Pergamum—“Where the Throne of Satan Is”
THE opening chapters of the Bible book of Revelation contain seven messages that were sent to as many congregations in Asia Minor. Included in what the apostle John wrote to the congregation at Pergamum was the following: “I know where you are dwelling, that is, where the throne of Satan is; and yet you keep on holding fast my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas, my witness, the faithful one, who was killed by your side, where Satan is dwelling.”—Rev. 2:12, 13.
Just where was this city of Pergamum? What is its history? What distinguished it from other cities? Why was it described as “where the throne of Satan is” and “where Satan is dwelling”?
All seven congregations to whom John wrote were situated in what was then known as the Roman province of Asia, but today forms the western part of Asiatic Turkey. Pergamum was the most northerly as well as the most westerly of these cities, being some fifty miles north of Smyrna and less than fifteen miles inland from the Aegean Sea. Today the Moslem city of Bergama lies just below the ancient site of Pergamum.
Pergamum rested largely upon a steep hill that stood between two branches of the Caicus River. This hill rose suddenly to a height of a thousand feet and, except for its southern slope, was extremely difficult of access. The city was well named Pergamum (Pergamon, Pergamus) for the name came from a root meaning “tower” or “fortress,” which root is also related to the German word burgh.
It was an ideal location for a fortress as well as a capital city, for it commanded the surrounding territory for many miles. No wonder that when Alexander the Great set out on his eastern campaign he sent Barsine and her son, the illegitimate Herakles (Hercules), to Pergamum for safekeeping And no wonder that some years later Lysimachus, one of the generals among whom Alexander’s empire was divided after his death, chose Pergamum for the safekeeping of so much of his treasure: 9,000 talents or about $10 million.1
The history of Pergamum does not go back far; it appears to have been a newcomer among the cities of Asia Minor. Archaeologists have dug up artifacts going back to about the eighth century B.C.2 Pergamum first appears in written history in 399 B.C., when Xenophon and his 6,000 mercenaries, the remnant of the famed retreating “Ten Thousand,” occupied the city. For some fifty years thereafter it was part of a Persian satrapy, after which its ruler declared its independence, which it enjoyed until the time of Alexander. After Alexander’s death it became part of the territory that fell to Lysimachus in the year 301 B.C.3
The treasure that Lysimachus left in Pergamum he put in charge of a trusted lieutenant, one Philetaerus, a eunuch. There are a number of versions as to just how he became ruler of Pergamum and its surrounding country; suffice it to say that he was able to take advantage of the troublous times and the wealth put in his safekeeping and proved himself a sagacious and discreet ruler in both internal and external affairs. He thereby established the dynasty of the Attalids and set the pattern for those who followed him. His rule marked the beginning of the rise of the star of Pergamum.
After a rule of twenty years he was succeeded by a son of his brother who, after ruling for about a like period of time, was in turn succeeded by Attalus I in 241 B.C. He became noted for his great wealth and in particular for freeing Pergamum from the burden of paying tribute to the raiding Gauls by defeating them in battle, after which he proclaimed himself king. When he died in 197 B.C., his son Eumenes II took the throne, under whom Pergamum became one of the greatest kingdoms of the East and reached its heights in magnificence, in size, in prosperity and in art, literature and science. And, it might be added, as a mecca of pagan religion. When Eumenes II died in 159 B.C. he left the kingdom to his brother Attalus II as his own son was but a child, and which brother took the name Philadelphus, or “lover of brother.”4
When Philadelphus or Attalus II died in 138 B.C., the son of Eumenes II, namely, Attalus III, became ruler. Historians differ as to why his brief rule was marked with so much bloodshed, even as they differ as to why he willed Pergamum to Rome, upon his death, which occurred in 133 B.C. Some say that suspicions regarding the sudden death of his mother, whom he had loved so much as to take the title Philometor, “lover of mother,” and that of his wife caused him to embark on an orgy of murder, only later to be regretted, whereas others list among his crimes the murder of his mother. Thus some term his willing of Pergamum to Rome a most judicious act in view of Rome’s liberal policies, whereas others say it is inexplicable except as the act of a madman. An illegitimate brother successfully challenged Rome, but only for a short time, and in 130 B.C. the kingdom of Pergamum became a Roman province.4
CHARACTERISTICS OF PERGAMUM AND ITS RULERS
Pergamum enjoyed independence for 150 years, and the members of its dynasty stood in striking contrast to those of others all around it. Instead of scheming one another’s death, as was the order of the day, they manifested family affection. Thus history records the time when Eumenes II was waylaid by assassins while on a journey and was left unconscious. Report got out, even to Rome, that he had been killed; and so his brother took the reins of government and married the wife of Eumenes II. But Eumenes II recovered and proceeded to return to Pergamum. Hearing of this, his brother at once divested himself of his royal robes and went out to meet his brother. Eumenes II, meeting his brother and his wife, embraced them and whispered into the ear of his brother: “Do not be in a hurry for my wife until you are sure I am dead.” And it is said that this was the only notice he ever took of the matter, treating them ever after with undiminished affection.5 Thus in his testament he not only willed the kingdom to his brother, but willed that his brother Attalus II should rule in fact as king, until his death, and only then should his own son become ruler. He even requested that his widow become the wife of his brother so that there would be no question as to his authority and right, this being the same woman his brother had temporarily as wife when he thought Eumenes had been killed.
Concerning Pergamum one authority states:
“If the kings of Pergamum were able patiently to build up a rich and flourishing kingdom, to make this kingdom famous in Greece, to protect it against attacks of their neighbors, both Greeks and barbarians, and to appear as patrons of learning and art, they owed it to their own skill, to their sound economic policy and unceasing efforts to develop the natural resources of their territory.”6
In Pergamum were invented the elegant hangings called tapestry. It also was famed for its gold-woven clothes, the vestes Attilae, its pottery and its precious ointments. Its rulers were interested even in cattle breeding, horticulture and other aspects of scientific farming. And they were literary men of such a fondness for books that only Alexandria had a library larger than that at Pergamum. It is said that Ptolemy (V-?) of Egypt became so apprehensive lest his library at Alexandria be eclipsed by that of Pergamum that he put an embargo on papyrus, on which Egypt had a monopoly. But this proved to be a blessing to Pergamum, for one of its citizens invented parchment (which got its name from Pergamum), a far superior writing material. When Pergamum was a Roman province, Cleopatra prevailed on Mark Antony to replenish her Alexandrian library with books from the library at Pergamum, which he did, to the extent of 200,000 scrolls.7
Pergamum is also famed for its sculpture. Chief among the many treasures dug up from its ruins is the gigantic frieze, 150 yards in length, that was a part of its Great Altar to Zeus and depicted a battle between gods and giants. Concerning it we are told:
“This enormous frieze . . . cannot fail to impress visitors by the size of its figures, the energy of the action, and the strong vein of sentiment which pervades the whole, giving it a certain air of modernity. . . . The giants are strange compounds, having heads and bodies of wild and fierce barbarians, sometimes also human legs, but sometimes in the place of legs two long serpents, the heads of which take with the giants themselves a share in the battle . . . The gods are obviously inferior in physical force, indeed a large proportion of the divine combatants are goddesses. Yet everywhere the giants are overthrown, writhing in pain on the ground, . . . everywhere the gods are victorious, yet in victory retain much of their divine calm.”8a
RELIGION IN PERGAMUM
Aside from their politics, the rulers of Pergamum were ardent Grecophils or lovers of things Greek. Especially was this true regarding its pagan worship, of which it was a veritable citadel. Athena, goddess of poetry and learning, came first in worship. Second only to her was the chief of Greek gods, Zeus. Prominent also were Dionysus, god of wine, and Aphrodite, goddess of sensual pleasure. Having a fame of his own was Aesculapius as the god of healing. From the large school in connection with his cult came Galen, the “father of medicine.” Other deities worshiped in Pergamum were Apollo, the ancient Ceibiri, Demeter, Eros, Herakles, Hermes, Poseidon, as well as a host of minor ones.9
In addition to lavish temples and beautiful groves dedicated to such gods was the Great Altar to Zeus Soter. Made of marble, it was more than a hundred feet square and nearly fifty feet high. It had a huge staircase and colonnades on three sides. Ornamenting it was the gigantic frieze previously mentioned. Found in the Berlin Museum today, it has been termed the “most impressive monument of sculpture produced by ancient Europeans.”10
Another striking feature of pagan worship in Pergamum was its worship of political rulers. They did not believe in democracy but did more or less rule as benign autocrats. They were credited with divine descent and worship from the beginning. Attalus I, because of freeing his people from the threat and yoke of the Gauls or Galatians, was hailed as “King Attalus the Savior.” It is not surprising therefore that Pergamum should be the first provincial city to erect a temple for the worship of the Roman emperor. It erected its first, to emperor Augustus, in A.D. 29, its second in the time of Trajan (A.D. 98-117), and its third in the days of Severus,11 who ruled A.D. 193-211.
“WHERE THE THRONE OF SATAN IS”
Why did John refer to Pergamum as “where the throne of Satan is”?b Some have said that this was because Pergamum was the halfway house or bridge between the religion of ancient Babylon and that of Rome. True, as one historian says: “The defeated Chaldeans fled to Asia Minor and fixed their central college at Pergamos”; referring to their defeat in 539 B.C. However, by the time John had his vision recorded in the book of Revelation, A.D. 96, the seat of “Babylon the Great,” or the world empire of false religion, had been removed to Rome.—Rev. 14:8.12
Others hold that these words apply to Pergamum because it was one of the centers of the worship of Aesculapius, which god of healing had as his symbol a serpent. But merely this symbol would hardly be sufficient to entitle this religion the distinction of Satan’s seat; besides, there is no evidence that it represented a threat to the early Christians.
Still others apply John’s words to the Great Altar to Zeus Soter for which Pergamum was famous. True, this altar was outstanding due to its immense size, but it does not seem reasonable to conclude that merely that fact would determine where Satan’s throne is. When we consider that Satan is termed the invisible “god of this system of things,” it is apparent that his throne would be something more than a mere pile of stones.—2 Cor. 4:4; Matt. 4:8-10.
Rather, what seems to be the most reasonable explanation of John’s words is that what made them apply to Pergamum was its temple and cult of the worship of the emperor. Certainly this form of worship presented a serious threat to the early Christians; many were the martyrs it caused because Christians kept integrity and refused to compromise. Since Revelation 2:13 mentions Satan’s throne in the same breath with the martyrdom of Antipas, it is reasonable to conclude that the two have an association, and this they would have if Satan’s throne referred to the worship of the emperor or the State.
Perhaps an even more powerful reason for so interpreting John’s words is the fact that the book of Revelation was written for the benefit of not solely those living in John’s day but even more so those in our day; and today the worship of the emperor in the giving of religious adoration to the State has again manifested itself on every hand. It was seen in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and is being seen in all Communist and other totalitarian lands and even in some claiming to be democracies. The words at Revelation 2:13 are indeed encouraging to all who suffer today for taking a firm stand as did Antipas in the first century.
1 Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th Edition, Vol. 18, p. 538.
2 The Attalids of Pergamum—Hansen, p. 10.
3 Pergamos (German)—T. L. Ussing. pp. 3, 4.
4 The Standard History of the World, Vol. 3, pp. 1049-51.
5 Universal History—Goodrich, pp. 263, 264.
6 The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 8, p. 608.
7 Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 17, p. 319.
8 Encyclopædia Britannica, 1959 Edition, Vol. 10, p. 818.
9 Die Kulte und Heiligtümer der Götter in Pergamum—Ohlenmutz.
10 Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 538.
11 The Bible and Archaeology—J. A. Thompson, pp. 414-417.
12 “Babylon the Great Has Fallen!” God’s Kingdom Rules!, pp. 331-333.
a While the interpretation invariably given to this frieze is that it represents the cultured Pergamenians battling the barbaric Gauls, what may well be a more logical explanation in view of the emphasis on the mystic in Pergamum is that it is based on legends that have come down through the years of the sons of God and the mighty men of Noah’s day, as recorded at Genesis, chapter 6.—The Early Renaissance, by J. M. Hoppin.
b In passing it might be noted that this description is in striking contrast to the way the Romans viewed Pergamum, for they spoke of it as the most illustrious, the most distinguished, the one “preeminent above all the towns of the Roman province of Asia.”