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Pergamon was one of the many kingdoms carved out of the eastern parts of Alexander the Great’s empire. By the year 200 B.C., the Attalid Kings had transformed Pergamon into a major outpost of Hellenic culture and religion, symbolized by the city’s acropolis, on which stood temples and the second largest library of the classical world. In the years 165 – 155 BC, the Pergamenes raised the final structure on the acropolis, a colossal altar, dedicated to Zeus.

In emulation of the Athenian Parthenon, the Pergamon altar was decorated with a narrative frieze. Designed by the sculptor Phyromachus, and executed by a large workshop of marble carvers, the frieze depicts the Gigantomachy, a subject frequently used by the Greeks to distinguish their enlightened civilization from the depravity and barbarism of everyone else (iIn the case of Pergamon, the mythic narrative served to commemorate recent military victories over the Macedonians and Celts). At 113m long, the Gigantomachy frieze is the second longest sculptural program executed in the classical period (the Parthenon frieze is 160m long). Although the Parthenon and Pergamon friezes share a common medium and approximate length, the latter departs from the model of the former in almost every other way.

The Parthenon frieze is carved in low relief. Its placement high above the ground, ensuring that the idealized civic ritual it depicts would be viewed from a dignified distance. At Pergamon, all of that is inverted: the frieze is carved in extemely high relief, with certain figures approaching sculpture in the round. Its over 100 scenes wrap around the lowest part of the altar’s base, sometimes spilling over on to the actual architecture, involving and immersing the viewer in epic mayhem. The drama of the battle is amplified by the over-life sized figures, whose bodies are splayed out wherever possible and by the churning, multi-layered compositions. The sense of turbulent motion pervading the frieze is primarily caused by the the deeply cut drapery folds of the goddesses garments that cling to their bodies as they rush into battle. The entire frieze is soaked in histrionic emotionality, a hallmark of Hellenistic art.

At the height of the classical period, sculptural representations of violence, like the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs of the Parthenon metopes (above), were over-laid with sense of decorum and restraint. At Pergamon, the gods charge in and brawl with the giants, dealing out all manner of graphically depicted punishment. The goddesses are particularly athletic and ferocious. Phoebe uses lit torches as spears; Aphrodite kicks a giant in the head; Nyx hurls an urn filled lining snakes at the fallen giant, the Fates and the Furies jump into the scrum and drag giants away by the hair. The Parthenon iconography informs potential enemies that, Athenian reason and civilization will always prevail. On the outskirts of the Greek world in a time of political uncertainty, the Pergamon frieze grandly and bluntly warns of the annihilation awaiting anyone who threatens the city.

The great altar of Pergamon was excavated, with the approval of the Ottoman sultan, in the late 19th century by German archaeologists. It was then reconstructed and installed in the Berlin museum that bears its name. The Turkish government has requested the altar be returned to Pergamon, despite the fact that, unlike the Elgin marbles, its removal to Germany was perfectly legal. Having just spent millions of euros reinstalling the altar, it is not clear if the German government will buckle under pressure as quickly as did the British Museum trustees.