A Mysian city in the NW part of Asiatic Turkey (Asia Minor) and the location of one of the seven congregations to which the apostle John addressed letters as recorded in The Revelation. (Rev. 1:11; 2:12-17) The city was about fifty miles (80 kilometers) N of Smyrna and fifteen miles (24 kilometers) from the coast of the Aegean Sea. Close to the site of ancient Pergamum (or Pergamos) lies modern Bergama. Pergamum was originally a fortress on a steep, isolated hill between two rivers. In time the city spread into the valley below, and the hill became the acropolis.
There is uncertainty as to the origin of the people of Pergamum, but some evidence points to Achaia in Greece. By 420 B.C.E. the city was striking coins, and in the next century Xenophon mentioned it as a fortified city. After the death of Alexander the Great it became part of Lysimachus’ territory. Lysimachus’ lieutenant Philetaerus became ruler of the city and surrounding territory, beginning the reign of the Attalids under whom Pergamum became a wealthy and important city. King Attalus I (241-197 B.C.E.) sided with the Romans against the Macedonians. His successor, Eumenes II, built up an immense library that rivaled the famous library in Alexandria. Supposedly at this time writing parchment (charta Pergamena) was invented in the city. Also, by this period the kingdom of Pergamum controlled most of W Asia Minor. In 133 B.C.E. Attalus III, on his deathbed, willed Pergamum to Rome, whereupon the city became the capital of the Roman province of Asia. (See ASIA.) Even when it ceased to be the capital, Pergamum continued to hold great importance as an official administrative center.
RELIGION OF PERGAMUM
Pagan religion was greatly stressed in Pergamum. It seems that Chaldean Magi (astrologers) fled from Babylon to Pergamum, setting up their central college there. Eumenes II built a huge marble altars to the god Zeus to celebrate his defeat of the Gauls. The remains of it have been unearthed and show that it was decorated with an enormous relief depicting gods battling giants. The sick from all parts of Asia flocked to Pergamum because of its temple of Aesculapius, the god of healing and medicine.
An especially noteworthy aspect of religion in Pergamum was its worship of political rulers. About 29 B.C.E. the city built a magnificent temple for the worship of Caesar Augustus. Thus it was the first city to have a temple dedicated to the imperial cult. During the days of Emperors Trajan and Severus, two more such temples were constructed there, so that the Encyclopædia Britannica calls Pergamum “the chief centre of the imperial cult under the early empire.” (11th ed., Vol. 21, p. 143) Such worship of the Roman emperor doubtless served politically to weld all the various conquered countries of the empire together under a common god; they could each worship their local or national gods, but all must also worship the emperor.
“WHERE THE THRONE OF SATAN IS”
In the apostle John’s letter to the congregation in Pergamum he mentioned that the city was “where Satan is dwelling” and the Christians were thus living “where the throne of Satan is.” (Rev. 2:13) Likely John was in part referring “to the official position of Pergamum as the centre of the imperial religion. . . . Worship of the emperor had been made the touchstone of civic loyalty, so that a faithful Christian, however loyal to the secular authority of the State, was branded as a traitor.” (The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, p. 968) Since the martyrdom of Antipas is mentioned in the same verse as “the throne of Satan,” he may have been killed for refusing to worship Caesar.
Perhaps an additional factor bearing on the identification of “where the throne of Satan is” was the prominent worship of Zeus or Jupiter, the chief god among all the pagan gods and goddesses. Legend said that from the hill where Pergamum was built certain gods had witnessed the birth of Zeus, and the immense altar later located on the acropolis is considered one of the marvels of the age. Persons worshiping Zeus could have other gods but were to view them as subordinate to him. The Christians in Pergamum were commended, though, because they held fast to their exclusive devotion to the true God, Jehovah, and did not deny the faith despite dwelling ‘where the throne of Satan was.’
“TEACHING OF BALAAM”
However, in the congregation there was the undermining influence of those “holding fast the teaching of Balaam.” (Rev. 2:14) This expression calls to mind the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam, who, after unsuccessful attempts to curse Israel, suggested using pagan women to draw male Israelites into the lewd worship of false gods. As a consequence of the resulting sexual immorality and idolatry, 24,000 Israelites died. (Num. 25:1-18; 1 Cor. 10:8; see BALAAM.) Evidently some in the Pergamum congregation, those “holding fast the teaching of Balaam,” were condoning fornication. (Jude 4, 11; 2 Pet. 2:14, 15) Pergamum was noted for an elaborate temple of Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of sexual love, and sensuous religious practices were common.
Some in the congregation had also been influenced by the teaching of “the sect of Nicolaus,” and they were urged to repent of that.—Rev. 2:15, 16.