Pergamon: satan’s throne

In the Book of Revelation, a prophet named John experiences a vision of the risen Christ, who asks him to convey a message to each of the seven Christian congregations of Asia Minor—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodikeia. To the Pergamon congregation, this is the message:

And to the angel of the congregation that is in Pergamon write: “Thus says the one who has the sharp, two-edged sword:

‘I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is, and you hold fast to my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.’”

Revelation 2:12-13

On a symbolic level, the “throne of Satan” mentioned in this passage represents a power in opposition to God, a power that is embodied in Roman imperial might. Throughout Revelation, a system of symbols associates Satan, depicted as a dragon or serpent, with the Roman Empire and emperor depicted as a beast.

Unlike other early Christian writers, John the prophet did not encourage his audience to honor and obey the emperor, but instead encouraged—by means of his symbols and rhetoric—resistance.

Walk through the magnificent ruins of the city of ancient Pergamum. Exploring an altar to the Greek god Zeus and discussing how sacrifices there would have had an impact on the Christian life.

In principle, during the first century C.E., Roman officials tolerated believers in Jesus as the Messiah insofar as they could be regarded as Jews. Jews were expected to honor the emperor and to pray for his welfare, as well as for the welfare of the empire. As monotheists, however, they were normally not expected to worship the emperor, as most Greeks and Hellenized provincials did with enthusiasm. Nero’s police action against the Christians of Rome in 64 C.E., however, apparently set a precedent for executing Christians merely for being such, and by the time of Trajan (emperor from 98–117 C.E.). Christians who refused to curse Jesus Christ and to worship the emperor, along with the traditional gods, were liable to execution as stubborn adherents of “superstition.” Nero’s action marks the beginning of the end of Roman acceptance of Christianity as a Jewish movement.

John’s imagery in Revelation is more than symbolic, however. The very explicit association the author makes between the “throne of Satan” and the city of Pergamon suggests that something visible in the city inspired the phrase. Taken together, the archaeological and textual evidence points to the same candidate: the Great Altar of Pergamon, one of the most significant (and stunning) monuments to survive from the Greco-Roman world. To John of Revelation, it is the “throne of satan.”

Pergamon (modern Bergama, in Turkey) is located on the Caicus River in western Asia Minor in the region traditionally called Mysia. In John’s time, Mysia was part of the Roman province of Asia.

The oldest part of the city is the acropolis, which is considerably higher and steeper than the acropolis of Athens. The earliest record of settlement comes from Xenophon, a Greek who lived in the fourth century B.C.E. He writes about Pergamon’s role in the Spartan campaigns of 399 B.C.E. In the third century B.C.E. Pergamon was the center of the Hellenistic kingdom of the Attalids. When the last Attalid king died in 133 B.C.E., he willed his kingdom to Rome, and the Romans transformed the old Attalid kingdom into their province of Asia. Pergamon was one of the three most prominent cities of that province (along with Ephesus and Smyrna). Pergamon continued to be a leading city until the fourth century C.E.

The ruins of the ancient city visible today include a temple dedicated to the emperor Trajan and a theater on the top of the acropolis. The base of the Great Altar lies prominently on a terrace on the southern slope of the acropolis. A lower city circled the base of the acropolis. A road led from there to a compound dedicated to the god Asklepios. This compound served as a medical center, a spa and a center for rhetoric and the arts, as well as a shrine to the deity.

The Pergamon altar itself is now housed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. In the second half of the 19th century, stones from the ancient citadel on the acropolis of Pergamon were being burned in order to procure lime, so excavations sponsored by the Berlin Museum were carried out between 1878 and 1886. The Great Altar and many of its sculptures were removed with permission of the authorities in Turkey and taken to the museum in Berlin.

The purpose of Pergamon’s Great Altar is uncertain and continues to provoke debate. Was it a real altar on which meat from sacrificed animals would be burned or was it a victory monument with no sacrificial function?

As for its date, however, a consensus has emerged that the Great Altar was constructed during the reign of the Attalid king Eumenes II, who was born in 221 B.C.E. and reigned from 197 to 159 B.C.E. It is likely that the altar was intended as a monument celebrating the victories of Eumenes II’s predecessors, as well as his own, including the Roman victory over the Seleucid king Antiochus III, with the assistance of Eumenes II, in 189 B.C.E. The altar was never completed, but it was unquestionably one of the city’s most important landmarks in antiquity.

The altar was probably dedicated to Zeus and Athena, since they are in equal proportions the two most prominent deities on the eastern part of the altar’s outer frieze (the horizontal band on the face of the base), decorated with sculptures of the gods doing battle with the Giants (a group of divine beings).

Only two small fragments of the dedicatory inscription survive, but Max Fränkel, the editor of the inscriptions from Pergamon published in 1890–1895, reconstructed it on the basis of other Pergamene dedications as a decree honoring Attalos III, who reigned from 138 to 133 B.C.E.5As reconstructed, the Pergamon altar’s inscription reads: “King Eumenes, son of King Attalos and Queen Apollonis, for the favors that have been shown to us, to Zeus and Athena Nikephoros (bringing victory).”

This suggests, if it does not prove, that the altar was dedicated to Zeus and Athena, to whom the king was offering a votive.

At the end of the first century C.E., when the Book of Revelation was composed, the main residential area of Pergamon was on the southern slope of the acropolis. Above this area rose an impressive monumental complex with three foci: the Great Altar, the sanctuary of Athena and the sanctuary of Zeus. Temples dedicated to Athena and Zeus had been built in the second half of the third century B.C.E. by Attalos I, but the whole area was expanded and these sanctuaries were remodeled by Eumenes II in the first half of the second century B.C.E.

In my judgment, the Great Altar probably served as an altar of burnt offering for the two temples dedicated to Zeus and Athena, respectively.

Although previous scholars have identified the Great Altar with the “throne of Satan” in Revelation 2:13, these scholars did not have the benefit of recent archaeological and architectural research, and therefore inappropriately viewed the altar in isolation from the temples of Zeus and Athena. As Klaus Rheidt has shown, however, the design of the monumental complex built by Eumenes II makes clear that the Great Altar is related both to the temple of Athena and to the temple of Zeus.

The sculptural frieze on the altar depicts the battle between the Greek gods and the Giants, as recounted in Apollodorus’s The Library. According to Greek myth, the Giants were a clan of monstrous appearance descended from Ge (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven). They were fierce warriors who attacked the Olympian gods, the clan of Zeus. The gods learned that they could defeat the Giants only if they were aided by a mortal. As a hero, Heracles counted as a mortal, born to a human mother and a god. So the gods enlisted Heracles on their side and thus were able to kill the Giants. Zeus and Athena were the leaders of the gods in this battle. In later art, including the sculptures on the Great Altar, the Giants are portrayed as men with snake-like legs. In classical and Hellenistic times, the myth was interpreted in terms of the conflict between civilization (the gods) and barbarism (the Giants).

The battle is thematically organized on the Great Altar. On the northwestern side of the altar, gods and goddesses associated with the sea are shown fending off the Giants attacking that part of the cosmos. On the southern side, deities connected with time are portrayed defending that aspect of order. Although portions are missing and others are hard to identify, it is likely that the whole band of sculptures was intended to portray the Olympian gods’ defense of the order of the cosmos against the Giants who attempted to transform that order into chaos.

Although the Giants were all destroyed, the Olympian gods lived on, according to Greek mythic traditions. The existence of those gods and the practice of offering sacrifice to them was problematic for ancient Jews and Christians. They dealt with this problem by identifying the gods of other peoples with angels or daimones. Among Greeks this term was originally positive and meant “gods,” often of a minor type. Later, however, it came to mean demons. According to Paul, Greeks and Romans were really sacrificing to demons, not to gods (1 Corinthians 10:20). In the apocalyptic, dualistic framework of the Book of Revelation, Satan, as the chief of the fallen angels (compare Mark 3:22–27), would correspond to Zeus, the ruler of the gods.

Deuteronomy 32:8 states that the Most High fixed the boundaries of the peoples of the earth. He made this allocation, the Hebrew text states, according to “the sons of Israel.” But the Dead Sea Scrolls (and the Greek text of Deuteronomy in the Septuagint) indicate that the original reading was “the sons of God” or “the sons of the gods.”a This Hebrew phrase was interpreted by the second-century Christian writer Justin Martyr to mean “messengers of God” or “angels.” Justin thus concluded that God had committed the care of human beings to angels. He then concluded from Genesis 6 (which recounts how “the sons of God” fell in love with human women) that the angels entrusted with the care of human beings transgressed this appointment by having sexual relations with human women. The children who were begotten in this way were demons. Justin went on to describe how these demons then subjected human beings to themselves and taught these humans to offer sacrifices, incense and libations to themselves (the demons). Justin said that the Greek and Roman poets and mythologists did not know that it was the fallen angels and their offspring the demons who did these things, but thought that the demons were gods. From the point of view of the poets and mythologists, their people honored “God himself” (Jupiter, or Zeus) and his brothers (Neptune, or Poseidon, and Pluto, or Hades). From Justin’s point of view, however, Zeus (Jupiter) was the leader of the fallen angels or demons and thus equivalent to satan.

Missing goat led to discovery of dead sea scrolls.

Another factor that makes the Great Altar a likely candidate for the throne of Satan is its high position on the southern slope of the acropolis. The cultures of the ancient Near East, Israelite religion, and Second Temple Jewish texts all attest to a tradition that the throne of a deity was on a mountain or was the mountain itself. Yahweh, the personal name of the Israelite God, was associated with Mount Zion, Baal with Mount Zaphon, and Zeus with Mount Olympus. Zeus was also associated with other mountains. For example, an inscription found in Scythopolis (Beth-Shean), one of the cities of the Roman decapolis in ancient Palestine and Transjordan, is dedicated to “Zeus Akraios,” the god of the mountaintop and of fortresses (akra).1 In Mesopotamia, the sun-god Shamash was pictured sitting on a throne that was depicted as a stylized mountain. The throne of Solomon is described in 1 Kings 10:19 and 2 Chronicles 9:18 as having six steps. Geo Widengren has argued that the six steps together with the seat made the throne of Solomon like the world mountain with its seven tiers from Mesopotamian tradition. If so, the structure of the throne would suggest to audiences of Kings and Chronicles that Solomon’s throne was modeled on God’s own throne, the world mountain.

The Book of Revelation expresses the expectation that God’s throne will be on earth in the new age. The new Jerusalem will come down from heaven after the creation of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1–2). God’s throne will be in that city, and from it will flow the river of the water of life (Revelation 22:1). John characterizes his own time, however, as a period in which Satan was actively working through other human beings to afflict and persecute the followers of the risen Christ (Revelation 2:9, 13). The dramatic account of the battle in heaven in which Satan is cast down to earth (Revelation 12:7–917) also reflects the idea that Satan is still powerful on earth. According to John, Satan will wreak havoc until he is seized and bound with a chain in the pit for a thousand years. At that time, some of the dead will rise and reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1–6). At the end of this period, Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire to be tormented forever and ever (Revelation 20:7–10).

Since divine thrones on earth were depicted as mountains, John may have adopted this image for satan’s earthly throne, as well.

The hypothesis that John imagined Satan as having a throne on earth finds support in depictions of the many thrones of gods and heroes cut into rocks in Asia Minor. Some of these date from prehistoric, Mycenaean and Archaic times; others are later. A good example is the throne on the peak of the mountain near Magnesia, in the region traditionally called Lydia. Pausanias, who wrote an introduction to various regions and cultures called the Description of Greece in the second century C.E., described this throne cut into the rock of the mountain as the throne of Pelops, the hero who gave his name to the Peloponnese of mainland Greece. Below his throne was a shrine of a mother-goddess.

Pergamon’s acropolis was unusually high and steep and may for this reason have captured John’s imagination. It may have appeared to him as a fitting place for the throne of Satan, the highest of all fallen angels, evil spirits and demons.

In John’s message to Pergamon, the risen Christ says that Antipas, “my faithful witness,” was killed “among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13). “Where Satan dwells” is synonymous with “the throne of Satan,” a phrase that occurs earlier in the same verse. The term “witness” implies that Antipas made public verbal testimony to Christ. The Greek term translated “witness” later took on the connotation of one who had been executed by the authorities because of loyalty to Christ. The use of the term here implies that Antipas was interrogated by the Roman governor, who then ordered his execution when he refused to curse Christ and worship the emperor along with the traditional gods. The linking of public witness, execution and the place “where Satan dwells” or “the throne of Satan” indicates that Satan is connected with Roman rule. This interpretation is supported by the vision of the beast from the sea in Revelation 13:1–10. The beast from the sea has “authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation” and “all who dwell upon the earth will worship him” (Revelation 13:7–8). In John’s time this description only fit the Roman Empire and the emperor. It is explicitly stated that the dragon, Satan, had given his authority to the beast (Revelation 13:4; see also 12:9). Furthermore, among those who enthusiastically accepted Roman rule, the Roman emperor was understood to be Zeus’s agent on earth, or even to be identified with Zeus himself. This link between the emperor and Zeus makes sense of the portrayal of the death of Antipas (at the hands of Roman power) in the place where Satan dwells or is enthroned. In John’s view, the Roman governor, the emperor’s agent, was a tool of Satan, who was worshiped as Zeus in his temple and on the Great Altar.

The Book of Revelation was probably written when Domitian was emperor (81–96 C.E.). During his reign, he was honored with a coin minted in Ephesus that portrayed him on the front (obverse) and Olympian Zeus on the back (reverse).

Although the Great Altar’s frieze was created in the second century B.C.E., as noted above, to celebrate victories of the Attalid kings over the Seleucids (and the Celts [Gauls] ), the altar was still a prominent feature of Pergamon at the time Revelation was written. The mythological battle of the Giants with the gods was probably interpreted by the Attalids as signifying the struggle between civilization and barbarism. Since the battle was typically seen as symbolic of historical battles, it is likely that the Pergamenes updated their interpretation of the battle depicted in the sculptures as symbolic of the military victories of Rome. Hellenized and Romanized Pergamenes could see, for example, Rome’s victory over the Jews in the the Great Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.) as a victory of civilization over barbarism. John, however, who speaks of Rome as a new Babylon, would see this battle as inspired by Satan, rather than as a divine victory.

As noted earlier, the Book of Revelation was probably composed toward the end of the first century C.E. The second-century Christian writer Irenaeus says that the revelation of John was “seen” at the end of the reign of Domitian. Since he ruled from 81–96 C.E., Irenaeus’s date would be 95–96 C.E. in our reckoning. As we have noted, the association of Domitian with Zeus Olympios at Ephesus is well attested. Since one of the messages of the Book of Revelation is addressed to Ephesus, and since John probably spent time there, it is likely that he was aware of the association of Domitian with Zeus. Such an association may also have existed in Pergamon, but that would not be necessary for John to associate the then-current emperor with Zeus and buildings that honored him.

There is also evidence for the close association of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian with Zeus in Pergamon. A bilingual inscription in Greek and Latin, found near the Temple of Trajan and dated to 113 or 114 C.E., mentions games founded by one Julius Quadratus, a wealthy citizen of Pergamon “in honor of the temple of Jupiter Amicalis [=Zeus Philios] and the emperor Trajan.” At least nine other inscriptions from Pergamon endow Hadrian with the epithet “Olympios” (that is, Zeus).

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the God of the Jews, Samaritans and Christians was often understood by outsiders as equivalent to Zeus (Roman Jupiter). According to 2 Maccabees 6:2, Antiochus Epiphanes rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to Zeus Olympios and the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim to Zeus Xenios (Zeus the friend of strangers). It would have been a small step for John to invert this common perception into an identification of Zeus with Satan. The notion that Satan had given his power and throne and great authority to the beast would then be John’s critical assessment of the idea current in the province of Asia at the time, that Domitian was the embodiment of the power of Zeus on earth.

In sum, the “throne of Satan” in Revelation 2:13 would have evoked both Zeus and the Roman emperor for the earliest audiences of Revelation. According to Revelation 12:7–9, Michael and his angels defeat the great red Dragon and his angels in a heavenly battle and cast them down to earth. This dragon is explicitly identified with Satan in 12:9, “And the great dragon was thrown down, the ancient serpent, who is called ‘Devil’ and ‘Satan,’ who leads the entire inhabited world astray.”

In the next vision, a beast arises out of the sea (Revelation 13:1–10). This beast is identified with the Roman Empire in several ways. God allowed the beast to make war against the saints and to conquer them (Revelation 13:7a). This is an allusion to the defeat of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 C.E. The beast was also given authority over “every tribe and people and tongue and nation” (Revelation 13:7b). Only to Rome could such authority be attributed in the first century C.E.

This beast has seven heads (Revelation 13:1), and one of its heads had a mortal wound (Revelation 13:3), but this wound was healed. The detail of a mortal wound that was healed is significant for two reasons. On the one hand, it recalls Jesus, who was killed and then rose from the dead. On the other hand, it appears to allude to a third stage in the evolving Nero legend. According to Roman historians, Nero committed suicide in 68 C.E. A rumor began to circulate almost immediately, among his supporters, the common people in Rome and especially Hellenized and Romanized residents of the eastern provinces, that he had escaped to the East and would return with an army to regain power in Rome. In the ongoing struggle between East and West, Nero would act as a savior-king for the East. In books four and five of the Sibylline Oracles, Jewish writers inverted this legend to depict Nero as an adversary of God and God’s people in the last days, instead of as a savior-king. John created a third version of the legend by portraying Nero as an anti-Christ figure, although he does not use the term. Just as Jesus died and was raised from the dead, so also did Nero. He had received a mortal wound, yet he lived, just as the Lamb who was slain also lived.

The majority of the Hellenized elite of the Roman province of Asia, however, focused on the current living emperor, not on Nero. They placed Domitian at the focal point of mediation between the human and the divine. But in John’s view, only Christ could play that role.