Greek term for an area where people gather together, most particularly for the political functions of the polis, normally sited centrally in cities (as at Priene), or at least central to the street lines where the actual centre may be occupied by other features (such as the Acropolis at Athens); the area was sacred, and could be treated like a temenos. In unplanned cities its shape depends on the nature of the available site, irregular at Athens, on low-lying ground bordered by rising land to west (the Kolonos Agoraios) and south (the slopes of the Acropolis). In planned cities the required number of blocks in the regular grid plan are allocated, giving a strictly rectangular shape. (See land division (greek); urbanism (greek and hellenistic).)
Architecturally, the agora need be no more than the space defined by marker stones rather than buildings, as, originally, at Athens. When spectacular buildings develop for the various functions of the agora, they are placed along the boundary, which they help to define, rather than in the agora space. These include lawcourts, offices, and meeting-places for officials (and the formal feasting which was part of their office). These may be integrated with extended porticoes—stoas—and it is these that come to dominate the architecture of the agora, often with long lines of rooms behind them, though not infrequently as colonnades pure and simple. Such colonnades, extended along the boundaries, define the agora more obviously than marker stones and are normal in the developed (and particularly the planned) agoras of the 4th cent. bce and the Hellenistic period (see stoa).
In unplanned agoras, streets normally run through the open area; thus the ‘Panathenaic Way’ enters the Athenian agora at its north-west corner, and leaves at the south-east. As the buildings on the borders develop, the agora tends more and more to be closed off, streets being diverted to pass outside the surrounding stoas, with perhaps one main street being allowed through (though by Roman times this may have to pass through formal, and closable, gateways).
The central area of the agora was the locality for special monuments and dedications, statue groups such as the Tyrannicides (see aristogiton) at Athens, the line of exedrae at Priene. So long as the space was needed for crowds (all those voting in an ostracism at Athens, as an extreme example) it had to remain open; it was only with the restricted political life of Greek cities in the Roman period that it might include large buildings such as the odeum of Agrippa at Athens. See athens, topography.