The city of Pergamum, set upon a fortified hill in the heart of Asia
Minor, played an important role in the Hellenistic Age (circa 350/336
to 30 B.C.) of Greek history.
For about 150 years this city and its “kingdom” were ruled by
members of the Attalids, a hereditary dynasty that — oddly enough —
was founded early in the third century B.C. by a eunuch, Philetaerus.
After the death of Alexander III “the Great” (336 to 323 B.C.),
whose conquests had brought much of Asia Minor and the Near East under
Greek control, a persistent struggle resulted among his successors
(the diadochi) to rule the vast territories he had conquered.
A strong Greek presence had been in Asia Minor (largely modern day
Turkey) since the eighth century B.C., though principally it was
limited to colonies along the coast. With the conquests of Alexander,
Greek influence reached much further inland, safely encompassing the
city of Pergamum. Soon after 301 B.C. the city came under the control
of the Thracian King Lysimachus (305 to 281 B.C.), who chose to store
there a great treasury of silver.
Lysimachus entrusted the city and its riches to a Paphlagonian man,
Philetaerus, who as a toddler had been so severely maimed in an
accident that he was made a eunuch. By the time the king met
Philetaerus, he was a proven commander who held a position of great
authority in Pergamum. He must have exhibited good personal qualities,
as the notoriously suspicious and stingy Lysimachus handed over to him
control of the city and its treasury.
As steward of Pergamum, Philetaerus struck coins for Lysimachus
beginning in about 287 B.C. They were of the familiar type that had
been introduced by Lysimachus at this time: the obverse had a portrait
of the deified Alexander III and the reverse showed the goddess Athena
enthroned, holding a figure of Nike (Victory).
Philetaerus remained loyal to Lysimachus until dynastic infighting
created an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion. In 284 B.C.,
Lysimachus’ third wife, Arsinoe II, is thought to have eliminated
Lysimachus’ eldest son, Agathocles, who had been born to his first
wife, to clear the path of inheritance for her own three sons by Lysimachus.
In this terrifying environment, many of Lysimachus’ subjects
revolted, and Philetaerus — fearing for his own safety — offered his
allegiance in 282 B.C. to Seleucus I, a Macedonian king whose realm
was based in Syria. His bid for self-preservation bore fruit after
Seleucus I defeated and killed Lysimachus in 281 B.C. at the Battle of Corupedium.
For the time being, Philetaerus kept control of Pergamum and its
treasury, but events moved quickly. A few months afterward, his new
benefactor, Seleucus I, was murdered, succeeded by his son, Antiochus
I (281 to 261 B.C.), who presumed that he would inherit the loyalty
that Philetaerus had shown his father.
It is difficult to say what coins were struck by Philetaerus during
the complex period 282 to 280 B.C. One silver tetradrachm, perhaps
struck in 281 B.C., shows on its obverse the bridled head of a horse
adorned with horns, and on its reverse a standing elephant.
It would also appear that by 280 B.C. Philetaerus was producing
silver tetradrachms that showed the head of Heracles and the seated
figure of Zeus, copying the familiar type that about a half a century
earlier had been introduced by Alexander III.
The first of these tetradrachms were truly “anonymous” since they
employed both the designs and the name of Alexander. Only their mint
symbols linked them to Pergamum, and thus to Philetaerus. The
anonymous tetradrachms were followed up with an issue that was
identical except that they bore the name of the deceased Seleucus I.
These coins bearing the name of Seleucus I usually are attributed to
the period circa 279 to 274 B.C.
Like the times in which they were struck, they are complex: they use
the designs of Alexander III and the name of Seleucus I, but were
issued by Philetaerus while he was in alliance with Antiochus I. Thus,
one might pronounce this issue as a “coin of four kings.”
Perhaps another five years passed before Philetaerus began to strike
his next tetradrachms, which consisted of two issues of the period
circa 269 or 268 to 263 B.C., just prior to when Philetaerus died and
was succeeded by a nephew, Eumenes I (263 to 241 B.C.).
One of the types shows the portrait of the deified Seleucus I and an
enthroned Athena that is derived from the popular issues of
Lysimachus. This was yet another powerful statement of Philetaerus’
loyalty to the deceased Seleucus I.
Concurrently — or perhaps following the first type — Philetaerus
appears to have struck tetradrachms with an identical reverse, but
with the portrait of Philetaerus himself. These were the first coins
in a large and impressive series that, until recently, had been
attributed entirely to Philetaerus’ five legitimate successors:
Eumenes I, Attalus I (241 to 197), Eumenes II (circa 197 to 159),
Attalus II (160 to 138) and Attalus III (138 to 133).
This first issue of tetradrachms with the head of Philetaerus is
distinctive in that it is adorned with a plain diadem (crown) that is
identical to the one on the head of the deified Seleucus I on the
The remaining Philetaerus portrait tetradrachms, all struck after
the founder’s death in 263 B.C., betray an evolution in details and
composition of both Philetaerus’ crown and the figure of Athena. The
style and fabric of the tetradrachms also evolve, with increasingly
lower-relief engraving and broader, thinner planchets.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this coinage is that every
member of the dynasty honored the founder Philetaerus on their coins.
Except for a single issue of tetradrachms of Eumenes II, which is
exceedingly rare and must have been a singular commemorative, all
tetradrachms struck in the Pergamene Kingdom portray the dynastic
founder Philetaerus, and bear his name rather than that of the issuing monarch.
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