The Pnyx is a rocky hill to the west of the Acropolis. Both hills belong to the same group of rocky outcrops in the heart of modern Athens. Its fame is due to the fact that here was the place where the Athenian assembly gathered to discuss and vote on matters of the state.
Today the Pnyx is covered with trees and is one of the few green spaces of the city and a favorite park for its residents.
In antiquity, it was a densely populated neighborhood of Athens, as is evident by the traces of ancient roads, house foundations and wells.
Naturally, the most important site of the hill is the seat of the Athenian Assembly, which functioned as a meeting point of all the Athenian citizens for about two centuries, starting from the 5th century BCE. This was the place where the citizens gathered for 40 times each year to decide on matters ranging from the renovation of a city road to the declaration of war with another state. Here was the site where the city officials gave public accounts on everything they had done during their tenure and, if anything was amiss, they were punished accordingly.
Archaeologists have discovered three phases in the site’s layout, which correspond to three phases in the evolution of the Athenian democratic system.
The first phase dates from the end of the 6th, or early 5th century BCE; during this phase the bema (the raised platform where speakers stood) was to the north east of the audience, who sat on a natural slope of the hill, in full view of the Acropolis and the Agora. The area could sit about 5 thousand people, which was the lowest limit for an assembly to begin. This layout was maintained until the end of the 5th century – Miltiades, Cimon, and Pericles spoke here and Aristophanes, the comedian, mentions it in his play Acharnians.
Around 400 BCE, the site undergoes a major transformation: infilling combined with a retaining wall created a new auditorium whose capacity ranged between 6.5 – 14 thousand people. The orientation changed by about 180 degrees, and the bema was now towards the West. This is the phase mentioned by Aristophanes in his play Ecclesiazusae (the Assembly women). Here also spoke some of the most renowned Athenian orators, such as Demosthenes, Isocrates and Hypereides.
Based on the dating of ceramic fragments found on the site, the third phase dates shortly before the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE). Therefore, this last phase of the site must have taken place during the management of the city’s funds by Eubulus, and was not part of the building program of Lycurgus (as believed until quite recently). In this 3rd phase, the auditorium was enlarged to a capacity of more than 10,000 people; in addition, a new bema and seats for the city’s officials were hewn out of the hill’s natural rock. The bema, the wall behind it and the retaining wall of this phase are what the visitor sees today.
However, this new, enlarged seat for the city’s assembly was used only briefly. Soon after its completion the Theatre of Dionysus was also finished; the Athenians probably found it more to their liking so the city’s assembly moved there and the Pnyx was left to its residents. Two porticos behind the new bema remained forever unfinished, and soon a new defensive wall closed the site.
The wall can be seen to this day, together with the seat of the assembly and the traces of the area’s houses. The antiquities, the 19th century Observatory nearby, and the natural beauty of its green slopes make the Pnyx a extremely important archaeological site, not to mention a perfect place for a stroll. It is no coincidence that it is a favorite with the residents, especially during the celebrations of Clean Monday, as the steady breeze at its flat top makes it perfect for the customary flying of kites.
Note: illustrations by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.