Pergamum was an inland city located in western Asia Minor, first mentioned by Xenophon in his time with the Ten Thousand mercenaries in the service in of Cyrus the Younger about 400 BC, but at this time it had not yet become a significant metropolis (Xenophon, Anabasis). Centuries later, after its growth and development into a prominent city and capital of a kingdom, Attalus III, ruler of the Kingdom of Pergamum, granted his entire kingdom to Rome upon his death in 133 BC, and the city became the capital of the Province of Asia (Strabo, Geography). ). By the time John wrote to the 7 churches of Asia Province near the end of the 1st century AD, Pergamum, the 3rd city to be addressed, was no longer the capital, but it was still the second most important Roman city in Asia Minor behind Ephesus, and probably had a population of over 100,000 inhabitants (Revelation 1:11, 2:12-17; Pliny, Natural History). Pergamum had a community of Jews from at least the 1st century BC, but no evidence of a synagogue has been found, and nothing directly relating to Jews is mentioned in the letter to Pergamum (Josephus, Antiquities; inscriptions and artwork found at the city).
During the Roman period, Pergamum was built on a two-tiered acropolis, with the remainder of the buildings west and south of the acropolis. The acropolis, where most of the temples were located, also had a theater of 80 rows with a seating capacity of 10,000, which is known as the steepest theater in the ancient world. Temples and shrines on the acropolis were dedicated to Dionysus, Zeus, Athena, the kings of Pergamum, the Emperor (Trajan, but there was a temple of Augustus somewhere), Demeter, and Hera. The main temples and gods at Pergamum are also known from coins of the city, which depict Zeus, Dionysus, Asklepius, Athena, and the deified Emperor. On the acropolis, in the 2nd century BC King Eumenes II had the famous Pergamum Altar constructed, which was U shaped and one of the largest altars in the ancient world, measuring 112 feet by 118 feet, and 40 feet high. The grand altar was carved with depictions of mythological scenes about the Olympian gods, Giants, and Telephus, the legendary founder of Pergamum (Strabo, Geography). Although it is unclear if the altar was dedicated to a particular deity, it appears to have been associated with Zeus, or possibly Zeus and Athena (Lucius Ampelius, Liber Memorialis). Sacrifices were made at the altar, but little else is known about its specific use in antiquity (Pausanias, Description of Greece).
The acropolis was also the location of other important public buildings such as the palace, agora, baths, gymnasium, and library. This library, one of the most famous in the ancient world, was expanded in the early 2nd century BC by King Eumenes II, and in antiquity it supposedly had a collection of 200,000 manuscripts at its height, but by the 1st century AD it was less significant, possibly having many of its manuscripts relocated to Alexandria by Mark Antony before Augustus returned a portion (Plutarch, Life of Caesar; Strabo, Geography; Vitruvius; Dio Cassius, Roman History). Pergamum was such a major producer of parchment in the Hellenistic and Roman period that the word parchment is derived, via Latin, from the name of the city (cf. Pliny, Natural History and the invention legend associated). In the lower city, the major buildings included an amphitheater, a temple to Serapis, and the Asklepion.
The Asklepion at Pergamum originally dates to the 4th century BC and was modeled after the Asklepion in Epidaurus, Greece, and was dedicated to the god Asklepius “Soter” or savior (Pausanius, Description of Greece; Toniste, “Pergamum”; McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). Built at a “sacred spring” in the lower city, this place functioned as a shrine to the god of healing and a sort of magical medical center. What is visible today is primarily from the rebuild in the 2nd century AD after the earthquake, but the 1st century Asklepion would have been essentially the same. Since in the Roman world medicine was usually intertwined with magic and the gods, Galen, the famous 2nd century AD physician from Pergamum, worked in conjunction with this Asklepion. Being a physician, however, did not require one to follow pagan religion, exemplified in Luke, the Christian physician (Colossians 4:14). Those hoping for healing would enter the Asklepion, undergo ritual cleansing, offer sacrifices, drink a potion, then descend into the “abaton” (meaning “inaccessible place” and probably associated with the underworld) where they would fall asleep in a room full of snakes, waiting for a dream from Asklepius, a process referred to as “incubation” or dream therapy. When they awoke, they would tell their dream to the priest who would interpret it for them and prescribe a healing treatment. If healed, the patients would make an offering in the form of a body part that was healed. Myths of Asklepius even claimed that he could bring the dead back to life. The serpent, the symbol of Asklepius, was associated in ancient times with several pagan gods, and myths claim that rulers such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus were conceived by a god in snake form. Asklepius, however, was not the only god at Pergamum associated with the serpent. Dionysus, which had a temple on the acropolis, was also associated with a sacred snake. Many coins of Pergamum from the 1st century BC depict the “cista mystica,” which was a box carried in a religious procession of Dionysus that contained a sacred serpent which represented the god (Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities; cf. Clement of Alexandria).
Serapis, honored by a temple in the lower city, though rarely using serpent iconography, was another god associated with the underworld. The cult of Serapis was an Egyptian-Hellenistic synthesis built on worship of the god of the underworld, Osiris/Hades/Pluto. In the Byzantine period, a 4th century church, built on the Red Court, was constructed over the temple of Serapis (Meinardus, “The Christian Remains of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse”). The exact dedication of this church is unknown, but perhaps it was to honor the martyrdom of Antipas, the bishop of Pergamum in the late 1st century AD who was murdered for his faith in Christ (Revelation 2:13). No other early sources are known which give additional information on the manner and location of the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum, so the legends about him may be conjecture.
Besides the major pagan gods of the Roman world, Pergamum was also a center for the imperial cult, which worshipped the Roman Emperor. Made the imperial “neokoros” (temple warden) by Caesar Augustus, Pergamum was the first city in all of Asia Minor to construct an imperial temple and host the emperor cult (Tacitus, Annals; McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). The temple of Trajan can be seen on the acropolis and the temple of Augustus can be seen on coins of the city. Perhaps Trajan actually usurped the temple to Augustus.
The temples, shrines, altars, and coins at Pergamum demonstrate the obvious affinity for the worship of pagan gods and the Emperor in the city, including underworld gods and those associated with the serpent. Besides portraits of the emperors and several gods and goddesses, the serpent is the most prolific image depicted on the coins of Pergamum. The phrases “throne of Satan” and “where Satan dwells” have been interpreted in various ways, but all linked to pagan worship. Usually, the “throne of Satan” at Pergamum has been interpreted as the Pergamum Altar, shaped somewhat like a gigantic throne and often associated with Zeus, king of the Olympian gods who overthrew and defeated the earlier gods (Titans) in Greek mythology, similar to Satan’s planned rebellion and overthrow of God (Revelation 2:13; cf. Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:14-16; Rev 12:7-9). Others have suggested that the “Throne of Satan” refers to Emperor worship and the city as the center of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. The Asklepion could also be argued as a possibility, or even the temple of Dionysus, who is associated with the sacred serpent. However, temples to these gods existed in many of the other cities during the 1st century, so the “throne” and the dwelling place may simply be defining the entire city as a center of Satanic worship, manifested by the immense paganism practiced in the city.
In the letter to Pergamum from the book of Revelation, some of the members of the church there are reprimanded for the teaching of Balaam, sacrifices to idols, and immorality, which were all related to paganism (Revelation 2:14). The verb typically translated as “to eat things sacrificed to idols,” composed of the elements “idol” and “sacrifice,” may be rendered as “memorial meals for the dead,” which were a typical ritual in Hellenistic and Roman paganism (Kennedy, “The Cult of the Dead at Corinth”). The “immorality” cited could even refer specifically to spiritual harlotry, or worshipping false gods in addition to or instead of Jesus Christ, the true God (cf. Old Testament usage). Regardless, some of the Christians in Pergamum were participating in pagan rituals and the worship of false gods, which were apparently practices that the sect of the Nicolaitans taught (Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Tertullian, Against Heretics). In the closing section of the letter, the ones who “overcome” will have a new name written on a white stone, which contrasts with the temporary nature of parchment which the city was so famous for (Revelation 2:17).
In the 3rd century AD, an earthquake severely damaged Pergamum, and the city was also sacked by Gauls. No significant building was done after this time, and therefore many of the Hellenistic and Roman period ruins were very well preserved.