The Areopagus – pronounced with the stress on the third syllable, IPA: /,æ rɪ 'ɒ pə gəs/ – was the oldest of the Athenian councils, and throughout its long history had as one of its responsibilities that of conducting the trials of those accused of murder. The Areopagus has sometimes been compared to the Roman Senate or the British House of Lords.
A member of the Areopagus is known as an Areopagite.
The Areopagus had its origins in the aristocratic advisory body which served the kings who ruled Athens towards the end of the second millennium BCE. In the first half of the first millennium BCE it was a powerful political institution, all its members having previously held the office of archon, the highest political office in Athens; and in 594 BCE the great legislator Solon (c640-c560 BCE) confirmed its status by designating it ‘guardian of the constitution’. However, during the fifth century its power declined: in 487 the archons began to be chosen by lot and the prestige of the office diminished, and in 462 further democratic reforms deprived the Areopagus of its function as ‘guardian of the constitution’. It remained, however, a much respected body, and critics of Athenian democracy often called for it to be granted greater political power. (The Areopagiticus (355 BCE) of the orator and teacher Isocrates (436-338 BCE) contrasts the unsatisfactory state of Athens in the fourth century with its state in the time of Solon and argues for stricter criteria for election to public office.)
The (Council of the) Areopagus takes its name from the place where it met, i.e., a hill to the north west of the Acropolis known as the Hill of Ares (in Greek Ὰρείου πάγος, Areiou pagos) - the official title of the (Council of the) Areopagus in Greek is ἡ βουλὴ ἡ ἐξ Ὰρείου πάγου (hē boulē hē ex Areiou pagou, the Council on the Hill of Ares). The Hill of Ares was so called because it was said to be the site where in Greek mythology the god Ares was tried by the other gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son Halirrhothius.
The Areopagitica (1644) of the English poet John Milton (1608-1674) takes its title from Isocrates’ Areopagiticus (see above). In his pamphlet, written in the form of a speech to Parliament, Milton defends the freedom of the press by arguing, amongst other things, that the censorship exercised by the Areopagus in ancient Athens was less restrictive than that which his opponents were seeking to impose.
For St. Paul’s address to the Areopagus when he visited Athens on his second missionary journey see Saint Paul and Acts of the Apostles.17, 16-34. (Note that in this account the Hill of Ares is referred to as Mars’ hill (v. 22), Mars, the Roman god of war, being the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Ares.)