Feature image of theAreopagus in Athens showing the historical limestone steps to the top of the outcrop

What Was The Areopagus in Ancient Athens?

The name ‘Areopagus’ literally means ‘Hill of Ares’ or ‘Mars Hill’. Mars is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Ares, the god of war. The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares (Mars’ Hill), in reality appears as no more than a bare, rocky limestone crag. The outcrop has a length of about 300 metres, a maximum width of about 120 metres, and a height of about 115 metres above the level of the city. The Areopagus is situated immediately northwest of the Acropolis and shares the same limestone-capped outcrop. Nevertheless, the Areopagus offers a splendid view across the ancient agora from its limestone plateau. The Areopagus became the original site for Athens’ ancient court and forum.

The key to visiting the Areopagus is to understand the relationship of the Areopagus with Athenian mythology, history and religion. Mythology was used by the Athenians to explain the origins of justice on the Areopagus. History narrates the path of Athenian justice from the subordination of a court controlled by privilege on the Areopagus to a secular court of representative councillors located on the agora. Religion on the Areopagus upheld the primacy of the Athenian divinities, a regulation with which Paul fell into serious conflict.

Key Points

  • The role of Greek mythology in the origins of the Areopagus as an Athenian court
  • The reforms of Solon increased the authority of the citizens’ assembly which changed the historical role of the Areopagus
  • The impotance of religion in all aspects of Athenian life including the application of justice

The Areopagus and Mythology

The origins of any ancient site in Greece are always embedded in mythology. Pausanias outlined the mythological origins of justice on the Areopagus in Athens as referenced by Aeschylus in the Oresteia.

“There is also the Hill of Ares, so named because Ares was the first to be tried here; my narrative has already told that he killed Halirrhothius, and what were his grounds for this act. Afterwards, they say, Orestes was tried for killing his mother, and there is an altar to Athena Areia (Warlike), which he dedicated on being acquitted.”
— Pausanias

History of the Areopagus

The historical inception of a secular court on the Areopagus is obscure but as early as the 7th Century BC justice on the Areopagus was administered by the Eupatridae (‘the well born’). The Eupatridae were identified as having been born into either an aristocratic clan or wealth. However, the Areopagus was not the site of sole magistracy in Athens. The court functioned contemporaneously with a separate assembly of citizens. Nevertheless, the power and privilege of the Areopagus ensured it was populated with selected magistrates who reflected its own class and objectives.

The Image shows the proximity of the ancient court of the Areopagus as viewed from the Acropolis
The Areopagus as seen from the steps of the Propylaea of the Acropolis

Solon, who was elected chief magistrate in 594 BC, had a considerable impact on the role of the Areopagus through his reforms. Solon safeguarded the citizens of Athens against any attempt at autocracy by those who presided on the Areopgaus. He increased the authority of the citizen’s assembly by establishing a formal council. The council had control over its own agenda and electoral matters. The real judicial authority of the council came from Solon’s nomination that the council was to be Athens’ foremost court with appeal rights against the verdict of any Athenian court. Consequently, the primacy of the Areopagus as a court declined and much of its work over time was transferred to alternate courts.

Pausanias recorded;

“Here is built also a sanctuary of the Mother of the gods; the image is by Pheidias. Hard by is the council chamber of those called the Five Hundred, who are the Athenian councillors for a year…Near to the Council Chamber of the Five Hundred is what is called Tholos (Round House); here the presidents sacrifice…”
— Pausanias

Information about these functionaries within Athenian justice and administration can be read in our description of the ancient agora of Athens.

The Laws of Solon were inscribed in the Town Hall within the agora, the marketplace, which was located quite close to the Areopagus.

Image shows the foundation ruins of the council area in the agora
The scattered ruins of the council precinct in the foreground of the Temple of Hephaestus

One hundred years later in the time of Pericles (c. 495-429 BC), the Court of the Areopagus of Athens had relinquished much of its authority to the council. Matters were heard in the Royal Gallery before the Archon in the Agora. The Areopagus was charged with protecting the city from the infiltration of foreign gods. The Areopagus also had jurisdiction over religious and educational matters. It was in this environment that Socrates (470-399 BC) was convicted of ‘neglect of the gods whom the city worships and the practice of religious novelties’ and ‘corruption of the young’. It was also into this environment that Paul entered some 450 years later.

There were other law courts in ancient Athens. Pausanias wrote;

“The Athenians have other law courts as well, which are not so famous. We have the Parabystum (Thrust aside) and the Triangle; the former is in an obscure part of the city, and in it the most trivial cases are tried; the latter is named from its shape. The names of Green Court and Red Court, due to their colors, have lasted down to the present day. The largest court, to which the greatest numbers come, is called Heliaea. One of the other courts that deal with bloodshed is called “At Palladium,” into which are brought cases of involuntary homicide. All are agreed that Demophon was the first to be tried there, but as to the nature of the charge accounts differ.”
— Pausanias

Serious cases when tried on the Areopagus were held in open air courts. This practice was to prevent the judge and the accuser from being contaminated by the offender which may have occurred if conducted in an enclosed space.

Image shows the ancient steps that were cut into the limestone to enable ascent to the court hearing area, the Areopagus
The ancient steps cut into the limestone of the Areopagus

The ancients reached the top of the Areopagus by ascending steps that were cut into the side of the outcrop. Seating on the Areopagus was primitive, being no more that rock benches hewn out of the limestone.

To quote Pausanias;

“The unhewn stones on which stand the defendants and the prosecutors, they call the stone of Outrage and the stone of Ruthlessness. “
— Pausanias

Those two stones are said to still exist on top of the Areopagus and so define the space of the court.

The image shows a flat area on the southern side of the Areopagus which was suitable for court hearings
The flat terrace on the southern side is the most likely site for the court

The Areopagus and Religion

Religion was foremost in the lives of the ancient Greeks. The Areopagus was located adjacent to the ancient Greek marketplace, or Greek agora, where religious observances flourished. These same observances were important to justice dispensed on the Areopagus.

The religion of the Athenians can be explored by visiting our posts describing both the ancient greek agora and the acropolis, on the slopes of which is the Theatre of Dionysus.

The account of much interest to many visitors is Paul’s trial on the Areopagus. This is also the subject of a separate post within which we explore Paul’s thinking and beliefs and how it led to his appearance before the court.

Final Words on The Areopagus

Today, the Areopagus resembles no more than a crag of limestone at the end of an asphalt pathway. Yet, it is an iconic symbol of the mythology, history and religion that was current two and a half millennia ago. It is also a landmark, among others, of the emergence of elements of justice and democracy in Athens, a development that influenced a future world.

Finally, be careful. The weathered limestone surface of the Areopagus is now worn smooth after enduring years of friction from the feet of we tourists and is extremely slippery. It is a five star resort for ankle breaking. Ascend the Areopagus via the ancient steps but use the modern staircase to come down.

The surface of the Areopagus is not an easy surface to walk on
Care is required when exploring the Areopagus

Site Information provided by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 17 – 29
Translated by W. H. S. Jones

Scroll to Top