In Central Athens, there is a rocky hilltop called Pnyx Hill, surrounded by parkland and looking across to the Acropolis. Who would have thought that the gatherings of Athenians that took place there as early as 507 BC would lay the foundations for modern democracy?
Pnyx Hill is located 500 meters west of the Acropolis and since prehistoric times, the area had been a place of religious significance. Pnyx Hill is regarded as the birthplace of modern democracy as it was one of the earliest and most important sites for the creation of democracy. For the first time, male citizens of Athens were considered as equal and they would regularly gather on the hilltop for important meetings to discuss political issues as well as future plans for the city.
Each person had the right to vote and take part in decision making and importantly, was regarded as an equal. There were 500 seats on the council and councilors were voted in office for one year. For the first time, everyone could enjoy the freedom of speech and liberty. This was a huge change as in the past, decisions had been made by the ruler.
At first, the meetings had taken place in the Roman Agora; they became known officially as the Athenian Democratic Assembly – Ekklesia – and they were moved to Pnyx Hill in about 507 BC. At that stage, the hill was situated just outside the city and looked across to the Acropolis and over the Roman Agora which was the commercial center.
Archaeologists have found that the site was developed in three distinct phases, over a period of 200 years. The name Pnyx comes from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘closely packed’.
At first, an area on the hill (which stands about 110 metres high) was created by clearing a large piece of ground. Later, in 400BC, a large semi-circular stone platform was created. This was cut into the rock and a stone retaining wall was built at the front and two staircases were cut into the rock to lead onto the stage.
Holes in the stone towards the edge of the platform, suggest there was a decorative balustrade. 500 wooden seats were added for those men who had been elected onto the council by the Assembly. Everyone else sat or stood on the grass.
The third phase of its development was in 345-335BC when, the site was expanded in size. A speaker’s podium (bema) was quarried from the rock opposite the entrance and on either side there was a covered stoa (arcade).
Meetings were being held ten times a year and a minimum of 6,000 men were required for discussions and decision-making votes on matters of war and peace and the construction of buildings in the city. Pnyx Hill could accommodate up to 20,000 people. Famous orators to speak there included Pericles, Aristides and Alcibiades.
By the 1st century BC, Pnyx Hill began to decline in importance. Athens had grown much larger and many men found it difficult to get to Pnyx Hill for meetings. An alternative site was needed and the Theatre of Dionysus was chosen in its place..
Pnyx Hill was first explored in 1803 by George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, who was fascinated by classical civilisations. He removed a large layer of mud to reveal the semicircular platform. In 1910, some excavation was carried out on the site by the Greek Archaeological Society.
The society undertook extensive excavations during the1930s when the stone platform and bema were uncovered and also two canopies from the stoa to protect against bad weather. A sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Hypsistos, the Healer, was discovered near the entrance. A number of votive plaques portraying parts of the body on them were found close by and these suggest that Zeus Hypsistos was credited with special healing powers.
As it is possible to visit Pnyx Hill at any time of day, early in the morning and at sunset are both to be recommended. It is a very atmospheric monument and easy to imagine the lively debates and voting sessions that once took place there. Have your camera at the ready, as the view across to the Acropolis is simply stunning….
Key information for visiting Pnyx Hill.
- Pnyx Hill is situated on the west side of the Acropolis and lies a 20-minute comfortable walk from the nearest Metro station. Pnyx Hill is situated just below the National Observatory.
- The nearest Metro station is Acropolis, Thissio, and Syngrou Fix (Line 2) which is about a 20-minute walk.
- Pnyx Hill is open daily, 24 hours a day.
- Entrance is free of charge.
- Visitors to Pnyx Hill are recommended to wear flat, comfortable shoes.