The Decapolis, a term derived from the Greek deka meaning ten and polis meaning city, was an ancient confederation of ten cities in north-eastern Palestine, on the edge of the Roman Empire in what are now Jordan, Israel and Syria. Strabo and Josephus also mentioned it frequently in their writing.
The cities that made up the Decapolis, according to Gauis Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder c 27-79 BCE), a Roman writer and historian, are listed below with their modern name and modern location in brackets. Pliny in his Natural History finished in 77 BCE says, “Adjoining Judea on the side of Syria is the region of the Decapolis, so called from the number of its towns…”
- Philadelphia (Amman, Jordan)
- Gerasa (Jerash, Jordan)
- Pella (Pella, Jordan)
- Scythopolis (Beth-She’an, Israel)
- Gadara (Umm Qays, Jordan)
- Hippos (Hippus or Sussita, Israel)
- Dion (Beit Ras, Jordan)
- Raphana (Raphana, Jordan)
- Canatha (El Qanawat, Syria)
- Damascus (Damascus, Syria)
There can be some confusion for researchers because some of the ancient place names were spelled in various ways and also known by other names. Some historians (Potelmy Geography 14-18) also list as many as 14 cities in the Decapolis.
Many of the cities were established earlier by former Macedonian soldiers of Alexander the Great, from the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires, who settled in the area after his death in 323 BCE.
They retained their unique Hellenic culture and were quite distinct from many of their neighbours in the region. Indeed historian Josephus records a number of them in a list of Gentile cities in Judea before the Roman conquest.
An exact dating of the formation of the Decapolis is difficult but it was after the conquest of Judea and Syria, 65-62 BCE, by Roman general Pompey.
The citizens welcomed the arrival of the Roman armies, seeing them as a buffer against the Semitic peoples of the region. The clash of cultures had been fuelled by amongst other things the Greek dislike of the Semitic custom of male circumcision and the Semite loathing of the Greek customs of homosexuality.
Centre of Greco-Roman Culture
The Decapolis cities became centres of Greco-Roman culture and were allowed a degree of autonomy, each operating as a city-state which would have included control of a number of smaller towns and villages. Essential to their growth were the cultural and economic bonds between them.
The Romans constructed many new and fine building including temples and public buildings and streets were laid out in traditional grid style. The University of Haifa: Segal A, The Decapolis: Historical-Archaeological Survey goes into some detail about what it calls monumentalization by describing a series of impressive public buildings with decorative facades, colonnaded streets combining to create, “a rich and fascinating city panorama.”
The Decapolis survived until the early second century CE after Emperor Trajan added it to the new region of Provincia Arabia an area which extended over much of the former Nabatean kingdom. From that point its citizens were subject to the governor’s rule from Bosra, (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in modern Syria).