deka, ten; polis, city) was a group of ten cities
on the eastern frontier of the Roman
Empire in Jordan, Palestine, and Syria.
Decapolis region (yellow))
ten cities were not an official league or political unit, but they
were grouped together because of their language, culture, location,
and political status. The Decapolis cities were centers of Greek
and Roman culture in a region that was otherwise Semitic
, and Jewish
exception of Damascus, the "Region of the Decapolis" was located in
modern-day Jordan, one of them
located west of the Jordan River in Palestine (modern day
Each city had a certain degree of autonomy and
Map of Roman Palestine with the Decapolis cities labeled in
The oval forum and cardo of Gerasa
The names of the traditional Ten Cities of the Decapolis come from
the Roman historian Pliny the Elder
5.16.74). They are:
- Gerasa (Jerash) in
- Scythopolis (Beth-Shean) in Israel, the only city on the western side of
- Hippos (Hippus or Sussita) in
- Gadara (Umm Qais) in
- Pella (East of
Irbid) in Jordan
- Philadelphia, modern day Amman, the capital
Husn in Jordan
- Capitolias (Beit Ras) in Jordan (Dion,
- Canatha (Qanawat) in Syria
- Arabella (Irbid), in
- Raphana in Jordan
- Damascus, the capital of modern Syria; Damascus
was considerably north of the others and so is sometimes thought to
have been an "honorary" member.
According to other sources, there may have been as many as eighteen
or nineteen Greco-Roman cities counted as part of the Decapolis.
For example, Abila
is very often cited as
belonging to the group.
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
. Others were founded later, when the
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
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,
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
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
The 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 some 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
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
. 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 style of temple dedicated to the Emperor, called a
, 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 that enjoyed special autonomy during early Roman
The New Testament
gospels of Matthew
, and Luke
mention that the Decapolis region was a location of the ministry of
. 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.
emphasizes the Decapolis' Gentile character when Jesus encounters a
herd of pigs
, an animal forbidden by Kashrut
, the Jewish dietary laws.
The Roman provinces of Syria,
Palestina, and Arabia
The term "Decapolis" fell out of use after the emperor Trajan
added the province of Arabia
to the Roman Empire in the second
century AD. The new province was east of Palestine, so the
Decapolis was no longer the Greco-Roman cultural front line.
addition, the cities were grouped into different Roman provinces: Syria, Palestina Secunda, and Arabia.
However, the Decapolis
remained an important cultural region in the Roman east, even
though the term was no longer used. 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
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
, but other cities continued to be
inhabited long into the Islamic period.
Jerash (Gerasa) and Bet She'an (Scythopolis) survive as towns
today, while Damascus and Amman (Philadelphia) have become
important capital cities. Twentieth-century archaeology has
identified most of the other cities, and most have undergone or are
undergoing considerable excavation.
- 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,
- Mare, W. Harold. "Decapolis." Eerdman's Dictionary of the
Bible. Ed. David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 2000.
- Parker, S. Thomas. “The Byzantine Period: An Empire’s New Holy
Land.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 62, No. 3. September
- Segal, Arthur. "The 'Kalybe' Structures." Zinman Institute of
Archaeology, Haifa University. Online.