BMCR 2013.05.20

A History of Pergamum: Beyond Hellenistic Kingship

, A History of Pergamum: Beyond Hellenistic Kingship. London: Continuum, 2012. xiii, 224. ISBN 9781441124142. $84.00.

[The Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

In this monograph, Richard Evans describes the history of the city of Pergamum (Pergamon) in western Asia Minor, once the capital of the Attalid kings. The Attalids were initially minor dynasts from an obscure, almost tribal corner of the Greek world and their founder, Philetaerus, was probably a eunuch, who became a vassal to the Seleucid Empire at the end of the complicated wars of the Diadochi in the early 3 rd century BC. Evans’ monograph updates such earlier works as The Attalid Kingdom: a constitutional history by R.E. Allen (Clarendon Press, 1983).

A central theme of Evans’ book is how the Attalids managed to transform their less than auspicious background into a magnificent display of Hellenistic kingship. Increasing their independence during civil wars in the Seleucid Empire, the Attalids were hailed as saviours of the Greeks (from the terror of the Galatian tribes) and patrons of Hellenistic culture. Pergamum became renowned for its library, second only to Alexandria’s, and for its impressive architecture from the royal period, as displayed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

King Eumenes II sided with Rome against the Seleucid invasion of Greece in the 190s BC, and was rewarded with vast territories in Asia Minor after Rome’s decisive victory at Magnesia. But as Roman vassals, the late Attalids did much to further weaken the Seleucid Empire and other Hellenistic states, and so were partly responsible for the gradual subjugation of the Greeks to Rome. Pergamum was not always a loyal ally; Evans analyses the devious diplomatic contacts with the last Macedonian kings, enemies of Rome. This diminished Roman trust in the dynasty, but in the long run that would have happened anyway: the Senate was generally wary of kings and eventually disposed of all their Hellenistic vassal-rulers. In 133 BC, king Attalus III bequeathed Pergamum to Rome, and after a series of rebellions were crushed, western Asia Minor became a Roman province.

Even though this province (Asia) suffered from heavy Roman taxation and anti-Roman outbursts were sometimes brutally quelled (for instance during the Mithradatic wars of the 1 st century BC), Pergamum retained a certain prosperity. Throughout the Roman period the city remained a prominent cultural hub, which housed leading physicians such as Galen and several philosophers as late as the Neo-Platonists in late antiquity. The account of Pergamum’s later history ends with an overview of Roman administration and activities of the emperors in Asia Minor, until the late 4 th century AD. Finally, Evans describes the city’s geography and architecture, the characters and images of the rulers, and some prominent citizens.

As evident from this synopsis, A History of Pergamum spans almost all of Classical Antiquity. (The first chapter includes Pergamum’s earliest history, which stretches back to Homeric times and the city’s mythical – if somewhat dull – founder Pergamus, grandson of Achilles. The “real” story begins with Xenophon’s visit to the region c.400 BC, as related in the Anabasis.) Such a long stretch of history calls for several competences, some quite specialized. Evans uses literature studies (classical and modern), as well as epigraphic, archaeological and some numismatic evidence to build his theses.

As Evans is an expert on Roman history, it comes as no surprise that the chapters that deal with Roman affairs are well researched, seamlessly weaving minutiae such as the status and dates of Roman envoys into a wider history about the general policies of the Roman takeover of Asia Minor, which was a long and complicated process. Most other themes, including the city’s architecture and temples, Hellenistic kingship and the ruler cults of the Roman Emperors in Asia Minor, are also well treated.

The only problematic section is Evans’ analysis of Pergamum’s early relations to the Hellenistic states (in chapter 1), which focuses too much on the direct Seleucid-Pergamene relationship. In the 3 rd century BC, Asia Minor was a complicated patchwork with several smaller, semi-independent cities and regions. The Seleucids were the strongest power, but the Ptolemies, with their naval supremacy, held bases all along the coast. There were several conflicts, the chronologies of which are not well established. For instance, Strabo, Geography 13.4.1-2 briefly relates how Eumenes I defeated the Seleucid king Antiochus I in battle. Evans dismisses this as a conflation with some later battle (pp. 14-16), as he points out that the Seleucid main army counted several tens of thousands of troops, while Eumenes was at the time only a minor dynast who also was a loyal Seleucid vassal. However, the Seleucids only assembled such massive armies in times of utmost emergency, and Strabo may have omitted that Eumenes fought at the head of a coalition, perhaps including the Ptolemies. Other rulers in the region, such as the Bithynian kings, successfully fought Seleucid armies. Given this background, the battle against Antiochus I does not necessarily seem unrealistic.

Evans’ account of the crisis in the Seleucid Empire after 246 BC, when Antiochus II was probably poisoned by his older queen Laodice,1 may also have benefitted from a wider analysis of the balance of power. Antiochus’ younger queen was a Ptolemaic princess, and when she was assassinated, her brother Ptolemy III invaded the Seleucid Empire, nearly destroying it, and conquered key cities in Asia Minor (which Evans does not mention, p.20). The new king, Seleucus II, also lost Asia Minor to his rebelling brother, Antiochus Hierax, but Hierax and his Galatian allies were in their turn defeated by Attalus I.

This chapter may suffer from a structural problem: Pergamum’s route to independence from the Seleucid Empire is difficult to understand without first going into more detail about the nature and extent of Seleucid hegemony in Asia Minor in general, especially as the written sources are quite incomplete ‒ which Evans points out. A more in-depth approach could have been to study the decline of Seleucid coinage in Asia Minor, based on the new standard work Seleucid Coins,2 which could have been matched against the output of early Attalid coins, or other civic coins in Pergamum’s vicinity. That may have given a deeper understanding of the resources of the kingdom, and its enemies such as Hierax.

But these are the author’s priorities; this is a monograph, not an encyclopedia. A majority of readers is probably more interested in the Roman period and Hellenistic cultural history in general, and A History of Pergamum is recommended as an informative and well-written work.

Appendices include chronologies and lists of Roman officials, black and white photographs, comprehensive notes, references and index.

Table of Contents

1: A Beginning and an End.
2: The Ally of Rome.
3: Old and New Horizons.
4: Ruler Cults and Physicians.
5: The Journey East and a New World.
6: Images of a City.


1. Evan dismisses this, (p.170, n. 51), claiming that Antiochus II was in his sixties and died of old age. But he was only about 40, probably born in the 280s BC to Antiochus I and Stratonice, daughter of Demetrius Poliorcetes.

2. Seleucid Coins pt I, Arthur Houghton and Catherine Lorber, New York: ANS/CNG, 2002. References to Antiochus Hierax, loss of Seleucid cities in Asia Minor etc. under Seleucus II are based on this encyclopedia.