The Pergamon Altar: Where Legends Come to Life
Nestled in the serene landscape of ancient Pergamon, a city that once flourished in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, lies a remarkable testament to human craftsmanship and religious devotion: the Pergamon Altar. Standing at the crossroads of history and art, this extraordinary archaeological artifact transports us back over two millennia to a time when Pergamon reigned as a center of culture and power in Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. Carved between 180 and 160 BCE, the Pergamon Altar is an intricately detailed monumental structure constructed as a place of worship to the gods. Its imposing dimensions and exquisite reliefs depicting mythological battles make it a true marvel of ancient Greek artistry.
History of the Pergamon Altar
For a long time, it was believed that the Pergamon Altar dated back to 184 BC and that it had been endowed by Eumenes II (King of Pergamon from 197–159 BC) after his victory over the Celtic Tolistoagian tribe and their leader, Ortiagon. This changed in the second half of the 20th century, however, when careful investigation of the altar revealed some problems with this theory.
It was normal for the Pergamese to build victory monuments after winning a major battle, but the altar doesn’t resemble any other discovered Pergamese victory monument. For a start, nothing in the altar’s design makes any reference to the battle or any other contemporary military campaigns. The only minor hints are the star of Macedonia that appears on the shield of one of the Giants and a Celtic shield that is held by one of the gods on the eastern frieze.
What is left of the altar's dedication inscription doesn’t mention any specific battle either. Instead, it says the altar was built to thank the gods for their “favors,” although what these favors were isn’t stated. It’s believed the altar was primarily built in honor of Zeus and Athena since they hold the most prominent positions in the friezes.
The Altar of Zeus at the ruins of the Ancient City of Pergamum. (MCaglar/Adobe Stock)
So, if it wasn’t built in 184 BC as long thought, when was it? Well, people are still arguing over this. Some believe two of the friezes reflect events that occurred later in Eumenes’ rule, in particular his stepping away from the Roman Empire and his defeat of the Celts in 166 BC. One of the friezes depicts the life of Hercules’ son, Telephus, to whom the people of Pergamon traced their ancestry.
This frieze is an attack on the Romans as it depicts Telephus being nursed by a she-lion, while Romulus, founder of Rome, is usually depicted as being suckled by a she-wolf. Obviously, lions beat wolves, so the thinking goes the frieze is depicting Pergamon’s supremacy over Rome. This led some historians to assign the altar building to around 170 to 159 BC (the death of Eumenes).
The strongest argument is perhaps that the altar was built at some point after 166 BC. Pottery shards have been found in the foundation that date back to 172/171 BC, so the altar must be a later addition. Plus, Pergamon was constantly at war until 166 BC and it’s unlikely they would have had the spare money to commission such an impressive altar prior to that date.
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What Was It Used For?
So, we don’t really know when the altar was built or exactly why it was built. But we know what it was used for, right? Unfortunately, not.
There is just as much confusion over what the altar was used for. Many believe that the altar was dedicated to Athena. This would make sense since there is a temple of Athena located on the Acropolis terrace directly above the altar. Altars were usually found outside their temples and several statue bases and consecrating inscriptions found in the altar’s vicinity all point to Athena.
But the fact is Zeus is so heavily featured in the altar’s frieze alongside Athena that it points to the idea that the altar was dedicated to both gods. This wouldn’t be so strange. It wasn’t uncommon for altars to have an independent function, not belonging to a specific temple. While a temple always had an altar, an altar didn’t always have to have its own temple.
We do know that sacrifices were carried out at the altar. What kinds of sacrifices? You guessed it, no one is sure. If we look at what is left of the quite small fire altar inside the huge altar edifice, we can see that it looked like a horseshoe.
This shape would suggest that the thighs of sacrificial animals were spread and burned there. But it’s also just as likely that this fire altar was just used for the traditional libations, and sacrifices of things like incense, wine, and fruit.
As for who was allowed to use it? That we do know. With how grand the altar is, it’s likely that only the best of the best was allowed to make sacrifices at the fire altar. Priests, members of the royal family, and foreign guests who the royals wanted to impress were likely the only ones allowed to use it.
Museum model of the presumed form of the altar in antiquity. (Lourdes Cardenal/CC BY-SA 3.0)
What Did It Look Like?
Thankfully, we know what the altar looked like. The Pergamon Altar was an impressive structure, featuring a large, elevated platform with a monumental frieze wrapping around it. The altar platform measured approximately 36 meters (118 ft) wide and 34 meters (111 ft) deep. The height of the altar, including the sculptural elements, is estimated to have been around 20 meters (66 ft).
The most notable feature of the Pergamon Altar was its frieze, which depicted the Gigantomachy, a mythical battle between the gods of Olympus and the Giants. The frieze, carved in high relief, measured around 2.3 meters (7.5 ft) in height and wrapped around the entire structure.
Eastern Frieze: Hecate fights against Clytius (left); Artemis against Otos (right) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Gigantomachy frieze was made up of four sides. The first frieze visitors to the altar would have seen was the Eastern frieze. It begins on the left with Hecate who is fighting the Giant Clytius. Aiding her is Artemis, goddess of the hunt, who with her traditional bow and arrow is fighting another Giant, probably Otos. Artemis’ dogs are also shown, chomping down on another Giant’s neck.
By Artemis’ side is her mother, Leto. She is fighting off a more animalistic Giant using a torch. The family unit is completed with Leto’s son and Artemis’ twin, Apollo the sun god, who is shown shooting the Giant Udaios.
Sadly, the next panel of the eastern frieze has been severely damaged. It’s believed it shows Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and Hera, wife of Zeus, entering the battle in a quadriga, a type of chariot drawn by four winged horses. In this case, the horses stand for the four winds, Notus, Boreas, Zephyrus, and Eurus.
Alongside Hera are Zeus and his son, Heracles. Not much is known about Heracles' depiction, since due to damage all that can be made out of him is a paw of his lion pelt. Zeus’s depiction, however, is impressive. He is shown as being physically powerful and agile, hurling massive thunderbolts and sending clouds and rain against his enemies, two young Giants and their leader, Porphyrion.
Athena and Nike fight Alkyoneus (left), Gaia rises up from the ground (right) at the museum in Berlin. (Ealdgyth/CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The next scene depicted is a particularly awe-inspiring one. It shows Athena, the city god of Pergamon, battling Alkyoneus, another Giant. According to Greek mythology, this Giant was immortal as long as he was in contact with the earth, where the power of his Titan mother, Gaia, could flow through him.
The frieze shows Athena lifting Alkyoneus up from the ground, breaking his contact with his mother. It then shows Gaia rising up from the ground in an attempt to save her favorite son. The last section of the eastern frieze sees Ares, the god of war, riding into battle against a winged Giant in his chariot.
As visitors walked around, the next frieze they would have viewed was the southern one. This frieze begins with a panel showing the goddess Rhea/ Cybele riding into the battle on a lion. To her left is Zeus’ eagle, carrying a bundle of the god’s trademark thunderbolts. Next to Rhea are three more gods, all battling a particularly large Giant? Two of these gods are unnamed but the third appears to be Hephaistos, the Greek god of blacksmiths, wielding a massive two-handed hammer.
Southern frieze, panel of Rhea/Cybele riding on a lion, Andrasteia in Berlin. (Claus Ableiter/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
The next panel shows Eos, goddess of the dawn riding into battle with a torch thrust out in front of her. Behind her is Helios, the Sun god, rising up from the ocean on another quadriga, also wielding a torch. He has already run over one Giant and has aimed his chariot at another.
Next is Theia, the mother goddess of the day and night stars, and her children, all battling the Giants? In particular, it shows her daughter, Selene, riding over a Giant with a mule.
The final part of the Southern Frieze is also damaged. It shows a young god, maybe Aether, fighting a Giant with snakes for legs and the head of a lion. He is aided by an elderly god, perhaps Uranus. Next to them is Themis, the goddess of Justice.
The Western Frieze is split into two risalits (an architectural term used to describe a projecting section of a building that extends beyond the main facade). The first shows the various Greek ocean gods gathered together. In particular, it features Triton, who is depicted as having the upper torso of a human, the lower torso of a horse, and the back of a dolphin, with his mother, Amphitrite.
Triton and Amphitrite fighting giants. (Public Domain)
The other side of the western frieze shows Dionysus, the god of wine, and two young satyrs battling several Giants. Dionysus is also joined by his mother, Semele, who is sending a lion into the fray. This frieze is also interesting as it features the only found artist's signature that of someone called THEORRETOS.
This section begins with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, lovingly pulling her spear out of a recently deceased Giant. By her side is her mother, the Titan Dione, and her small son, Eos. Both of them are also fighting.
Aphrodite battles the giants at the Pergamon Altar. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Due to damage, the next two figures are uncertain but believed to be the twin gods Castor and Pollux. These two don’t seem to be doing as well as the other gods. Castor is being grabbed from behind and bitten by a Giant while Pollux races to his aid.
The next handful of fighters are also unknown but believed to be associated with Ares. The first is shown hurling a tree trunk at a Giant, the second is a goddess tabbing another Giant with a sword and the third is a god fighting a well-armored Giant.
Following them is another goddess, once thought to be Nyx but now believed to be Erinyes, the goddess of revenge. She’s carrying a pot wrapped in snakes and she’s preparing to hurl it at an unlucky Giant.
The closing section of the frieze shows the lion goddess Ceto. Unfortunately, this area has sections missing but it is thought it showed Ceto fighting alongside her children, who were monsters. The frieze finishes with Poseidon, god of the sea, rising out of the ocean on a team of seahorses.
The Telephus frieze was located inside the altar, in the internal courtyard that surrounded the fire altar. Due to the limited space, this frieze is slightly less impressive and is on a smaller scale than the Gigantomachy frieze.
The Telephus Frieze specifically depicted the mythical story of Telephus, a legendary figure in Greek mythology. According to the myth, Telephus was the son of Heracles (Hercules) and the king of Mysia. The frieze portrayed various episodes from Telephus' life, including his birth, upbringing, and his encounter with Achilles during the Trojan War.
The composition of the Telephus Frieze was dynamic and narrative, featuring multiple figures engaged in action. The detailed and expressive carving brought the characters to life and conveyed a sense of movement and emotion.
Unfortunately, the frieze is also incomplete and what remains is irreparably damaged. Of the original 74 panels, only 47 whole or partial panels have survived. It was also found in the mid-1900s that the frieze’s slabs had been shown in the wrong chronological order. Ever since the display has been rearranged to show the correct order.
Telephus threatens to kill Orestes, panel 42 of the Telephus Frieze. (Marcus Cyron/CC-BY-SA-2.5)
The Pergamon Altar stands as a testament to the rich cultural heritage and artistic ingenuity of the Hellenistic period. It serves as a window into a bygone era, where legends were etched into marble and imagination knew no bounds. The awe-inspiring legacy of this architectural wonder beckons us to embrace the beauty and mystery of the past, igniting our curiosity and inviting us to explore the depths of human creativity. In its presence, we are reminded of the timeless significance of preserving and cherishing our historical treasures, ensuring that their stories continue to inspire and captivate generations to come.
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