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Chapter 20 | Table of Contents | Chapter 22

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
1904

Chapter 21: Pergamum: The Royal City: The City of Authority


Pergamum was, undoubtedly, an ancient place, whose foundation reaches back into the beginnings of town life in Asia. The situation is marked out by nature for a great fortified town, but is too large for a mere village. If we could fix the date of its foundation, we should know also the period when society has become so far developed and organised as to seek for defence against foreign invasion, and for offensive power, by combination on a great scale and the formation of a large centre of population. Beyond all other sites in Asia Minor it gives the traveller the impression of a royal city, the home of authority: the rocky hill on which it stands is so huge, and dominates the broad plain of the Caicus so proudly and boldly. The modern town is below the hill, where the earliest village was.

It is difficult to analyse such impressions, and to define the various causes whose combination produces them; but the relation of the vast hill to the great plain is certainly the chief cause. It would be impossible for any stronghold, however large and bold, to produce such an impression, if it stood in a small valley like those of Ephesus and Smyrna, for if the valley and the city were dominated by the still greater mass of the enclosing mountains. The rock rules over and as it were plants its foot upon a great valley; and its summit looks over the southern mountains which bound the valley, until the distant lofty peaks south of the Gulf of Smyrna, and especially the beautiful twin peaks now called the Two Brothers, close in the outlook. Far beneath lies the sea, quite fifteen miles away, and beyond it the foreign soil of Lesbos: the view of other lands, the presence of hostile powers, the need of constant care and watchfulness, all the duties of kingship are forced on the attention of him who sits enthroned on that huge rock. There is here nothing to suggest evanescence, mutability, and uncertainty, as at Sardis or Ephesus; the inevitable impression is of permanence, strength, sure authority and great size. Something of the personal and subjective element must be mixed up with such impressions; but in none of the Seven Cities does the impression seem more universal and unavoidable than in Pergamum.

The history and the coinage of Pergamum can be traced back into the fifth century; but its superiority and headship in Asia began in 282, when Philetaerus threw off allegiance to King Lysimachus and founded the kingdom of Pergamum, which was transmitted through a succession of kings, named Eumenes or Attalus, until 133. During those 151 years Pergamum was the capital of a realm varying in size from the first kingdom, simply the Caicus Valley (and hardly all of it), to the range of territories summed up in the vague expression "all the land on this side of Taurus." For the first few years the Seleucid dynasty supported Philetaerus in opposition to Lysimachus; but soon the rivalry of Seleucid and Pergamenian kings became the governing political fact. The former steadily lost ground until about 222 BC, when Antiochus the Great restored the power of his dynasty, reduced Attalus I to the original bounds of Pergamenian authority, and threatened even the existence of his kingdom. Roman aid expelled Antiochus in 190, and enlarged the Pergamenian kingdom to its widest extent.

In 133 Attalus III bequeathed the whole kingdom to the Romans, who formed it into the Province of Asia. Pergamum was the official capital of the Province for two centuries and a half: so that its history as the seat of supreme authority over a large country lasts about four centuries, and had not yet come to an end when the Seven Letters were written. The impression which the natural features of its position convey was entirely confirmed to the writer of the letters by its history. It was to him the seat where the power of this world, the enemy of the Church and its Author, exercised authority. The authority was exercised in two ways--the two horns of the monster, as we have seen in chapter 9--civil administration through the Proconsul, and the State religion directed by the Commune of Asia.

The first, and for a considerable time the only, Provincial temple of the Imperial cult in Asia was built at Pergamum in honour of Rome and Augustus (29 BC probably). A second temple was built there in honour of Trajan, and a third in honour of Severus. Thus Pergamum was the first city to have the distinction of Temple-Warden both once and twice in the State religion; and even its third Wardenship was also a few years earlier than that of Ephesus. The Augustan Temple (Figure 7, chapter 10) is often represented on its coins and on those struck by the Commune. As the oldest temple of the Asian cult it is far more frequently mentioned and figured than any other Asian temple; it appears on coins of many Emperors down to the time of Trajan, and is generally represented open, to show the Emperor crowned by the Province.

The four patron deities of Pergamum are mentioned in an oracle, advising the people to seek safety from a pestilence through the aid of Zeus, Athena, Dionysos, and Asklepios. These represent, doubtless, four different elements in the Pergamenian population. Zeus the Saviour and Athena the Victory-Bearing had given the State is glorious victories over foreign enemies, and especially the Gauls; and the greatest efforts of Pergamenian art were directed to glorify them as representatives of the Hellenic spirit triumphing over barbarism. The great Altar with its long zone of stately reliefs, showing the gods of Hellas destroying the barbarian giants, was dedicated to Zeus Soter.

While the first two of those gods represent the Greek spirit and influence, the last two were more in accordance with the Anatolian spirit, and their worship bulked far more largely in the religious life of the city. Both of them were near the animal type, and if we could penetrate beneath the outward appearance imparted to them in art by the Greek anthropomorphic spirit, and reach down to the actual ritual of their Pergamenian cult, we should indubitably find that they were worshipped to a great degree as animal-gods, the God-Serpent and the God-Bull. Where the Pergamenian kings were insisting on their Hellenic character or blazoning in art their victory over barbaric enemies, they introduced Zeus and Athena, but when they were engaged in the practical government of their mixed people, mainly Anatolian, though mixed with Greek, they made most use of Asklepios and Dionysos.

Dionysos the Leader (Kathegemon) was the god of the royal family; and the kings claimed to be descended from him, and to be in succession his embodiment and envisagement on earth, just as the Seleucid sovereigns of Syria were the incarnation of Apollo. This cult owed its importance in Pergamum to the kings; and its diffusion through Asia must be attributed to them; but the worship, having once been established, persisted through the Imperial period, for religious institutions were rarely lost so long as paganism lasted. The worship was practised in Imperial times by a religious society, bearing the name Ox-herds (Boukoloi), at the head of which was the Archi-Boukolos; it was accompanied by mysterious rites, and the mystic name of the god seems to have been the Bull.

The anthropomorphic spirit of Greek religion retained very few traces of the bull character in the Hellenic conception of Dionysos; but Asklepios was more closely associated with the serpent. The Hellenic religious spirit represented the god as a dignified human figure, very similar in type to Zeus, supporting his right hand on a staff round which a serpent is twined. His serpent nature clings to him, though only as an attribute and adjunct, in the fully Hellenised form. In the Anatolian ritual the god was the Asklepian serpent, rather than the human Asklepios. Thus in Figure 23 the Emperor Caracalla, during his visit to Pergamum, is represented as adoring the Pergamenian deity, a serpent wreathed round the sacred tree. Between the God-Serpent and the God-Emperor stands the little figure of Telesphorus, the Consummator, a peculiarly Pergamenian conception closely connected with Asklepios.

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Figure 23: Caracalla adoring the God-Serpent of Pergamum

Asklepios the Saviour was introduced from Epidauros in a comparatively recent period, perhaps the fifth century. He appears on coins from the middle of the second century BC and became more and more the representative god of Pergamum. On alliance coins he regularly stands for his city, as in Figure 10, chapter 14.

As Asklepios was imported to Pergamum for Epidaurus in Argolis, it may be asked why his character in ritual was so strongly Anatolian and so little Hellenic. The reason is that he belonged to the old Pelagian stratum in religion, which persisted most strongly in such remote and rural parts of the Peloponnesus; and he had participated little in the progressive Hellenisation of the old Greek gods; now the Pelagian religion was closely kindred in character to the Anatolian.

On the royal coinage Athena and other Hellenic gods are almost the only divine types; but on the cistophori, which were intended to be the common coinage in circulation through the whole Pergamenian kingdom after 200 BC, neither kings nor specifically Hellenic gods appear, but only symbols taken from the cults of Dionysos and Asklepios. On the obverse is the cista mystica of Dionysos (Figure 24) within a wreath of his sacred plant the ivy: the lid of the box is pushed open by a serpent which hangs out with half its length. The relation of the God-Bull to the God-Serpent in the Anatolian ritual is well known: "the bull is father of the serpent, and the serpent of the bull": such was a formula of the Phrygian Mysteries. On the reverse are two Asklepian serpents with their lower parts intertwined and heads erect: between them is a bowcase containing a strung bow.

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Figure 24: Obverse of Cistophorus with serpent and mystic box of Dionysos

The monogram of the first three letters of the name Pergamum is the only indication on these coins of Pergamenian origin and domination. It was clearly the intention of the kings in this coinage to avoid all appearance of domination over Asia, and to represent the unity of their realm as a voluntary association in the common religion of the two deities whose ritual is symbolised in barbaric Anatolian forms on the cistophori, without the slightest admixture of Greek anthropomorphism, and whose worship we have already traced in several cities of the Pergamenian realm. The cistophori were struck at first in Pergamum, but soon in most of the great cities of the Pergamenian realm. Only those struck in Pergamum bore the Pergamenian monogram. The others bore the name or symbols of their own place of coinage. These coins are a true historical monument. They express a phase of administration, the Pergamenian ideal of constructive statesmanship, which is attested by no historian and hardly by any other monument.

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Figure 25: Reverse of Cistophorus with serpents and bowcase

The cistophori show clearly the point of view from which the symbolism of the Apocalypse is to be interpreted. They reveal a strong tendency in the Asian mind to express its ideas and ideals, alike political and religious, through symbols and types; and they prove that the converted pagan readers for whom the Apocalypse was originally written were predisposed through their education and the whole spirit of contemporary society to regard visual forms, beasts, human figures, composite monsters, objects of nature, or articles of human manufacture, when mentioned in a work of this class, as symbols indicative of religious ideas. This predisposition to look at such things with a view to a meaning that lay underneath them was not confined to the strictly Oriental races; and the symbolism of the Apocalypse ought not to be regarded as all necessarily Jewish in origin. Much of it is plainly Jewish; but, as has been pointed out in chapters 11 and 12, a strong alloy of Judaism had been mingled in the composition of society in the Asian cities, and many Judaic ideas must have become familiar to the ordinary pagans, numbers of whom had been attracted within the circle of hearers in the synagogues, while purely pagan syncretism of Jewish and pagan forms was familiar in various kinds of ritual or magic.

Except for archaeological and antiquarian details, which are numerous, little more is known about Pergamum. Its importance and authority in the Roman administration of the Province Asia are abundantly proved by the evidence which has been quoted above; and yet they are not directly attested by any ancient authority except the Apocalypse, and have to a great extent escaped notice. In the latest study of the Province Asia, a large volume containing an admirable summary of the chief results of modern investigation, published in the summer of 1904 by Monsieur V. Chapot, Pergamum is treated as a place quite secondary to Ephesus and Smyrna in the Roman administration while Ephesus is regarded as in every sense the Roman capital. Consideration of the fact that Pergamum was honoured with the first, the second, and the third Neokorate before any other city of Asia shows beyond question its official primacy in the Province. The Imperial religion "was the keystone of the Imperial policy"; the official capital of the Province was necessarily the centre of the Imperial ritual; and conversely the city where the Imperial religion had its centre must have been officially regarded as the capital of the Province. In many Provinces there was only one seat of the Imperial religion; but in Asia the spirit of municipal pride and rivalry was so strong that it would have endangered the hold of the State cultus on the other great cities, if they had been forced to look to any one city as the sole head of the religion. Roman policy showed its usual adaptability by turning municipal pride to its purpose and making it act in an Imperial channel, so that the object of competition among all the great cities was to attain higher rank in the State religion.

Pergamum, then, as being first promoted to all three stages in the Imperial worship must have been the official capital and titular seat of Roman authority; but there were several capitals (metropoleis), three, and seven, and more than seven.

The name of the city lives in literary language through the word "parchment" (Pergamena), applied to an improved preparation of hide adapted to purposes of writing, which had been used in Ionia from a very early period.

The Jewish community in Pergamum is mentioned in Josephus, Ant. Jud, xiv, 10, 22.


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