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Attalid aesthetics: the Pergamene ‘baroque’ reconsidered

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2020

Thomas J. Nelson*
Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge*
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In this paper, I explore the literary aesthetics of Attalid Pergamon, one of the Ptolemies’ fiercest cultural rivals in the Hellenistic period. Traditionally, scholars have reconstructed Pergamene poetry from the city’s grand and monumental sculptural programme, hypothesizing an underlying aesthetic dichotomy between the two kingdoms: Alexandrian ‘refinement’ versus the Pergamene ‘baroque’. In this paper, I critically reassess this view by exploring surviving scraps of Pergamene poetry: an inscribed encomiastic epigram celebrating the Olympic victory of a certain Attalus (IvP I.10) and an inscribed dedicatory epigram featuring a speaking Satyr (SGO I.06/02/05). By examining these poems’ sophisticated engagements with the literary past and contemporary scholarship, I challenge the idea of a simple opposition between the two kingdoms. In reality, the art and literature of both political centres display a similar capacity to embrace both the refined and the baroque. In conclusion, I ask how this analysis affects our interpretation of the broader aesthetic landscape of the Hellenistic era and suggest that the literature of both capitals belongs to a larger system of elite poetry which stretched far and wide across the Hellenistic world.

Research Article
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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press


* I am grateful to audiences in Edinburgh and Cambridge for improving feedback on earlier versions of this paper. Particular thanks are due to those who commented on written drafts: Maria Broggiato, Alex Forte, Richard Hunter, Max Leventhal, the editor and referees of JHS and especially Aneurin Ellis- Evans, who made me think far harder about historical context. The project was supported by the Golden Web Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.