Delos is a small island in the center of the Cyclades measuring about five kilometers north-south and 1.3 kilometers east-west at the widest. In antiquity, it was famous as the birthplace of Apollo. Apollo’s sanctuary, founded in the seventh century B.C., is situated on a small plain next to the main port. It became a principal Panhellenic cult center and always formed the heart of the later settlement and city. The city was under Athenian supremacy in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and became independent only in 314 B.C. Although extensive public building occurred during the period of its status as an independent city-state and the island began to develop as a commercial center, the city remained relatively small and was still mainly engaged in local and regional trade with the surrounding Cycladic islands. This changed significantly when the Romans handed control of Delos to Athens in 167 B.C. and declared it a free port. It soon developed into a booming cosmopolitan trade center with merchants coming from all over the Mediterranean world. As a consequence the city grew considerably, mostly to meet the needs of its new purpose. Squares, quays, warehouses, shops, new residential quarters, and clubhouses of foreign associations were constructed, and public buildings and sanctuaries were either renovated and extended or newly built. Although Delos was sacked twice, in 88 B.C. by the troops of Mithridates and 69 B.C. by the pirates under Athenodoros, its desertion during the first century B.C. is predominantly due to the rivalry of increasingly successful Roman ports like Puteoli and Ostia. Life in Delos did not come to an abrupt halt as evidenced by remains of Roman thermae and several Christian basilicas, but it continued on a much smaller scale.
Agora of the Italians
- exedrae (site elements)
- peristyles (Roman courtyards)
- water wells
The Agora of the Italians, with a size of some 6,000 square meters, is situated prominently in the center of Delos, between the famous sanctuary of Apollo to the south and the Sacred Lake to the north. The design of the Agora centers on a vast courtyard with four double-storied porticoes enclosing 3,450 square meters of an open unpaved terrain (Figs. 1-4). The colonnades are surrounded by the following rooms: (a) a series of three large exedrae (15, 30, 42) and four small exedrae (10, 23, 46, 98), which were all accessible by large thresholds on the ground floor level, with the exception of the raised exedra 98; (b) 27 rectangular (7, 9, 13, 18, 24, 32, 37, 39, 41, 44, 47, 54, 59, 97, 102, 105) and semicircular (16, 25, 30b, 34, 35, 68, 73, 90, 93, 95, 100) statue niches on all sides, which were not accessible, as their openings were closed by doors or grills and the thresholds of many were raised far above the ground floor level; (c) a bath suite with two round sweat baths in the north-west (27-31); (d) a group of three rooms in the west (20-22); and (e) two latrines to the west (5) and east (64). Access to the building is provided by a Doric propylon to the west (3) and two narrow side entrances to the west (2) and the east (70). Two rows of shops bordering the east and south porticoes as well as a row of shops on the northwestern corner of the building do not open to the interior of the Agora, but face the surrounding streets.
The building was erected on the former site of the so-called Sacred Lake, a huge swamp varying over time in size and water level. On the arid island of Delos, this was one of the most humid and fertile places. While the building site for the Agora was drained and stabilized with huge deposits of debris, the Sacred Lake was canalized with an exterior wall, thereby attaining its present form. The Agora itself was neither planned nor constructed in its present form, but is the result of a long building process with about five phases. The original building (Fig. 4) comprised only the large courtyard with double-storied porticoes, the three large lavish Ionic exedrae (15, 30, 42) in the west and north, the propylon (3) and the secondary entrance (2) in the west, and – as a result of the use of earlier walls – some rooms in the west (1, 18/20, 21, 28). The rows of the southern and eastern shops formed part of the original plan, but were only added subsequently in a second phase. In contrast to these, the small exedrae (10, 23, 46, 98), the statue niches, and the bath suite did not belong to the first plan, but were added in a third and fourth phase as a kind of makeshift arrangement and as a reaction to changing needs. In a fifth phase the northwestern shops were gained at the expense of public land.
The Agora of the Italians was most probably constructed between 130-120 B.C., partly destroyed during the raids of 88 B.C., then repaired, and finally abandoned after 69 B.C. Its function is contested, with identifications ranging from a multifunctional commercial meeting place for the Romans and Italians, a slave market, a commercial agora or macellum, a combined palaestra-gladiatorial arena-bath complex to, most recently, a garden-porticus, i.e., a luxurious park-like meeting place with a garden, porticoes, and exedrae.
The exploration of the vast courtyard during the early excavations between 1877 and 1905 was considered disappointing because very few objects were found. Large parts of the courtyard seem to have been dug up, but remains of plants, shrubs or trees were not recorded because they were probably not recognized or of sufficient interest. To this day, the courtyard is often overgrown with plants, flowers, and small trees. Future specialized investigation of the courtyard might definitely prove the existence of plants, but for the moment the following evidence for a garden can be cited.
The courtyard contained perhaps as many as eight wells, three of which are still visible today and five of which were tentatively identified in recent geophysical examinations. The area of the former swamp was still sufficiently humid and could have supplied the necessary water for plants. Although many Hellenistic squares and agorai were not paved, the lack of a pavement is remarkable within the context of Delos. In the last third of the second century B.C. all heavily frequented squares, streets, and quays, which were especially used for commerce and trade, were fully paved with large gneiss slabs. Since the Italians spared no expenses in constructing their first agora or in embellishing it later on, the unpaved floor of the courtyard cannot be due to financial shortcomings, but must have been chosen deliberately to meet a specific purpose. The courtyard lacks a sewer to dispose of waste and especially rain water. The wastewater of the later bath suite (room 27) was not emptied into the sewer of the nearby street, as usual, but was instead drained into the courtyard. Therefore, all available water seems to have been deliberately used to irrigate a garden. Comparisons with other buildings show that the original building of the Agora of the Italians has nothing in common with civic-political agorai, or specific commercial markets, or palaestrae, but resembles much larger ambulatory garden-peristyles of Hellenistic palaces (e.g. Aigai, Pella, Jericho) and Late Republican houses in the Vesuvian area or the lavish garden-porticus in Rome such as the Porticus Pompei and the Porticus Liviae. Like these, the Agora of the Italians was most probably conceived and used as a public park for all kinds of agreeable meetings and sojourns.
The porticoes, and maybe even the courtyard, were decorated with statues. Most of the nearly 240 sculptural fragments found within the confines and in the immediate neighborhood of the Agora seem to come from honorary statues, which were mostly presented in the rectangular and semicircular statue niches, but also outside of them, probably in the porticoes. However, some fragments belonged to historical-political monuments (e.g., at least two or even as many as six statues of Celts) and to decorative sculpture suited for a garden (e.g., Dionysos, Satyr/Apollo/Pothos, herms). These statues could have been placed either in the porticoes or in the courtyard.
Finally, numerous Greek, Latin, and bilingual inscriptions attest that the Agora of the Italians was never referred to as an agora, but probably as a pastas italike (as restored in Roussel and Launey, Inscriptions de Délos, no. 2612). The Latin translation of this could have been porticus Italica or porticus Italicorum which would have more appropriate for a luxurious garden-portico, rather than the agora or forum.
2nd-1st c. BCE
- P. Roussel and M. Launey, Inscriptions de Délos. Paris, 1937. (worldcat).
- Ét. Lapalus, L’Agora des Italiens. Exploration archéologique de Délos XIX. Paris, 1939. (worldcat).
- J. Marcadé, Au Musée de Délos. Étude de la sculpture hellénistique en ronde bosse découverte dans l’île. BEFAR fasc. 215, 1969. (worldcat).
- E. M. Steinby, ed., Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae IV, Roma, 1999. (worldcat).
- A. Sarris, “L’Agora des Italiens,” BCH 125, 2001: 612-615. (worldcat).
- J. Marcadé and F. Queyrel, “Le Gaulois blessé de Délos reconsidéré,” MonPiot 82, 2003: 5-97. (worldcat).
- Ph. Bruneau and J. Ducat, Guide de Délos. École française d Athènes. 4th edition, Paris, 2005. (worldcat).
- M. Trümper, Die 'Agora des Italiens' in Delos. Baugeschichte, Architektur, Ausstattung und Funktion einer späthellenistischen Porticus-Anlage. Internationale Archäologie 104. Rahden/Westfalen, 2008. (worldcat).
- M. Trümper, Graeco-Roman slave markets. Fact or Fiction. Oxford, 2009. (worldcat).
- S. Montel, "Représentations italiennes à Délos. Les niches de l'agora des Italiens,"" in: M. Simon (ed.), Identités romaines. Conscience de soi et représentations de l'autre dans la Rome antique (IVe siècle av. J.-C. - VIIIe siècle apr. J.-C.). Paris, 2011: 243–254. (worldcat).
- M. Trümper, "The honorific practice of the 'Agora of the Italians' in Delos", in: J. Griesbach (ed.), Polis und Porträt. Standbilder als Medien der öffentlichen Repräsentation im hellenistischen Osten. Wiesbaden, 2014: 69–85. (worldcat).
- F. Coarelli, I mercanti nel tempio. Delo. Culto, politica, commercio. Athens, 2016. (worldcat).
- F. Herbin, "Die Statue des Ofellius," in: F. Queyrel – R. von den Hoff (eds.), Das Leben griechischer Porträts. Porträtstatuen des 5. bis 1. Jhs. v. Chr. Bildnispraktiken und Neu-Kontextualisierungen. Paris, 2019: 326–335. (worldcat).
Monika Trümper (ORCID: 0000-0003-4524-6242)
21 Apr 2021