The Rock of the Areopagus, and how to get a dead body off it

Here are the opening paragraphs of my first book:
A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay face down in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.

It was obvious he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him anyway, perhaps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fingertips, from where I had touched his wound, was slippery and wet but already beginning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.

It doesn’t normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one directly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the council chambers of our elder statesmen. The other to the left but much further away was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the political heights.

My hero Nicolaos is walking the path from the Agora (marketplace) to the famous Acropolis when a dead man drops in.

If you've ever been a tourist in Athens, you'll know the path from the Agora twists up and around, between the Acropolis and a second, much smaller rock. This is the Areopagus, which means the hill of Ares or in the Latin version, hill of Mars. Here's a picture from Wikimedia Commons:

This is a modern view of the Areopagus from atop the neighboring and much more famous Acropolis. The white arrow shows, roughly, the point from which my victim fell. Nicolaos is on the path below, about to be surprised.

I had marvelous fun working out how a body could come off the Areopagus and hit the path. It's possible because the body can bounce on the way down, and because things are different now than they were then.

To start with, the vegetation you see between the rocks was not there in 461BC. This was a major thoroughfare for the Classical Athenians, probably a very wide one, and it's perfectly possible for the path to be to the right of where it is today. Back then it was called the Panathenaic Way, the most famous road in Classical Athens since all ritual processions passed along it. If you wanted to get to the Acropolis, where the most important temples were, this was the only way to get there.

The Rock of the Areopagus would have looked a little bit different too. It was the meeting place of the Council of the Areopagus, which until that point was the ruling body of Athens. There were probably no buildings on top - the Greeks did their business in the open air - but imagine seats and a speaking platform carved into the surface of the rock you see in the picture. If you wander around the Areopagus today as these tourists are, you can still see chisel marks and areas which have obviously been carved and eroded. The blood stains from my victim however can no longer be seen.

So this rock once supported the governing body of Athens, right up until the democracy was introduced. It's said too, although it's in no way relevant to Nicolaos and his friends, that five centuries later, St Paul would stand on this rock to preach to the Athenians.

The Areopagus had another, more ominous function. It was here that the court met to hear cases of murder and heresy. 62 years after the opening words of my book, Socrates stood at the place you see in this picture to be condemned to death for heresy.


Joanna said...

Wow-didn't even think about the real Socrates...nice coming full cirle ;)

Carrie said...

I can't wait to jump into this universe! ^_^

Chris Eldin said...

This is awesome writing, Gary! Do you have any beta readers lined up? Because I'm standing in that line!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Chris & Carrie! You're very kind.

I know what you mean Jo. It's amazing to be in a place where some great event has happened. Especially since a lot of real people from the ancient world have become almost mythical to us.

An amazing number of famous historical people have stood on that rock: Socrates, Pericles, Plato, Hadrian, Nero...

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Gary, excellent as always.

Your guest post is up. Take a look and tell me what you think:

CKHB said...

That is SO cool. My Greek husband is gonna love this book.

Mimzy said...

Wow. Now I want to go to Greece even more then I already did. It may be because I'm an American and our recorded history is short compared to some areas of the world, but the idea of a single spot where near legendary figures throughout time stood is amazing and a bit intimidating.

Also, Phryne stood on it too! (Naked too!)

Yamile said...

How fascinating!!!! I have always loved Greece, its history, mythology, etc. Can't wait to read your book! Percy Jackson for adults!

Merry Monteleone said...

I can't wait to read it either - it's coming out soon, right? RIGHT?

How long did it take you to research for this series? I'm guessing just from your posts that you've done some pretty extensive research, but were you already an ancient history buff before this novel idea, or did the idea get you more into the research?

Gary Corby said...

CKHB, since you have a Greek husband, does that mean you've toured and/or lived in Greece?

Mimzy, it's really worthwhile to visit, and also the Western part of Turkey. Ephesus is amazing. So is Delphi and Olympia and Mycenae and Tiryns and Delos and Knossos and...

Yamile, if you like Ancient Greece in general, I really strongly recommend the Ancient Greek books of Mary Renault. They're brilliantly written.

Thanks Merry, you just gave me the idea for a blog post! The short answer to your question is, I've been an ancient history buff since I was a teenager. I read Herodotus & Thucydides back then. BUT! The research you need for an historical is quite different to the geopolitics you get from most ancient authors. Herodotus comes closest for good writer material, but in general, ancient historians don't often tell you the details you need to write a scene, like, for example, how the door handles worked or how they put out the garbage. So I do piles of research, but not for big picture stuff, which I already know, but for lots and lots of little details.

Merry Monteleone said...


I'd love to see a post on the research aspect - actually, I'd tune into a whole series of them. There was a course on Researching for Historical Fiction that I was dying to take in college, and for some ungodly reason it was always booked up when I had time in my schedule.

That is exactly what I was wondering, too, where you get the specifics of life during that time period, especially in the ancient world.

Gary Corby said...

That's a great suggestion Merry! I'll definitely do some posts on historical research. Be warned you'll be getting the Gary version. I never attended any courses, I just worked it out as I went along.

I love it when people tell me what interests them, so thanks.