Decapolis

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The Decapolis, meaning "ten cities" in Greek, was a league of ancient cities located on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. This confederation of urban centers played a crucial role in the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the region during the Roman and Hellenistic periods.

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Overview

Established for mutual benefit and protection, the Decapolis cities shared common characteristics such as their Greco-Roman heritage, strategic locations along trade routes, and distinctive urban planning influenced by Roman principles.

The origins of the Decapolis can be traced back to the conquests of Alexander the Great, who established Greek influence in the Near East. These cities later came under Roman control, but they retained a degree of autonomy and enjoyed privileges granted by imperial decree. The league was not a formal political entity but rather a loose association of cities that cooperated on matters of trade, defense, and governance. This autonomy allowed each city to develop its own cultural identity while contributing to the collective strength and prosperity of the Decapolis as a whole.

Geographically, the Decapolis encompassed a diverse range of territories, stretching from Damascus in the north to Bostra (modern-day Bosra) in the south, and from Gadara (Umm Qais) in the west to Philadelphia (Amman) in the east. Each city within the Decapolis had its own unique characteristics and architectural marvels, reflecting local traditions blended with Roman influences. Common features included theaters, temples, forums, and well-planned streets adorned with colonnades and public fountains, all designed to enhance civic life and demonstrate the cities' allegiance to Roman cultural norms.

The Decapolis thrived primarily due to its strategic locations along major trade routes, including the Via Maris and the King's Highway, which facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultural practices between the Mediterranean world and the Arabian Peninsula. This economic vitality contributed to the flourishing of arts, sciences, and intellectual pursuits within the Decapolis cities, making them not only centers of commerce but also hubs of learning and cultural exchange.

Today, the archaeological remains of the Decapolis cities stand as testament to their historical significance and enduring legacy. These sites attract scholars, tourists, and history enthusiasts alike, offering insights into the vibrant urban life and architectural achievements of the ancient Roman Empire in the Near East. The study of the Decapolis continues to illuminate our understanding of Roman urbanism, cultural diversity, and the dynamics of ancient city-states on the fringes of empire.

Etymology

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Derived from the Greek words "deka" (meaning "ten") and "polis" (meaning "city"), Decapolis literally translates to "ten cities." This name encapsulates the essence of a confederation of ten culturally and geographically diverse cities in the Eastern Mediterranean region during antiquity.

Brief History

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Hellenistic Period
Excluding Scythopolis, Damascus, and Canatha, the majority of cities comprising the Decapolis emerged during the dynamic Hellenistic period, a transformative era spanning from the aftermath of Alexander the Great's death in 323 BCE to the Roman annexation of Coele-Syria and Judea in 63 BCE. This epoch witnessed the establishment of urban centers under varying regional powers: some cities, such as those governed by the Ptolemaic dynasty until 198 BCE, evolved amidst the shifting political landscapes of ancient Judea. Others, like those founded under Seleucid rule in subsequent decades, reflected the Seleucid Empire's expansive influence across the Eastern Mediterranean. Notably, certain cities incorporated names such as "Antiochia" or "Seleucia" into their designations, a testament to their origins under Seleucid governance, exemplified by the likes of Antiochia Hippos. From their inception, these cities embraced and adapted classical Greek cultural norms and administrative frameworks, consciously emulating the organizational ethos of the ancient Greek polis.

In 63 BCE, the eastern Mediterranean underwent a transformative shift with the decisive conquests of Pompey the Great, an esteemed Roman general. This pivotal moment in history witnessed Pompey's assertion of Roman authority over the region, an event eagerly embraced by the inhabitants of the culturally enriched cities. These urban centers, deeply entrenched within the governance of the Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom at the time, hailed Pompey as a liberator upon his arrival. Recognizing the strategic importance of these cities, Pompey reorganized their administrative structures, endowing a select group with significant autonomy under the auspices of Roman safeguarding. This strategic initiative laid the foundational groundwork for what would later be known as the Decapolis league, a collective of cities bound by shared autonomy and Roman protection. The year 63 BCE, symbolizing Pompey's epochal conquest, subsequently served as the cornerstone of their calendar era, enduring as the Pompeian era throughout the successive epochs of Roman and Byzantine rule. This enduring legacy underscored Pompey's enduring impact on regional governance and administrative continuity across the ancient Mediterranean landscape.

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Autonomy Under Rome
Under Roman dominion, the cities of the Decapolis were excluded from the jurisdiction of the Herodian kingdom, its subsequent states within the Herodian tetrarchy, and the Roman province of Judea. These cities were granted significant political autonomy while remaining under Roman protection. Each city operated as a self-governing polis or city-state, exerting control over its surrounding rural areas. They also had the authority to mint their own coins, many of which bore inscriptions describing the cities as "autonomous", "free", "sovereign", or "sacred", indicating their self-governing status.

The influence of Roman culture was evident in all the cities of the Decapolis. Each city was eventually redesigned with a Roman-style grid system centered around a main cardo and/or decumanus. The Romans also funded and constructed numerous temples and public buildings. The imperial cult, which involved the worship of the Roman emperor, was widespread throughout the Decapolis and served as a unifying practice among the different cities. A distinctive feature of the region was the kalybe, a small open-air temple or façade unique to the area.

The cities likely benefited from strong commercial connections, facilitated by a network of newly constructed Roman roads. This interconnectedness has led to the modern characterization of the Decapolis as a "federation" or "league." However, it is unlikely that the Decapolis functioned as an official political or economic union; rather, it represented a collection of city-states that enjoyed special autonomous status during the early period of Roman rule.

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Direct Roman Rule
The Decapolis came under direct Roman control in 106 CE, following the annexation of Arabia Petraea during Emperor Trajan's reign. The cities of the Decapolis were divided among the new province of Arabia Petraea and the existing provinces of Syria and Judea. During the later Roman Empire, these cities were further divided between the provinces of Arabia and Palaestina Secunda, with Scythopolis designated as the provincial capital, while Damascus became part of Phoenice Libanensis. Although the Decapolis ceased to function as an administrative unit, the cities maintained their distinct identities, evident through their use of the Pompeian calendar era and their enduring Hellenistic cultural heritage.

As the Roman and Byzantine eras progressed, the Decapolis region experienced significant Christian influence and eventual dominance. Some cities embraced Christianity more readily than others, with Pella notably becoming a refuge for early church leaders, as recorded by Eusebius, who noted that the apostles fled there during the First Jewish–Roman War. However, in many other cities, paganism persisted well into the Byzantine period. Over time, the region became predominantly Christian, with most cities becoming episcopal seats.

Most of the Decapolis cities continued to thrive through the late Roman and Byzantine periods. While some cities were abandoned following the Rashidun Caliphate's conquest of Palestine in 641, others remained inhabited well into the Islamic period.

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Status in to the Modern Period
Jerash (ancient Gerasa) and Bet She'an (ancient Scythopolis) have survived as towns today, after periods of abandonment or serious decline. Damascus has never lost its prominent role throughout the post-decapolis history. Philadelphia was long abandoned, but was revived in the nineteenth century CE and has become the capital city of Jordan under the modern name Amman. Twentieth-century archaeology has identified most of the other cities on Pliny's list, and most have undergone or are undergoing considerable excavation.

Decapolis in the Biblical Narrative

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The New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that the Decapolis region was a significant area for Jesus' ministry. According to Matthew 4:23–25, the Decapolis was one of the regions from which Jesus attracted a multitude of disciples, drawn by His ability to "heal all kinds of sickness." The Decapolis was distinct in that it was one of the few areas where Jesus ministered that had a predominantly Gentile population; most of His teachings were directed towards Jewish communities. Mark 5:1-10 underscores the Gentile character of the Decapolis, as evidenced by Jesus' encounter with a herd of pigs, an animal prohibited by Jewish dietary laws (Kashrut). In this passage, a demon-possessed man healed by Jesus requested to join His group of disciples. However, Jesus instructed him to stay in the Decapolis and share with his friends the miracles the Lord had performed, highlighting Jesus' intention for the man to witness in his own region.

Religion, Culture and Architecture in Decapolis

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The Decapolis represented a nexus of interaction between two distinct cultures: the culture brought by Greek colonists and the indigenous Jewish and Aramean cultures. This interaction was not without its tensions. Greek inhabitants often found the Jewish practice of circumcision shocking and viewed it as a harsh and barbaric form of genital mutilation. Over time, various forms of Jewish resistance to the dominant and assimilative aspects of Hellenistic civilization gradually emerged.

Simultaneously, cultural exchange and assimilation also took place within the Decapolis region. The cities served as hubs for the dissemination of Hellenistic culture, leading to the adoption of Greek customs and religious practices. Local deities began to be equated with the Greek god Zeus, reflecting a syncretic blending of religious beliefs. In some instances, Greek residents began to worship these local "Zeus" deities alongside their traditional Zeus Olympios. Archaeological evidence, such as coins and inscriptions, indicates that Greek colonists also embraced the worship of other Semitic gods, including deities from Phoenician traditions and the principal Nabatean god, Dushara, known by his Hellenized name, Dusares.

List of the Cities

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Gerasa
Ancient Gerasa, known today as Jerash, is one of the most well-preserved and historically significant cities within the Decapolis. Gerasa's inclusion in the Decapolis highlights its importance as a cultural and commercial hub in the region and provided it with certain advantages, including political stability and economic opportunities. The city flourished under Roman rule, benefitting from its strategic location along major trade routes connecting the Mediterranean with the Arabian Peninsula.

Gerasa, like other Decapolis cities, was a melting pot of cultures, where Greco-Roman traditions blended with local Semitic influences. This cultural fusion is evident in the city's art, architecture, and inscriptions. The presence of theaters, baths, and public spaces also indicates a thriving urban culture that valued entertainment and public discourse.

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Philadephia (Jordan)
Philadelphia, known today as Amman, the capital of Jordan, was the southern most of the ten cities of the Decapolis. It was characterized by its shared Greco-Roman culture, economic prosperity, and strategic importance with the other cities in the group. Ancient Philadelphia stood out within this confederation due to its significant historical, cultural, and architectural contributions. Philadelphia, like other cities in the Decapolis, was a center of religious plurality. The city housed various temples dedicated to Greco-Roman deities, such as Zeus and Artemis, as well as local gods.

Philadelphia's origins can be traced back to the Neolithic period, but it was during the Hellenistic period that the city was named Philadelphia, in honor of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. With the Roman conquest, Philadelphia became part of the Decapolis, a league of cities that enjoyed a degree of autonomy under the overarching control of the Roman Empire. This association facilitated cultural exchange, economic development, and political stability, fostering Philadelphia's growth and prosperity.

As a member of the Decapolis, Philadelphia boasted many features typical of Greco-Roman urban planning and architecture. The city was laid out with a grid pattern, centered around a main north-south street, the cardo maximus, and intersecting east-west streets, or decumani. This layout facilitated efficient movement within the city and reflected Roman organizational principles.

Philadelphia's inclusion in the Decapolis provided it with significant economic advantages. The city's location made it a crucial node in the network of trade routes that connected the Arabian Peninsula with the Mediterranean world. This strategic position facilitated the flow of goods, people, and ideas, contributing to the city's prosperity and cultural dynamism. The city's economy was bolstered by agriculture, facilitated by the fertile lands surrounding it, and by trade, with merchants bringing in goods such as spices, textiles, and other luxury items. This economic activity was reflected in the bustling markets and public spaces of the city.

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Gadara
Ancient Gadara, known today as Umm Qais in modern Jordan, was a prominent city within the Decapolis. In the geographical context of the Decapolis, it was situated north of Pella and west of Raphana.

Gadara's history dates back to the Hellenistic period when it was founded as a military stronghold. Its inclusion in the Decapolis under Roman rule enhanced its status, providing it with political stability and economic advantages. Gadara was strategically located near major trade routes, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas between the Roman world and the East. Its elevated position offered commanding views of the Sea of Galilee, the Yarmouk River, and the Golan Heights, making it a critical military and economic hub.

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Pella (Jordan)
Ancient Pella, located in modern-day Jordan, holds significant historical and archaeological importance as one of the cities comprising the Decapolis—a league of ten prominent cities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Situated strategically in the Jordan Valley, east of Scythopolis and south of Gadara, Pella played a crucial role in regional trade, culture, and governance during antiquity.

Founded in the Hellenistic period by veterans of Alexander's army, and named it after the Pella in Greece which was the birthplace of Alexander the Great, Pella's strategic location along major trade routes contributed to its early prosperity and integration into the broader Mediterranean and Near Eastern networks. Under Roman rule, Pella became part of the Decapolis, a league of cities that enjoyed autonomy under Roman protection.

Pella's location near fertile agricultural lands and trade routes contributed to its economic prosperity. The city served as a hub for agricultural production and trade in commodities such as olive oil, wine, and pottery, which were exported throughout the region. Its markets and workshops thrived, fostering a dynamic economy and cultural exchange.

As a member of the Decapolis, Pella was a melting pot of cultures and religions. Greek, Roman, and Semitic influences coexisted, shaping the city's art, architecture, language, and social practices. This cultural diversity enriched Pella's identity and contributed to its cosmopolitan character.

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Dium (Coele-Syria)
Dium, or Dion, was an ancient city within the Decapolis league, situated in Coele-Syria, a region referenced by numerous ancient writers. According to Stephanus of Byzantium, the city was founded by Alexander the Great and named after the Macedonian city of Dion. Some ancient sources mistakenly referred to it as Pella. The exact location of Dium remains uncertain, but the ruins of Tell Ashari align closely with the characteristics of a typical small Greek city nestled around a mountain. Unfortunately, the theater, perched high above the Yarmouk River ravine, has suffered significant damage due to civil unrest. Current evidence strongly indicates that Tell Ashari is likely the ancient city of Dion within the Decapolis.

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Raphana

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Scythopolis
Ancient Scythopolis, known today as Beit She'an in modern Israel/Palestine, holds significant historical and archaeological importance as a prominent member of the Decapolis—a league of ten cities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Situated strategically in the Jordan Valley, Scythopolis played a crucial role in regional trade, culture, and governance during antiquity.

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Hippos
Ancient Hippos, today known as Susita or Sussita, holds a significant place within the Decapolis, a league of ten cities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire renowned for their cultural, economic, and political influence. Located, north of Gadara and west of Dion, it was situated strategically on a ridge overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights.

Founded in the Hellenistic period, Hippos flourished under Roman rule as a key member of the Decapolis. Its elevated position provided both strategic advantages and stunning views of its surroundings, making it an important center for governance, commerce, and cultural exchange. The city's Greek and Roman influences shaped its identity and architectural landscape.

Hippos boasted a well-planned urban layout typical of Roman cities, characterized by its grid pattern of streets intersected by the cardos (north-south streets) and a major decumanus (east-west street). Excavations have revealed impressive remains, including a Roman forum, a small odeon, public baths, temples, churches, basilicas and residential areas, showcasing the city's architectural sophistication and civic life.

As a member of the Decapolis, Hippos was characterized by its cosmopolitan atmosphere and cultural diversity. Greek, Roman, and Semitic influences coexisted, shaping the city's art, architecture, language, and social practices. This cultural exchange enriched Hippos's identity and contributed to its role as a cultural and intellectual center in the eastern Roman Empire.

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Canatha
Ancient Canatha, today known as Qanawat in modern day Syria, emerged as a vibrant city nestled within the framework of the Decapolis League, a union of Hellenistic-Roman cities in the Levant renowned for their cultural, economic, and political significance. Situated strategically in the region known today as Syria, ancient Canatha exemplified the enduring legacy of Roman urbanization and multiculturalism within the ancient world.

Canatha's history dates back to the Seleucid period (circa third century BCE), where it was established as a fortified settlement due to its strategic location along major trade routes linking Damascus to Petra and beyond. This early foundation laid the groundwork for its subsequent development into a prominent city within the Decapolis League.

The Decapolis League, a confederation of ten cities predominantly influenced by Greek culture but under Roman administration, provided Canatha with a platform for economic prosperity and cultural exchange. This league fostered unity among its member cities while allowing each to retain its distinctive cultural identity and local governance.

As a member of the Decapolis League, Canatha enjoyed a cosmopolitan atmosphere enriched by diverse cultural influences. Greek, Roman, and indigenous Nabataean elements blended harmoniously in architecture, art, and daily life, reflecting the city's role as a melting pot of traditions and ideas.

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Damascus
Ancient Damascus, although situated at a considerable distance towards the north from other cities in the group, nonetheless played a crucial role in the broader context of the league's influence and regional dynamics during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Damascus, known as "Damascus" in Greek and "Dimashq" in Arabic, occupied a pivotal position in the ancient Near East. Situated at the crossroads of major trade routes connecting Egypt, Arabia, and Mesopotamia, Damascus thrived as a center of commerce, culture, and political power long before and during the Roman era.

Under Roman rule, Damascus experienced significant urban development and enhancement of its infrastructure. Roman architects and engineers contributed to the city's expansion, introducing elements such as theaters, temples, and public baths that reflected imperial architectural styles and urban planning principles.

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