The Tholos, a rare example of a Classical building of round shape and certainly the only one of its kind in the Agora, was jokingly called the ‘Skias’ (‘parasol’ or ‘sun-hat’) by ancient Athenians.
It is mentioned by Pausanias (2nd century AD) as the ‘Round-House’ with some statuettes that were of ‘silver, though not very big’. (Interior of the Tholos left, artists depiction)
The Tholos was an important but simple building, constructed around 470 BC. It stood out because of its unusual round shape and size, but had only few architectural embellishments. Its diameter was more than 18 m and there were six interior columns to support the roof of diamond-shaped terra cotta roof tiles. Simple terra cotta antefixes decorated the eaves.
The Tholos is situated in the southwest corner of the Agora, directly south of the Bouleterion (the ‘Senate House’) and together these buildings formed the administrative heart of ancient Athens.
The Tholos served as the headquarters of the ‘prytaneis’ or ‘presidents’, who formed the executive committee of the ‘Boule’ or Senate.
With the Senate consisting of 50 members from each of the 10 Athenian tribes, it was decided that each tribal contingent of 50 senators would serve as prytaneis for 1/10 of the year. During this period of 35 to 36 days they had to be on constant duty, not only to prepare the daily meetings of the Senate but also to be able to act decisively in the case of an emergency. The prytaneis divided the day in three ‘shifts’, so that 16 or 17 prytaneis were always present in the Tholos. Except as formal headquarters, the Tholos must therefore also have served as a dining room and as sleeping area for the ‘night shift’. Presumably there were wooden benches or couches.
The prytaneis were fed at public expense. Two small rooms at the north side of the Tholos may have served as kitchen and pantry. Excavators have found heaps of dinner ware and drinking cups near the building, which were marked as ‘public property’ by the inscription of the letters ΔΕ, which stand for ‘demosion’ (‘public’).
Like the Royal Stoa the Tholos escaped destruction by the Herulians in 267 AD and it remained standing until the 4th century AD. During the more than 800 years of its existence its appearance remained largely unaltered. A more elaborate entrance in the form of a porch was added in the time of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), while the six interior columns were removed by the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD). The latter also laid a new floor of marble slabs over a 1st century AD one that had consisted of marble chips.
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