(Gk., “ten cities”),

an administrative district or region of Greek cities located in northern Transjordan, southern Syria, and northern Palestine. The original cities, ten in number, were attached to the Roman province of Syria in the first century CE. The earliest sources to mention the term date to the first century CE. The Decapolis appears twice in the Gospel of Mark: Jesus is said to have passed through “the region of the Decapolis” (7:31), and a healed demoniac proclaimed Jesus' miracle “in the Decapolis” (5:20). The term is also mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (4:25). The most important ancient source is Pliny's Natural History (5:74). Pliny states that the Decapolis adjoined the Roman province of Judea (Judah) and names the ten cities: Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, “Galasa” (usually emended as “Gerasa” [Jerash]), and Canatha. Pliny admits, however, that there was some disagreement about specific cities. Josephus, in his account of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 CE), notes that “the chief men of the Syrian Decapolis” complained to the Roman emperor Vespasian about attacks on their territory by Jewish insurgents (Life 410, cf. 341–342). Josephus also claims that Scythopolis was “the largest city of the Decapolis” (War 3.446).

Later sources include Ptolemy, the second-century CE geographer, who provides the only other list of Decapolis cities (Geography 5.14–22). His list includes nine of Pliny's original ten cities (Raphana is missing) and adds nine new ones, for a total of eighteen: Heliopolis, Abila, Saana, Hina, Abila Lysanias, Capitolias, Edrei, Gadora, and Samulis. An inscription of 134 CE found in the region of Palmyra in Syria mentions “the good-messenger-Abila of the Decapolis.” Somewhat surprisingly, only one other inscription mentioning the Decapolis is known, despite the fact that hundreds of inscriptions have been found in its various cities. Eusebius (Onomasticon 1.16), in about 300 CE, refers to the Decapolis as “situated near Peraea around Hippos, Pella, and Gadara.” A few more references to the term are found in Byzantine works of the fourth and later centuries. Stephen of Byzantium notes that the Decapolis once included fourteen cities, further evidence that the number of cities varied.

Individual Cities.

Most of the Decapolis cities can now be identified with a fair degree of certainty. Scythopolis, the only city of the Decapolis situated west of the Jordan River, is Beth-Shean (Beisan), in Israel's southern Galilee. The southernmost city, Philadelphia, is Amman, in Jordan. Moving north, Gerasa is Jerash in ancient Gilead (modern Jordan); Pella is Ṭabaqaṭ Faḣil, on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley; Gadara is Umm Qeis, just southwest of the Sea of Galilee; and Hippos is Qal῾at el-Ḥusn, at the top of a hill on its eastern shore. Farther east, in northern Jordan, Abila is Qweilbeh, and Capitolias is Beit Ras. Most of the remaining Decapolis cities are located in southern Syria. Raphana is probably to be identified with er-Rafe, and Canatha is probably Qanawat. The location of Dium remains a problem. Some identify it with Tell el-Ḥusn, Kefar Abil, or Edun, all in northwest Jordan. Others suggest Dium is Tell el-Ashari, in southern Syria.

Nature of the Decapolis.

Scholars long regarded the Decapolis as a league or confederation of Greek cities organized by the Roman general Pompey when he brought the region under Roman control In 64–63 BCE. However, no ancient source refers to the Decapolis as a political league or confederation. There is no evidence that there were any special political, military, or commercial arrangements among the member cities, nor was there any sort of federal governmental machinery. Instead, the sources refer to the Decapolis as a region or a district formed by the contiguous territories of the Greek cities. A late first-century CE Greek inscription from the Balkans refers to a Roman prefect of the Decapolis in Syria. This suggests that the Decapolis was then an administrative district attached to the Roman province of Syria under the supervision of a single imperial official. Each city retained local autonomy and administered an extensive rural hinterland. Epigraphic and literary sources provide some evidence as to the territorial boundaries of the individual cities.

Archaeological Evidence.

The sites of most Decapolis cities have been surveyed and several have been extensively excavated. Undoubtedly, the best-preserved and most thoroughly excavated city is Gerasa/Jerash. [See Jerash.] The city developed on both banks of a perennial stream, with most public buildings on the west side and most domestic structures on the east. The city was laid out in a typical Roman grid pattern, with a main north–south street (cardo) intersected by two major east–west streets (decumani). These paved streets were decorated by colonnades lined with shops and other buildings and terminated at monumental gateways. The city was protected by massive walls studded with projecting towers. Other public structures included a “forum” (actually an oval agora, or marketplace), several temples, a theater, an odeon (concert hall), baths, hippodrome (racetrack), triumphal arch, and nymphaeum (fountain house). During the Byzantine period many churches were erected. The other Decapolis cities display similar features typical of Greek cities in the eastern Roman Empire. The most extensively excavated are Philadelphia, Pella, Scythopolis, Gadara, Abila, and Capitolias.

History of the Decapolis Cities.

Nearly all the sites of the Decapolis cities were occupied in some fashion in the preclassical period. Yet, most of the cities claimed to have been founded as Macedonian colonies by Alexander the Great or one of his immediate successors in the late fourth century BCE. Philadelphia was founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the early third century BCE. Excavations at Pella, named for the capital of Macedonia, have also produced evidence of this period. The archaeological evidence for early Hellenistic occupation is lacking at some of the excavated cities, however. The cities were generally established on strategic sites, astride major roads, and within fertile agricultural districts. The conquest of Palestine and Transjordan by Antiochus III In 200 BCE brought the entire Decapolis region under the control of the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus and his successors continued to foster the development of the cities, as suggested by their later coins, which reveal Seleucid dynastic toponyms such as Antioch and Seleucia. In fact, it may only have been under Seleucid rule, in the second century BCE, that many of these settlements developed into true urban centers. [See Pella; Seleucids.]

The decline of Seleucid power and the consequent rise of the Hasmonean Jewish and Arab Nabatean states in the late second and early first centuries BCE threatened the very existence of these cities. The Hasmoneans conquered Scythopolis, Gadara, Abila, Dium, and Pella, and the Nabateans occupied Philadelphia. When Pompey arrived to establish Roman control In 63 BCE, he posed as a champion of the Greek cities. All the towns were freed from Jewish and Nabatean control, granted “freedom” (i.e., municipal autonomy), and placed under the administrative control of the Roman governor of Syria. Many of the cities adopted a new Pompeian era on their coinage, to celebrate their liberation and express gratitude to their liberator.

The Roman emperor Augustus, In 30 BCE, assigned two of the cities (Hippos and Gadara) to the kingdom of his loyal client Herod the Great, despite the objections of their inhabitants. Both cities regained their autonomy and were returned to the province of Syria upon Herod's death In 4 BCE.

The outbreak of the Jewish revolt In 66 CE witnessed attacks by Jewish forces against the territories of several Decapolis cities, including Scythopolis, Pella, Gerasa, Gadara, and Hippos. The people of several of these cities responded by massacring the Jewish minorities in their midst. The people of Gerasa notably did not follow this example, but escorted their Jewish minority safely out of the city. Scythopolis served as an important base for the Roman army of Vespasian during the suppression of the revolt. Eusebius (History of the Church 3.5.3) asserts that the Christian community of Jerusalem fled to Pella before Jerusalem fell In 70 CE.

The conversion of the Nabatean kingdom into the new Roman province of Arabia by the Roman emperor Trajan (106 CE) resulted in the effective demise of the Decapolis, for its individual cities were then divided among the Roman provinces of Syria, Arabia, and Palestine. However, the individual cities continued to flourish economically and culturally for many centuries.

Culture of the Decapolis.

The uniqueness of the Decapolis was its cultural identity as a group of Greek cities, sharply differentiated from the neighboring Semitic populations. The city plans, individual buildings, tombs, sculpture, and divinities are Greek or Roman, although there are many traces of Near Eastern influences. The vast majority of inscriptions are Greek, with some Latin. Some inscriptions suggest that many of the urban populace were hellenized Semites, although it is entirely possible that some families were descendants of the original Greek or Macedonian colonists. Naturally, much less is known about the population of the rural hinterlands, where Semitic culture may have remained dominant. The high Greek culture of the Decapolis is also clearly reflected by the numerous philosophers, poets, jurists, and other intellectuals from these cities. Among the most famous are the poet Meleager of Gadara (c. 140–70 BCE); the rhetor Theodorus of Gadara (late first century BCE), who was a teacher of the emperor Tiberius; and the mathematician Nichomachus of Gerasa (c. 100 CE).

[Many of the cities of the Decapolis are the subject of independent entries.]

Bibliography

  • Barghouti, Asem N. “Urbanization of Palestine and Jordan in Hellenistic and Roman Times.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 1, edited by Adnan Hadidi, pp. 209–229. Amman, 1982.
  • Bietenhard, Hans. “Die syrische Dekapolis von Pompeius bis Trajan.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, vol. II.8, pp. 220–261. Berlin, 1977. Accepts the traditional view of the Decapolis as a league.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. “The Decapolis in Syria: A Neglected Inscription.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 44 (1981): 67–74. Argues convincingly that the Decapolis was an administrative district attached to Syria and under the supervision of a Roman official.
  • Kraeling, Carl H., ed. Gerasa, City of the Decapolis. New Haven, 1938. Indispensable, detailed report of the excavations conducted in the 1920s and 1930s; some of its conclusions have been modified by recent work.
  • Lenzen, C. J., and Alison M. McQuitty. “The 1984 Survey of the Irbid/Beit Rās Region.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 32 (1988): 265–274. Suggests continuity of occupation in the territory of Capitolias through the pre- and postclassical periods.
  • Mare, W. Harold. “Quweilbeh.” In Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 2, Field Reports, edited by Denys Homès-Fredericq and J. Basil Hennessy, pp. 472–486. Louvain, 1989. Summary of what is known about Abila.
  • McNicoll, Anthony W., et al. Pella in Jordan 1: An Interim Report on the Joint University of Sydney and the College of Wooster Excavations at Pella, 1979–1981. Canberra, 1982.
  • Parker, S. Thomas. “The Decapolis Reviewed.” Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (1975): 437–441. Rejects the long-held view that the Decapolis ever formed a league or confederation.
  • Seigne, Jacques. “Jérash romaine et byzantine: Développement urbain d'une ville provinciale orientale.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 4, edited by Ghazi Bisheh, pp. 331–341. Amman, 1992.
  • Smith, Robert Houston. The 1967 Season of the College of Wooster Expedition to Pella. Pella of the Decapolis, vol. 1. Wooster, Ohio, 1973.
  • Smith, Robert Houston, and Leslie P. Day. Final Report on the College of Wooster Excavations in Area IX, the Civic Complex, 1979–1985. Pella of the Decapolis, vol. 2. Wooster, Ohio, 1989.
  • Spijkerman, Augusto. The Coins of the Decapolis and Provincia Arabia. Jerusalem, 1978.
  • Weber, Thomas. “A Survey of Roman Sculpture in the Decapolis: Preliminary Report.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 34 (1990): 351–355.
  • Weber, Thomas. “Gadara of the Decapolis: Preliminary Report on the 1990 Season at Umm Qeis.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 35 (1991): 223–235. Contains a detailed bibliography on earlier work at the site.
  • Yeivin, Zeev, et al. “The Bet Shean Project.” Excavations and Surveys in Israel 6 (1988): 7–45.
  • Zayadine, Fawzi, ed. Jerash Archaeological Project, 1981–1983, vol. 1, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Amman, 1986.
  • Zayadine, Fawzi, ed. Jerash Archaeological Project, vol. 2, Fouilles de Jérash, 1984–1988. Paris, 1989.

S. Thomas Parker