Altar of the Twelve Gods

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Plan showing major buildings and structures of the agora of Athens as it was in the 5th century BC, with the Altar of the Twelve Gods labelled 16

The Altar of the Twelve Gods (also called the Sanctuary of the Twelve Gods), was an altar and sanctuary at Athens, located in the northwest corner of the Agora. The altar was set up by Pisistratus (son of Hippias and grandson of Pisistratus the tyrant), during his archonship, in 522/1 BC.[1] It marked the central point from which distances from Athens were measured and was a place of supplication and refuge.

The exact identities of the twelve gods to whom the altar was dedicated is uncertain,[2] but they were most likely substantially the same as the twelve Olympian gods represented on the east frieze of the Parthenon: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Dionysus,[3] though there are reasons to suppose that Hestia may have been one of the twelve.[4]

Geographic center[edit]

The altar became the zero point from which distances to Athens were calculated. A milestone, c. 400 BC, found near the gate to the Acropolis reads: "The city set me up, a truthful monument to show all mortals the measure of their journeying: the distance to the altar of the twelve gods from the harbor is forty-five stades".[5] The fifth century BC historian Herodotus tells us that the distance from Heliopolis to the sea is similar to the distance "from the altar of the twelve gods at Athens to the temple of Olympian Zeus at Pisa."[6]

Pindar may have been referring to the Altar of the Twelve Gods and its central status, as is supposed by many scholars,[7] when he wrote:

"Come to the chorus, Olympians,
and send over it glorious grace, you gods
who are coming to the city's crowded, incense-rich navel
in holy Athens
and to the glorious, richly adorned agora."[8]

Supplication and refuge[edit]

The altar also functioned as a place of supplication and refuge.[9] In 519 BC, when the Plataeans came to Athens seeking protection from Thebes,[10] according to Herodotus, while "the Athenians were making sacrifices to the twelve gods, they [the Plataeans] sat at the altar as suppliants and put themselves under protection."[11] In 431 BC, as the result of accusations of the misappropriation of public funds involving Pericles and the sculptor Phidias, some of Phidias's assistants sat as suppliants at the altar.[12] And, shortly before his execution at Athens (in about 355 BC), the Athenian general Callistratus took refuge there as well.[13]

Modern discovery[edit]

The exact location of the altar within the agora, unspecified in ancient sources, was discovered through excavations in 1891 and 1934. Two short sections of wall were uncovered in 1891, during construction of the Athens-Piraeus Electric Railway.[14] In 1934 during excavations conducted by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in the agora, to the south of the railway, the southwest corner of an enclosure was discovered, which was identified as the continuation of the sections of wall discovered in 1891.[15] Also discovered abutting the west wall, was a Pentelic marble statue base inscribed on its front:

"Leagros son of Glaucon dedicated this to the twelve gods"[16]

thus identifying the enclosure as that of the Altar of the Twelve Gods.[17]

More of the altar was uncovered by Greek archaeologists in 2011 when the train tracks were temporarily removed for maintenance work.[18] Once the altar was exposed, archaeologists and a group promoting the revival of ancient Greek polytheism filed legal injunctions to prevent replacement of the tracks of the Athens-Piraeus Railway. The court ruled that public transportation needs prevailed, and the altar was covered up again in August 2011.[19]


  1. ^ Rutherford, p. 43; Thucydides, 6.54.6-7.
  2. ^ Camp 1980, p. 17.
  3. ^ Garland, p. 41
  4. ^ Seaford pp. 79 ff..
  5. ^ Camp 2003, p. 8; Wycherley, p. 119; Inscriptiones Graecae, II2 2640.
  6. ^ Herodotus, 2.7.1.
  7. ^ How and Wells, 6.108.4; Sourvinou-Inwood, 2003 [1]
    pp. 91–92; Wilson, p. 315 note 34; Rutherford, p. 43; Seaford, pp. 79.
  8. ^ Pindar, pp. 310–313, fr. 75; Wycherley, p. 122.
  9. ^ Camp 1980, p. 17; Wycherley, p. 119.
  10. ^ Wycherley, p. 119; Thucydides, 3.68.5.
  11. ^ Herodotus 6.108.4.
  12. ^ Wycherley, p. 119; Diodorus Siculus, 12.39.1; Plutarch, Pericles 3.2.
  13. ^ Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 93.
  14. ^ Crosby, p. 82.
  15. ^ Crosby, p. 82.
  16. ^ Gadbery, p. 447; Crosby, pp. 82–83; Camp 1980 p. 17; Inscriptiones Graecae, I3 950, Agora III, no. 378; Agora I, no. 1597.
  17. ^ Gadbery, p. 448; Wycherley, p. 122.
  18. ^ "Altar of the Twelve Gods sees the light", 2/17/2011. Retrieved on 2011-02-21.
  19. ^ "Railway works halted until August", 5/2/2011. Retrieved on 2013-05-10.


  • Camp, John McK. (1980), Gods and Heroes in the Athenian Agora, American School of Classical Studies. ISBN 9780876616239.
  • Camp, John McK. (2003), The Athenian Agora: A Short Guide, Issue 16, American School of Classical Studies. ISBN 9780876616437.
  • Crosby, M. 1949. "The Altar of the Twelve Gods in Athens," in Commemorative Studies in Honor of Theodore Leslie Shear (Hesperia Supplement 8), Princeton, pp. 82–103.
  • Gadbery, Laura M., "The Sanctuary of the Twelve Gods in the Athenian Agora: A Revised View", Hesperia 61 (1992), pp. 447–489.
  • Garland, Robert, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion, Cornell University Press, 1992. ISBN 9780801427664.
  • How, W. W., J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus, 1928.
  • Pindar, Pindar II: Nemean Odes, Isthmian Odes, Fragments, Loeb Classical Library No. 485, Harvard University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780674995345.
  • Rutherford, Ian, "Canonizing the Pantheon: the Dodekatheon in Greek Religion and its Origins" in The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations, editors Jan N. Bremmer, Andrew Erskine, Edinburgh University Press 2010. ISBN 978-0748637980.
  • Seaford, Richard, Cosmology and the Polis: The Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus, Cambridge University Press, Jan 12, 2012. ISBN 9781107009271.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane, Tragedy and Athenian Religion, Lexington Books, 2003. ISBN 9780739104002.
  • Wilson, Peter, The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia: The Chorus, the City and the Stage, Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 9780521542135.
  • Wycherley, R. E. The Athenian Agora Vol. 3, Literary and Epigraphical Testimonia, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens. (1957). JSTOR

Coordinates: 37°58′33″N 23°43′22″E / 37.9758°N 23.7228°E / 37.9758; 23.7228