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PERGAMUM, PERGAMOS (pûr'ga-mŭm, Gr. Pergamos). A city of Mysia in the Caicus Valley, fifteen miles (twenty-five km.) inland; in KJV, Pergamos (Rev.1.11; Rev.2.12). Royally situated in a commanding position, Pergamum was the capital until the last of the Pergamenian kings bequeathed his realm to Rome in 133 b.c. Pergamum became the chief town of the new province of Asia and was the site of the first temple of the Caesar cult, erected to Rome and Augustus in 29 b.c. A second shrine was later dedicated to Trajan, and the multiplication of such honor marks the prestige of Pergamum in pagan Asia. The worship of Asklepios and Zeus were also endemic. The symbol of the former was a serpent, and Pausanias describes his cult image “with a staff in one hand and the other on the head of a serpent.” Pergamenian coins illustrate the importance that the community attached to this cult. Caracalla is shown on one coin, saluting a serpent twined round a bending sapling. On the crag above Pergamum was a thronelike altar to Zeus (cf. Rev.2.13) now in the Berlin Museum. It commemorated a defeat of a Gallic inroad and was decorated with a representation of the conflict of the gods and the giants, the latter shown as monsters with snakelike tails. To deepen Christian horror at Pergamum’s obsession with the serpent-image, Zeus was called in this connection “Zeus the Savior.” It is natural that “Nicolaitanism” should flourish in a place where politics and paganism were so closely allied (Rev.2.15), and where pressure on Christians to compromise must have been heavy.

Pergamum was an ancient seat of culture and possessed a library that rivaled Alexandria’s. Parchment (charta Pergamena) was invented at Pergamum to free the library from Egypt’s jealous ban on the export of papyrus.——EMB

PERGAMUM pûr’ gə məm (Πέργαμος, G4307). Pergamum is located fifteen m. from the Aegean sea, with the hills around Smyrna and Lesbos in distant view, on a great humped hill that dominates the Caicus plain. This eminence formed Pergamum’s first acropolis. The foundation of the city was contemporary with the beginnings of urban life in Asia, but little is known of the first centuries. It is certainly pre-Gr. in origin, and its name pre-Gr. Also applied to Troy, it means “a citadel,” and Pergamum was preeminently that. Coinage goes back to the 5th cent. before Christ. The city’s royal estate goes back to the year 282 b.c., when Philetaerus threw off allegiance to Lysimachus, who ruled the land after the breakup of Alexander’s empire. Philetaerus’ dynasty endured only twenty years, but the kingdom of Pergamum thus founded lasted until 133 b.c., almost exactly a cent. and a half. Over this time, the frontiers advanced or retreated as the power of the greater rival successor-state, Syria, ebbed or flowed. When Rome was forced to intervene in Asia Minor, to protect her eastern flank from the imperialism of Antiochus of Syria, Pergamum was a useful ally, and an equally useful buffer state, when Antiochus was decisively checked in 190 b.c. at the battle of Magnesia. It was then that Pergamum reached its highest point of power. The major event of the early royal history of Pergamum was the struggle against the Gallic tribes, who left their name in Galatia.

Like Smyrna, Pergamum read well the signs of history, and when Attalus III bequeathed the kingdom to Rome in 133 b.c., the legacy was no doubt approved by his people, who saw little future for independence in the growing chaos of the Middle E. It was shrewd policy to seek early protection, as the Mediterranean world moved obviously nearer to an era of great rivalries and power politics on a far grander scale than the centuries of the citystates had known. Rome, in such peril, was the better wager. The Republic saw the advantage of a strong bridgehead beyond the Aegean, accepted the royal bequest, and organized the kingdom of Pergamum into the Province of Asia. For another two and a half centuries, Pergamum remained Rome’s official center in the province. The city was therefore a seat of sovereign government for four full centuries.

Over a period of almost a cent., Pergamum has been extensively and expertly excavated, and it is possible to gain a better picture of the city, with its sweep of temples and public buildings crowned by the great altar to Zeus, than of any other Asian city.

The imperial cult, the worship of the spirit of Rome and of the emperor, with its loyalty test of formal incense burnt at the foot of Caesar’s statue, found a center, appropriately enough, in Pergamum, and colored the city’s life. The first temple of the cult was located there in 29 b.c., and is shown as a device on coins down to the principate of Trajan at the end of the 1st cent. In Trajan’s honor a second temple was built, and a third was dedicated to Severus. Only the first temple functioned when John wrote his letter from Patmos, but its presence and its ritual was enough to make Rome’s authority oppressively apparent in the city. In his imagery of One “who has the sharp two-edged sword,” John wrote in reference to the imperial power that challenged Christianity so strongly in this important center of the State religion (Rev 2:12-17).

The implied hostility to Rome shows how far the clash of Church and State had gone. It is a far cry from Paul who, a generation before, had hoped that the Empire might find in Christianity the social and political cement, which imperial authority had sought since Augustus’ day, to bind into unity the states and cities of the Mediterranean world. The Christians of Pergamum lived in the presence of the dire alternative, for Rome had made her choice, and the Christian religion had been officially proscribed for twenty years. They dwelt, says John of those who followed the faith in Pergamum, “where Satan’s throne is.”

The significance of that phrase has become apparent since archeology opened up a more detailed knowledge of the life of Pergamum and the structure of its pagan cults. Paganism lay in three strata. There was an Anatolian substratum represented by the worship of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, and Asklepios, the god of healing. Snakes, and the handling of reptiles, were associated, as the Bacchae of Euripides shows, with the cult of Dionysus. Snakes were the symbol of Asklepios. A Pergamenian coin shows the emperor Caracalla standing spear in hand before a great serpent twined around a bending sapling. He raises his right hand in the salute that Hitler’s Nazis brought back to another world. Pausanias, who has left descriptions of his journeys in the Mediterranean lands, describes the same god enthroned with a staff in one hand, and the other on the head of a serpent. Christians must thus have found the cult of the god of healing, and his serpent-infested temple, peculiarly revolting.

Pausanias in his account of Pergamum, also described the throne-like altar to Zeus on the top of the crag above the city. It was discovered in 1871 and taken to Germany, where it stands reconstructed today in the East Berlin Museum. The structure, a perron of steps leading to a great altar, commemorated the defeat of a Gallic invasion two centuries before. The wandering Celts who reached Rome and Delphi in the era of their folk-wanderings also infiltrated Asia Minor. Pergamum, strong enough to drive them off, celebrated the deliverance with the altar to Zeus. Its frieze represents the gods of Olympus battling with the giants shown in the sculpture as a brood of muscular warriors with snake-like tails. The Zeus to whom the altar was dedicated was called Zeus the Savior, another offense to Christian minds. Perhaps the altar was actually the “Satan’s throne” of the letter’s apocalyptic imagery (Rev 2:13).

The second stratum in Pergamum’s religious history, represented by the Hel. kingdom, shows the worship of Zeus and Athene. The third stratum represents the Rom. period and the imperial cult. Perhaps Antipater, the Antipas of the letter, was the first to suffer martyrdom for rejection of the cult. He died by burning in a brazen bull, says tradition, in Domitian’s day, and he must have been one of many in this place of pervading paganism. Wherever the Christian turned, he met the flaunting symbols of the things he hated. It perhaps helped to realize that One knew “where he lived,” but for those whose daily lot it was to live in such oppressive proximity to the mingled cults of paganism, there was deep temptation to compromise.

The spirit of the city’s paganism prompted this. Pergamum synthetized the deities of three races, and of three successive periods in the history of the State. There were pagans, no doubt, who thought that their complex scheme of worship could absorb yet another faith. There were also Christians who thought that the notion was not without merit. Could Christianity avoid a head-on collision with the pagan world, at least with the simple imperial cult, by a little judicious compromise? The thought had its temptation in a place where dissent was more likely to be viewed with hostility than anywhere else in Asia. Perhaps Dionysus, Asklepios, Athene, and Zeus could be avoided as objects of worship, impossible though it was to escape their presence in shrine and image. To avoid the worship of the emperor in the center of his cult, where that worship was thought to conflict with no other, and to be also a test of loyalty, was not so simple.

Hence, the popularity of the sect of “the Nicolaitans” in Pergamum. Little is known about them, but it is clear enough that they were those who thought that a measure of compromise could be worked out, perhaps only in the comparatively harmless sphere of the state cult. The apostles saw with clarity that no compromise at all was possible. Allow the pinch of incense before the emperor, and the landslide would begin. The guild-feasts would follow, a problem for Christians in Thyatira. Then would come the immoralities of Corinth’s worship of Aphrodite and the breakdown of Christian morality—the whole challenging distinctiveness of the Christian faith, the whole purpose of its being.

Those who stood firm, in spite of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, the harsh criticism of less rigid friends, and the fierce resentment of a corrupt society, held and passed on the integrity of the faith. Nowhere was it more difficult to stand thus lonely and execrated than in Pergamum, where Christianity and Caesarism confronted each other face to face.


G. Cardinali, Il regno di Pergamo (1906); A. H. M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (1937); M. Rostovtzeff, The Hellenistic World (1941).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

pur’-ga-mos, or pur’-ga-mum (he Pergamos, or to Pergamon):

1. History:

Pergamos, to which the ancient writers also gave the neuter form of the name, was a city of Mysia of the ancient Roman province of Asia, in the Caicus valley, 3 miles from the river, and about 15 miles from the sea. The Caicus was navigable for small native craft. Two of the tributaries of the Caicus were the Selinus and the Kteios. The former of these rivers flowed through the city; the latter ran along its walls. On the hill between these two streams the first city stood, and there also stood the acropolis, the chief temples, and theaters of the later city. The early people of the town were descendants of Greek colonists, and as early as 420 BC they struck coins of their own. Lysimachus, who possessed the town, deposited there 9,000 talents of gold. Upon his death, Philetaerus (283-263 BC) used this wealth to found the independent Greek dynasty of the Attalid kings. The first of this dynasty to bear the title of king was Attalus I (241-197 BC), a nephew of Philetaerus, and not only did he adorn the city with beautiful buildings until it became the most wonderful city of the East, but he added to his kingdom the countries of Mysia, Lydia, Caria, Pamphylia and Phrygia. Eumenes II (197-159 BC) was the most illustrious king of the dynasty, and during his reign the city reached its greatest height. Art and literature were encouraged, and in the city was a library of 200,000 volumes which later Antony gave to Cleopatra. The books were of parchment which was here first used; hence, the word "parchment," which is derived from the name of the town Pergamos. Of the structures which adorned the city, the most renowned was the altar of Zeus, which was 40 ft. in height, and also one of the wonders of the ancient world. When in 133 BC Attalus III, the last king of the dynasty, died, he gave his kingdom to the Roman government. His son, Aristonicus, however, attempted to seize it for himself, but in 129 he was defeated, and the Roman province of Asia was formed, and Pergamos was made its capital. The term Asia, as here employed, should not be confused with the continent of Asia, nor with Asia Minor. It applied simply to that part of Asia Minor which was then in the possession of the Romans, and formed into the province of which Pergamos was the capital. Upon the establishment of the province of Asia there began a new series of coins struck at Pergamos, which continued into the 3rd century AD. The magnificence of the city continued.

2. Religions:

There were beautiful temples to the four great gods Zeus, Dionysus, Athena and Asklepios. To the temple of the latter, invalids from all parts of Asia flocked, and there, while they were sleeping in the court, the god revealed to the priests and physicians by means of dreams the remedies which were necessary to heal their maladies. Thus opportunities of deception were numerous. There was a school of medicine in connection with the temple. Pergamos was chiefly a religious center of the province. A title which it bore was "Thrice Neokoros," meaning that in the city 3 temples had been built to the Roman emperors, in which the emperors were worshipped as gods. Smyrna, a rival city, was a commercial center, and as it increased in wealth, it gradually became the political center. Later, when it became the capital, Pergamos remained the religious center. As in many of the towns of Asia Minor, there were at Pergamos many Jews, and in 130 BC the people of the city passed a decree in their favor. Many of the Jews were more or less assimilated with the Greeks, even to the extent of bearing Greek names.

3. Christianity:

Christianity reached Pergamos early, for there one of the Seven Churches of the Book of Re stood, and there, according to Re 2:13, Antipas was marryred; he was the first Christian to be put to death by the Roman state. The same passage speaks of Pergamos as the place "where Satan’s throne is," probably referring to the temples in which the Roman emperors were worshipped. During the Byzantine times Pergamos still continued as a religious center, for there a bishop lived. However, the town fell into the hands of the Seljuks in 1304, and in 1336 it was taken by Suleiman, the son of Orkhan, and became Turkish.

The modern name of the town, which is of considerable size, possessing 15 mosques, is Bergama, the Turkish corruption of the ancient name. One of its mosques is the early Byzantine church of Sophia. The modern town is built among the ruins of the ancient city, but is far less in extent. From 1879 to 1886 excavations among the ruins were conducted by Herr Humann at the expense of the German government. Among them are still to be seen the base of the altar of Zeus, the friezes of which are now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; theater, the agora, the gymnasium and several temples. In ancient times the city was noted for its ointments, pottery and parchment; at present the chief articles of trade are cotton, wool, opium, valonia, and leather.