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published on 09 April 2013
Theatre of Pergamon (Benh Lieu Song)

Pergamon (also referred to as Pergamum or Pergamo) was an ancient city located approximately 25 kilometres from the Aegean sea in present-day Bergama, Izmir Province of Turkey in the Anatolia region. The city was connected to the Caicus river valley (modern name Bakırçay) which provided access from Pergamon to the Aegean coast. Pergamon reached the height of its influence during the Hellenistic period becoming the capital of the Attalid kings and the Pergamon Empire from the 3rd to 2nd century BCE and in the Roman period it was the first capital of the Asian province until this was moved to local rival Ephesus.

From 336 BCE to 323 BCE, when Asia Minor was part of the Persian Empire, the Caicus valley was ruled by a dynasty of expatriated Greeks on behalf of Alexander the Great. Pergamon was at that time no more than a hilltop fortress with a small settlement attached to its southern side and had a population of no more than a few thousand. Shortly after Alexander's death, it became part of the territory held by Lysimachus, a Macedonian general. In 282 BCE, Lysimachus was on his way to confront Seleucus, the ruler of the Greco-Macedonian administration of Babylon when he parked his war chest in Pergamon, to be looked after by Philatauerus of Tieium, a trusted lieutenant. However, Lysimachus was killed in the battle and the result was that Philatauerus found himself sitting on 9,000 talents that had no owner and in a fortress with no master. Philatauerus appropriated the money and declared his independence.

In order to avoid further military action, Philatauerus became loyal to Seleucus and Pergamon became part of the Seleucid Empire. Philatauerus ruled Pergamon with considerable autonomy until his death in 263 BCE. His nephew Eumenes became the ruler of Pergamon: by that time the city was a small kingdom. Philatauerus is usually mentioned as the founder of the ruling dynasty of Pergamon, but it was actually the ruler after Eumenes, Attalus I (241 BCE - 197 BCE), who was the official founder of the Attalid dynasty as he was the first one who used the title of king.

The name of Pergamon continues to live on even today in the word “parchment”, which is a distortion of Pergamon (“parchemt” is pergamino in Spanish and pergamena in Italian).

Attalus I earned the gratitude of Greek Asia when he drove back the Gauls who had penetrated inland to his city walls. He had three successors: Eumenes II, Attalus II and Attalus III. In 190 BCE, when Eumenes II ruled Pergamon, the Romans expelled the Seleucids from the Anatolia region but the Romans were not interested in ruling Anatolia themselves, so Eumenes II, who at this point had already become friend and ally of the Romans, was now made the new ruler of the territory which had belonged to the Seleucids. Mainland Greece, however, denounced Eumenes as a traitor for joining the Romans against his fellow Greeks. This new scenario did, though, turn Pergamon into a middle-ranking kingdom and Eumenes into a very rich man. Pergamon was relatively safe at this point in time: the Romans extended their protection over nearly all the Mediterranean coast of Asia but all of these benefits had a high cost, for now Pergamon, although a lot bigger, was a lot less independent. At this time it is not clear how large the population was, but the archaeological evidence suggests that there was room for no more than 10,000 people.

Eumenes II took the initiative to turn Pergamon into a centre of art, scholarship and research by establishing a library second only to Alexandria’s in terms of the number of volumes and repute of its scholars. It also had a great collection of paintings for public enjoyment. However, Ptolemy IV, the Greek ruler of Egypt, was not happy with the idea of another library challenging Alexandria, so he forbade the export of the Egyptian papyri from Egypt to prevent the development of the library in Pergamon. As a result of this the authorities of Pergamon encouraged the mass production of “parchment” (treated skins of sheep and calves), which had long been used for writing purposes in the East. Parchment ended up rivalling paper as a vehicle of communication, it was much more expensive than papyrus but also far more durable. The name of Pergamon continues to live on even today in the word “parchment”, which is a distortion of Pergamon (“parchemt” is pergamino in Spanish and pergamena in Italian)

Finally, during the time of Attalus III, Pergamon was handed over to the Roman people to be managed by them and the kingdom was transformed into the Roman province of Asia with Pergamon as its initial capital. Not everyone accepted the new Roman administration though and a number of revolts took place. The Romans eventually restored order but Pergamon soon lost its status and the neighbouring city of Ephesus became the new provincial capital.

Some time later, under Hadrian (117 CE - 138 CE), the city was favoured by several imperial initiatives. It was granted the title of metropolis and as a result of this an ambitious building programe was carried out: massive temples, a stadium, a theatre, a huge forum and an amphitheatre were constructed. In addition, at the city limits the shrine to Asclepius (the god of healing) was expanded into a lavish spa.

The Hellenistic Prince (Detail)

During the second half of the 3rd century CE Pergamon started to decline. Things got worse in 262 CE due to an earthquake and after that the city was sacked by the Goths. The arrival of Christianity did not help much as the buildings which had honoured the pagan gods were no longer considered desirable. Even the shrine to Asclepius that used to be visited by invalids was abandoned. Despite these changes, urban life did continue. In 611 CE the Persians overran Syria and entered Anatolia devastating most of it. The Romans finally evicted the Persians and the Emperor Constants II (641-668 CE) limited himself to fortifying the acropolis. After this initiative only a small ten-hectare area remained of this once-proud metropolis.

The archaeological site of Pergamon has provided many fine works of Hellenistic and Roman art but perhaps the most impressive is the altar which now resides in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The Great Altar was constructed between 164 and 156 BCE and, reassembled, its monumental surface area of some 36 by 34 metres make it one of the most impressive works of art surviving from antiquity. Built to commemorate the victory over the Gauls, the altar was constructed around a staircase and the 2.3 metre high and 120 metre long frieze is topped by a colonnaded hall. Sculpted in high relief, the frieze depicts lively representations of Zeus, Artemis and other Olympian gods fighting the Giants, symbolic of the victory of order over chaos. This gigantic monument is a convincing and lasting testimony to the power and prestige that was enjoyed by this once great city.

About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian Violatti studies Archaeology at the University of Leicester (UK) and he is one of the editors of Ancient History Encyclopedia. Cristian is well travelled, having lived in numerous countries all over the world.

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Visual Timeline
  • 262 BCE
    Eumenes rebels and wins against the Seleucid Antiochos I. Beginning of the Pergamon Empire.
  • c. 237 BCE - 241 BCE
    Attalos I of Pergamon defeats the Galatians at the headwaters of the Caioc River.
  • 218 BCE
    The Aegosages Celts enter Anatolia under Attalos of Pergamon.
  • c. 189 BCE
    The treaty of Apameea Kibotos. Peace and alliance is established between the Seleucid Kingdom and Rome joined by her allies, such as Pergamon and Rhodes. The Seleucids have to evacuate all the land and the cities from Asia Minor and to pay a huge war indemnity.
  • 188 BCE
    Maximum extent of the Pergamon Empire after Apamea peace.
  • 133 BCE
    Attalus III, the last king of Pergamon, bequeathes the whole of Pergamon to Rome.

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