BMCR 2014.01.53

Die Wohltaten der Götter: König Eumenes II. und die Figuren am großen Fries des Pergamonaltars verrätselt – enträtselt

Barbara Demandt, Die Wohltaten der Götter: König Eumenes II. und die Figuren am großen Fries des Pergamonaltars verrätselt - enträtselt. Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2013. 144. ISBN 9783805345996 €24.99.

Table of Contents

In the small volume under review here, Barbara Demandt, a historian who has previously published in the field of medieval history and co-edited a compilation of Theodor Mommsen’s lectures, attempts to decode the supposedly shrewdly encoded figures of the Great Frieze of the Altar of Pergamon – hence the conceptual duality of the subtitle: “verrätselt” (encoded) – “enträtselt” (decoded).1 In 12 consecutive paragraphs that form the core of her book Demandt identifies most of the military adversaries of Eumenes II in one of the beaten figures of the Gigantomachy. In addition, she revives the notion that some of the fallen, naked warriors without weapons are meant to be Gauls.

Chapter I provides a list of six historical events (“historische Stränge”, p. 10) that are deemed to be relevant for the construction of the Great Altar (pp. 9–10). Chapter II and III offer a family tree of the Attalids (p. 11) and a list of the Diadochs and their respective territory (pp. 12–13). Chapters IV and V discuss the historical background of the Attalid dynasty (pp. 15–27; pp. 28–74). In Chapter V.6 Demandt formulates her main hypothesis that Eumenes II – with his brother Attalos and the artist Phyromachos – conspired to encode his military opponents into the Gigantomachy. In Chapter VI, accordingly, Demandt decodes the king’s military adversaries (pp. 75–129). The book concludes with a very brief discussion on the date of the Great Altar (p. 130), an Epilogue (p. 131), a two-page statement on the status quo of the research on the figures of the Great Frieze (p. 133–134), and a short history of its reception in modern art (pp. 135–137).

In her Preface (p. 7–8) Demandt describes previous approaches (none are mentioned explicitly, however) to be deficient, inasmuch as they paid less attention to historical evidence and the personal motivations of Eumenes II (and Attalos) to commission the Altar (p. 7). The impression, however, that the book is intended to be read in an academic environment (and not primarily by laymen) is somewhat distorted by the absence of footnotes, the slim bibliography (which misses important contributions) and the heavily curtailed treatment of essential aspects such as the date of the commencement of the Altar.

Demandt takes the cue for her study from the fragmentary votive inscription of the Great Altar (p. 7–8). The inscription mentions ..ΣΑΓΑΘ(ΟΙΣ), “benefactions”, and she infers that Eumenes II must have decided to commission the Great Altar with the sole purpose of thanking the Gods for the benefactions received in the bellicose years from roughly 197 to 166 BC (Hypothesis 1; pp. 7, 9–10). After 166 BC (Hypothesis 2; p. 130), the Pergamene king recruited the Athenian artist Phyromachos (Hypothesis 3) and with him – and in accord with his brother Attalos – proposed to encode his military adversaries into a Gigantomachy (Hypothesis 4; pp. 62–63). What prompted this decision was that an unmistakable and straightforward depiction might have provoked the anger of the descendants and successors of the beaten and deceased opponents – at least in some cases (Hypothesis 5; p. 63). In addition, the witty trio decided to encode the Gauls into the Frieze, but were eager to cover their tracks here as well (Hypothesis 6; pp. 63–64). Phyromachos did not even hesitate to give names to the Titans and Giants – just to make sure no one would decipher their intentions (Hypothesis 7; p. 64). Only Eumenes, Attalos, and Phyromachos knew about the encoded figures (Hypothesis 8; p. 65).

The following remarks selectively summarize Demandt’s decodings, i.e. identifications. To make things more comprehensible to the interested reader of this review I have referenced the appendix of Sebastian Prignitz’s Der Pergamonaltar und die pergamenischen Gelehrtenschule. Prignitz conveniently included a fold-out overview of the figures of the Great Frieze.2 Reference to his appendix is given by the numbers N 18, O 20, W 10, S 11, etc. In addition, I included the references to Demandt’s figures by indicating their respective page.

Nabis, king of Sparta, is fighting his adversary Alexamenos, strategos of the Aitolians; they are encoded in the figures N 18 and N 16 respectively; N 17 is identified as a dying Gaul (p. 80). Antiochos III is struck down by Zeus with a lighting-bolt: the Seleucid king O 20 pleads for his life, but Zeus O 21 has already shifted his attention to the Giant Porphyrion O 24. Hannibal N 20 tries to defend himself against Klotho/Nyx N 19, but will shortly be hit in the face by a vessel wrapped in snakes: resistance is futile (p. 97). Prusias I, still standing upright, but stripped of his armor N 13, is a close witness to Hannibal’s fate (p. 99). Pharnakes I of Pontos W 12 is overpowered by Okeanos W 10 in the West Frieze (p. 109). Antiochos IV Epiphanes O 3 is engaging Artemis O 6 (p. 109). Theia S 11 charges against a helmeted, naked warrior, “who must, thus, be a dead king” – namely Philip V. (p. 112). The Makedonian king Perseus O 16, who was behind the assassination attempt, and his half-brother Demetrios O 17 are run over by Hera in a quadriga O 15 (p. 120).

Demandt’s identifications remain conjectural: she does not offer any authoritative evidence for what she tells her reader and erects an edifice of non-corroborated hypotheses that build on each other. In addition, she presents her narrative in the manner of a suggestive eye-witness account. Demandt, to give just one example, conceives multiple conversations between Eumenes II and Phyromachos (“Natürlich wird es viele Gespräche zwischen Eumenes und dem Athener [Phyromachos] gegeben haben.”, p. 62.) in which the Pergamene king narrated the events of his life to the artist, who then suggests to adapt everything into the Frieze (p. 62–63). Simply put, Demandt, in the paragraphs that are crucial to her argument, leaves her role as a historian and becomes a narrator of events and circumstances that can not be validated in the historical and archaeological evidence. At the same time, and precisely because of the absence of any substantial evidence, Demandt’s main argument is beyond reproach and not falsifiable. Her approach and results are arbitrary, not liable so to say, and one suspects Demandt found (illusive) comfort in the fact that no one will be able to prove to her that it might not have been how she conceived of it. To that effect, it is symptomatic, and a serious matter at that, that Demandt makes no effort to discuss the arguments brought forth by previous scholars against the possibility of identifying historical figures in the Great Frieze.3

Despite this verdict, I shall offer some remarks on Demandt’s approach to and use of images. Coins bearing portraits of some of the adversaries identified in the Frieze, except for Hannibal (see below) and Philip V, are shown at the beginning of the respective chapters, but Demandt makes no effort to point out physiognomic similarities (and one wonders why these images are chosen at all). In Phyromachos’ scheme, of course, physiognomic likenesses of the adversaries artistically drawn from known portraits would have been damaging to the intention not to offend any descendants and/or successors. Exceptions, however, could be made in some cases: Hannibal, “who had no successor” (p. 98), was slightly less encoded than the others. As referenced above, Hannibal is struck down by Klotho/Nyx and, is, Demandt deduces, fairly easily recognizable because of his helmet and beard (p. 98). To support her belief, Demandt cites a Renaissance (!) bust from Capua, now in Rome, that is identified without substantial evidence as Hannibal. Her argumentation becomes circular when she – having first used the bust identify Hannibal on the Frieze – concludes that, because of the iconographical features of that same figure on the frieze, the portrait bust must unmistakably be Hannibal. The rest of Demandt’s identifications are equally tenuous.

Demandt’s book will meet with justified criticism for various reasons. An inattentive approach to previous scholarship and a dismissal of art historical method are the main causes for my assumption that classical art historians both established and on graduate level will find it hard to determine the book’s place in and contribution to scholarship. To anyone with scholarly interest in the Great Frieze and its mythological content, I recommend Klaus Junker’s balanced treatment.4 Even a cursory reading of his thoughts and references to earlier scholarship will suffice to fully reveal Demandt’s disappointing treatment of the archaeological evidence and previous scholarship.

Lastly, if someone needed proof for the old-fashioned notion that interdisciplinary orientation within the Classical Studies, and by extension within the Humanities, is not at all desirable, because attempts to cross the methodological borders of the disciplines involved have been unproductive, Demandt’s book provides new evidence. Luckily, an opposing trend prevails in current scholarship. John Ma’s new book, Statues and Cities, is a case in point. One of Ma’s objectives was to “bridge the gap” among epigraphy, classical art history and archaeology – under the premise that these three disciplines have a lot to teach each other, and that “exploding” bibliographies and intellectually challenging methods are no drawbacks to such an attempt.5 In fact, I would argue, the most positive effects of such a dialogue between disciplines – and one may very well generalize here – are the intellectual discussion of established methods in the respective fields, and the head-on assessment of their Forschungsgeschichte. All this requires us to leave our academic comfort zone and to closely collaborate with other scholars on an interdisciplinary level. More, not less, commitment to this course is what our disciplines require.


1. Demandt, B. 1966. Die mittelalterliche Kirchenorganisation in Hessen südlich des Mains. Marburg: Elvert; Demandt, A. and B. Demandt, ed. 1992. Theodor Mommsen. Römische Kaisergeschichten: nach den Vorlesungsmitschriften von Sebastian und Paul Hensel von 1882/86. München: Verlag C. H. Beck.

2. Prignitz, S. 2008. Der Pergamonaltar und die pergamenischen Gelehrtenschule. Berlin: Verlag Willmuth Arenhövel.

3. see, most conveniently, Junker, K. 2003. “Meerwesen in Pergamon. Zur Deutung des Großen Frieses”, IstMitt 53, 2003, 428–433.

4. see footnote #3 above.

5. Ma, J. 2013. Statues and Cities. Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See the author’s Preface for the quotations given here; especially p. vii.