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The Council of the Areopagus 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 26, 2003

page 3 of 21

· The 4th c. ·

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 23).
Lycurgus (Lyc. 1).
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).
Plot on a Map

The Council of the Areopagus functioned as a court under the democracy of 4th century Athens, and it had a very high reputation (Dem. 23.65). The orator Lycurgus tells his fellow Athenians that, “you have, in the Council of the Areopagus, the finest model in Greece: a court so superior to others that even the men convicted in it admit that its judgements are just” (Lyc. 1.12). Aeschines speaks of the Areopagus in similar terms but praises the institution at greater length: “Take the example of the Council of the Areopagus, the most scrupulous tribunal in the city. I myself have before now seen many men convicted before this tribunal, though they spoke most eloquently and presented witnesses; and I know that before now certain men have won their case, although they spoke most feebly, and although no witnesses testified for them. For it is not on the strength of the pleading alone, nor of the testimony alone, that the members of the court give their verdict, but on the strength of their own knowledge and their own investigations. And this is the reason why that tribunal maintains its high repute in the city” (Aeschin. 1.92).

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

Members of the Areopagus individually and the institution generally were held in high regard and considered to be worthy of respect. Aeschines reports an incident when Autolycus, a member of the Areopagus, unwittingly made a sexual pun; when the people laughed, Pyrrandrus scolded them, asking if they “were not ashamed of themselves for laughing in the presence of the Council of the Areopagus” (Aeschin. 1.84). Aeschines is careful to defend Autolycus, as “a man whose life has been good and pious, and so worthy of that body [i.e. the Areopagus — CWB]” (Aeschin. 1.82).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 23).

The principle function of the Areopagus, in the 4th century BCE, was to try cases of homicide. Demosthenes describes this function and the lengths to which the court went to ensure that its proceedings were fair and just; this passage, addressed to the Athenians, also suggests that the Athenians saw a strong relationship between human and divine justice: “You are all of course aware that in the Areopagus, where the law both permits and enjoins the trial of homicide, first, every man who brings accusation of such a crime must make oath by invoking destruction upon himself, his kindred, and his household; secondly, that he must not treat this oath as an ordinary oath, but as one which no man swears for any other purpose; for he stands over the entrails of a boar, a ram, and a bull, and they must have been slaughtered by the necessary officers and on the days appointed, so that in respect both of the time and of the functionaries every requirement of solemnity has been satisfied. Even then the person who has sworn this tremendous oath does not gain immediate credence; and if any falsehood is brought home to him, he will carry away with him to his children and his kindred the stain of perjury—but gain nothing. If, on the other hand, he is believed to be laying a just charge, and if he proves the accused guilty of murder, even then he has no power over the convicted criminal; only the laws and the appointed officers have power over the man for punishment.” (Dem. 23.67-69).

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page 3 of 21