Areopagus was a judicial council in ancient Greece, specifically Athens, which played a significant role in the development of Athenian democracy. The word Areopagus means “Hill of Ares”, where the council would meet.
The Formation of Areopagus
Areopagus was formed during the 7th century BC and initially served as a council of nobles who were responsible for trying homicide cases. The council comprised of nine archons or magistrates who held office for life. They were chosen from the aristocratic class and were known for their wisdom and integrity.
The Role of Areopagus
Over time, the role of Areopagus evolved to include overseeing all aspects of Athenian society. It became a body that dealt with both civil and criminal matters, including issues such as corruption, fraud, and treason. Moreover, it was responsible for supervising religious activities in Athens and ensuring that citizens adhered to religious laws.
Members of the council were known as Areopagites. They were highly respected by Athenians as they were believed to be impartial and unbiased in their decision-making. They held enormous power as they could overturn decisions made by other magistrates if they deemed them unjust.
The Functioning of Areopagus
The council would meet on top of a hill called Areios Pagos (Hill of Ares) situated west of Acropolis in Athens. The members would sit on stone benches arranged in a semicircle while hearing cases presented to them.
The procedure followed by the council was an elaborate one. Once a case had been presented before them, each member was given an opportunity to express their views on the matter at hand.
After this discussion, they would vote orally by casting black or white pebbles into an urn. The verdict was declared based on the number of pebbles cast.
Decline and Abolition of Areopagus
As Athens grew democratically, the power of Areopagus began to wane. The council came under scrutiny for being elitist and undemocratic. In 462 BC, Ephialtes, a democratic politician, stripped the council of its powers by transferring them to the popular courts.
However, Areopagus was later revived during the Hellenistic period when Athens came under Macedonian rule. It once again became a significant body that dealt with criminal cases and continued to function until the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC.
Areopagus played an essential role in Athenian society by serving as a council responsible for judicial matters and overseeing religious activities. Although it faced criticism for being undemocratic, it remained a prominent institution for centuries and is remembered as one of the most significant contributions to Athenian democracy.