The Great Altar of Zeus and Athena at Pergamon
The enormous altar to the gods in Pergamon is regarded as a wonder of ancient art and architecture today, but the site was ignored and forgotten for nearly two thousand years. Read on to learn about the history, art, and function of this Hellenistic marvel!
In the center of Berlin sits an island that is home to many the city’s greatest cultural institutions. The six buildings that sit on Museum Island are representative of Berlin’s status as a center of art and scholarship.
One of these, the Pergamon Museum, takes its name from a single display. While the museum holds many collections, its most famous exhibit is the reconstruction of a Greek altar from the 2nd century BC.
This altar was no small section of a temple or even a minor outbuilding. The great altar of Pergamon was a monumental building covered in elaborate and vivid marble sculpture.
The altar of Pergamon is a major cultural artifact today, but in antiquity it was largely ignored by people outside of Asia Minor. To most of the Greco-Roman world, the altar and the acropolis it was part of were too new and ostentatious to be of any real interest.
After centuries of neglect and looting, the altar was excavated and its impressive friezes were restored. The result was one of the most iconic pieces of Greek architecture known today, one which gives insight into the beliefs and motivations of one of the Greek world’s last major kingdoms.
The Discovery and History of the Great Altar
In the 2nd century AD the Roman schoolteacher Lucius Ampelius wrote a concise history of humanity as a textbook for one of his students. In it, he said that in the city of Pergamon there was a great marble altar which depicted a battle of giants.
Until the 19th century, this was virtually all that was known about the great altar at Pergamon. The line in Lucius Ampelius’s liber memorialis was virtually forgotten and the altar was lost to history.
A few collectors and treasure hunters visited the region in the 1600s, taking pieces of the building home to Britain. Long predating modern archaeological methods, they left little documentation about where the relief carvings were found and the pieces were largely ignored.
In 1871 a German engineer in the region saw the historical value in the ancient Greek city, and was dismayed to see local Turks using the site as a source of building material. The people of Bergama had been making use of this artificial quarry for centuries, using stone from the ancient acropolis as early as the 7th century when they built fortifications against invading armies from the south.
Hoping to see the ruins of ancient Pergamon protected, the engineer asked for assistance from historians.
It took a few years for the importance of the site to be recognized. Once someone connected the marble found there, which locals had been burning to make lyme for their own construction, to the line from Lucius Ampelius, archaeological excavations began in earnest.
The newly-formed German Empire was eager to distinguish itself by establishing the type of cultural exhibits that were renowned in Britain and France. They would not be disappointed by what they found at Pergamon.
Over the next several years the archaeologists working at Pergamon would uncover the remains of a truly monumental building, as well as thousands of marble fragments that were painstakingly pieced back together to show impressive friezes and relief sculptures.
The altar was reconstructed in a new museum in Berlin. While historians admitted that removing the building from its original site was problematic, they were motivated by both a desire to save the site from further destruction and to establish their nation as a cultural center.
The result of the rebuilding of the altar was an enormous and impressive structure. The nearly square building was enormous, with the front stairway alone measuring over 20 meters wide.
The sheer scale of the altar was impressive, especially considering that it would have been only one building as part of a larger acropolis complex, but the artwork reconstructed after its excavation has become the most iconic feature of the building.
The outside of the altar features the second longest continuous frieze known from ancient architecture, rivaled only by the famous Parthenon of Athens, wrapping a total of 113 meters around the building. It depicts the great battle between the gods and giants known as the Gigantomachy.
All of the major gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon appear in this epic battle scene, including several of the Titans. While many parts of the image are incomplete and damaged, more than enough remains to identify the gods shown.
They fight with their signature weapons and are joined by animals associated with them. Artemis, for example, shoots a giant with an arrow as her hunting dogs take down another.
The altar dates from the 2nd century BC, during the period known as the Hellenistic. Like most Hellenistic art, it focuses on realism and expressiveness rather than static ideals and rigid iconography.
In keeping with this style, the frieze from Pergamon features figures in movement and naturalistic poses even as it highlights their divine attributes. The giants have roiling serpent tails and the gods are shown in mid-stride or turning their bodies toward their opponents.
The interior art of the altar building is less complete and historians differ on the proper order to arrange sections of the carvings. The smaller and shallower frieze narrates the life of the hero Telephus, a son of Heracles and the legendary founding king of the region.
Additional sculptures adorned the roofline and possibly the interior of the building. While these figures have not been definitively identified, it is possible that they personified the cities of the Pergamene kingdom.
The altar of Pergamon was not a temple in itself, contrary to popular misconception. It functioned as just one part of a massive temple complex and was used as a site to give offerings, either burned sacrifices or libations, to the gods.
The site included both a temple and theater dedicated to Dionysus and a temple of Athena, which featured a library. The altar is generally assumed to have been dedicated to Athena, or to Zeus and Athena jointly, based on its location and orientation relative to her main temple.
Pergamon was not only the site of the great altar and its acropolis, however. A thriving center of Hellenistic art arose there, and the workshops that created many of the era’s other masterpieces were located in the city.
The famous statue of Laocoon and his sons, now in the Vatican, is thought to have come from Pergamon. In fact, many of the figures on the friezes there strongly resemble this famous work, which was already regarded as a wonder of artistry in its own time.
My Modern Interpretation
The Pergamene kingdom was founded less than a hundred years before the altar was built. The city had been ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, but broke free and established its own territories to the west.
Monumental architecture was used as a tool in the ancient world to show the strength and power of leaders and their kingdoms. This was especially true for younger dynasties like the Pergamenes, who had to compete with much older forces.
Athena’s sanctuary in Pergamon was built to commemorate the new kingdom’s defeat of the Seleucids, and it was long believed that the altar was similarly constructed to celebrate a military event. Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that the altar did not honor a particular victory, but rather the strength of the kingdom in general.
Many buildings created to honor a specific event make reference to that event in their imagery. Even in legendary and mythological scenes, the enemies of the gods are shown as defeated foreign troops, for example.
This kind of imagery, however, appears to be largely absent in the friezes from the altar of Pergamon. While there do seem to be some contemporary references, such as one of the giants carrying a Celtic-style weapon, they are much less numerous and obvious than they would be if the work celebrated a specific victory over the Celts.
It was common for the giants to be depicted as foreign barbarians in Greek art, so the inclusion of a few Celtic elements would not be out of character. However, there are no definite symbols or inscriptions that relate the construction of the altar to a particular battle against Celtic forces.
Instead, the inscriptions from the site refer more generally to the gods and the favors they bestowed upon the people of Pergamon and the Pergamene kings. The inscriptions do not name the gods, but based on context they are assumed to refer to Zeus and possibly Athena.
It is widely thought that the altar was built in the first half of the 2nd century BC by King Eumenes II, probably toward the end of his reign. Eumenes II had spent much of his time as king at war with the Celts, Seleucids, and Macedonians.
Because so many lengthy wars would have been quite expensive, some historians believe that the altar was built only after those wars were finished and money and manpower would be available for such a massive project. The altar did not celebrate a specific victory, but the overall rise in power of the kingdom.
It was not just their neighbors in Greece and Asia Minor the Pergamene kings showed supremacy over, however. The imagery of the Pergamon altar also references the growing power of Rome.
Roman legend held that their city’s founders, the twins Romulus and Remus, were nursed by a she-wolf as babies. The Telephus frieze shows the legendary king of Asia Minor instead, nursed by a lioness.
Lions were not only associated with Heracles, the father of Telephus, they were also symbols of strength and kingship. The implication was that the founder of Pergamon was more noble and powerful than that of the republic in the west.
There is much that is still not understood about the altar of Pergamon, but its iconography and historical context indicate that it was a monument to the strength of the new kingdom and the gods who blessed the city.
While the statue of Laocoon was praised, many people in the Greco-Roman world scorned the artistic style of the era. The Romans preferred more classical styles that aligned them with the height of the Greek Golden Age, while many people in the Greek world saw the style as overly-extravagant.
These attitudes may explain why the altar of Pergamon received so little attention in its own time and in Roman records. As a newer construction in a less-appreciated style, it was not a work of classical importance.
The great altar of Pergamon was part of a large temple complex in the capital city of one of Asia Minor’s chief cities.
The massive altar was probably built toward the end of the reign of King Eumenes II, who had strengthened his kingdom’s power through victories over many neighboring lands. Most scholars today understand the altar as a monument toward the young kingdom’s rising power, not as a commemoration of a specific military campaign.
The altar is impressive for its monumental size, but even more noteworthy are its intricate sculptural friezes. The exterior frieze, depicting the Gigantomachy, is one of the largest surviving examples of its type.
The Gigantomachy frieze, and to a lesser extent the interior sculptures narrating the legend of Telephus, are impressive examples of Hellenistic art. Although not highly valued in its own time, the style is noted today for its expressiveness and sense of movement.
The altar of Pergamon was largely forgotten about and used by local residents as a source of building material for several centuries. It was excavated in the 19th century and relocated to Berlin, where it remains on display to this day.