"In Pergamon there is a great marble altar, 40 feet high, with remarkable statues - the entirety is surrounded by a Battle of the Giants."
With these words the Roman Lucius Ampelius described the Great Altar of Pergamon in his "Book of Memorable Facts" (8,44). Since the Middle Ages various travelers have visited Pergamon and have been interested in the citadel's ruins. But it was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that excavations were begun and a first picture of this Late Greek metropolis could be gained.
The German road construction engineer, Carl Humann, stayed in Pergamon in the winter 1864/65. Since then he clung tenaciously to the idea of excavating this antique city. One of his major achievements was the beginning of the excavations in 1878. The political situation, too, was favorable at the time. The German Empire, proclaimed in 1871, cultivated good diplomatic relations with Turkey. The German capital, Berlin, with its museums, began to play a larger role in European cultural life; and archaeology developed into a serious science.
These political developments led to the commencement of large excavation campaigns in different cities from Egypt to the Near East in order to acquire objects from the antique world that would enhance Berlin's cultural legitimacy. Carl Humann was able to gain the support
of the Berlin Museums for a preliminary excavation on the Pergamon citadel. Thanks to Humann's detailed knowledge of the area and the support of Alexander Conze, Berlin Museum director, these preliminary excavations over a period of eight years led to a systematic exposure of the upper acropolis of Pergamon.
As early as the first excavation campaign, Humann was successful. In the Byzantine wall which had surrounded the citadel in later times, he found well-preserved slabs from the large Pergamon altar frieze; and on the terrace, which was once erected for the splendid altar, he encountered the foundations and other parts, particularly slabs of the frieze of this once celebrated building.
In the course of three excavation campaigns, which dragged on until 1886, original pieces of the great frieze, the smaller Telephus frieze and additional pieces of sculpture from the acropolis were sent from Pergamon to Berlin in accordance with the treaties made between the Berlin Museums and the Turkish government. Here systematic examinations for reconstruction began. Thanks to the efforts of Berlin's architectural experts and archaeologists, and the assistance of ancient stonemason markings, a fairly accurate reconstruction of the building took place and the innumerable fragments of the frieze could be pieced together again.
After a few short years (1901-1908), the museum proved to be too small and constructionally unsound. The Berlin Museums decided to build a newer, larger one - the present Pergamon Museum. It was opened to the public in 1930. The west side of the altar and the large frieze depicting the Battle of the Gods and Giants has found its appropriate setting in the central exhibition room of the museum.
The idea of a Greek altar is heightened to an imposing independent monument. Its relationship to the older Athena Temple, dating to the end of the 4th century B.C., located on the next higher terrace of the Pergamon acropolis, is barely visible.
This monumental colonnade altar was built during the reign of King Eumenes Il in the years around 170 B.C. Whether the altar is dedicated to Zeus or Athena, or to both gods, is unclear due to the largely fragmented inscription. Because the word "blessings" is mentioned, this could mean that the altar was erected in response to divine blessings rendered and not because of a particular military success. In Pergamon, memorials for victorious battles were located in the Athena sanctuary.
The character of the Pergamon altar is different. The old mythical theme of the Battle of Giants was a comparison of the fight of the good, the lawful order and civilization against evil, arbitrary action and chaos. The Telephus frieze in the altar courtyard transferred the founding of the city into a heroic past and testified to the divine descent of the reigning family. Presumably the attempt by political enemies to murder Eumenes II in 172 B.C. might have caused the king to erect this altar after his fortunate rescue.
After large military and political success, Eumenes II and Attalos II transformed the Pergamon fortress into a residential city of marble buildings.
Ara Marmorea Magna : the Great Marble Altar
In the museum, only the west side (D) of the altar is reconstructed in its original dimensions. Four steps rising from the nearly square foundation (36 meters wide, 34 meters deep) support a monumental pedestal, whose sides are decorated by a 2.3 meters high relief frieze, crowned by a great projecting cornice. Graceful columns with Ionic capitals form an upper gallery and surround the upper building. The inner altar courtyard contains a smaller frieze, which tells the story of the life of Telephus, Hercules' son, and hero of the city. Hercules is also one of the central figures in the great frieze. Only through his intervention as a mortal, were the gods able to triumph over the sons of earth, the giants. Mythology creates a link here between both friezes. The Telephus frieze is constructed like a literary narrative, more calm in its language pattern. On the roof of the altar were smaller figures: pairs of gods, tritons, centaurs, griffins and teams of horses.
The great frieze, which encircles the altar like a precious band, is of highest artistic quality. Crowding together in dramatic action these practically freestanding figures seem to jostle one another and strain the boundaries of their architectural framework.
Gods battle giants with highest tension and fierce movements. The numerous goddesses seldom show physical effort, but coolly dominate their enemies through divine appearance. In contrast, the spiritual agony, pain and relentless cruelty of their destruction are depicted with unsparing realism on the bodies and faces of the giants.
No struggling group resembles another: differences in clothing, hair, and even footwear are elaborated down to the smallest detail. For this reason, we believe an artist of exceptional creativity must have designed the entire relief. Working next to him in Pergamon were experienced master craftsmen and specialists from various workshops of the leading artistic centres in the Hellenistic world.
The names of some sculptors working on the project are known from inscription fragments. However, we do not know who the creators of the scholarly concept and the frieze design were. Connections to the famous sculptural school in Rhodes have been suspected; or Phyromachos, the brass-founder of Attica, has been suggested as creator of the high Hellenistic altar style.
The battle of the gods and the giants was a popular theme in Greek art: it was woven into the cloak of the statue of Athena Parthenos in Athens, and was depicted in the metopes of the Parthenon. Such battles had become a symbol of the states of Attica, just like the mythological fights between Greeks and Amazons, a visible sign of Athens' victory over her enemies. This thought will also have played a role in Pergamon when this theme was recalled and, through it, the victory over Pergamon's foes was immortalized.
The poet Hesiod had already described in detail the myth of the Battle of Giants in his Theogony ("Creation of the Gods"). The version depicted in the Pergamon frieze, however, was derived from contemporary Hellenistic epics and poetry in addition to this older narrative.
The battle of the gods and giants rages over the four sides of the altar, always understood as a simultaneous occurrence. Genealogical references draw the narrative around the frieze and give it continuity: on the southeast corner (CB), the goddesses Asteria and Phoebe, Hekate and Leto, appear, on the corner (DA), Triton and Poseidon, the gods of the sea. An ingenious placement of about 100 larger than life figures was thus ensured. The eastern frieze (B) is reserved for the Olympians, where Hera guides the chariot of Zeus into battle, to the right of Herakles (name inscription on the cornice). Thereupon follow Zeus, Athena and the war chariot of Ares. The gods of day and night - Eos (the goddess of the dawn), Helios (the sun god), and Selene (the goddess of the moon) - wage war on the southern frieze (C). On the northern frieze (A) the dramatic events are dominated by the fates (the goddesses of destiny), after Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty) and the followers of Ares (the war god).