Pergamum Is Transferred to Rome

Political control of the kingdom of Pergamum was transferred from the Seleucid Empire to Rome, allowing for the expansion of Roman imperialism.

Summary of Event

The kingdom of Pergamum was originally part of the Seleucid state carved out of the empire of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.). When Philetaerus, a satrap (governor, a title taken over from the Persians) in the Seleucid Empire, detached the area, he founded what came to be known as the Attalid Dynasty; the name comes from the first king, Attalus I (r. 241-197 b.c.e.). In any study of the politics of the area, it must be remembered that Pergamum, along with all successor states in the east, was ruled by a Greek minority that dominated the native-born population. Eumenes II
Attalus III
Scipio Nasica
Gracchus, Tiberius Sempronius
Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus, Publius
Perperna, Marcus
Aquillius, Manius

In time, Pergamum came to adopt a pro-Roman policy because it became increasingly clear that Rome could be counted on to favor Greek culture and its supporters over that of the native Easterners. Attalid involvement with Rome became active during the reign of Attalus I, who early discovered that it was advantageous to favor Roman fortunes in the involved Macedonian-Seleucid conflicts of the period. It was mainly under Eumenes II, however, that the fortunes of Pergamum were cast. He first fomented a war between Rome and the Seleucid Antiochus the Great (c. 242-187 b.c.e.), and then supported Rome. At the Peace of Apamea, which concluded this Syrian war in 187 b.c.e., Rome gave him much of Anatolia west of Galatia and north of the Maeander River. Roman policy for fifty years sought to maintain a stable balance of power without direct involvement. Accordingly, Rome weakened and confined the major powers, Antigonid Macedonia and Seleucid Syria, and strengthened various lesser states, notably Pergamum but also Rhodes, Bithynia, and even Pontus. It seems to have crossed Eumenes’ mind that Roman legions could be used again to advantage in suppressing any unrest fomented against the dominant Greek aristocracy by the native population, a threat that became increasingly more realistic after 200 b.c.e.

By this time, the city of Pergamum was a desirable prize. Adorned with majestic architecture and sculpture, it became more and more the home of artists and scholars. Its library rivaled that of Alexandria, and the famous Altar of Zeus further attests its artistic greatness. From Pessinus and with the help of Attalus, in 204 b.c.e. Rome obtained the fabled black stone of the Mother of the Gods, Cybele, thought to bring help in the final stages of the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.). Rich in industry and agriculture, Pergamum became the trade outlet for much of the economic transactions in northern Asia Minor. Moreover, on it centered much of the balance of power in the East.

Eumenes II pursued a policy that apparently was an attempt to create a solidarity of the Greeks against the Orientals. He did at times panic, however, and employed a tortuous diplomacy that eventually cost him Roman favor, especially when he changed his mind and belatedly helped Perseus of Macedonia (c. 212-c. 165 b.c.e.), son of Rome’s old enemy Philip V, in the Third Macedonian War (171-167 b.c.e.). The temporary defection cost Pergamum the loss of Galatia. Attalus II (r. 158-138 b.c.e.), his brother, restored friendship with Rome, and, in 146 b.c.e., the Pergamene navy supported Lucius Mummius, Rome’s commander in the Fourth Macedonian War at Corinth. Scipio Aemilianus (c. 185/184-129 b.c.e.) made a state visit to Pergamum in 140 b.c.e., but as was true of the senate as a whole, he had little interest in or knowledge of affairs east of Macedonia. Rome’s attempt at remote management by occasional diplomacy was ineffective, and the states did not regard themselves as Roman clients.

Little is known about the last Attalid king, Attalus III, who died at age thirty-six and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. Why he did so is uncertain. Rome had shown no interest in annexation. Without substantiation, Strabo (64/63-after 23 b.c.e.) charges that Attalus III was insane. Although childless, he could have adopted a successor. The only living Attalid claimant to the throne was his half-brother Aristonicus, an illegitimate son of Eumenes II and a slave. Perhaps Attalus only designated Rome his heir to deter both Aristonicus (possibly already in revolt) and ambitious neighbors (the kings of Bithynia and Pontus) from attacking, but then died unexpectedly before making other arrangements. Less probably, he envisioned Greek and Roman cooperation in maintaining Greek culture in the east and was interested in providing a peaceful future for his people. Aristonicus evidently appointed himself leader of the submerged eastern elements. Recruiting his followers from natives, he called them “Citizens of the Sun-city” (Heliopolis), an appeal to Mithraic sentiments if not a utopian dream, in an effort to unite and inspire the local population, said to have detested Attalus. His war was under way before Roman authorities arrived.

Attalus’s gift was unexpected at Rome, which had acquired all previous provinces through its own decisions at the conclusion of major wars. Consequences of the bequest follow two paths over several centuries: increasing Roman involvement in Asia Minor, culminating in direct rule over the region west of the upper Euphrates valley; and polarization of Roman domestic politics, accelerating the failure of the traditional state and leading to the Augustan Principate. The will arrived at Rome in mid-133 b.c.e., some six months after the king’s death. Reacting slowly, the senate dispatched Scipio Nasica and four others in 132 b.c.e. to oversee annexation. Alternatively, the envoys’ task was to determine whether Rome would accept the legacy. The mission conveniently removed Scipio from Rome, where he had incurred widespread hatred for leading the violent suppression of the reforming tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Scipio soon died and his successor Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus, commander of the first legions in Asia Minor since 187 b.c.e., was killed in battle in 130 b.c.e. Marcus Perperna captured Aristonicus at Stratonicea but then died at Pergamum. Manius Aquillius ended the war and, assisted by a senatorial commission, organized the area as the province of Asia. Rome minimized its obligations: It gave outlying portions of the former kingdom to the rulers of Pontus, Bithynia, and Cappadocia, and did not keep a garrison in the province.


Unfortunately, the great age of Pergamum had already passed. Its wealth became fair game for ambitious Roman speculators, as well as idealistic reformers. For example, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, probably with good intentions and before the senate had formally accepted the will, proposed that the Attalid treasury be used to stock new farms for the Roman poor of Italy. The bill was controversial, as it implied tribunician and legislative control over areas the senate had long regarded as its prerogative, foreign policy and finance. When Gracchus stood for reelection, his opponents labeled him a revolutionary. A mob of senators led by Scipio clubbed him and some followers to death. Gracchus’s tribunate has long been seen as opening the Late Republic.

Rome would have remained disinterested in the region indefinitely had the regional kings kept the peace. Instead, the weakness of Nicomedes II of Bithynia (r. 149-91 b.c.e.) and the Ariarathrid rulers of Cappadocia tempted the territorial ambitions of Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus (c. 134-63 b.c.e.). Gracchus’s brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123-122 b.c.e. opened the door for financial exploitation. Tax farming companies sometimes combined with corrupt governors soon caused widespread hatred of the Roman regime. In 89 b.c.e., Mithradates swept through Asia as a liberator and Rome was slow to regain control. Nicomedes IV of Bithynia bequeathed his kingdom to Rome at his death in 74 b.c.e.; by 63 b.c.e., Pompey the Great (106-48 b.c.e.) eliminated Mithradates, annexed Pontus as a province and reduced the other states to client kingdoms. To the south, he annexed Syria and converted Palestine to client status. Addition of the latter had incalculable results on Judaism and Christianity, and indeed on the entire intellectual history of the West.

Further Reading

  • Allen, R. E. The Attalid Kingdom: A Constitutional History. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1983. A political history of the Attalids. Includes index, maps, and genealogical tables.
  • Boren, H. C. The Gracchi. New York: Twayne, 1968. Emphasizes the annexation of Pergamum in the context of the Gracchan reform program.
  • Dreyfus, Renée, and Ellen Schraudolf, eds. Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996-1997. The essays and illustrations in this exhibit catalog give an idea of the artistic splendor of Pergamum.
  • Gruen, Eric S. The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Sometimes controversial analysis; excellent bibliography and notes.
  • Mitchell, Stephen. The Celts in Anatolia and the Impact of Roman Rule. Vol. 1 in Anatolia: Land, Men, and Gods in Asia Minor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Discusses the repercussions of Rome’s involvement in Asia Minor as a result of the acquisition of Pergamum.
  • Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. This study of the goddess Cybele provides insight into the Roman attitude toward the “exotic” East and their attempt to incorporate it through the adoption of Cybele as an object of worship.
  • Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Foreign Policy in the East, 168 b.c. to a.d. 1. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984. A cautious and reliable source that stresses Roman reluctance to act.

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