BMCR 2023.03.27

The Attalids of Pergamon and Anatolia: money, culture, and state power

, The Attalids of Pergamon and Anatolia: money, culture, and state power. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. xviii, 444. ISBN 9781316510599.



In 188, the Attalid dynasts of Pergamon were rewarded for their support of Rome with loose hegemony over supporters of Antiochus III in western Asia Minor. By the death of Attalus III in 133, they had converted this hegemony into a robust, well-functioning state and had become proverbially wealthy. How did the empire of the Attalids become so embedded so quickly? And how did the dynasty succeed in forging a coherent state amid the culturally, linguistically, and ecologically diverse setting of western Anatolia? In his monograph, Kaye offers a thoughtful, lively, and thoroughly argued answer to these questions by focusing on two complementary elements of Attalid policy: the fiscal and the cultural. The first half of the book engages with the former, analysing the practice of ‘earmarking’, tax collection, and the introduction of the cistophoric coinage. The second half considers cultural issues, addressing changes in settlement hierarchy, patronage of gymnasia, and the intellectual and cultural aspirations of the Attalids within Anatolia. Overall, Kaye produces a coherent and convincing picture of the Attalid dynasts as innovative and adaptive rulers, whose creative approach to the problem of constructing a state apparatus was remarkably successful.

In chapter 1, Kaye focuses on ‘earmarks’, i.e., the allocation of revenues for specific expenditure. He begins his analysis with royal funds issued to a city in the Hellespontine region for ‘cult expenses and the administration of the city’ (τὸ εἰς τὰ ἱερὰ καὶ πόλεως διοίκησιν ἀργύριον, I.Prusa 1001, l. 11). This practice extended Attalid benefaction into the future, making it predictable for both benefactor and recipient. As Kaye makes clear, in the surviving epigraphic material the Attalids are attested using earmarks much more frequently than their rivals and peers (pp. 36–39). Moreover, he stresses that, where attested, the revenue which supported earmarked grants was disbursed from locally collected funds rather than issued from the royal treasury. While centrally managed, these decisions were fundamentally about the redistribution and reallocation of money in specific communities. Consequently, Kaye argues that the Attalids needed intimate knowledge of how civic institutions operated and that these institutions needed to be interoperable with Attalid decision-making. For him, this process of negotiating, implementing, and managing an earmark was complex, requiring local engagement and recursive negotiation. Overall, he characterises the use of earmarks as ‘parasitic and redistributive’ but a net creator of wealth which sustained civic tax bases.

In the following chapter, Kaye moves to Attalid fiscal institutions, beginning with a comprehensive analysis of the evidence for ‘direct’ taxation: monetary and in kind, regular and ad hoc.[1] However, he emphasises the significance of indirect taxation to the Attalid fiscus, with a particular stress on taxes on movement, convincingly arguing that the patchwork territoriality of the Attalid kingdom—divided between poliadic, other urban, and non-urban zones—offered extensive opportunities to assess and collect customs dues on the transfer of goods within, as well as into and out of, Attalid territory. Kaye makes three key arguments in this chapter: first, that negotiation over the rates and remission of royal taxation by communities was routine; second, that Attalid taxation was, by necessity, a calque on civic arrangements and that civic fiscality was consequently crucial to royal fiscality; and, third, that the Attalids did not directly employ tax-farmers to collect royal taxes, instead relying on local actors. Of these, the last is the least convincing as framed. Certainly, a reliance on civic communities to collect indirect taxes locally is plausible if we imagine (with Kaye) the continuation of a civic fiscal territoriality. However, as he himself notes, our evidence shows an Attalid drive to construct infrastructure to capture this lucrative source of revenue. Should we believe that this network of collection points was constructed through royal authority and then ceded to local communities? These two points sit together uneasily, and Kaye could have resolved this ambiguity more clearly.

Kaye then investigates (chapter 3) what he frames as the most innovative characteristic of Attalid rule: the cistophoric coinage. Placing this denomination system into the diverse monetary context of second-century western Asia and the plethora of circulating coinages, he astutely critiques efforts to model Attalid monetary policy after the Ptolemaic ‘closed-currency’ system. Taking on elements of Mackil and van Alfen’s model of ‘cooperative coinages’, Kaye offers a description of the cistophori as a ‘coordinated coinage’.[2] Attalid hegemony over the polis­-actors producing the coins suggests that the impetus and organisation came from the dynasty. However, as Kaye demonstrates, the production of the cistophori and the collection of revenues both depended strongly on civic involvement and benefited all parties. Consequently, he firmly rejects more centralised models of production and provides further nuance to Le Rider’s vision of the cistophori as a coinage negotiated between the dynasts and cities.[3]

In chapter 4, Kaye shifts attention to the ‘cultural’ side of his enquiry: how did the Attalids integrate their new empire? While the Attalid polity is generally referred to as a city-state empire, the polis was only one form of community among many: what, asks Kaye, can we learn from other ‘civic organisms’? Consequently, he analyses the settlement hierarchy of the kingdom: his core focus is the katoikiai (‘settlements’), which he argues are underappreciated as vehicles of Attalid administration. From a dynastic perspective, katoikiai had the benefit of self-sufficiency within a territory, without necessarily requiring the public buildings and centralised settlement of a full polis, yet could still communicate with the dynasts. Kaye places a crucial emphasis, too, on the koinon of Mysia Abbaeitis, which developed a sense of itself and organisational and fiscal institutions in this period. This was non-poliadic, potentially sub-urban, and could be characterised as a koinon of villages. He also explores why katoikiai continued to petition to become poleis, and why monarchs allowed this. Starting from the Toriaion dossier (SEG 47.1745), he emphasises the ‘fiscal bargain’ inherent in these grants: greater integration into Attalid systems of control for an expanded territory; the loss of some tax levies in exchange for greater intensity and penetration. Kaye persuasively stresses the Attalids’ ‘total interest in the shape of institutions and total disinterest in engineering cultural homogeneity’ (p. 230).

Next, Kaye emphasises the relationship between the Attalid dynasts and civic gymnasia, noting that royal gifts and foundations for the latter are another characteristically Attalid phenomenon.[4] Moving beyond earlier views situating this as a part of the dynasty’s pan-Hellenistic cultural programme, he posits this as another means of enmeshing civic culture with imperial finances. For Kaye, Attalid grants and earmarks to gymnasia were an important element of their day-to-day financing, though far from sufficient in and of themselves (noted with appropriate caution given the state of our evidence). He pays particular attention to the corporate identity (and identities) of gymnasium members, neatly articulating how the institution was distinct from the civic body politic. Indeed, he emphasises the exclusivity of the gymnasium and its discrete focus on aristocratic, agonistic values in tension with the more egalitarian civic ethos. The key example of Eirenias of Miletus (pp. 262–264) implies direct solicitation of a royal grant on behalf of the gymnasium, later appropriated by the city and subjected to oversight. His argument that Attalid patronage of gymnasia strengthened civic identity in individual poleis, while simultaneously forming a locus of direct interaction between the dynasts and members of these institutions, is convincing.

Kaye finally turns (chapter 6) to what he terms the Attalids’ penchant for ‘collecting, curating, producing, and circulating cultural artifacts’ (p. 283). By contrast with the standard emphasis on Pergamene pan-Hellenism, Kaye concentrates on the ways in which their parallel cultivation of an Anatolian heritage contributed to the extension and maintenance of Attalid power. He starts with a discussion of the intellectual climate of the Library at Pergamon, especially the works of Polemon ‘Helladikos’ and Demetrius of Skepsis, emphasising the importance of histories of place and the creation of an Anatolian as well as a mythical Greek heritage. He links this to the retention of Pergamon as the Attalid capital, arguing that, despite Athenian parallels, ancient Anatolian capitals at Sardis, Halicarnassus, and Xanthos provide more apt comparisons. Kaye revisits the rhetoric of relations with the Galatians, arguing that, rather than functioning as a ‘non-Greek foil’ to the Attalids, they are consistently portrayed as enemies of all Asia. He combines this argument with an analysis of construction and administration at the centres of Pessinous and Aizanoi to argue that the Attalids consciously combined elements of Hellenic, Phrygian, and Galatian cultural repertoires to speak to their diverse subjects. Finally, Kaye discusses Attalid involvement in Pisidia, asserting that the nascent city-states of the second century deliberately drew on an Attalid ‘vocabulary’ of public building, albeit in a locally specific way (e.g. the prioritisation of market buildings over bouleuteria). Collectively, Kaye frames these efforts to engage with Anatolian patterns of cultural interaction as a response to the dynasty’s parvenu status not only vis-à-vis Greece, but also within Anatolia. His key point is that the Attalids sought cultural leadership of Greeks and other inhabitants of Asia. This final section is comparatively the weakest: not because Kaye’s arguments are not illuminating and well reasoned, but rather the breadth of individual topics covered can be difficult for the reader to follow. As such, the chapter might have benefited from more obvious signposting or even separation of questions into multiple chapters (at 71 pages, it is the longest in the book).

Kaye draws together these strands to argue that three themes contributed to the success of the Attalid state-creation project. First, the particular historical timing of territorial grant after Apameia: the polis of the second century BCE was by this point an efficient engine of fiscal extraction, from which the Attalid monarchy was able to benefit. Kaye emphasises persuasively that, although taxation practices remained largely traditional, the Attalids were interventionist through earmarking practices and the creation of a common coinage. Second, the creative use of money and wealth to integrate subjects into a broader state. Shifting attention from Attalid wealth (overstated in the sources) to its strategic employment, Kaye demonstrates how the Attalid co-ordination of civic partners effectively redistributed resources to serve the state. Third, the creation of a valuable coalition between Hellenised coastal and Anatolian highland elites through a combination of cultural and economic policies. By including Anatolians in an imagined community and investing in inland settlements, the dynasty could effectively mobilise the significant resources of the region.

The work is generally well-produced: errors are few (though note p.350 ‘Smitheus’ for Smintheus). The maps, figures, and illustrations are generally illuminating, while an appendix offering detailed comments on key inscriptions is useful, allowing for the inclusion of texts in the context of the argument.

Kaye closes with the observation that the Attalids’ success was not inevitable and urges us to consider the reasons why they were successful. His monograph offers a lucid, engaging, and persuasive account of precisely that. As such, it is essential reading for those interested in not only the history of the Attalids, but also the history of western Asia Minor and ancient fiscal regimes.



[1] Kaye (pp. 76–77) argues persuasively against V. Chankowski, ‘Les catégories du vocabulaire de la fiscalité dans les cités grecques’, in J. Andreau and V. Chankowski (eds), Vocabulaire et expression de l’économie dans le monde antique (Pessac: Ausonius, 2021; original edition Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2007), 299–331, that references to ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ taxation in the ancient world are useful.

[2] E. Mackil and P. G. van Alfen, ‘Cooperative coinage’, in P. G. van Alfen (ed.), Agoranomia: Studies in money and exchange presented to John H. Kroll (New York: American Numismatic Society, 2006), 201–246.

[3] G. Le Rider, ‘La politique monétaire du royaume de Pergame après 188’, Journal des savants 1989. 3–4: 163–190.

[4] Attalid monarchs grant 13 of 29 attested gifts to gymnasia: no other dynasty is attested as making more than two (pp. 236–237).