The Areopagus in Athens: Paul’s Encounter With Mythology and History

The Areopagus is a popular site to visit in Athens, and a key to its enjoyment is to understand the role of the Areopagus within Athenian mythology, history and religion. The mythological Areopagus introduces us to its origins; the historical Areopagus narrates the path of Athenian justice from the subordination of a court controlled by privilege to a secular court of representative councillors; and the religious Areopagus upheld the primacy of the Athenian divinities while hearing Paul’s response to serious charges.

An update to this post is now on our new site.
The post has also been separated into two distinct post. One post describes the history and function of the ancient Areopagus, whereas the other details the thinking and beliefs that led Paul to the Areopagus. You can reach the updates directly by clicking on their respective links.
What Was The Areopagus in Ancient Athens?
The Beliefs That Led Paul To The Areopagus.

The Areopagus is situated immediately northwest of the Acropolis and shares the same limestone-capped outcrop. The name ‘Areopagus’ literally means ‘Hill of Ares’ or ‘Mars Hill’, Mars being 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 with 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.

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
  • Paul’s response to the charge of his introducing a foreign god and religion into Athens

Mythology on the Areopagus

The history of any ancient site in Greece is almost always associated with mythology and it is best left to Pausanias to explain the origins of the Areopagus in Athens.

‘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. The unhewn stones on which stand the defendants and the prosecutors, they call the stone of Outrage and the stone of Ruthlessness.’

History on the Areopagus

The actual inception of the Areopagus as a secular court 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. The Areopagus was not the site of sole magistracy in Athens but functioned contemporaneously with a separate assembly of citizens. Nevertheless, the power and privilege of the Areopagus enabled it to populate itself with selected magistrates who reflected its own class and objectives.

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

The reforms of Solon, who was elected chief magistrate in 594 BC, had a considerable impact on the role of the Areopagus. Solon increased the authority of a citizen’s assembly by establishing a formal council. The council had control over its own agenda and electoral matters, and was a safeguard against any attempt of autocracy by the Areopagus. 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 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…’ Information about these functionaries with Athenian justice and administration can be read in our account of the ancient agora of athens.

The Laws of Solon were inscribed in the Town Hall within the agora 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 and was charged with protecting the city from the infiltration of foreign gods, as well as 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 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.’

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

Image shows the ancient steps that were cut into the side of the Areopagus to enable ascent to the hearing area
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’. Those two stones are said to still exist on top of the Areopagus and so define the space of the court. Not all matters proceeded on the Areopagus at Athens. Some were heard in the Royal Gallery before the Archon in the Agora.

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

Religion on the Areopagus

Paul

The Areopagus is an important site from the perspective of history recorded in the Bible because it was once visited by a small, bald, stout man with an aquiline nose. He was of course Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus. Paul was a formidable intellectual; born a Jew but with Roman citizenship, probably inherited from his father; educated in Jewish history; and trained in Law under the tutelage of Gamliel to serve in the court as a Pharisee. These characteristics were all important during his interactions with the Greeks in the Agora and on the Areopagus (alternatively, he may have been tried alongside the Areopagus).

Paul in the Athens Agora Near the Areopagus

The account of Paul’s visit to Athens is recorded in the Bible at Acts Chapter 17 and is a straightforward read. The account tells us that around 50 AD Paul waited for Timothy to arrive in Athens having just visited Thessalonica and Beroea. Paul was an evangelist, and so what better way to use his time and what better place to start engaging with the people in Athens than to mingle in the Jewish Synagogue and the Agora. The Agora, of course, was littered with idols and temples important to the mythology and religion of the Athenians. Nevertheless, although Paul would have admired the skill of those who made them, he viewed the idols as profane and religiously worthless. He used the proliferation of the idols throughout both the city and the Agora as a lever to draw Athenians into a discussion of his own views.

The Religion of Paul

Paul was raised and educated a Jew and was therefore monotheistic. He was no stranger to idols but on this occasion there were many more idols on display than expected. However, the number of idols alone may not have been the source of his irritation. Firstly, in preparation to becoming a Pharisee he would have studied and become very familiar with the ‘Books of Moses’ in the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch. He would have been very knowledgeable about and would have believed in Moses’ description of the flood in Noah’s time and the circumstances that preceded it. He wasn’t alone there. Other first century biblical Jews, namely Jesus, Peter and Jude also referred to the flood. Secondly, it would have been impossible for Paul to have missed seeing the city’s largest temple, The Olympieion (The Temple of Zeus), during his stay in Athens. So how might this information have been relevant to his response to the presence of the Greek gods in the Agora?

Image shows the enormity of the Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus, or Olympieion, in Athens

Moses described in Genesis Chapter 6 the occasion when angels left heaven, took on the flesh of men, consorted with the women on earth and as a result fathered a violent offspring. This offspring was referred to as ‘fellas’, that is, ‘fellers of men’. Moses referred to the offspring as ‘the ancient heroes, men of fame’. It wasn’t a compliment. It was just that conventional humans were dwarfed by their size and strength. They were, according to Moses, one of the prime reasons why God brought the flood – these belligerent oversized bullies and their violence had to go. Paul would have known all about it and would have believed it.

But what is so curious about the Olympieion? The intriguing fact is that Athens also had its own flood legend and the enormous monument known as the Temple of Zeus was built to honour Zeus for delivering Greece from the deluge. You can read about it in our post about the Roman ruins in Athens.

And so we have this thought. Was Paul only disturbed by the number if idols he saw in the agora or because he perceived that the same spirits who had rebelled in the time of Noah and who were not allowed to return to their original place had now manifested themselves as the Greek gods? A horrible thought for Paul that for centuries the Greeks, like others, had unknowingly been worshipping fallen angels, and here he was right amongst them.  It would certainly explain why Paul referred to the Athenians as ‘given more to superstition of the deities’ (Lit: reverent of the demons) than other Greeks, considering the violence and chaos the gods promoted in Noah’s day. It would also explain why the Athenians felt it necessary to erect a statue to the ‘unknown god’ on the Areopagus to prevent any consequences that might have eventuated from insulting one. And it would certainly explain the historically violent and amoral behaviour of the Greek gods, as ctiticized by Euripides, over the centuries. If that is what Paul was thinking, no wonder he was disturbed.

Paul’s Religion Brings Him to Trial on the Areopagus

Image shows steps leading up to the Areopagus and indicates its general dimensions
The Areopagus, not only a court but the centre of protection for the Athenian deities

The account of Paul’s defence on the Areopagus relates that he had escaped a mob in Thessalonica because he preached Jesus as a King. It was a decree that no one could worship a foreign deity unless publicly allowed, particularly if it could be interpreted that the foreign deity could be a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Our reading of the account tells us that he repeated the message in the Athens Agora, along with an explanation of the resurrection. The content of his explanations raised curiosity in the minds of some and concern in others because they equated teaching about foreign deities to threatening the security of the state. The Greeks knew no distinction between religion and the state. Paul was ushered to the Areopagus by the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, Jews and others, some of whom were eager to hear the new teaching. It was the nature of the Athenians. But if it was just interest in his teaching that attracted attention, the conversations and debates would have continued in the Agora because that is where the philosophical schools were located. The fact that he was presented before the magistrates on the Areopagus meant that he had to defend against the charge of bringing a new deity into Athens. That was a risk because an Athenian court had already condemned one famous individual for ‘neglect of the city gods and the practice of religious novelties’. He was Socrates.

Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus

Image shows the bronze plaque on the side of the Areopagus containing Paul’s speech
The bronze plaque inscribed with Paul’s speech near the ancient steps of the Areopagus

Pauls’ words on the Areopagus amidst its statues, altars and temples to an audience comprising representatives of the law, philosophers and others who were learned and embedded in Athenian culture, were courageous and tactful. He did not undermine their religion of beliefs in mythology but rather introduced them to the god they were missing; “we ought not to think that the Divine Being is similar to gold or silver or stone sculptured by human art and conception, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man. Therefore, God overlooking the times of such ignorance…” Paul skilfully avoided the claim of his introducing a foreign deity into Athens but rather introduced the Athenians to their missing god – the one that mattered. His speech is recorded in the Book of Acts 17:23-31.

Paul’s speech resulted in his being mocked by some; others expressed an interest in hearing more; and some becoming believers, including Dionysius, a judge of the court of the Areopagus. And Paul didn’t end up like Socrates.

Final Words on The Areopagus: A Site of Mythololgy, History and Religion

Image shows visitors on the Areopagus reading from their bibles
Visitors on the Areopagus possibly reading the account of Paul’s visit to Athens

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 religion and mythology 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.

Only a few rock benches remain on the Areopagus now as does a bronze plaque on which is engraved Paul’s speech. Visitors sit on the uncomfortable limestone reading his speech from the bible, perhaps seeking to engineer an association with the man, the place and the time. But the rock is not a talisman. It was what was said here and who said it that was significant. Paul was a Jew with Roman citizenship, educated in Law, instructed by Gamaliel, a former member of the Sanhedrin, and someone who could compete with the formidable Greek intellectuals. Whether our interest in Paul’s defence on the Areopagus as recorded in the Bible is historical or religious, we start to understand why it was he who was chosen to challenge the nations with a new teaching.

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
References:

Site Information provided by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 17 – 29
Translated by W. H. S. Jones
https://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias1B.html