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64 BC–AD 117/135
Capital Not specified
Languages Koine Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Hebrew
Religion Imperial cult (ancient Rome)
Government Not specified
 •  Conquest of Syria by Pompeus 64 BC
 •  Revisions of Trajan and finally the Bar Kokhba revolt AD 117/135
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Arabia Petraea
Syria Palaestina
Today part of  Israel

The Decapolis (Greek: Δεκάπολις Dekápolis, Ten Cities) was a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in the southeastern Levant. The cities were grouped together because of their language, culture, location, and political status, with each functioning as an autonomous city-state. Though sometimes described as a "league" of cities, it is now believed that they were never formally organized as a political unit. The Decapolis was a center of Greek and Roman culture in a region which was otherwise ancient Semitic-speaking peoples (Nabataeans, Arameans, and Judeans). In the time of the Emperor Trajan, the cities were placed into the provinces of Syria and Arabia Petraea; after a later reorganization several cities were placed in Syria Palaestina and later Palaestina Secunda. Most of the Decapolis region is located in modern-day Jordan, but Damascus is in Syria and Hippos and Scythopolis are in Israel.


The oval forum and cardo of Gerasa (Jerash)

The names of the traditional Ten Cities of the Decapolis come from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his Natural History.[1] They are:

  1. Gerasa (Jerash) in Jordan
  2. Scythopolis (Beth-Shean) in Palestine, the only city west of the Jordan River
  3. Hippos (Al Huson) (Hippus or Sussita) in Syria (Golan Heights)
  4. Gadara (Umm Qais) in Jordan
  5. Pella (West of Irbid) in Jordan
  6. Philadelphia, modern day Amman, the capital of Jordan
  7. Capitolias, also Dion, today Beit Ras in Jordan
  8. Canatha (Qanawat) in Syria
  9. Raphana in Jordan
  10. Damascus, the capital of modern Syria [2]

Damascus was further north than the others and so is sometimes thought to have been an "honorary" member. Josephus stated that Scythopolis was the largest of the ten towns.[3] Biblical commentator Edward Plumptre therefore suggested that Damascus was not included in Josephus' list.[4]

According to other sources, there may have been as many as eighteen or nineteen Greco-Roman cities counted as part of the Decapolis.

Hellenistic era

Except for Damascus, the Decapolis cities were by and large founded during the Hellenistic period, between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the Roman conquest of Coele-Syria, including Judea in 63 BC. Some were established under the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Judea until 198 BC. Others were founded later, when the Seleucid dynasty ruled the region. Some of the cities included "Antiochia" or "Seleucia" in their official names (Antiochia Hippos, for example), which attest to Seleucid origins. The cities were Greek from their founding, modeling themselves on the Greek polis.

The Decapolis was a region where two cultures interacted: the culture of the Greek colonists and the indigenous Semitic culture. There was some conflict. The Greek inhabitants were shocked by the Semitic practice of circumcision, while various elements of Semitic dissent towards the dominant and assimilative nature of Hellenic civilization culminated gradually in the face of assimilation.

At the same time, there was also some cultural blending and borrowing in the Decapolis region. The cities acted as centers for the diffusion of Greek culture. Some local deities began to be called by the name Zeus, from the chief Greek god. Meanwhile, in some cities Greeks began worshipping these local "Zeus" deities alongside their own Zeus Olympios. There is evidence that the colonists adopted the worship of other Semitic gods, including Phoenician deities and the chief Nabatean god, Dushara (worshipped under his Hellenized name, Dusares). The worship of these Semitic gods is attested to in coins and inscriptions from the cities.

During Hellenistic times the cities were clearly distinct from the surrounding region by their practice of Greek culture; Josephus names several of them in a list of Gentile cities in Judea before the Roman conquest. The term "Decapolis" may have already been used to identify these cities during the Hellenistic period. The term, however, is mostly associated with the period after the Roman conquest in 63 BC.

The Roman general Pompey conquered Judea in that year. The people of the Decapolis cities welcomed Pompey as a liberator from the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom that had ruled much of the area. For centuries the cities based their calendar era on this conquest: 63 BC was the epochal year of the Pompeian era, used to count the years throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods. It is from this time that historians identify the region and the cities with the term "Decapolis".

Roman Decapolis

Decapolis region and its surroundings in the 1st century

The Roman government wanted Roman culture to flourish in the farthest reaches of the empire, which at the time included eastern Palestine. So they encouraged the growth of these ten cities, allowing them (as with municipalities generally inside the empire) some considerable political autonomy within the protective sphere of Rome. Each city functioned as a polis or city-state, with jurisdiction over an area of the surrounding countryside. Each city also minted its own coins. Many coins from Decapolis cities identify their city as "autonomous," "free," "sovereign," or "sacred," terms that imply some sort of self-governing status.

The Romans strongly left their cultural stamp on all of the cities. Each one was eventually rebuilt with a Roman-style grid of streets based around a central cardo and/or decumanus. The Romans sponsored and built numerous temples and other public buildings. The imperial cult, the worship of the Roman emperor, was a very common practice throughout the Decapolis and was one of the features that linked the different cities. A small open-air temple or façade, called a Kalybe, was unique to the region.

The cities may also have enjoyed strong commercial ties, fostered by a network of new Roman roads. This has led to their common identification today as a "federation" or "league". The Decapolis was probably never an official political or economic union; most likely it signified the collection of city-states which enjoyed special autonomy during early Roman rule.[5]

The New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention that the Decapolis region was a location of the ministry of Jesus. According to Matthew 4:23-25 the Decapolis was one of the areas from which Jesus drew his multitude of disciples, attracted by his "healing all kinds of sickness". The Decapolis was one of the few regions where Jesus travelled in which Gentiles (people who are not Jewish) were in the majority: most of Jesus' ministry focused on teaching to Jews. Mark 5:1-10 emphasizes the Decapolis' gentile character when Jesus encounters a herd of pigs, an animal forbidden by Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. A demon-possessed man healed by Jesus in this passage asked to be included among the disciples who traveled with Jesus but he was refused and instructed to remain in the Decapolis region.[6]

The Decapolis cities after Trajan

The Roman provinces of Syria-Palestina, and Arabia

In addition, the cities were grouped into different Roman provinces: Syria, Palestina Secunda, and Arabia. The cities continued to be distinct, distinguished for example by their use of the Pompeian calendar. Historians and archaeologists often speak of the "Decapolis cities" and "Decapolis region" even when referring to these cities in later time periods.

The Roman and Byzantine Decapolis region was influenced and gradually taken over by Christianity. Some cities were more receptive than others to the new religion. Pella was a base for some of the earliest church leaders (Eusebius reports that the apostles fled there to escape the Great Jewish Revolt). In other cities, paganism persisted long into the Byzantine era. Eventually, however, the region became almost entirely Christian, and most of the cities served as seats of bishops.

Most of the cities continued into the late Roman and Byzantine periods. Some were abandoned in the years following Palestine's conquest by the Umayyad Caliphate in 641, but other cities continued to be inhabited long into the Islamic period.

Evolution and excavation

Jerash (Gerasa) and Bet She'an (Scythopolis) survive as towns today. Damascus has never lost its prominent role throughout later history. Philadelphia was long abandoned, but was revived in the 19th century and has become the capital city of Jordan, Amman. Twentieth-century archaeology has identified most of the other cities, and most have undergone or are undergoing considerable excavation.

See also


  1. ^ Natural History, 5.16.74
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Online Edition "Decapolis - Ancient Greek League, Palestine"
  3. ^ Wars of the Jews, Book 3, chapter 9, section 7, accessed 6 December 2016
  4. ^ Plumptre, E. H., in Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers on Matthew 4, accessed 6 December 2016
  5. ^ "Decapolis" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Ed. Eric M. Meyers, S. Thomas Parker. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Nov 14, 2016. <>
  6. ^ Mark 5:18-20
  • Chancey, Mark A. and Adam Porter. “The Archaeology of Roman Palestine.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 64, No. 4. December 2001. pp. 164–198.
  • Epstein, Claire. “Hippos (Sussita).” The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Vol. 2. Ed. Ephraim Stern. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society & Carta, 1993.
  • Mare, W. Harold. "Decapolis." Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 2000.
  • Meyers, Eric M. and S. Thomas Parker (Eds) "Decapolis." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Nov 14, 2016.
  • Parker, S. Thomas. “The Byzantine Period: An Empire’s New Holy Land.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 62, No. 3. September 1999. pp. 134–171.
  • Segal, Arthur. "The 'Kalybe' Structures." Zinman Institute of Archaeology, Haifa University. Online. [1]

External links

  • The Decapolis on BibArch
  • The Decapolis on the Catholic Encyclopedia
  • Scholarly review of a 2003 book, Kulte und Kultur der Dekapolis (Cults and Culture of the Decapolis). The review contains information on the religious syncretism in the Hellenistic and Roman Decapolis. Contains some passages in German.

Coordinates: 32°43′00″N 35°48′00″E / 32.7167°N 35.8000°E / 32.7167; 35.8000

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