Killing a King

The road from Cirrha to Delphi, site of the attack

The story is told by Livy: in 172 BC, King Eumenes of Pergamon came to Rome, where the Senate received him with all pomp and fanfare the Romans believed to be due to one of their most loyal allies. The king had something to say indeed: he warned the conscript fathers that King Perseus tried to restore Macedonian power and might become dangerous.

After the summit, Eumenes returned to the east, making a brief stop in Cirrha, the port of Delphi, because he wanted to visit the sanctuary of Apollo. Apparently, Eumenes’ religious sympathies were well-known, because a Macedonian agent had sent assassins, who knew that the king would want to pay his regards to the god. They knew where to strike.

The report that the Macedonians had killed a king confirmed all suspicions against Macedonia and during the winter of 172/171, diplomats traveled everywhere to create coalitions for the war that had become inevitable. The Third Macedonian War lasted from 171 to 168 and was the end of Macedonia.

In Pergamon, the news of Eumenes’ death came as a shock. During a major diplomatic crisis, the kingdom had no king. So, Eumenes’ brother Attalus did what he had to do: “he put on the crown, married the queen, and assumed the rule”, as Plutarch writes. He stresses the speed of Attalus’ action by using just eight Greek words for a sentence with three periods. The name of the queen, Stratonice, is one of the pieces of information that Plutarch sacrifices to convey the sense of urgency.

To broadcast, during this diplomatic crisis, that Pergamon had a new king but no new policy, Attalus adopted the surname Philadelphus, “the man who loves his brother”. The Senate could be sure about Pergamon’s continued loyalty. A disaster had been averted.

However, Eumenes had survived the attack. He had gone to Aegina, where physicians had taken care of him, and he had not said a word. When he felt sufficiently healthy, he returned to his city, where the marriage between Stratonice and Attalus was dissolved and power was handed over to Eumenes.

That’s the story, that’s how the sources tell it. (There’s a third source, Diodorus, who doesn’t add anything that Livy and Plutarch don’t tell.) Every time I read it, I can’t help but think that one element is missing: why didn’t Eumenes send a message to Pergamon to inform his relatives that the reports about his death had been greatly exaggerated? Why Aegina, and not Corinth or Athens?

I can only imagine one thing: Eumenes was deliberately putting oil on the fire. Leaving the stories about the assassination of a king uncontradicted, he made sure that the diplomatic crisis would spin out of control, and the war he needed to expand the power of Pergamon, would indeed be declared.

Is this possible, is this even plausible? We cannot know, because it’s not in the sources. So far, I managed to avoid the cliché about the gathering of dark clouds of war, but I cannot refrain from the equally silly iceberg metaphor: what we read in our sources, is just a tip of the iceberg and most information is invisible, underneath the surface.

Anyhow, Pergamene history is colorful and interesting, and I am looking forward to the third issue of Ancient History Magazine, which will be dedicated to this theme. We already received some proposals, but if you have an idea, you still have two weeks to send in your proposal!

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