The Seat of Satan: Ancient Pergamum
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘I know your works, and where you dwell... where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to my name, and did not deny my faith even in the days in which Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.'" Revelation 2:12
Today, all that's left of the city of Pergamum, now in modern-day Turkey, are ruins. But when the Apostle John wrote his letter to the church there, it was one of the most influential cities in the Roman Empire.
“Pergamum had a unique status that was different than any other city because it was the political center, says Rick Renner, the author of A Light in the Darkness, a study of the seven churches of Asia Minor. “It was from there that all the rulings were made that affected the whole of Asia Minor.”
The people of Pergamum were inventors and innovators. They perfected a parchment made out of calfskin and built the world's first psychiatric hospital.
Pergamum was also a well-known center for the arts. The city’s theater seated ten thousand people a night. The acoustics were so good that a whisper on stage could be heard all the way in the top row.
The city's acropolis rivaled Athens, and its library was the second largest in the ancient world. Its collection was so great that the Roman general Marc Antony presented it as a wedding gift to Cleopatra.
At the end of the first century, Pergamum was a thriving city. So why does the book of Revelation call it the dwelling place of Satan? The answer lies in the ruins of the city's temples.
“On one side, it was a very beautiful city,” says Renner. “But on the flip side, it was one of the darkest, eeriest cities in the whole Roman Empire.”
The people of Pergamum were known as the "Temple-keepers of Asia." The city had three temples dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperor, another for the goddess Athena, and the Great Altar of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Many scholars believe this altar is the “Throne of Satan” mentioned in the book of Revelation.
“That word ‘throne’ was used in a personal private residence, and it was a chair for the lord of the house, the master of the house,” says Renner. “The very fact that Jesus would use this word means that Satan felt at home there. He sat on a throne there. It was his territory. He was the master of that house.”
The city also had a healing center called the Asklepion, built in honor of Asklepios, the Greek serpent-god. In the first century, this was a cross between a hospital and a health spa, where patients could get everything from a mud bath to a major surgery. Even the emperors came all the way from Rome to be treated here, but this was no ordinary doctor's visit.
“If you were a terminal patient, you were not allowed to go into the Asklepion,” says Renner. “These Asklepion priests didn’t want anyone hearing that someone had died in the Asklepion. There was a huge sign just above the official entrance to the Asklepion that said, ‘Death is not permitted here.’ So the only way you were going to get in to begin with is if they knew you were going to live.”
Patients entered through an underground tunnel. Then they drank a sedative, and spent the night in the dormitories of the Asklepion, while non-poisonous snakes crawled around them all night. They were told that the serpent-god Asklepios would speak to them in their dreams and give them a diagnosis.
“It was believed that the snakes carried the healing power of Asklepios,” and if a snake slithered across you while you were sleeping at night, that was a divine sign that healing power was coming to you.”
The next morning, the patients told their "dreams" to the priests, who prescribed their treatments. Finally, the patients made clay sculptures of the body parts that needed healing and offered them to Asklepios.
The people of Pergamum worshipped a myriad of Greek and Roman gods, but when Christianity arrived with the belief in just one god, the city's pagan priests went on the attack and their most famous victim was a man named Antipas.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus called Antipas "my faithful martyr." He was the bishop of Pergamum, ordained by the Apostle John, and his faith got the attention of the priests of Asklepios.
“He had cast out so many devils that the demons had been complaining to pagans, saying, ‘You’ve got to do something about this Antipas’,” says Renner.
The pagan priests went to the Roman governor and complained that the prayers of Antipas were driving their spirits out of the city and hindering the worship of their gods. As punishment, the governor ordered Antipas to offer a sacrifice of wine and incense to a statue of the Roman emperor and declare that the emperor was "lord and god."
“If you reject the divinity of the emperor, then that is the equivalent of rejecting the city of Rome,” says Renner, “and believers were killed for this.”
Antipas was sentenced to death on the Altar of Zeus. Most of that altar still survives today, and surrounding it are some of the world's most famous marble friezes. They depict the Gigantomachy, or the battle between the Greek gods and the giants. At the top of the altar was a hollow bronze bull, designed for human sacrifice.
Renner describes the method of execution suffered by Antipas.
“They would take the victim, place him inside the bull, and they would tie him in such a way that his head would go into the head of the bull. Then they would light a huge fire under the bull, and as the fire heated the bronze, the person inside of the bull would slowly begin to roast to death. As the victim would begin to moan and to cry out in pain, his cries would echo through the pipes in the head of the bull so it seemed to make the bull come alive.”
Even in the midst of the flames, the elderly bishop Antipas died praying for his church. The year was AD 92.
A few years later, the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation, mentioning the death of Antipas in Pergamum. Today, all that's left there is the foundation; the Altar of Zeus is more than a thousand miles away.
In the 19th century, German engineers dismantled the altar and took it to Berlin. The so-called "Throne of Satan" went on display in the city's Pergamon Museum in 1930, just in time to inspire one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever seen.