The Attalids and Pergamon

Reading Response for:

Smith, R.R.R.  1991.  “Pergamon and the Great Altar.”  In Hellenistic Sculpture, 155-180.

19 thoughts on “The Attalids and Pergamon

    • The Attalid Dynasty attempted to connect itself with Athens through fostered cults of a variety of gods: Athena, Zeus, Dionysos, Demeter, Asklepios, and Kybele. The Gigantomachy showed the battle of gods and giants that was an honored theme in Greek art. The giants were sons of Ge, or Earth, who had been accidentally fertilized by Ouranos when Kronos castrated him. These giants were older generations of ‘malformed, beast-like and philistine primordials,’ who sought to oust the ruling gods. Every god and giant in the frieze had a name. The gods’ names were inscribed on the cornice above in large letters, and the names of the giants were engraved below. In composition and format, the frieze follows two principals of Classical frieze narratives: the figures occupy the full height of the frieze and the entire frieze represents only one moment in the action. The figures were carved in high relief and twist and turn with little reference to the background. The high-pitched baroque style of the figures is employed to express the superhuman – the tremendous power of the conquering Olympians and the struggle of the attacking giants. The frieze was designed to portray primordial chaos which was being mastered only with difficulty by the gods. The designers of the frieze elaborated for both the gods and giants an extraordinary rich iconography which for the lower, less literate levels of society, the frieze could be understood as an endlessly varied battle between gods and giants. The defeated were very distinguishable, and many gods were immediately recognizable by their familiar attributes. For those who were educated, the Attalid Dynasty connected itself to Athens with those who were familiar with the appropriate mythology and literature that could be read from a combination of the iconography and the inscribed names that the whole frieze was constructed on.

    • The Attalid Dynasty attempted to connect itself with the legacy of Athens by lavishly spending on culture, buildings, and art. The Dynasty purchased statues and books, patronized Delphi and funded scholarship. Some references and echoes of the Parthenon may be seen in their conception of the Great Altar, although the Attalid Dynasty did not only take artistically from Athens, but also constructed buildings in the Agora. In addition, the Attalid Dynasty saw to it that important personages would be educated in Athens before returning to Pergamon.

      • What kinds of statues and books were the Pergamenes purchasing? What other kinds of relationships did they have with authors and artists?

        • I want to attempt this answer, but also pose some new thoughts. Firstly I think the Pergamenes were purchasing and reading books written by Athenians, or Athenian scholars. Anyone who was anyone was being educated in Athens, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that there is a large Athenian influence. I think the Pergamenes had a good relationship with the authors. The Pergamenes defined themselves by a great appreciation for art and were patrons of cities and independent artists. That said, I want to get to the thing that interested me… The Gigantomachy and the giants named. The article said that only one giant (Mimas) had any sort of surviving literary account. This is really interesting to me. I wonder if there is a text that has been lost, and if so, was it a Greek or Pergamene text? Or like the article proposed, could the giant’s names be allegories, a special sort of inside joke or story that was meant for the Pergamenes? This inside joke allegory makes me think back to the Greeks and specifically the Athenians who used Gigantomachia to reference the Persians. If so this would be another stylistic link between the Pergamenes and Athenians. I feel like there are a lot of good questions here.

          • Some of the references in the Telephos frieze are from Aeschylus and other more obscure tragedians. The hunch is that there is probably a written version of the Gigantomachy that underlies the images on the altar, as well. The two major periods and locations for major projects of literature were in Classical Athens and in the Hellenistic Kingdoms. It is a possibility that the Pergamenes are riffing on a lost Athenian tragedy, or are working from a poem specially commissioned for the altar or recently written by a Hellenistic poet. This is highly speculative, however, and the altar may simply be a detailed creation of the artistic team that simply failed to gain legs with the literary community.

    • According to the reading, The Attalids were the first peoples of Pergamon to present the image of a model royal dynasty, and in imitation of Athens and Alexandria, the Attalids spent quite a bit of their wealth on improving their culture, buildings, and art. The purchase of old statues for their cities and books for their libraries promoted scholarship, which they also funded. A great show was made of the close-knit nature of the families in the city, and the Queen, wife of Attalos I, was held in high regard. These people also, in an attempt to connect with Athens, patronized Delphi. In an alliance with ROme the Attalids achieved control of Asia Minor for a period of time in the second century, making the Attalids “lasting opprobrium in Greek eyes, which made them only more insistent to be seen as the standard-bearers of Hellenism, as founders of new Athens.”

  1. Why did the Attalids feel the need to make a connection to the 5th century BC Athenian past? Why the 5th century BC? Why Athens, in particular?

    • Fifth century Athens was a time of flourishing due to the profits from the Delian League. At this time, Athens flourished politically, culturally, and economically.This period also marks the construction of the Acropolis and other contributions to the art world. Thus, the Attalids wanted to create a “new Athens,” referencing a city that once was so great, wealthy, and influential (155). The Attalids held an alliance with Rome, tying themselves to Greek culture. In addition to making efforts to maintain political and economic stability, these kings “spent lavishly on culture, buildings, and art, in imitation of Athens and Alexandria,” both of which were powerful centers of the Greek world (155). Although Hellenistic in style, the frieze of the Great Altar particularly shows the influence of Athenian classical sculpture through the interest in motion, musculature, and drapery. Pergamon’s connections to the revered city of Athens demonstrated the Attalids’ knowledge of the Greek past and allowed Pergamon to continue the tradition of power and influence.

      • Did the Pergamene alliance with Rome help to solidify their position as the cultural leaders of Greece or undermine it? Explain.

        • The Pergamene were an aspiring Hellenistic kingdom and came late into art and cultural politics. Their success by alliance with Rome gave Attalids public criticism by the Greeks. It was the Romans who defeated the Seleucides in Magniesia, created Peace of Apamea, and gave Pergamon control of much of Asia Minor. Pergamon wanted to be seen as the new Athens and defenders of Hellenism and Attalids tried to connect himself with its ancient past. At the time the Greeks did not see Pergamene as the cultural leaders of Greece. It was evident that the kings were profiting from the alliance with Rome and that they were “riding on the coat tails” of Rome, but their efforts of trying to be seen as the standard-bearers of Hellenism and as the founders of new Athens did add to the culture of Greece.

  2. How did the Attalids re-purpose 5th century BC allegories to reflect the contemporary realities of the Hellenistic Period?

    • From the beginning, the Attalids attempted to draw from the earlier examples of fifth century Athens and Alexandria to legitimize their new position of power. One particular allegory which the Attalids appropriated for their purposes in the Hellenistic period was that of the Gigantomachy. This scene, present on the Parthenon in Athens, represented the battle between uncivilized giants (the Persians) and the civilized Olympians (the Greeks). The Greeks were the victors of the battle, and this proved that “civilized” peoples would always win out over barbarians. In the Hellenistic version of the Gigantomachy at Pergamon, the Olympians represent the Attalids and the giants signify their opponents, the Gauls. Thus, the Attalids re-purpose and revamp the fifth century allegory to better describe their contemporaneous political situation.

      • The Gauls are very different culturally than the Pergamenes. Despite these major differences, did the Gauls represent the same characteristics as the Persians had before them? If not exactly, how was the allegory adapted and why?

      • Is there a possibility that the representation on the altar is aimed at a Roman audience more so than a Greek one? If so, how would that work?

        • Given the way that this question is phrased, it sounds a bit like there is reasonable support for the answer to be “Yes, this altar is aimed more at a Roman audience than at a Greek audience.” I am not necessarily choosing to answer this question based on the fact that I know how to support that argument, but based on the fact that this would be an interesting concept and I am curious how that would play out. I read over the article again and it seems like there is clear evidence of Greek influence, particularly in later Greek styles. For example, there is a lot of emotion and the huge range of textures emphasizes the skill of the artists and general attempts at realism. The Illiadic and Odyssean styles of each frieze certainly mirrors Greek literature, although given the lack of existing mythological context for the depictions, the original literature certainly could have been attributed to Pergamon, not to Greece. Still, the references to the Parthenon are definitely elements from Greek culture as well, and it may be difficult to argue otherwise.

          After looking at these aspects, I tried to consider other possibilities. In looking at the overall message and reason for the construction of the altar, I thought I could find a link, since I am not aware of any links in style. Could this be intended for a Roman audience simply because Romans could relate to having the Gauls as an enemy or looking at the Gauls as a group to defeat? If this isn’t reason enough, what would be a good reason? Intended audience is always interesting to me, so I would love to hear other possibilities for this alternate perspective.

  3. As a viewer of the Pergamene Royal program are you convinced that Pergamon is the Hellenistic cultural successor to Classical Athens?

  4. Although there is a heavy use of 5th century Athenian iconography in the Attalid program at Pergamon, there is a significant rejection of Classical style and composition rules in the Pergamene Altar. What were the artistic antecedents for the Pergamene altar, and how does the altar differ from them in composition?

    • The Pergamene alter relied on the prexisting Gigantomachy and friezes. The Gigantomachy is organized differently though than the preexisting ones and ther is a boroque influence in the art used.

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