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date: 06 December 2023



  • Edward Harris


The Areopagus council was the most respected court in Classical Athens. It had jurisdiction in trials for intentional homicide, intentional wounding, poisoning, and arson. The Areopagus could launch investigations into crimes on its own initiative or at the command of the assembly and exercised surveillance over religious matters. The assembly might also delegate specific tasks to the Areopagus. There is no reason to think that the Areopagus acquired additional powers during the Persian Wars later removed by the reforms of Ephialtes. During the Roman period, the Areopagus was the leading political body alongside the council and assembly, and the herald of the Areopagus one of the most prestigious offices.


  • Ancient Geography
  • Christianity
  • Greek Law

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

The Areopagus was the most respected political institution in Classical Athens and retained its prestige down to the Roman Empire. Lycurgus(Leoc. 12) called it the finest example of justice in all of Greece. Demosthenes(23.65) claims that “in this tribunal alone no defendant who has been convicted or accuser who has lost has even proved that his case was wrongly decided.” Lysias(6.14) called the Areopagus the most august and most just court in Athens. Aeschylus devoted an entire play, Eumenides, to the founding of the court by Athena.1 Sophocles has Creon call the Council a body that deliberates well (euboulon) (OC 947–949), and Euripides (Or. 1650–1652) has Apollo tell Orestes that the Areopagus will judge his case very righteously. The court was considered so respectable and august that Aristophanes never ridicules its activities. In fact, it was considered improper to laugh in the presence of Areopagites (Aeschin. 1.81–84). Writing in the 1st century bce, Diodorus (1.75.3) listed the Areopagus alongside the Council at Sparta as the best court in all of Greece. The prestige of the Areopagus expressed the Athenian respect for the rule of law and served as a symbol of stability.2 Because the functions of the Areopagus were primarily judicial and not deliberative, it does not figure in the political histories of Athens by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

The most reliable evidence for the activities of the Areopagus in the Classical period comes from sources written in the 4th century bce about its contemporary role. The members of the Areopagus were ex-archons ([Arist.] Ath. Pol. 60.3) who had passed their examination (euthynai) after their terms of office and served for life (Lys. 26.11). The council met on the Areopagus hill opposite the Acropolis (IG II3 1, 320).3 Before 460 bce the archons were elected from the top two property classes, and this would have restricted the membership of the Areopagus to the wealthier citizens. From 487, the archons were appointed by lot, and later the property qualification was lowered to include the zeugitai (the third highest of the four property classes in Attica). The first member of this class elected as archon took office in 458/7 ([Arist.] Ath. Pol. 26.2). These reforms would have affected the composition of the body and made it more democratic. As a court, the Areopagus tried cases of intentional (ek pronoias) homicide, intentional wounding, arson, and poisoning (Dem. 23.23–24; [Arist.] Ath. Pol. 57.3). It also had jurisdiction over some religious offences such as cutting down sacred olive trees (Lysias 7). There is no reason to believe that the Areopagus followed a different standard of relevance from that of the regular courts. The Areopagus also had a reputation for maintaining strict internal discipline over its members (Din. 1.56).

The Areopagus had the power to conduct investigations (zētein), either on its own initiative or by the command of the assembly, and to make reports (apophaseis) (Din. 1.50). For instance, when Antiphon, who had lost his citizenship, was accused by Demosthenes of treason between 343 and 340 bce, the Areopagus investigated and arrested the suspect, who was tortured and put to death probably by a vote of the assembly (Dem. 18.132–133). When suspicion of bribery by Harpalus fell on several politicians in 324 bce, Demosthenes passed a decree in the assembly that the Areopagus should investigate the matter (Hyperides Dem. 2; Din. 1.61). The Areopagus submitted its report six months later (Din. 1.45) and listed the names of those who received money from Harpalus and the amounts (Hyp. Dem. 5–6). Accusers were then appointed, and the men reported were then tried in court (Din. 2.6). This practice of the assembly ordering officials to make investigations was traditional; there is no reason to think the practice of having the Areopagus conduct investigations was introduced by a decree of Demosthenes in early 343.4

The assembly might also delegate tasks to the Areopagus. In 342 or 341, after the assembly elected Aeschines to defend Athenian claims to the temple on Delos, the Areopagus was instructed to review the appointment and replaced Aeschines with Hyperides (Dem. 18.134). When the assembly enacted a decree about the Sacred Orgas (an area in Attica near the border with Megara left uncultivated for religious reasons) in 352/1 bce, the Areopagus was ordered to enforce the measures along with the Council of Five Hundred, the demarchs (elected officials of the demes in Attica), and other officials (IG II3 1, 292, lines 16–23). The Areopagus also exercised surveillance over officials and private citizens and could impose fines up to a certain amount. When the Areopagus discovered that Theogenes, the basileus (the archon with the main responsibility for religious matters) was married to a woman who had not been a virgin before her wedding and was not an Athenian citizen, they threatened to impose punishment and forced him to divorce his wife ([Dem.] 59.80–83). The Areopagus might also investigate the lives of private citizens (Ath. 4.168a–b).

Neither the investigations conducted by the Areopagus nor the tasks delegated to them should be viewed as limitations on the democratic powers of the assembly and courts. The reports made by the Areopagus were only recommendations, which could be rejected. For instance, the assembly ordered the Areopagus to investigate Polyeuctus of Cydantidai. After the Areopagus reported that he was associating with exiles, Polyeuctus was prosecuted for treason but acquitted because the court decided that his actions lacked criminal intent (Din. 1.58–60).

The Areopagus had a general responsibility for defending the democratic constitution. According to Lysias (12.69), the Areopagus acted to protect the democracy in the final years of the Peloponnesian War. During the short-lived emergency after the Athenian defeat at Chaeronea, the Areopagus was granted extraordinary powers to arrest, try, and execute traitors (Lycurg. Leocr. 52; Din. 1.61–62; Aeschin. 3.252). These powers were conferred by a decree of Demosthenes, were not permanent, and did not outlast the emergency. In 337/6 bce a law was enacted that anyone who killed someone attempting to overthrow the democracy and to establish a tyranny was ritually pure, that is, free from pollution for homicide (IG II3 1, 320). Any member of the Areopagus who went to the Areopagus and attended meetings after the overthrow of the democracy was to lose his citizen rights and have his property confiscated. His descendants were also to lose their rights.5 There is no reason to view this measure as a reaction to any increase in the powers of the Areopagus or as aimed at Demosthenes. The law was clearly aimed at ensuring that the Areopagus would carry out its traditional duty to protect the constitution and reflects fears that the Macedonians would impose a tyranny after their victory at Chaeronea.

Accounts of the powers of the Areopagus’ activities in the 7th, 6th and 5th centuries bce are influenced by political ideology and later views about the mixed constitution and must be viewed with scepticism. In “the constitution of Draco,” the Areopagus had the function of enforcing the laws, administering public affairs, and imposing penalties on the disorderly, but this document is now regarded as a forgery ([Arist.] Ath. Pol. 3.6). According to the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians (8.4) the Areopagus exercised similar powers on Solon’s laws and was also granted jurisdiction in cases of impeachment (eisangelia), but these statements cannot be confirmed, and the analysis of Solon’s constitution appears to be influenced by Aristotelian views about the mixed constitution (Pol.–1274a).6 In the so-called decree of Tisamenus dated to 403/2 bce the Areopagus is assigned the general power to make officials obey the laws (Andoc. 1.84), but this document has now been shown to be a forgery and the information in it unreliable.7

According to the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians (23.1–2), the Areopagus exercised a leading role in political affairs from 480 to 462 bce after gaining power without a formal measure being enacted. The detailed accounts of Herodotus and Thucydides for this period make no mention of the Areopagus, and the account of Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians contains numerous errors about the political history of the period which completely undermine its credibility.8 In attributing the rise of democracy to the influence of rowers in the fleet, the work clearly reflects mistaken views from later writers.9 Because there is no reliable evidence for the alleged ascendancy of the Areopagus, there is no reason to believe that the reforms of Ephialtes removed these additional powers in 462/1 bce. The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians (25.1–4) claims that Ephialtes collaborated with Themistocles, but other sources indicate Themistocles was ostracized around 470 bce. Later sources for the reforms contradict each other and are also not reliable.10 Some sources claim that Pericles was behind the attack on the Areopagus (Plut. Cim. 15.10–12; Per. 7.6; cf. 9.5). The reform could not have transferred the powers of the Areopagus to try officials because these powers were already in the hands of the assembly and regular courts (Hdt. 6.21.2, 104, 136). These so-called reforms certainly did not bring about any major changes in Athenian political culture.11

These views about the early powers of the Areopagus were influenced by the works of 4th-century writers about the ancestral constitution. The most extensive tract about the court is the Areopagiticus of Isocrates, who in the middle of the 4th century bce urged the Athenians to return to the laws of Solon and Cleisthenes, which made the citizens better and more temperate and appointed officials by election and not by lot (Isoc. 7.16, 20–23).12 At this time the Areopagus strictly supervised the conduct of young men, and citizens hauled the disorderly before the Council (Isoc. 7.39, 46–47). As a result, the city was not plagued by lawsuits, property taxes, and wars (Isoc. 7.51–52, 55). Isocrates makes no concrete proposals for reform, but associates the Areopagus with a glorious past when citizens were more virtuous and obedient and less quarrelsome because of rigorous training and moral supervision.

The Areopagus continued to hold an important position during the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. Under Demetrius of Phaleron the Areopagus may have gained new powers to supervise women (Philochorus FGrH 328 F 65), but this may have been a continuation of its previous jurisdiction over moral conduct. There is no reason to believe that Demetrius expanded its powers in any significant way.13 In 305/4 the Areopagus helped to raise money in the campaign against Macedon (IG II2 1492, line 127). In the law about weights and measures from the late 2nd century bce, the Areopagus has the power to punish those who violate its provisions (IG II2 1013, lines 55–60). In a letter ascribed to Hadrian, there are rules about the sale of fish, and offenders are to be reported to the herald of the Areopagus, and the Areopagites are to impose fines or other punishment, a power earlier held by the courts (IG II2 1103, lines 7–9). During the Roman Empire the herald of the Areopagus became one of the highest offices in the state.14 The office holds a prominent position in ephebic documents (IG II2 2119, lines 24–29; 2125, lines 11–17; 2130, lines 50–58) and is listed alongside the offices of eponymous archon, gymnasiarch, and basileus in the cursus honorum of leading politicians (IG II2 3546, 3688). In over ninety dedications on statue bases, herms, and other monuments, the Areopagus grants approval in conjunction with the council and assembly.15 Imperial letters to the Athenians address the Areopagus, the council, and the assembly (IG II2 1101 [128/9 ce; Hadrian]; 1109 [187 ce; Commodus]). In the procession that met Herodes Atticus on his triumphal return to Athens, the Areopagus marched ahead of the other citizens (IG II2 3606, lines 24–26). A fragmentary list of officials from Eleusis lists the members of the Areopagus by tribe and appears to indicate a membership in the range of 91 to 104.16 Cicero (Att. 1.14.5) called the Areopagus resolute, strict, and courageous and with some exaggeration said that the council ruled Athens (Nat. D. 2.29.74). At the suggestion of some friends, the Apostle Paul lectured about theology and false images to the Areopagus during his visit to Athens and made several converts (Acts 17:16–34). As in the Classical period, the Areopagus remained the most respected court in Athens and symbolized Athenian respect for the rule of law.


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