The glory of Pergamum

Further north, the city of Pergamon provides perhaps the best example in the whole of Turkey of conspicuous splendour, with its gleaming acropolis (30) and extravagant altar (Rohde 1982). Pollitt (1986, 235) calls Pergamum the greatest city plan of Antiquity, suggesting that this is so because everything was adapted to the dramatic possibilities of the terrain [...] the plan of Pergamum was designed to engage the emotions as well as the mind, and in doing so it created an environment unparallelled by any other ancient city. Present-day Bergama lies in a valley some ten kilometres off the main north-south coast road, and on the Caicus river. That the city in the valley can guard the hinterland is clear; but the ancient city on the hill to the north does much more than this: it sets out to impress. Nor is the effect incidental: nearly all the buildings were erected during only two reigns, those of Eumenes II and Attalos II (197 to 138 BC), which suggests deliberate and extensive planning. Eumenes both emulated Athens and surpassed her by developing an architectural and sculptural manner of colour, movement and emotional power. In Green's felicitous phrase (1990, 353), he was a passionate hellenist born too late.

With the exception of the King, a garrison and perhaps some courtiers up on the high and windy acropolis, the inhabitants of ancient Pergamum surely lived down by the river, where modern-day Bergama lies. Indeed, there are a few antique remains at this level, of which the most conspicuous is the temple called the Red Hall. There in the valley also, we might reasonably expect to find the civic structures of the town, with the hill that towers above the town to the north being reserved solely for defence. But no: the acropolis is indeed defended by walls; yet most of its slopes are covered with temples and altars, sanctuaries, a stoa, a library, an enormous theatre, several gymnasia, baths and so forth - all of which are so located as to be visible to a traveller entering the valley from seawards, and approaching the town. Building on this acropolis (let alone supplying it with water) was a Herculean task, especially given the number of artificial platforms which had to be constructed to support the buildings. Furthermore, given the marble roof tiles (some of them probably gilded) with which the citadel was endowed, the high city must have seemed no less than a vision of gleaming, bright colours - red, brown, ochre, gold and blue - for, as is well known, the ancients coloured both their buildings and their sculptures. Any vision of blinding white marble buildings and works of art is therefore far from the truth, and the finished effect might have been garish to modern sensibilities, so falsely brought up on the "white is pure" misconceptions of the 19th century.

At Pergamum, then, the very lie of the land is harnessed to spectacular effect. Take, for example, the Great Altar - a structure which is paralleled by several other spectacular altars in Turkey, few traces of which have survived (Sahin 1972). Set parallel and in line with the west-facing flank of the Temple of Athena on the next terrace above it, the Altar presents its great flight of steps toward the fall of the slope (that is, toward the sea), rather than inwards - which is the only direction from which a celebrant can approach the structure. Hence convenience cedes to effect - a little curiously perhaps, since turning its entrance to the sea (toward the distant traveller) must surely lessen its impact on anyone actually on the acropolis itself.

In summary, the acropolis at Pergamum may be considered the most spectacular city in the classical world, but it is not necessarily a strictly practical one! Anybody wishing to check just how interested the inhabitants were in visual splendour might wish to sit in the theatre in the afternoon, staring into the sun while they admire the view; or to try walking from the present Bergama up the steep slopes of the acropolis to the Temple of Trajan or the Library of Athena. But similar observations can be made of the location of the theatre in many cities. At Kyaneae, the theatre is level with the city - but the city is at the top of a steep cliffside. At Alinda, it would have been perfectly practical to place the theatre much lower down the slope, near the market building and agora - instead of which it is at the very top, needing a strenuous climb to reach it (SB3.2). Approaching the site from the south (i.e. from Alabanda), the Hellenistic market building (14), although toward the lower parts of the slope, towers over the modern village with its 99-metre length; it is three times the length of the agora, which is behind it, although visible from the east. And at the very top of the site, why are the Hellenistic watchtowers on the north of the acropolis built so exactingly from bossed and perfectly fitted blocks? This can only be because the inhabitants took pride in all buildings, turning even functional structures into veritable works of art. They would see them everyday, because there are certainly houses on a second saddle, even higher than the theatre, and fed by an aqueduct. At Priene, one only has to observe the tons of earth and infill necessary to give level ground to the lower gymnasium and the stadium on this steeply sloping site. At Termessos, or indeed at Sillyon, it is the modern visitor who is captivated by the beauty of its location: its inhabitants were probably more interested in its defensibility.

Why Splendour?

Factors such as economic prosperity or even a heightened aesthetic sense, while no guarantee of the provision of splendour, could enable it by generating either the funds to attain it or the ability to appreciate it. Throughout Antiquity, however, the impulse to create splendour - almost irrespective of the balance of payments (to use a modern concept) - was political, and its effect public. That is to say, architectural and artistic grandeur were almost continuously viewed not as a marginal activity that was exclusively the preserve of sensitive and unworldly aesthetes, but rather as an essential carrier of the message of political power and prestige. For the Ancients, art and architecture served obvious propaganda purposes. Although this is clearly a characteristic of much Roman architecture - build it bigger and make it fancier being the general rule - it was a propensity inherited from the Greek and Hellenistic worlds, and perfectly clear to see in Greek architecture from the archaic period onwards (or, not counting the Dark Ages, from Mycenaean times). Pergamum, in this as in so many other aspects of artistic and architectural, provides the touchstone, as we have already seen.

Alongside the developing interest in public splendour of the Hellenistic period was an increase in private wealth, and from this there flowed an intense interest in private luxury which might have horrified classical Athens. Luxury is a vice not a virtue, but an essential one for the spinoff in the visual arts - namely splendid private houses with statuary, elaborate furniture and jewellery, marble cladding on walls and, all in all, a mirror image of what was happening in the public arena, albeit on a smaller scale.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey