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.