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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Areopagus
Areopagus

AREOPAGUS ăr’ ĭ ŏp’ ə gəs (̓́Αρεῖος πἀγος, perhaps the hill of Ares, Gr. god of war. The Rom. equivalent is Mars. Hence, Mars’ Hill). A large, irregular outcropping of limestone about 380 ft. high. It lies NW of the Acropolis to which it is connected by a low, narrow saddle, and overlooks the agora, the marketplace of classical and Hel. Athens.

The archeological evidence from the Areopagus is much less plentiful than the literary references to it. There are two unhewn stones on the summit. On one, the stone of outrage, stood the accuser. On the other, the stone of ruthlessness, stood the accused. There are also a few cuttings which may have served as the foundations of a building or as platform for altars. On the S side near the top is a flight of fifteen hewn steps which lead from the connecting saddle to the top. On the NE slope four late Helladic tombs were cut into the soft rock. Foundation walls of an elliptical building of the Geometric period have been uncovered on the NW slope. The large quantity of votive material in and around it suggests that it was an early religious site, perhaps the sanctuary of Areia, an early cult name for Athena. This is offered as an alternative etymology for Areopagus.

The Court of the Areopagus presumably met on the hilltop in earliest times. At first it exercised control over all matters pertaining to the city. According to tradition it was originally convened to try cases of murder. The first case tried before it was that of Ares (hence the name of the hill according to the ancients), for the murder of Helirrhothios who attempted to rape his daughter. The most famous case, immortalized in the Oresteia of Aeschylus, was that of Orestes who was charged with the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra. Athena intervened in a tie vote to save him from the avenging furies and thus established the superiority of law and reason over revenge in Athens.

Under the Athenian constitution the court lost most of its ancient powers but retained jurisdiction in cases of homicide. By the 1st cent. of the Christian era, it exercised a general censorship in matters of religion and education. The court was made up of all archons who after their term in office were able to prove themselves free of official misconduct in accordance with the provisions of the law.

Although the court originally met on the hilltop, by the 5th cent. b.c. judicial trials were prob. heard in the Stoa Basileios at the NW corner of the agora. This building was connected with the duties of the Archon Basileios, who was responsible in matters of religion. An annex of the Stoa was used to hear cases where privacy was important. Presumably the court met on most occasions in the Stoa, but for the sake of ceremony moved to the hilltop to pronounce sentence. The reason for the change of location was prob. the exposed situation of the Areopagus. The velocity of the wind there is very great on clear days as well as in inclement weather. It is often difficult to stand there and even more difficult to hear.

Paul’s visit to Athens is recorded in Acts 17:15-34. Because of his teachings regarding Jesus and the Resurrection he was taken before the Court of the Areopagus. It is presumed that the court was exercising its right of censorship on the religious life of the community. The account suggests that the proceedings were in the nature of a hearing rather than an actual trial. Paul, a foreigner and a teacher, was examined to determine if he should be allowed to circulate freely in the city. The hearing prob. took place in the Stoa Basileios since reference is made to a surrounding crowd (vv. 19-22, 33), which could not be successfully accommodated on the hilltop.

No comment was made about the official response of the court to Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. Two converts were mentioned by name, Dionysius, a member of the court, and a woman, Damaris. Others, unnamed, were also said to have believed. Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (c. a.d. 170) called Dionysius the Areopagite, was the first bishop of the church at Athens. The remains of the church of St. Dionysius the Areopagite are visible on a ridge on the N slope of the hill.

The name Areopagus survives today as the title of the Supreme Court of Greece.

Bibliography For the function of the council, Aristotle, Constitution of Athens, passim; K. Wachsmuth and T. Thalheim in Pauly Wissowa RE s. v. “̓Αρεῖος πάγος”; I. T. Hill, The Ancient City of Athens (1953).