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The Pnyx (Greek: Πνύκα) is a hill in central Athens, the capital of Greece. Beginning as early as 507 BC, the Athenians gathered on the Pnyx to host their popular assemblies, thus making the hill one of the earliest and most important sites in the creation of democracy.
The Pnyx is a small, rocky hill surrounded by parkland, with a large flat platform of eroded stone set into its side, and by steps carved on its slope. It was the meeting place of one of the world's earliest known democratic legislatures, the Athenian ekklesia (assembly), and the flat stone platform was the bema, the "stepping stone" or speakers' platform. As such, the Pnyx is the material embodiment of the principle of isēgoría (Greek: ἰσηγορία), "equal speech", i.e. the equal right of every citizen to debate matters of policy. The other two principles of democracy were isonomía (Greek: ἰσονομία), equality under the law, and isopoliteía (Greek: ἰσοπολιτεία), equality of vote and equal opportunity to assume political office. The right of isēgoría was expressed by the presiding officer of the Pnyx assembly, who formally opened each debate with the open invitation "Tís agoreúein boúletai?" (Greek: "Τίς ἀγορεύειν βούλεται;", "Who wishes to speak?").
The Pnyx was used for popular assemblies in Athens as early as 507 BC, when the reforms of Cleisthenes transferred political power to the citizenry. It was then outside the city proper, but close enough to be convenient. It looks down on the ancient Agora, which was the commercial and social centre of the city.
At this site all the great political struggles of Athens of the "Golden Age" were fought out. Pericles, Aristides and Alcibiades spoke here, within sight of the Parthenon, temple of Athena. Here Demosthenes delivered his vilifications of Philip of Macedon, the famous Philippics.
Scholars such as Mogens Herman Hansen suggest the pnyx was able to hold about 6,000 citizens, though later expansions may have accommodated 8,000 or as many as 13,000. French classical scholar Robert Flacelière states that the Pnyx had enough standing room for as many as 20,000 citizens., though this is disputed. The grassy area in front of the bema was in ancient times an area of bare rock, in which about 6,000 men could stand. This can be taken as a reasonable estimate of the number of politically active citizens (citizens were free males born in the city, or perhaps 20% of the adult population). There were wooden seats for the members of the Council of 500, who were selected by lot for terms of a single year to run the city on a day-to-day basis, and prepare the agenda for the Assembly. In later times two stoae, or covered galleries, were built to protect the dignitaries against the rain and sun.
In theory, all citizens were equal and all had the right to speak. In practice, relatively few citizens actually spoke or proposed actions. A citizen who made a proposal might be subjected to a future prosecution (graphe paranomon) if the proposal was illegal or came to be seen as detrimental to Athens. There was a rule that citizens aged over 50 had a right to be heard first.
Democratic government at Athens was suspended in 411 BC and again in 404 BC with the assumption of power by oligarchies during crises in the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans and their allies in Athens installed a dictatorship, called the Thirty Tyrants, but in 403 BC the democrats seized power again and the meetings at the Pnyx resumed. Athens lost its independence to Philip II of Macedon after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC; but they continued to run their internal affairs democratically until the coup by Demetrius of Phaleron in 322 BC. After his fall, the Athenians continued to run their internal affairs according to democratic forms for centuries.
Excavations at the site were begun in 1910 by the Greek Archaeological Society and definitely confirmed the site as the Pnyx. Large-scale excavations were conducted at various times between 1930 and 1937 by Homer Thompson, in collaboration first with K. Kourouniotes and later with Robert Scranton.
These excavations discovered the foundations of the important buildings at the Pnyx, although nothing else remains of them. These included the two large stoas, erected between 330 and 326 BC, the Altar of Zeus Agoraios, erected at the same time, but removed during the reign of Augustus (first century BC), and the Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos. Most of these buildings were erected after the Pnyx had lost its real significance.
West to the Altar of Zeus are the foundations of Meton's heliotropion, the oldest known astronomical observatory, where he performed several of his measurements that led to the calculations involving the eponymous 19-year Metonic cycle which he introduced in 432 BC into the lunisolar Attic calendar, a calendar that appears in the Antikythera Mechanism.
Today the site of the Pnyx is under the control of the Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Culture. The surrounding parkland is fenced, but the traveler can visit it free of charge at any time during daylight.
- Robert Flacelière (1959) La Vie Quotidienne en Grèce au Siècle de Périclès, Librairie Hachette, Paris.
- Freeth, Tony; Y. Bitsakis, X. Moussas..., and M.G. Edmunds (November 30, 2006). "Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism". Nature 444 (7119): 587–591. Bibcode:2006Natur.444..587F. doi:10.1038/nature05357. PMID 17136087.
Media related to Pnyx at Wikimedia Commons