The deme of Rhamnous is perhaps the best preserved ancient deme in Attica. It consisted of numerous smaller settlements, and its name is derived from the word rhamnos Ancient Greek for buckthorn as those thorny bushes have always been abundant in the area. Situated at the northeast of the present-day prefecture, extensive segments of the site and its surroundings still bear a great resemblance to their ancient counterparts. Strategically located on a hill very close to the sea, the town overlooked and controlled two natural ports of vital importance to the Athenians, in terms of both commerce and warfare. The greater area has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic Era and, in its years of splendour (4th-3rd cent. BC), this ancient polis must have thrived as much as Athens, while the local sanctuaries dedicated to the deity Nemesis and the hero Amphiaraos were among the most illustrious and important cult sites in Attica. With the advent of Christianity, however, Rhamnous followed the inescapable fate of many once-famous Greek settlements; after the sanctuaries were demolished, and the socio-political situation changed dramatically, it gave in to decay and abandonment.
In the political rhetoric of the 5th century BC, the Persian Wars were the cornerstone of Panhellenism, i.e., the notion of independent Greek polises uniting against a common enemy. The Battle of Marathon (490 BC) was the first in a series of successful defensive warfare operations, which triggered numerous legends and anecdotes. As the most important polis close to Marathon, Rhamnous was steeped in this war mythology: the Persians, sure of their forthcoming victory over the Greeks, are said to have brought with them enough marble to erect a victory monument. After their defeat, Pheidias' disciple Agorakritos allegedly used this marble to build the great statue of Nemesis the deified punishment for arrogance to be placed in the temple dedicated to the deity.
What Makes a Polis the Agora, the Theatre, and the Gymnasium
Rhamnous may have been secluded, but it lacked none of the significant components of a city at least as the great travel writer Pausanias defined it: a settlement cannot be thought of as a polis, if it has "no public buildings, no gymnasium, no theatre, no agora, no drinking fountains". As we can gather from epigraphic evidence, the polis of Rhamnous was rather compact, in that the same structure served as both the agora and the theatre: the city 'square' was a rectangular stripe of 250 square metres, including a simple gallery of 140 square metres in its south end that was the social epicentre of the polis, where all formal discussions, ceremonies and celebrations were held.
Opposite from the gallery, in the north end of the agora, five stone thrones for the formal privilege of prohedria (best seats for respected citizens or guests of honour) are the sole architectural element still bearing witness to the use of the structure as a quite peculiar theatre. The rows of seats forming the koilon of the theatre were built in the slope of the hill, while the orchestra the performance space was no other than the northern part of the agora. The dual use of spaces was rather usual in the modestly sized city of Rhamnous: when unoccupied by allies called upon as reinforcements in the protection of the citadel, the lower part of the military premises was used as a gymnasium, where local youths were able to train and practice athletic activities.