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The Decapolis (Greek: deka, ten; polis, city) was a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Syria and Palestine. The 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 (Jewish, Nabatean, and Aramean). With the exception of Damascus, the "Region of the Decapolis" was located in modern-day northeastern Israel, northwestern Jordan, and southwestern Syria. Each city had a certain degree of autonomy and self-rule.
The names of the traditional Ten Cities of the Decapolis come from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (N.H. 5.16.74). They are:
- Gerasa (Jerash)
- Scythopolis (Beth-Shean), the only city on the western side of the Jordan River
- Hippos (Hippus or Sussita)
- Gadara (Umm Qays)
- Philadelphia, modern day Amman, the capital of 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 Palestine's Hellenistic period, between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the Roman conquest of Palestine in 63 BC. Some were established under the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Palestine 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.
Cultural conflict defined these cities from the beginning. The Greek inhabitants were shocked by the Semitic practice of circumcision, while the native Semitic peoples were disgusted by the Greeks' acceptance of homosexuality and other unfamiliar sexual practices.
During Hellenistic times the cities were distinct as centers of Greek culture; Josephus names several of them in a list of Gentile cities in Palestine before the Roman conquest. The term "Decapolis" may have been used in the Hellenistic period, but it is mostly associated with the period after the Roman conquest in 63 BC.
The Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine 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. In fact, for centuries the cities based their calendars on this conquest and used 63 BC as their base year. Their calendar is called the Pompeian Era. It is at this time that historians identify the region and the cities with the term "Decapolis."
The Roman Decapolis
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 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 style of temple dedicated to the Emperor, 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 misidentification as a "federation" or "league." The Decapolis was simply the term applied to these cities because they had cultural and economic ties; it was not an official political or economic union.
The New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention that the Decapolis region was a location of the ministry of Jesus. The Decapolis wone of the only 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.
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. In addition, the cities were grouped into different Roman provinces: Syria, Palestina Secunda , and Arabia. However, the Decapolis remained an important region in the Roman east, even though the term was no longer used. The region continued to be distinct, distinguished for example by its 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.
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 others continued long into the Islamic period. Jerash and Bet She'an survive as towns today, while Damascus and Amman 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, 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.
- 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. 
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