and which has few close parallels elsewhere. As you stand, facing towards the hill, on the short stretch of ancient flagstone paving, you are in what would have been a short, covered passageway (about 4.6m wide and 11m long) on the long street which runs back behind you skirting the southeast side of the agora. This main artery of the town joined the sanctuary of Hercules (behind) to those of Dionysos and Poseidon (ahead): this is difficult to trace on the ground, but is clear from aerial photo graphs. At this point, just before the street opens out into the small square with the springs and wells, it passed by two shrines, to left and to right, both decorated with fine 5th century bc reliefs, which are now in the Louvre in Paris. On the left, the relief depicted three Nymphs—tutelary divinities of the water-sources which here lie just beyond—being greeted by Apollo, fully dressed in tunic and mantle and bearing his lyre, flanking a square, architecturally framed niche for offerings in the centre. An inscription above laid down rules for appropriate sacrifice: ‘No singing of paeans’ was allowed (sadly). On the opposite side, built into the wall on either side of the steps which are still visible on your right and which led up to a recessed altar in the wall, were two reliefs of a ‘mirror’ scene showing Hermes greeting the Three Charites or ‘Graces’, once again with an inscribed prescript, this time against the sacrificing of goats or pigs (happily). The Graces promoted, amongst other things, the civil con cord which should always prevail in an agora. Taken all together, then, this area was a rendering of thanks for the water and civil cooperation that sustained the city’s life. The modern name given to it, the ‘Passage of the Theoroi’, derives from the fact that on the left-hand side was found an inscribed list of the theoroi of Thasos from 540 bc right up to Imperial Roman times. Theoroi (meaning ‘observers’) were high public officials whose job it was to represent the city at important religious or official occasions— ‘to observe’ at Panhellenic Games, Oracles, or festivals abroad. On the right, immediately beyond the wall (level with where the paving stops) was a dedication to Athena Propylaia, ‘protectress of the entrance-way’.
In the area into which the Passage of the Theoroi leads, a deep and impressively constructed well which was surmounted by a circular, roofed construction, or tholos, can be seen straight ahead. To the right, is another, rectangular cistern with water-spout and channels still visible, suggesting that it was once fed by a running spring. These two water-sources, together with the shrines in the pas sage, made this small square a busy but beautiful meeting-place of the town. Over the northeastern side of this area, at a slightly higher level, a late 4th century ad dwelling with thermal baths has been built reusing older masonry in its construction: the remains of a hypocaust are visible. Ancient streets ramified from here to the north, the northeast and to the east.
Returning to the main agora square, the northeast stoa is straight ahead: this is much shorter than the other three because, beyond it, the northeast side of the agora is in effect bounded by an assemblage of different buildings of civic importance. Although the quality of the building in the agora area is generally very good, this side distinguishes itself by a yet finer quality of masonry and construction which is well-preserved in some details. The north side of the short stoa is backed by a row of official rooms—three of them in the middle (those with the doorway positioned off-centre so as to accommodate the arrangement of couches) were banqueting rooms. Where the stoa ends, it abuts what was once an elegant, 4th century bc, ‘winged building’ constructed entirely of marble which was the civic focus of the town; it contained en graved laws and complete lists of archons. It was fronted by a row of honorific statues. The shape of its shallow ‘U’-form and recessed, colonnaded front are discernible from the foundations; the sober quality of its decoration with triglyph frieze and fluted Doric columns can be inferred from the ruins lying about. Beyond this building to the north west—but now difficult to distinguish since a good part of it lies under an attractively dilapidated, 19th century Thasian mansion—was a building in volcanic tuff, thought possibly to be the city’s bouleuterion. At a higher level and in radically different building mate rial and method, are the remains of an Early Christian basilica of the 5th century ad, part of whose narthex is constructed over a corner of the ‘winged building’: it had three apses, the central one of which preserves the synthronon seating for the clergy. It was perhaps of symbolic significance to the early Christian clerics that, as they sat in the synthronon, they faced directly towards the seating hemicycle of the pagan bouleuterion: this may explain the particular choice of site for the church. Attached to the church’s northwest corner, the remains of a martyrion have been found containing vestiges of mosaic and inscriptions which suggest that it may have enshrined the relics of the 3rd century Cappadocian martyr, Akakios, beheaded in Constantinople in 303 ad.
Before leaving the agora, a small detour can be made out of the southern corner of the area where, by passing through the depth of the southeast portico and turning right, you come to a stretch of finely paved ancient street leading southwest for about 60m. On the left hand side, house foundations of the Early Christian period project out at points onto the street: further along on the same side, three steps lead up to an elegant, semicircular exedra, built by a prominent Thasian citizen of the 1st century ad for the display of statues of his family executed by a local sculptor named Limendas. The paving uncovered so far is notable for its quality; to the right-hand side the pavement was shaded by a colonnade, and a row of cool, dark entrances to shops would have penetrated into the building beyond.
Thasos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.