Hellenistic City of Culture


I know where you live – where Satan’s throne is. Yet you continue to cling to my name and you have not denied your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed in your city where Satan lives.


So wrote St John in the Book of Revelation, in his letter to the Church in Pergamum, home of Antipas, the first Christian martyr of Asia. The ‘throne of Satan’ is no metaphor, but one of the most celebrated monuments of Greek civilization: the Great Altar that stood on the acropolis of Pergamum, now reconstructed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The seat-shaped ground plan of this Hellenistic masterpiece leaves little room for doubt that the Evangelist identified Pergamum by its most famous building, and the fantastic relief sculptures of the altar, depicting all the Olympian gods of Greece engaged in fierce combat with the giants, explain his reason for doing so. They were the most spectacular and tangible embodiment of classical pagan religion in the Mediterranean world. To contemporaries they represented the triumph of Hellenic civilization over the forces of barbarism; to modern connoisseurs they embody Greek art of the post-Alexander age as definitively as the Parthenon marbles represent the ideals of classical Greece; to a messianic Judaeo-Christian in the time of Nero they were a force of demonic darkness.

The rise of Pergamum was rapid and opportunistic. Situated on a rocky hill beside modern Bergama in Aegean Turkey, the fortified settlement dates back to the 7th century BC. Barsine, a Persian mistress of Alexander the Great, built a temple for Athena, and a sanctuary of the healing god Asclepius was founded in the 4th century BC, but neither signposted the city’s future pre-eminence. The turning point came around 275 BC, when a eunuch called Philetaerus from Tium, an obscure city on the Black Sea coast, who commanded the treasury of three Hellenistic kings on the Pergamene acropolis, carved out an independent dynastic domain for himself. He was succeeded by his nephew, Eumenes I, and then in 241 BC by Attalus I, the first ruler of the city to take the title of king. Attalus I acquired fame as conqueror of the Galatians, Celtic invaders settled in central Turkey, and used his victories to create an image of himself as a defender of the Greeks against the forces of barbarism. Sculptures of the heroic but defeated enemies of the Attalids were dedicated in many Greek cities and sanctuaries. The colossal Great Altar, completed around 160 BC, which represented the giants with the features and attributes of northern barbarians, the Galatians, was the climax of a programme that cast the kings of Pergamum as champions of Hellenism. The city took on the mantle of a new Athens, a major centre of culture, famed for science and learning. The library of Pergamum was now a rival to that of Ptolemaic Alexandria. Parchment made from animal skins, a word derived from the Latin Pergamena, was the counterpart to Egyptian papyrus.

Aerial view of Pergamum: the acropolis ruins are dominated by the steepest theatre in the classical world, raking up above a terrace that led to the temple of Dionysus. Behind the theatre was the precinct of the temple of Athena and the ruins of five palaces of the Attalid kings. The dam lake in the background is a modern feature.

© Images & Stories.

Around the east side of the acropolis the kings built a series of palaces and a building for the ruler cult. The public structures of the city included sanctuaries for Demeter and Hera, a huge gymnasium area laid out over three terraces of the city hill, later enlarged with two Roman bath-houses, a vast and steeply raked theatre and its associated temple of Dionysus, as well as city walls. Pergamum is the only capital city of the Hellenistic world that can be understood in architectural terms. From the summit of the city hill, with the royal palaces and religious centre focused on the Athena temple and the Great Altar, it extended southwards to take in large-scale public buildings and domestic quarters, all enclosed in the 2nd century BC by city walls that had far outgrown the area of the old fortified acropolis.

The last king, Attalus III, bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans in 133 BC, and it now became the Roman province of Asia. The capital of the province, however, was transferred from Pergamum to Ephesus, with important consequences for the city’s future. Under Rome Pergamum flourished, but drew on old prestige and its historic eminence rather than on the dynamic commercial and administrative activity that sustained its rival, Ephesus. During the 1st century BC two outstanding local citizens, Diodorus Pasparos, who was commemorated in a cult and lecture room which have been excavated on the south side of the Hellenistic city, and Mithridates, a friend of Julius Caesar, secured favours and some protection for the city from its new Roman masters when it was threatened by external and civil wars. The rule of the emperor Augustus after the battle of Actium in 31 BC brought stability and laid the foundations for new well-being. In return Roman emperors received divine honours. Pergamum was the location of the first provincial imperial temple for the emperor in 29 BC. Construction of a second began under the emperor Trajan, and was completed in time to celebrate the visit to Pergamum of his successor, Hadrian, in AD 129. Few structures demonstrate Rome’s domineering grandeur better than this sanctuary, which overshadowed all the earlier structures of the Hellenistic acropolis. The temple’s white marble porticoes were erected above towering vaulted substructures that changed the entire profile of the Pergamene city hill.

The Great Altar, now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, was decorated with reliefs depicting the battle of the gods and giants, an epic struggle that was a mythological counterpart to the wars of the Greeks against barbarian enemies throughout their history.


Greek culture survived and flourished. The ancient sanctuary of Asclepius was transformed, thanks especially to the spending of wealthy Pergamenes who were also Roman senators under Hadrian in the 130s. The most remarkable of its buildings is a circular temple built exactly to the plan of the Pantheon at Rome but at half scale, and dedicated to a new god, Zeus-Asclepius. Another circular building, semi-subterranean and linked by passages to the healing spring of the sanctuary, was built for patients who incubated and received visitations in dreams from the healing god. The most famous of these was the wealthy sophist Aelius Aristides, whose Sacred Tales, many set in the Asclepion, are an eccentric record of the god’s healing powers for those who were true believers. Pergamum’s healing sanctuary became a mecca for wealthy Greeks and Romans who came to take the cure and to enjoy the intellectual renaissance of the 2nd century AD. It acquired its own theatre, a library and a clientele that included senators, orators, poets and historians. The most famous doctor of antiquity, Galen, was born in Pergamum (AD 129). His father was a prominent architect and he himself learned his trade as physician to the gladiators who trained and competed in the Roman arena, which still survives at the edge of the city.

Galen noted that his city had an adult population of 120,000 men, women and slaves. Most would have lived on the plain beneath and around modern Bergama. Little survives above ground of this huge Roman settlement, with one exception – the mighty brick structure adorned with Egyptianizing marble décor known as the Red Hall, in antiquity a colossal temple built for a trinity of Egyptian gods. Its scale is oppressive even today. An inhabitant of modern Bergama might well share the feelings of the Byzantine emperor Theodore Laskaris. He visited Pergamum around 1250, after many centuries of abandonment and neglect, and was moved to comment that the piteous dwellings of his contemporaries resembled the dwellings of mice among the mighty ruins.

The ‘Red Hall’, largely built from brick but with marble decoration, is one of the largest religious buildings of the ancient world. The temple, erected under the emperor Hadrian, was dedicated to the Egyptian deities Serapis, Isis and Harpocrates.

© Samuel Magal.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!