The Pnyx is a small, rocky hill surrounded by parkland, with a large flat platform of eroded stone set into its side, and by steps carved on its slope. It was the meeting place of one of the world’s earliest known democratic legislatures, the Athenian ekklesia (assembly), and the flat stone platform was the bema, the “stepping stone” or speakers’ platform. As such, the Pnyx is the material embodiment of the principle of isēgoria, “equal speech”, i.e. the equal right of every citizen to debate matters of policy. The other two principles of democracy were isonomia, equality under the law, and isopoliteia, equality of vote and equal opportunity to assume political office. The right of isēgoria was expressed by the presiding officer of the Pnyx assembly, who formally opened each debate with the open invitation “Tis agoreyein bouletai?” (“Who wishes to speak?”).
The Pnyx was used for popular assemblies in Athens as early as 507 BC, when the reforms of Cleisthenes transferred political power to the citizenry. It was then outside the city proper, but close enough to be convenient. It looks down on the ancient Agora, which was the commercial and social centre of the city.
At this site all the great political struggles of Athens of the “Golden Age” were fought out. Pericles, Aristides and Alcibiades spoke here, within sight of the Parthenon, temple of Athena. Here Demosthenes delivered his vilifications of Philip of Macedon, the famous Philippics (further reading…)
The Areopagus or Areios Pagos is the “Rock of Ares”, north-west of the Acropolis, which in classical times functioned as the high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases in Athens. Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son Alirrothios (a typical example of an aetiological myth).
The origin of its name is not clear. In Greek pagos means big piece of rock. Areios could have come from Ares or from the Erinyes, as on its foot was erected a temple dedicated to the Erinyes where murderers used to find shelter so as not to face the consequences of their actions. Later, the Romans referred to the rocky hill as “Mars Hill”, after Mars, the Roman God of War. Near the Areopagus was also constructed the basilica of Dionysius Areopagites.
In pre-classical times (before the 5th century BC), the Areopagus was the council of elders of the city, similar to the Roman Senate. Like the Senate, its membership was restricted to those who had held high public office, in this case that of Archon. In 594 BC, the Areopagus agreed to hand over its functions to Solon for reform. He instituted democratic reforms, reconstituted its membership and returned control to the organization.
In 462 BC, Ephialtes put through reforms which deprived the Areopagus of almost all its functions except that of a murder tribunal in favour of Heliaia.
In The Eumenides of Aeschylus (458 BC), the Areopagus is the site of the trial of Orestes for killing his mother (Clytemnestra) and her lover (Aegisthus).
Phryne, the hetaera from 4th century BC Greece and famed for her beauty, appeared before the Areopagus accused of profaning the Eleusinian mysteries. Legend has it that she let her cloak drop, so impressing the judges with her almost divine form that she was summarily acquitted.
In an unusual development, the Areopagus acquired a new function in the 4th century BC, investigating corruption, although conviction powers remained with the Ecclesia.
The Areopagus, like most city-state institutions, continued to function in Roman times, and it was from this location, drawing from the potential significance of the Athenian altar to the Unknown God, that the Apostle Paul is said to have delivered the famous speech, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.”
The term “Areopagus” also refers to the judicial body of aristocratic origin that subsequently formed the higher court of modern Greece.