Pergamon was an ancient city located in the Anatolia region, approximately 25 kilometres from the Aegean Sea in present-day Bergama, Izmir Province of Turkey. The city had great strategic value, since it overlooked 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. During the Roman period the city was the first capital of the Asian province, but it eventually lost this status to local rival, Ephesus. Pergamon is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Origin of Pergamon
When Alexander died in 323 BCE, his generals divided the territory he had conquered, which resulted in a power struggle between them. Around this time, Pergamon was little more than a hilltop fortress with a settlement on its southern side. Following years of unrest, the city became part of the territory controlled by Lysimachus, one of the Macedonian generals. By this time, Pergamon embraced the polis (or city-state) model of civic organization.
Lysimachus was immersed in the military conflicts following the division of Alexander’s empire, and in 282 BCE, he was on his way to confront Seleucus, the ruler of the Greco-Macedonian administration of Babylon. Lysimachus left his war chest in Pergamon under the supervision of Philatauerus of Tieium, a trusted lieutenant. What Lysimachus could not foresee was that he would be killed in the battle. For Philatauerus, this was not too bad: he was now holding 9,000 talents in a fortress which had no owner. Philatauerus appropriated the money and declared his independence, but in order to avoid unnecessary risks, he wisely swore loyalty 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 I became the ruler of Pergamon: by that time the city had expanded into 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 (r. 241-197 BCE), who was the official founder of the Attalid dynasty as he was the first one who used the title of king.
Attalus I is remembered for winning an important victory over the Galatians, a Gaulish (Celtic) tribe who came through Thrace and settled in central Anatolia during the 3rd century BCE (this was the same group addressed in the Epistle to the Galatians in the New Testament). Many communities in Anatolia had suffered Galatian attacks who even managed to penetrate the city walls of Pergamon. Attalus drove the Galatians back and defeated them. This military success was the background for the creation of the famous Dying Gaul sculpture which depicts a wounded Galatian warrior. Pergamon was now the capital of the most powerful kingdom in Anatolia.
Eumenes II succeeded Attalus I and he ruled Pergamon from 197 BCE to 159 BCE. In 190 BCE, the Romans expelled the Seleucids from the Anatolia region. The Romans were not interested in ruling Anatolia themselves, so Eumenes II, who at this point had already become a friend and ally of the Romans, was now made the new ruler of the territory which had belonged to the Seleucids. The Greeks denounced Eumenes as a traitor for joining the Romans against his own fellow Greeks. This new scenario did, though, turn Pergamon into a middle-ranking kingdom and Eumenes truly wealthy. Pergamon was relatively safe at this point: 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 enhance Pergamon’s prestige by enlarging it and turning it into a cultural capital. This was the time when the ‘Great Altar’ or ‘Pergamon Altar’ was created. Eumenes also established a centre of scholarship and research by creating 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.
Ptolemy IV, the Greek ruler of Egypt, was not happy with the idea of another library challenging Alexandria, so he forbade the export of papyri from Egypt to prevent the development of the library in Pergamon. As a result, 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 means of communication; it was much more expensive than papyrus but also more durable. The name of Pergamon continues to live on even today in the word “parchment”, which is a distortion of Pergamon (“parchment” is pergamino in Spanish and pergamena in Italian).
Pergamon Handed to Rome
During the time of Attalus III (r. 138-133 BCE), Pergamon was handed over to the Roman republic to be fully managed by the Roman people 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, whose toleration for civic disturbance was low, eventually restored order, but Pergamon soon lost its status and the neighbouring city of Ephesus became the new provincial capital.
Under Hadrian (117-138 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 programme 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.
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 saw further change 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 thousands of 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 Emperor Constants II (641-668 CE) limited himself to fortifying the acropolis. By this time, Pergamon was no more than a deteriorated ten-hectare city, a pale reflection of its former self.
Archaeology of Pergamon
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 during the reign of Eumenes II (see above) and has a surface area of some 36 by 34 metres. It is one of the most impressive works of art surviving from antiquity. The altar was constructed around a staircase and the 2.3 metres high and 120-metre long frieze is topped by a collonaded 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.
Archaeologists have also been able to identify the remains of the library. Based on the study of the holes for mounting the shelving, it is estimated that the reading room alone had a storage capacity of 20,000 papyri (many were written on parchment, see above). This is believed to be just ten percent of the total for the entire library.