How Did Pergamon Become a Great City

Friedrich Thierch’s 1882 Reconstruction Painting of Pergamon

The city of Pergamon, sometimes spelled Pergamum, was not only one of the greatest cities in the Hellenistic world, it was arguably one of the greatest cities of the entire ancient world. Located in the mountains a few miles in from the Aegean coast in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Pergamon would have been one of the most impressive cities to few in the last few centuries BC. Although settlements existed on the site beginning in the early Bronze Age, it became a great city when the Greek Attalid Dynasty made it their home in the third century BC.

The Attalid kings made Pergamon one of the jewels of the Hellenistic world through a carefully coordinated political and cultural program. The city became the capital of their small, yet powerful empire, where they accepted tribute from smaller kingdoms and met with other powerful rulers of the time. Most importantly, though, the Attalids imported some of the Hellenistic world’s greatest architects and artists to make the city more beautiful than any other of the period. Finally, the Attalid kings also made Pergamon an intellectual and academic center, building a library that rivalled the famed Library of Alexandria.

Early Pergamon and Its Settlement in the Hellenistic Period

The Kingdom of Pergamon in 188 BC

Archaeologists have revealed that the area around Pergamon was first settled in the late fourth millennium BC. Due to its location on a high plateau, Pergamon offered a perfect defensive location for early settlers. It was probably during the late Bronze Age when the area became associated with the Greek legend of the hero Telephos, the son of Hercules who became the king of the region Mysia, which is where Pergamon is located. Pergamon was also relatively close to Troy, which led to later claims by the Attalid kings that settlement began during the Trojan War around 1200 BC. [1]

The historian Xenophon mentioned the city in 399 BC, but it was not until Alexander the Great’s generals divided his kingdom after his death in 323 BC that Pergamon started to become a first tier city. After Lysimachus, the King of Thrace, conquered Mysia in 301 BC, he stowed his war booty in Pergamon’s acropolis fortress and placed a eunuch named Philetarios in charge of the city. [2] Apparently Lysimachus thought that since Philetarios was a eunuch his ambitions were eliminated along with his ability to reproduce. But as was the case with countless eunuchs throughout history, the loss of sexual potency only made Philetarios more ambitious and duplicitous.

Philaterios made his move to capture Pergamon when he aligned with Seleucus against Lysimachus in 282 BC. Although Seleucus died in the ensuing battle, Philaterios took Lysimachus’ riches and with them control of the city. He then adopted Eumenes I (ruled 263-241 BC) and initiated a new political dynasty, which he named after his father, Attalos. Philaterios started ambitious building projects and made sure that the kingdom was in good hands. [3]

Pergamon as a Political Capital

The first three Attalid kings were just as able in the arts of diplomacy as they were with war. Beginning with Eumenes I, they used those abilities to expand the kingdom southward, defeating less powerful peoples, while making alliances with the more powerful Hellenistic kingdoms and the Romans. When Attalus I (reigned 241-197 BC) came to the throne, Pergamon’s expansion was met with that of the expansion of a Gaul tribe known as the Galatians. In 240 BC the Gauls formed a federation in the region of northern Phrygia, but were defeated by Attalus I at the Battle of Kaikos. [4] The victory over the Gauls consolidated Pergamon’s power over Asia Minor and made it a major player in the geo-politics of the Hellenistic world.

Attalus I made the bold move of aligning Pergamon with the Greek Aetolian League and Rome in 211 BC against Philip V of Macedon (ruled 238-179 BC) in the First Macedonian War (215-205 BC). Although Attalus I was able to temporarily take Euboea in Greece with Rome’s help, Philip V later sacked Pergamon in retaliation. [5]

Pergamon and Attalus I quickly rebounded from the attack, though, and went to war against Philip again in the Second Macedonian War (200-197 BC). In the second war, Pergamon aligned with Ptolemy V (ruled 203-181 BC) of Egypt to check Philip’s aggression. The two kings were able to persuade the Romans to once more declare war on the bellicose Macedonian monarch. [6] Generally speaking, Attalus’ actions vis à vis Philip and Macedon were viewed favorably by the Greeks of the mainland. As a token of their respect for and friendship with Attalus I, the Athenians erected pillars in his name in their city. [7] The friendship with mainland Greece and Rome and hostility toward Macedon that Attalus I established helped make Pergamon one of the most important cities in the region politically, so the policy was followed by his successor.

Eumenes II (reigned 197-159 BC) continued Pergamon’s alliance with Rome. The Roman-Pergamon alliance led to a war against Sparta as well as Macedon and its king, Perseus (ruled 212-166 BC), during the Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC). [8] The Third Macedonian War would prove to be the last one, as Macedon was thoroughly defeated and incorporated into Rome. Pergamon gained little physically from the Third Macedonian War, but it did expand its borders by siding with Rome against Antiochus III (ruled 222-187 BC), king of the Seleucid Empire. As Antiochus III attempted to expand Seleucid territory into Asia Minor, the Romans helped Eumenes II check that aggression, which led to a decisive battle near the Asia Minor city of Manisa in 190 BC. In that battle, the Romans and Pergamonians vanquished the Seleucids from Asia Minor, leaving the Attalids with control over much of the region. In the Peace of Apamea (188 BC), Pergamon’s borders were extended south to Cappadocia [9] and with its close relationship with Rome became as powerful as Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire. By the early second century BC, Pergamon’s importance as a political center was undeniable, but its greatness as a cultural center had already been long established.

The Art and Architecture of Pergamon

The Pergamon Altar in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Roman Reproduction of the Dying Gaul Statue in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

When Pergamon was at its height of power during the reign of Eumenes II, the city was also the envy of the world in terms of its aesthetics. Numerous temples adorned the city, but visitors were first greeted by the Sanctuary of Athena Nikephoros just outside the city. The sanctuary was built primarily to commemorate Pergamon’s victory over the Gauls during the reign of Attalus I. [10] The Sanctuary of Athena Nikephoros was certainly an impressive monument, but Pergamon’s most majestic edifice was the Pergamon Altar.

The Pergamon Altar was the centerpiece of the city of Pergamon, with its immense size dominating much of the ancient city. Although modern scholars are unsure when work began on the Pergamon Altar, historical references on the friezes show much of it was completed during the rule of Eumenes II. Today, only the west side of the altar is intact and is on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. The altar is believed to have represented the palace of the god Zeus on Mount Olympus and was an open air sanctuary, much like the religious sanctuaries in classical Greece. [11]

The beautifully crafted mythological friezes on the Pergamon Altar depict the life of the hero Telephos as well as the Olympian gods fighting the giants. The Pergamon Altar not only epitomizes the enthusiastic and detailed style of Hellenistic art, it is a true original with no other similar monument known to have existed. [12]

Accompanying the Pergamon Altar were several bronze sculptures reminiscent of the ornate Hellenistic sculptural style. Often ancient artists were never credited for their works, but in the Hellenistic Period more artists became known. Epigonos was the name of the artist who created the bronze sculptures at Pergamon, but unfortunately none of the originals are extant. Fortunately, though, since the Romans were aficionados of Greek art and because they had close relations with Pergamon, they reproduced some of these statues, most notably the “Dying Gaul” and the “Ludovisi Gaul.” [13] The statues show Epigonos’ attention to detail and style and the respect that he had for Pergamon’s enemies. One can truly feel the agony of the dying Gaul as he takes his last breath.

The Library of Pergamon

Eumenes II is also credited with the construction of another one of Pergamon’s great cultural attractions – the Library of Pergamon. It is believed that Eumenes II received his inspiration to build a great library in Pergamon from the older and better known Library of Alexandria, but the king of Pergamon actively sought to make his library better. [14] According to the first century BC Greek geographer, Strabo, the kings of Pergamon scoured the Hellenic world looking for volumes to add to their library.

“Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up and not even carefully stored. But when they heard how zealously the Attalic kings to whom the city was subject were searching for books to build up the library in Pergamum, they hid their books underground in a kind of trench.” [15]

Although the Attalid kings may never have been able to acquire Aristotle’s collection, they were able to bring a complete set of Demosthenes’ work and several other classics to the Library of Pergamon. [16] The combination of Pergamon’s art and the library truly placed it on the same level as Alexandria as one of the premier cultural centers of the Hellenistic Period.


When one considers the greatest cities of the ancient world, Pergamon should certainly be at the top of that list. In many ways it was the jewel of the Hellenistic world, as great as Alexandria or Rhodes and even grander than Seleucia. Pergamon owed its greatness to its first three kings, who made it the political capital of their powerful kingdom, adorned it with beautiful art and architecture, and made it an intellectual center that rivaled Alexandria.


  1. Kästner, Volker. “Pergamon and the Attalids.” In Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. Edited by Carlos A. Picón and Seán Hemingway. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), p. 318
  2. Kästner, p. 33
  3. Kästner, p. 33
  4. Papini, Massimiliano. “Commemorations of Victory: Attalid Monuments to the Defeat of the Galatians.” In Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. Edited by Carlos A. Picón and Seán Hemingway. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), p. 40
  5. King, Carol J. Ancient Macedonia. (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 116
  6. King, p. 252
  7. Papini, p. 43
  8. King, p. 258
  9. Kästner, p. 35
  10. Papini, p. 40
  11. Scholl, Andreas. 2016. “The Pergamon Altar: Architecture, Sculpture, and Meaning.” In Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. Edited by Carlos A. Picón and Seán Hemingway. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), pgs. 50-51
  12. Scholl, pgs. 45-49
  13. Papini, p. 41
  14. Thorton, John L. The Chronology of Librarianship. (London: Grafton and Company, 1941), p. 12
  15. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XIII, I, 54
  16. Canfora, Luciano. The Vanished Library. Translated by Martin Ryle. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 45