The Decapolis was a league of ten cities founded by Alexander the Great and his successors around 323 BCE. By the first century CE, according to both the Gospels (Matt. 4.25; Mark 5.20, 7.31) and Pliny (Natural History 5.16.74), the term refers both to the cities and to the region in which they were situated (Map 12:Y3–5). The earliest list of the cities appears in Pliny; most scholars agree on these ten: Scythopolis/Beth‐shan, Hippo, Philadelphia (modern Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Gadara, Pella, Dion, Canatha, Raphana, and Damascus. According to both Josephus and Polybius, by the dawn of Seleucid rule in the region of Palestine and the Transjordan at least four of the cities were of real importance (Gadara, Scythopolis, Pella, and Abila).
This region is perhaps the paramount example of the role of urbanization in the development and dominance of the Greek East by colonial empires. In both the Ptolemaic (ca. 300–200 BCE) and the Seleucid periods (200–130 BCE) these cities were built or expanded. With the conquest of the region by Pompey on behalf of Rome (ca. 63 BCE), their importance increased. They were a vital means of Roman control, both economic and military. Pompey made the capital of the league, Scythopolis/Beth‐shan, the seat of the regional court (the Sanhedrin) and utilized other cities in the region in a similar fashion. These urban centers almost invariably sided with the colonial power in revolts by the indigenous population (whether Maccabean, resistance to Pompey, or the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66–70 CE) and frequently put down native resistance brutally.
A number of the cities have been excavated (Pella, Gerasa, Abila), with the most recent significant project being at Scythopolis/Beth‐shan. Excavations at these sites reflect a diverse, cosmopolitan milieu. Several languages were used (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), temples and monuments stood almost side by side with synagogues and early churches, and local culture and trade took place within the larger setting of Roman military and economic hegemony.
J. Andrew Overman