Athens Day One: The Stoa Poikile

I arrived in Athens last night so this morning I decided to head straight for the Stoa Poikile, the home of Stoicism.  A Greek stoa is a colonnade: basically a row of columns supporting a roof.  The Stoa Poikile had a wall on one side giving shade, so it’s described as a portico or a plain old “porch”.  It’s also a bit like the ancient equivalent of what we might call a covered “arcade” today.  Stoa Poikile literally just means “painted porch” therefore.  It was so called because of the highly-regarded paintings that adorned the wall.  It was originally called the Porch of Peisianax, after the Athenian statesman who commissioned it in the 5th century BC.  (That’s my Photo of the Stoa Poikile in Athens, the other photos in this post are from the web.)

The part of the Athenian agora where it was located is now an archeological site in the middle of the city, although there’s not a whole lot to see there except the rubble walls of lots of ancient Athenian shops and many ruined wells, descending into the river that runs below.  There’s a bar situated beside and above the ruins, the Poikile Stoa, which is named after the ancient Stoa Poikile.  There wasn’t a lot of philosophy going on inside, though.  There was an assortment of classical paintings.

I asked the barman where exactly the ruined foundations of the Stoa Poikile were among the rubble below.  His version of the story was that the archeologists originally believed they’d found it but it turned out just to be the wall of another shop.  So they don’t know exactly where it is.  He said they know it must be somewhere nearby so they want to tear down his bar and “keep dig, dig, dig” underneath.  He was a bit annoyed about this and, pointing down toward the rubble, he ruefully observed: “Where you gonna drink beer?  You can’t drink beer in this, eh?”  Another young Greek at a table nearby having a drink with a young woman added: “We’re Greeks but we don’t know anything about history anymore; nobody cares”, shrugging and shaking his head sadly.  Someone else told me that the Stoa Poikile is there alright but they heard only a third of its ruined foundations remain.  (The picture here shows what’s left of the Stoa Poikile beside the ruins of some nearby shops.)

Anyway, there’s not much to see down there anymore.  Although the nearby reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalus, another colonnade, probably looked fairly similar to the one we’re after. (It’s shown in this picture.) Perhaps so little remaining of the Stoa Poikile is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that even great architecture eventually crumbles, disappears, and is forgotten.

We know that Zeno chose this as the home of his school, who were at first called Zenonians and later became known simply as the Stoics after the stoa where they gathered.  There are a few notable things about that…

Stories about the Stoa

The Stoa Poikile was a public building, a sort of porch offering protection from the sun.  The Cynics reputedly slept on such porches and it’s tempting to wonder whether Zeno, who had been a Cynic himself for many years, may have slept here at some point in his life, perhaps before founding his school.  It’s very public and situated among the shops on the edge of the Athenian agora, precisely where Socrates used to mingle with craftsmen discussing philosophy.  Zeno was undoubtedly aware of that historical connection and probably saw himself as teaching in public as Socrates had done before him.  By contrast, other schools of philosophy were typically located in gymnasia, or public spaces set aside for exercise and training, away from the hubbub of the marketplace.  Women were strictly prohibited from entering the grounds of gymnasia, although it’s not clear whether some may have been permitted to go to the Stoa Poikile, given that the Stoics appear to advocate teaching philosophy to women.  (There’s a story that two women attended Plato’s Academy but had to disguise themselves as men to do so.)  Then again, women generally seem to have had limited access to the agora as well.  The Stoa Poikile was presumably a more open and public location than a philosophical school built in the grounds of a gymnasium, though.  Some have even seen the name “Stoic” as implying something like “philosophy of the street”.

Moreover, whereas other schools were named after their founders, such as Pythagoreanism or Epicureanism, the Stoics rejected this notion.  I think that’s because the Stoics insisted that none of them, not even Zeno, were perfectly wise.  Unlike the Pythagoreans and Epicureans, who did consider their founders to be perfect sages, the Stoics didn’t memorize Zeno’s teachings by rote learning.  Instead they were encouraged to employ the Socratic method and think for themselves, something we tend to think of now as a hallmark of true philosophy.  Zeno, incidentally, used to pace rapidly up and down the length of the Stoa Poikile while discoursing on philosophy, according to Diogenes Laertius, “his object being to keep the spot clear of a concourse of idlers”.

The Stoa Poikile was, in a sense, a sort of Athenian art gallery.  Its wall was decorated with four large plates painted by Micon of Athens, Polygnotos of Thasos, and perhaps others.  They depict:

  1. The mythic battle between Theseus and the Amazons, a scene which may have been in Cleanthes’ mind, the second head of the Stoa, when he wrote that virtue is the same in men and women
  2. The legendary fall of Troy to the Greeks led by Agamemnon, after its defences had been breached by the Stoic hero Odysseus using the “Trojan Horse” trick
  3. The real, historical Battle of Oenoe where the Athenians defeated the Spartans, although the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans for their self-discipline
  4. The historical Battle of Marathon (490 BC) where the Athenians won a great victory against the Persian army, during the reign of King Darius I

So Zeno lectured in front of these four huge paintings depicting various real and imaginary battles.  Possibly Epictetus was influenced by something the early Greek Stoics had said about the Amazonomachy scene dominating the location of their school, for instance, in Discourse 2.16.  He tells his own Stoic students “nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica” but that instead of defeating monsters and barbarians to clear the region around Athens, they should clear away the evil things within themselves, such as sadness, fear, desire, envy, and intemperance, etc.  Epictetus also brings up the Trojan War several times, such as at Discourses 1.28 when he says:

When was Achilles ruined? Was it when Patroclus died? Not so. But it happened when he began to be angry, when he wept for a girl, when he forgot that he was at Troy not to get mistresses, but to fight. These things are the ruin of men, this is being besieged, this is the destruction of cities, when right opinions are destroyed, when they are corrupted.

Were scenes such as these, which he discusses with his Stoic students, also discussed by the early Greek Stoics while they paced up and  down before Polygnotus’ famous painting, which actually depicted the fall of Troy?

Given this visual backdrop to the Athenian Stoic school, it’s perhaps no surprise, indeed, that a range of both artistic and military metaphors find their way into Stoic writings  I like to imagine, for instance, that Zeno might have told his students that although the scenes of battle depicted looked realistic and showed graphic violence, no sane person was afraid of them, because they realize they’re just pictures (impressions) and not the things they represent, to borrow a phrase used centuries later by Epictetus.  That’s just speculation, of course.  Although, Marcus Aurelius, who painted himself and was actually first introduced to philosophy by his painting master, appears to be referring to visual aesthetics in the following remarkable passage:

And ears of corn bending towards the earth, and the wrinkled brows of a lion, and the foam dripping from the jaws of a wild boar, and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe, he will find scarcely anything which fails to please him in some way by its presence, even among those that arise as secondary effects. Such a person will view the gaping jaws of wild beasts in their physical reality with no less pleasure than the portrayals of them displayed by painters and sculptors, and he will be able to see in an old woman or old man a special kind of mature beauty, and to look on the youthful charms of his slave boys with chaste eyes. And one could cite many similar examples, which will not seem persuasive to everyone, but will only strike home with those who are genuinely familiar with nature and all her works. (Meditations, 3.2)

Note: Marcus says here that the Stoic wise man will regard the gaping jaws of ferocious beasts such as lions and wild boars with the same indifference that he views their depiction by artists and sculptors.  Could this remarkable idea go back to something Zeno may have said about the paintings on the porch  Marcus, of course, also says that “life is warfare”, a theme that may have occurred to Zeno and his students as they met each day to discuss philosophy before a backdrop depicting the carnage of ancient warfare.

Finally, Diogenes Laertius adds a shocking historical detail: “It was the spot where in the time of the Thirty 1,400 Athenian citizens had been put to death.”  If this is true, Zeno would have also known about it, and it therefore perhaps inspired some of the Stoic thoughts about the theme of death.  The Thirty Tyrants were basically a puppet oligarchic regime or junta installed over Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War by the victorious Spartans.  They were vastly unpopular because they soon turned to into brutal tyrants, rounding up and executing foreign residents (metics, immigrants) and democrats.  They carried out summary executions of the wealthy in order to line their own pockets by seizing their assets.  Zeno would have known that Critias, the head of the Thirty Tyrants, and a former pupil of Socrates, allegedly tried to pass a law banning his old teacher from discussing politics or philosophy, because he was criticizing the regime indirectly.  Socrates said that a good shepherd does not diminish thus the size of his flock, which Critias rightly took to be a criticism of the mass executions being carried out by him.   Socrates seems to have ignored this ban.  Critias then employed a tactic used on others and ordered Socrates to join a small posse to arrest and summarily execute an innocent man called Leon of Salamis, another foreign resident, perhaps with democrat sympathies.  Socrates simply refused.  Critias had hoped either to implicate him in his crimes or, if he refused, to be provided with a pretext for executing him, for disobeying a direct order.  However, the oligarchy was overthrown by a democrat uprising before they could have Socrates executed, so he got away by the skin of his teeth.

Anyway, Zeno was probably also aware that Socrates had risked his own life defying the orders of Critias and the Thirty Tyrants in this way.  This famous example of courage in the face of injustice, demonstrated by Socrates, was likely also in his mind as he lectured every day at the Stoa Poikile, the scene where such executions were carried out.  I was tempted to tell my barman friend that 1,400 ancient Athenians were summarily executed on the ruined porch underneath his establishment, probably by strangulation rather than hemlock like Socrates, but I’m not sure he would have wanted to know that.

9 replies on “Athens Day One: The Stoa Poikile”

Thanks so much for this. I think you’re doing exactly what I would be doing. Searching, searching, searching for a clue, some remembrance still there. When you looked off down the road, did your eyes soften and become able to see Socrates still there, looking on ahead of himself or perhaps just standing there talking to someone? I think I would have seen exactly that. A bit disappointing that the folks you ran into had so little interest in the great events that happened there. I would think the energy to be so strong that it would still be present today, but, as you say, all things pass. Sharing your experience is much appreciated here.

Wonderful! Especially enjoyed thinking of Epictetus lecturing with the paintings around him, inspired by them, perhaps, as teachers throughout the centuries have likewise been at times…

Great post. I will use it as a guide in my forthcoming visit to Athens to find the birthplace of this wondeful philosophy.

Thanks Donald! Very informative guide to Zeno’s Stoa. Planning a trip to Athens in August 2023 so this would prove very useful. Another visit I would recommend one I undertook last August 2022 are the ancient ruins of Nicopolis in modern day Preveza where Epictetus was exiled by The Emperor Domitian. Nicopolis was named by the Emperor Augustus after winning the sea-battle at Action against Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Regrettably there is nothing at Nicopolis to commemorate the site where Epictetus lived happily and died in exile. Not even a statue. Though there are two statues in Larnaca in Cyprus, present site of ancient Citium, where Zeno the founder of Stoic philosophy came from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *