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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Areop′agus, an Anglicized form of the original words, signifying in reference to place, Mars Hill, but in reference to persons, the Council, which was held on the hill. The Council was also termed the Council on Mars Hill; sometimes the Upper Council, from the elevated position where it was held; and sometimes simply, but emphatically, the Council: but it retained, till a late period, the original designation of Mars Hill. The place and the Council are topics of interest to the Biblical student, chiefly from their being the scene of the interesting narrative and sublime discourse found in Acts 17, where it appears that the apostle Paul, feeling himself moved, by the evidences of idolatry with which the city of Athens was crowded, to preach Jesus and the resurrection, both in the Jewish synagogues and in the market place, was set upon by certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and led to the Areopagus, in order that they might learn from him the meaning and design of his new doctrine. Whether or not the Apostle was criminally arraigned, as a setter forth of strange gods, before the tribunal which held its sittings on the hill, may be considered as undetermined, though the balance of evidence seems to incline to the affirmative. Whichever view on this point is adopted, the dignified, temperate, and high-minded bearing of Paul under the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed are worthy of high admiration, and will appear the more striking the more the associations are known and weighed which covered and surrounded the spot where he stood. Nor does his eloquent discourse appear to have been without good effect; for though some mocked, and some procrastinated, yet others believed, among whom was a member of the Council, 'Dionysius, the Areopagite.'

The court of Areopagus was one of the oldest and most honored, not only in Athens, but in the whole of Greece, and, indeed, in the ancient world. Through a long succession of centuries, it preserved its existence amid changes corresponding with those which the state underwent, till at least the age of the Caesars.

Its origin ascends back into the darkest mythical period. From the first its constitution was essentially aristocratic; a character which to some extent it retained even after the democratic reforms which Solon introduced into the Athenian constitution. Following the political tendencies of the state, the Areopagus became in process of time less and less aristocratical, and parted piecemeal with most of its important functions. First its political power was taken away, then its jurisdiction in cases of murder, and even its moral influence gradually departed. During the sway of the Thirty Tyrants its power, or rather its political existence, was destroyed. On their overthrow it recovered some consideration, and the oversight of the execution of the laws was restored to it by an express decree. The precise time when it ceased to exist cannot be determined; but evidence is not wanting to show that in later periods its members ceased to be uniformly characterized by blameless morals.

It is not easy to give a correct summary of its several functions, as the classic writers are not agreed in their statements, and the jurisdiction of the court varied, as has been seen, with times and circumstances. They have, however, been divided into six general classes: I. Its judicial function; II. Its political; III. Its police function; IV. Its religious; V. Its educational; and VI. (only partially) Its financial.

Passing by certain functions, such as acting as a court of appeal, and of general supervision, which under special circumstances, and when empowered by the people, the Areopagus from time to time discharged, we will say a few words in explanation of the points already named, giving a less restricted space to those which concern its moral and religious influence. Its judicial function embraced trials for murder and manslaughter, and was the oldest and most peculiar sphere of its activity. The indictment was brought by the second or king-archon, whose duties were for the most part of a religious nature. Then followed the oath of both parties, accompanied by solemn appeals to the gods. After this the accuser and the accused had the option of making a speech, which, however, they were obliged to keep free from all extraneous matter, as well as from mere rhetorical ornaments. After the first speech, the accused was permitted to go into voluntary banishment, if he had no reason to expect a favorable issue. Theft, poisoning, wounding, incendiarism, and treason, belonged also to this department of jurisdiction in the court of the Areopagus. Its political function consisted in the constant watch which it kept over the legal condition of the state, acting as overseer and guardian of the laws.

Its police function also made it a protector and upholder of the institutions and laws. In this character the Areopagus had jurisdiction over novelties in religion, in worship, in customs, in everything that departed from the traditionary and established usages and modes of thought, which a regard to their ancestors endeared to the nation. The members of the court had a right to take oversight of festive meetings in private houses. In ancient times they fixed the number of the guests, and determined the style of the entertainment. If a person had no obvious means of subsisting, or was known to live in idleness, he was liable to an action before the Areopagus; if condemned three times, he was punished with the loss of his civil rights. In later times the court possessed the right of giving permission to teachers (philosophers and rhetoricians) to establish themselves and pursue their profession in the city.

Its strictly religious jurisdiction extended itself over the public creed, worship, and sacrifices, embracing generally everything which could come under the denomination of sacred things. It was its special duty to see that the religion of the state was kept pure from all foreign elements. The accusation of impiety—the vagueness of which admitted almost any charge connected with religious innovations—belonged in a special manner to this tribunal. The freethinking poet Euripides stood in fear of, and was restrained by, the Areopagus. Its proceeding in such cases was sometimes rather of an admonitory than punitive character.

Not less influential was its moral and educational power. Isocrates speaks of the care which it took of good manners and good order. Quintilian relates that the Areopagus condemned a boy for plucking out the eyes of a quail—a proceeding which has been both misunderstood and misrepresented, but which its original narrator approved, assigning no insufficient reason, namely, that the act was a sign of a cruel disposition, likely in advanced life to lead to baneful actions. The court exercised a salutary influence in general over the Athenian youth, their educators and their education.

Its financial position is not well understood; most probably it varied more than any other part of its administration with the changes which the constitution of the city underwent. It may suffice to mention, that in the Persian war the Areopagus had the merit of completing the number of men required for the fleet, by paying eight drachmæ to each.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Areopagus'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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