As we have seen in other articles published here, eunuchs have always enjoyed the trust of kings and emperors because their inability to have descendants barred them from direct access to power, which limited their ambition. Or so it was thought, as in practice they could exercise authority indirectly and/or in lesser spheres. We have examples such as the Persian Bagoas, the Roman Eutropius, the Byzantine Narses, or the Chinese Zheng-He, among others. In Ancient Greece, there was one who did reach rulership and even founded a dynasty, as we will see: Philetaerus, who was lord of Pergamon in the context of the Wars of the Diadochi.

As is known, the Wars of the Diadochi refer to the four main conflicts in which Alexander the Great’s generals engaged after his death, attempting to seize the territories of the empire he left without an heir.

They lasted nearly half a century, straddling the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, and ended with a series of minor conflicts that concluded with the complete dismemberment of those vast domains. Philetaerus served one side or another as it suited him at the moment to keep Pergamon in his hands.

The Alexandrian empire divided among the Diadochi: Seleucus (yellow), Lysimachus (orange), Cassander (green), and Ptolemy (green)
The Alexandrian empire divided among the Diadochi: Seleucus (yellow), Lysimachus (orange), Cassander (green), and Ptolemy (green). Credit: Luigi Chiesa / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

He was born around 343 BC in Tieium, a small village in Paphlagonia (a region in northern Anatolia on the Black Sea, between Bithynia and Pontus, which today belongs to Türkiye). At that time, it was an area of Greek culture, and in fact, Attalus, Philetaerus’s father, was a Greek—probably of Macedonian descent—married to a Paphlagonian woman named Boa, apparently a musician. The son they had was not born a eunuch, obviously, nor was he intentionally made one; according to Strabo, it was due to an accident in his childhood, being partially crushed by a crowd.

Some authors find this story hard to believe, perhaps spread when he was an adult to improve his reputation. In this sense, some even believe that he was not a eunuch and that his parents falsely claimed he was, aware that this could facilitate their son’s approach to high political spheres, thus improving the family’s social status; remember that eunuchs were well-regarded by monarchs, who often incorporated them into their administration.

How did he get involved in the Wars of the Diadochi? Pausanias recounts that in his youth he was a friend of Docimus, one of Antigonus’s officers, a Macedonian noble and general who first served Philip II and then his son Alexander. Antigonus Monophthalmus (the One-Eyed), as he was also known to distinguish him from other homonymous figures, accompanied Alexander on his expedition against Persia, although he later remained in the rear as governor of Phrygia due to his advanced age.

Bust of Philetaerus of Pergamon
Bust of Philetaerus of Pergamon. Credit: Mark Landon / Wikimedia Commons

Antigonus governed there for a decade, and upon his commander’s death, he seized the royal treasury and tried to succeed him in command, sowing discord among the other generals. But what he achieved was that they all united against him and defeated him at Ipsus in 301 BC, in a battle in which he lost his life. His son, Demetrius Poliorcetes, would go on to reign in Macedonia, but that is another story. What concerns us here is that in that attempt to overcome the other Diadochi, he had Docimus by his side, and with him, Philetaerus.

After a hard struggle against Lysimachus, another Macedonian commander—who would become king of Asia Minor and Thrace—Docimus eventually surrendered. Thus, Philetaerus also fell prisoner, although he managed to establish a good relationship with his captor and switch sides; to such an extent—his reputation as a eunuch likely helped—that Lysimachus entrusted him with managing the treasury of Pergamon, whose amount Strabo estimated at nine thousand talents of silver. His good management as an administrator allowed him to keep the position for a long time.

In 282 BC, things changed due to Lysimachus’s family conflicts, who, influenced by his third wife, Arsinoe II (daughter of Ptolemy of Egypt), ordered the execution of his son Agathocles for treason. The widow of the son, Lysandra, fled to seek refuge at the court of Seleucus Nicator, the now elderly Diadochus, founder of the Seleucid dynasty, who reigned in Syria and Babylon. That shelter for the fugitive meant war, and in the battle of Corupedium, Lysimachus died. Philetaerus then considered himself freed from his loyalty, broke with Arsinoe, and offered his services to Seleucus.

Ruins of the acropolis of Pergamon from present-day Bergama
Ruins of the acropolis of Pergamon from present-day Bergama. Credit: Adam Jones / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

Seleucus received him gladly because his new friend did not come empty-handed; he brought Pergamon with the treasury included. The relationship lasted a year; the time it took for Seleucus to be assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus—Arsinoe’s half-brother—during a campaign against Egypt. His successor, Antiochus I, was willing to maintain the bond, but Philetaerus had other plans; much more ambitious ones that involved leaving that kingdom and founding his own in Pergamon.

In reality, he never proclaimed himself king because he lacked sufficient power, and his domains were not substantial enough, so he formally remained loyal to the Seleucids. In fact, he had Seleucus’s body cremated in a funeral with all honors and sent the ashes to his son, who was so grateful that he allowed him to rule as if he were de facto independent. And in practice, Philetaerus acted with almost total autonomy, which, combined with Pergamon’s wealth—which he managed to expand—allowed him to remain in power for another twenty years.

Pergamon increased its wealth and influence thanks to the good progress of its economy; it even obtained permission from Antiochus to mint its own coins, which allowed it to finance the construction of a palace and two temples in the acropolis in honor of Demeter and Athena. Politically, he maintained good diplomatic relations with his neighbors, helping them; for example, when the Galatian invasions occurred, with the city of Cyzicus being the main victim, he sent them provisions and money. To defend himself, he hired a mercenary army and fortified the urban defenses.

The kingdom of Pergamon and other Greek states around 200 BC
The kingdom of Pergamon and other Greek states around 200 BC. Credit: Marsyas / Willyboy / Wikimedia Commons

In summary, Philetaerus fulfilled that paternal aspiration of elevating the family, as it achieved considerable prestige; not only in Pergamon but also beyond. Now, we said at the beginning that he founded a dynasty; how was this possible if he never married nor had known direct descendants? Because he adopted and named his nephew Eumenes, son of his namesake brother, as his successor, who ascended the throne when he finally died in 263 BC, being an octogenarian.

Eumenes would be the one who, perhaps supported by Ptolemy II, definitively broke with the Seleucids, defeating Antiochus Soter I and expanding the borders of what was soon to be a proper kingdom. The first monarch to proclaim himself as such was his cousin and successor, Attalus I (his parents were another brother of Philetaerus also named Attalus and Antiochis, niece of Antiochus I), a skilled military leader who defeated the Galatians, ending the tribute Eumenes had been paying to keep them at bay.

His son Eumenes II took over, thus establishing what was already a dynasty, the so-called Attalid in honor of Philetaerus’s father, adding it to the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic dynasties.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 22, 2024: Filetero, el eunuco fundador del reino de Pérgamo y la dinastía Atálida que supo manejar a los herederos de Alejandro


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