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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Areopagus in Athens

What is the Areopagus?

The Areopagus is a prominent rock of symbolic significance that was once headquarters of the judicial court of ancient Athens.

Tourist standing on top of the Areopagus in Athens

Areopagus History

The Areopagus has an important mythological past: according to this, the Greek god of war, Ares, was put on trial here for the murder of Halirrhothius, one of the god Poseidon’s sons. And the word Areopagus literally means ‘Hill of Ares’. Another Greek myth sets a famous trial on the hill, with a tribunal presided over by the goddess Athena. The protagonist is the tragic hero Orestes, tried for killing his mother Clytemnestra.

These myths are directly connected with the function of the hill and its use over the centuries. The ancient Areopagus Council, which took its name from its meeting place, was initially in charge of the government of the city, and became in Classical times one of the most important law courts of Athens, predominantly judging cases of homicide. Its members, the Areopagites, were former magistrates, citizens who had served as archons, initially chosen from the most prominent aristocratic families in Athens, and they were members of the Council for life.

The Areopagus Council was highly respected by Athenians. Called by Lycurgus, the legendary law-giver of Sparta, ‘the most noble example of the Greeks’, its verdicts were generally considered just and fair, and immune from political bias. So fair in fact that Lycurgus goes on to claim that ‘even those who have been convicted agree that the verdict is just’. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius too considered this court ‘the most respected’ one.

In Athenian culture, older men were considered wiser and less likely to be touched by emotional appeals, which explains why ex-archons, presumably older citizens, were chosen to take decisions on major crimes such as homicide. Curiously, the tribunal also judged cases involving the destruction of sacred olive trees, a crime punishable by exile. The place was symbolically very important to the Athenians, and a law stated that if the democracy was overthrown, no member of the Council was allowed to go up on the hill. The Athenians were intent on denying access to this important meeting place to any regime that followed their cherished democratic government.

The Areopagus in The Bible

The Areopagus is mentioned in a famous biblical episode: an engraved plaque on one side of the hill commemorates the speech given there by the Apostle Paul against paganism, known as the Areopagus Sermon, thanks to which he managed to convert many Athenians to Christianity.

Today, the modern Greek Supreme Civil and Criminal Court is called the Areios Pagos, preserving a link with the history of ancient Greek law.

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