Altar of Zeus: Pergamon
Hellenistic Sculpture, High-Relief Gigantomachy Frieze, Designed by Phyromachos.

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Reconstruction of Pergamon Altar
in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

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Altar of Zeus at Pergamon (c.166-156 BCE)


The Pergamon Altar
Architecture and Design
The Gigantomachy Frieze
The Telephus Reliefs
History of the Pergamon Altar
Chronology and Dating
Excavation of the Pergamon Acropolis
Further Resources

For other forms of architecture and sculpture popular in Asia Minor,
please see the Art of Classical Antiquity (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE).

Detail from East Frieze: Athena
seizes a young Giant by the hair.

Detail from North Frieze: the giant
Agrios being clubbed to death.

The Altar of Zeus at Pergamon

The greatest example of Hellenistic Greek sculpture, the colossal Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, near Izmir (Turkey), is a monumental work of Greek art built by King Eumenes II of the Attalid dynasty, from about 166 to 156 BCE. The altar is adorned with a 370-foot long marble frieze which depicts the Gigantomachy from Greek mythology. Like the Parthenon in Athens - another icon of classical antiquity - the Zeus Altar was constructed on a terrace of the acropolis overlooking the ancient city of Pergamon, situated on the west coast of Anatolia (now Turkey) in Asia Minor. However, unlike the Parthenon, it was not a temple but merely an altar, possibly connected to the Doric Temple of Athena which had been built 150 years earlier and which stood above the altar on a separate terrace. Furthermore, unlike the Parthenon's High Classical Greek sculpture (450-400 BCE), whose statues and reliefs were always calm and serene and never expressed any particular emotion, Greek Hellenistic art (323-27 BCE) was less about harmony and serenity, and more about achieving excitement, wild movement and strong feeling. This new approach to the art of sculpture is exemplified in the Pergamon Altar, whose 9-foot high frieze is alive with huge figures of gods and giants locked in mortal combat. These images were carved in such high relief that they were almost detached from the background. The relief sculpture may portray the mythical victory of Zeus and the Gods over the Giants, but in reality it celebrates the series of Pergamene victories over the Celts and other barbarian invaders from the east. Some classical scholars also believe it equates these Pergamene triumphs with those of 5th century "Golden Age" Athens under Pericles. All that remains of this extraordinary work of art - arguably the greatest narrative relief in the history of sculpture - is part of the Berlin Collection of Classical Antiquities, and can be seen at the Pergamon Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin. For more about the new style of plastic art exemplified by the Altar of Zeus, see: Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE).

Detail from West Frieze: Nereus, Doris
and Oceanus.


Architecture and Design

The massive Pergamon Altar, designed according to the Ionic order of Greek Architecture, was roughly 115 feet wide (35 metres) and 110 feet deep (33 metres) and was accessed from the west via a huge stairway, some 65 feet wide (20 metres). The stairway led up to a flat colonnaded roofed-platform or hall, extending to the front and sides, the latter projecting backwards to overlook the stairs. The widely-spaced pillars or columns which surrounded the hall had platforms with Ionic capitals. The roof was studded with numerous types of statue, including lion griffins, a quadriga of horses, centaurs and deities, as well as gargoyles. Through the pillars to the front, was the inner courtyard where the fire altar itself was situated. The courtyard was decorated with an eye-level frieze, illustrating the life of Telephus, the legendary founder of Pergamon.

The upper area sat on a 20-foot high base, which the stairway cut through on its way to the top. The base consisted of a pedestal, a frieze of slabs about 9-feet tall adorned with relief sculpture portraying the battle between the Olympian gods and giants, and a projecting cornice. The 370-foot frieze (113 metres) is the longest frieze sculpted in Greek Antiquity after the Parthenon frieze (523 feet), and was carved from Proconnesian marble, while the rest of the base plus the upstairs Telephus frieze was made from darker marble from Lesbos-Moria. The foundation of the base (which can be examined in situ at Pergamon) was composed of intersecting tuff walls laid out like a grating, which provided extra protection against earthquakes.

Although there is no archeological record of any paint having been found, the tradition of sculpture from ancient Greece suggests that the entire structure of the Zeus Altar was painted in bright colours.



The Gigantomachy Frieze

The building as a whole is believed to have been designed by Phyromachos, the last of the greatest sculptors from Ancient Greece, who included Kresilas (c.480-410), Myron (active 480-444), Phidias (488-431 BCE), Polykleitos (active c.450-430), Callimachus (active 432-408), Skopas (active 395-350), Praxiteles (active 375-335) and Lysippos (c.395-305). However, whether Phyromachos himself was involved in the sculpting of the frieze is not known.

The Gigantomachy frieze adorning the base is made up of over 100 individual panels showing gods in combat with giants, in an exemplary display of Hellenistic marble sculpture filled with action, emotion and movement. The story derives from Greek legend: once the new gods led by Zeus, with the support of the goddess Gaia, had overcome the old gods marshalled by Cronus, Zeus then decided to oppose a number of Gaia's children.

East Frieze Sculpture

This side contains most of the major Olympian gods, including the goddess Hecate, who fights the giant Klytios. Next comes Artemis, armed with a bow and arrow against Otos. Her hunting dog savages another Giant on the neck. Leto, the mother of Artemis, fights at her daughter's side against an animal-like Giant; she is helped by Artemis's twin brother Apollo, who has just shot Ephialtes with an arrow. A barely decipherable panel shows Demeter and Hera, Zeus and Heracles (known from a lion's paw). Zeus hurls bolts of lightning against two young Giants and their leader, Porphyrion. After this, Athena, the patron goddess of Pergamon, is struggling against the giant Alkyoneus and his mother Gaia. Finally, we see Ares, the god of war, riding into battle on a chariot.

South Frieze Sculpture

This starts with Rhea, the goddess of Asia Minor, mounted on a lion. Next to her, three gods, one of which is Hephaistos, are battling a massive giant. Other divinities sculpted on the south frieze include: Eos, goddess of the dawn; Theia goddess of day and night stars, Selene, the moon goddess; Aither, Uranos, his daughter Themis, goddess of justice. Finally we see the titan Phoibe with her daughter Asteria.

West Frieze Sculpture

On the north risalit of the Altar, several ocean gods are carved, all of whom are fighting Giants. They include Triton and his mother Amphitrite; the couple Nereus and Doris, Oceanus and Tethys. On the south risalit, several gods of nature and mythological beings are depicted, including: Dionysus and his mother Semele. Here also, can be seen the only artist's signature on the Altar - THEORRETOS.

North Frieze Sculpture

Greek gods sculpted on the north face include: Aphrodite, her lover Ares, her mother, and her young son, Eros. They are followed by the twins Castor and Pollux. The next six fighters are linked with Ares, the god of war. Their precise identities are uncertain, but it seems they include Nyx and one of the Erinyes, goddesses of revenge. We also see the three Moirai (goddesses of fate). In the next group, there is a "lion goddess", supposedly Ceto. After this comes Poseidon, god of the sea.

The Telephus Reliefs

The upper inner courtyard, which housed the fire altar, had less space. Accordingly, the Telephus reliefs were created on shallower slabs that those used for the Gigantomachy around the base. At only 4 feet 9 inches tall, the slabs were also considerably shorter. However, if the Telephus stone sculpture was created on a smaller scale, its quality was in no way inferior: in fact, it contained a number of technical innovations in the way that images were organized on the relief panel, which exerted a strong influence on later Hellenistic-Roman art (c.50 BCE - 200 CE). The figures, for instance, were staggered in depth; background landscapes are more detailed and scenic; and architectural features are used to indicate indoor activities. The pictorial cycle of the frieze concerns the life of Telephus, son of the hero Heracles and one of the heroes of Greek legend, as mentioned in 5th-century BCE writings by Aischylos, Euripedes and Sophocles. See also: Hellenistic Statues and Reliefs.

History of the Pergamon Altar

The Pergamene kingdom in north-west Asia Minor - contested by both Antigonus I (Monophthalmus) and Seleucus I (Nicator), two former generals of Alexander the Great who "inherited" the Greek, Byzantine and Persian parts of his empire - was founded in 281 by Philetaerus (c.343-263 BCE). He became the originator of the Attalid dynasty, which ruled Pergamon from 281 to 133 BCE, turning the city into an important cultural centre of Greek art and science. Since Philetaerus was a eunuch, he chose a successor (Eumenes), who in turn was succeeded by Attalus I, who won a major victory over the Celtic Galatian tribes in 228 BCE. Under Attalus II and Eumenes II, the size of the Pergamene city-state was extended, Hellenism was fully embraced, and the acropolis overlooking Pergamon was developed to include several temples and the second largest library in the classical Greek world (200 BCE). An alliance was later struck with Rome to guarantee Pergamene territorial integrity. Thus by about 180 BCE, the Attalids were securely established as rulers of an important centre of Greek culture, and anxious to legitimize their dynasty both in the eyes of the gods, as well as their secular neighbours. The Altar of Zeus at Pergamon was one of several examples of monumental architecture which the Attalids relied upon to achieve their spiritual and political aims. As it was, Attalus III died with no heir, and bequeathed the city to the Romans. See also: Roman Architecture (c.400 BCE - 400 CE).

Chronology and Dating

Analysis of excavated remains from the site, now part of Turkey, have caused some changes in the envisaged chronological timeline. Until relatively recently, scholars assumed that the Zeus Altar was commissioned in 184 BCE by Eumenes II following his victory over the Celtic Tolistoagian tribe led by Ortiagon. But modern archeological opinion prefers a later date, possibly as late as 166-156 BCE, interpreting the Altar as a general monument to the series of Pergamene triumphs over the Macedonians, the Celts and the Seleucids. (A fragment of Greek pottery was discovered inside the Altar's foundation, dating to 172 BCE, which indicated that the structure must have been erected later.)

NOTE: For later sculptors and movements inspired by the Pergamon Altar, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).

Excavation of the Pergamon Acropolis

In the late 7th century during the Christian-Arab conflict, the buildings on the Pergamon acropolis, including the Zeus Altar, were partly dismantled to provide stone for defence works, and in 716, the city was temporarily overrun by the Arabs, then abandoned. Resettled in the 12th century, it was later occupied by the Turks. Over the next eight centuries, the Pergamon Altar was visited by a number of European explorers, art collectors and travellers, including (latterly): the French classical scholar Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, the English architect Charles Cockerell, the German archeologist Otto von Stackelberg and the German antiquarian Otto Friedrich von Richter.

The Prussian engineer Carl Humann (1839-96) visited Pergamon for the first time in 1864, returning several times during the following years. He strongly advocated the preservation of the cultural antiquities on the city's acropolis, which was being used as a quarry by local inhabitants who were also breaking up the marble sculptures to obtain building material. In the end, after supportive interventions by Ernst Curtius, the Berlin classicist, and Alexander Conze, the Director of Berlin's sculpture collections, as well as a German government anxious to achieve cultural parity with Britain, Humann excavated the Pergamon Altar in two major digs (1879 and 1904), with the agreement of the Ottoman authorities. As a result, the marble relief panels from the Pergamon Altar together with numerous other fragments were shipped to Berlin.

Reconstruction in Berlin

In Berlin, Italian restoration experts reconstructed the marble frieze from the thousands of recovered fragments. After a series of delays occasioned by physical subsidence, a world war, and the 1920s Depression, a large brand-new Pergamon Museum designed by Alfred Messel was finally opened in 1930 to display the reassembled Altar and frieze. Today, the Pergamon Altar is the top highlight of the Berlin Collection of Classical Antiquities, and is exhibited in the Pergamon Museum and the Altes Museum, both of which are located on Berlin's Museum Island.


At least one historian, Ampelius, judged the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Roman authorities, however, disagreed. In their opinion, no Hellenistic sculpture could compare with that of High Classical Greek art (450-400), an opinion shared by 18th century scholars like the Neoclassicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68). This negative view was the result of a strong preference for the "Severe" style of Hellenistic sculpture - see, for instance, the Venus de Milo or the processional figures on the Ara Pacis Augustae, in Rome - rather than the vigorous and dramatic "Baroque" style of Hellenism practised by the Pergamene school - see also Lacoon and His Sons, another of their works - and later by the Italian 17th century genius Bernini (1598-1680).

Further Resources

For more information about ancient art from Classical Antiquity, see the following resources:

- Early Classical Greek Sculpture (480-450 BCE)
- Late Classical Greek Sculpture (400-323 BCE)
- Early Roman Art (510-27 BCE)
- Trajan's Column (106-113 CE)

• For more about Hellenistic Greek high-relief sculpture, see: Homepage.

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