By Laurence Totelin
One of my favourite characters in the history of ancient pharmacology is Attalus III, king of Pergamum (ruled from 138 to 133 BCE). As a king, he is remembered for bequeathing his small kingdom to Rome at his death. Apart from that, we know very little about his rule. Instead of focusing on his political achievements, ancient historical sources dwell on his strange hobbies. According to the historians Plutarch (first-second century CE, wrote in Greek) Justin (second century CE, wrote in Latin), after having his mother and wife killed, the king lost all interest in his physical appearance and developed a passion for gardening. He planted highly poisonous herbs such as henbane, hemlock and hellebore in his gardens. He then sent to his friends samples of these plants, mixing their sap to that of non-poisonous plants. Tired of this, he then moved on to wax-modeling and pouring and forging bronze.
Plutarch and Justin are very negative in their presentation of these silly pastimes. For a more positive view of Attalus, one has to turn to medical and agronomic texts. The Latin agronomical writers Varro (116–27 BCE), Columella (first century CE), and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) list the king as a source on animals, fruit trees, crops, drugs from animals, metals and gems. Celsus (first century CE), in his work on medicine, gives a recipe for an Attalic plaster (5.19.11), which contains relatively large amounts of copper. He does not, however, say whether that plaster had been created by the king Attalus or by a namesake:
There is the Attalic plaster for wounds. It contains: copper scales, 16 sextulae; frankincense soot, 15 sextulae; ammoniac salt, same amount; liquid turpentine resin, 25 sextulae; bull suet, same amount; vinegar, three heminae; oil, 1 sextarius.
Although interesting, these Latin sources do not add more to our knowledge of Attalus. For more information, one needs to turn to Galen. The famous physician too came from Pergamum and on several occasions refers to Attalus as ‘Attalus who was king among us’, that is, king among the people of Pergamum. Galen was active several centuries after the death of the king, but he may have had access to some lost Pergamene sources. He may also have consulted the king’s lost medical works. He casts a very different light on Attalus’ experiments with dangerous plants. In a passage on another king, Mithridates VI of Pontus, he writes that:
Mithridates himself, like Attalus among us, desired to have experience of almost all simple drugs that are given against deadly substances, testing their powers on evil men who were condemned to death.
Galen presents the two kings as methodic researchers in the field of pharmacology. While their method of experimentation seems abhorrent to us, Galen approves of it, as it greatly advanced knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Galen also devotes a great part of his treatise On the Composition of Medicines according to Types I to various Attalic plasters. There is no doubt in Galen’s mind that these were created by the last king of Pergamum:
White plaster made with pepper, according to Attalus… This remedy has already been prepared many years ago by Attalus, ruling over us people of Pergamum, a man who was most studious about all sorts of remedies.
Again Galen presents his fellow countryman as a serious scholar, not as a mad hatter. Who is right? Galen or the historians Plutarch and Justin? Nobody will ever know, but Attalus’ story is an excellent exercise in source criticism!