The Cities of the Decapolis
The first century Roman province Decapolis

Ten cities, located mostly in around the Galilee and Jordan valley region, comprised the ancient Decapolis. Each of these cities were semi-autonomous, grouped together not by political alliance or official agreement but rather because of their cultural similarities. In a region that was largely Semitic - specifically Jewish, Aramean and Nabatean - these cities stood out because they were major centers exhibiting a distinct and prominent adaptation of the Greek culture. In fact, the name Decapolis means "ten cities" in Greek.

The names of the Decapolis cities are known from the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder. To call him a prolific writer is an understatement. In his Natural History (5.16), completed circa 77 A.D., he lists the cities in the following order. (In parenthesis I've included the modern name or alternate names and country.) As individual articles are available on each city, the link provided in this list will take you to it and provide more detail on the specific place.

  1. Damascus (Damascus, Syria)

  2. Philadelphia (Amman, Jordan)
  3. Raphana (Abila, Jordan)
  4. Scythopolis (Beth-Shean, Israel)
  5. Gadara (Umm Qais, Jordan)
  6. Hippus (Hippos or Sussita, Israel)
  7. Dion (???, Jordan)
  8. Pella (Pella, Jordan)
  9. Gerasa (Jerash, Jordan)
  10. Canatha (Qanawat, Syria)

Damascus, to the north, is certainly more isolated than the other nine cities, though not really farther away from Galilee than Philadelphia to the south. Other sources cite other possible Decapolis cities. Some of them may be alternate names for those already listed, but it is possible that over time additional cities arose featuring similar Greek influence and were popularly aligned with the Decapolis on the basis of this common culture.

For the most part, the Decapolis cities owed their existence to the Hellenistic era (including the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties) which followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Each was founded, or modeled, on Greek principles and culture instead of the indigenous Semitic. Damascus was the exception, as it clearly predated the Hellenistic period. Instead, it appears to have remade itself following the same goal.

The cities subsequently became centers promoting the Greek culture, often in opposition to Semitic norms. While there was some blending of cultures within the cities by Roman times, it was more Greco-Roman than Greco-Semitic. The Greek and Semitic norms tended to clash. For example; Greeks abhorred circumcision, which was widely practiced by Judaism, while Jews disliked the widespread acceptance of homosexuality by the Greeks (not to mention other unbiblical sexual practices). In contrast, the widespread idolatry shared by Greeks and Romans made them a more natural fit. The non-Jewish Semitic peoples more readily assimilated the Greek deities, renaming earlier gods to Greek equivalents such as Zeus. Wherein local deities were incorporated into the Greek practice of the Decapolis these local gods likewise received Hellenized names.

During Hellenistic times, Jews clearly identified these Greek "polis (cities)" as being Gentile. Roman historian Josephus likewise lists several as Gentile cities prior to the Roman period. It isn't a surprise that these cities openly welcomed the Roman general Pompey, during his conquest of Israel in 63 B.C., viewing him as their liberator from the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom which had previously ruled their region. The Decapolis cities, for centuries afterward, based their calendar from the liberation date ("the Pompeian Era"). All this would not have helped the popularity of these cities among the surrounding Jewish population.

By the first century A.D., the Romans had nine of the ten cities combined into one region, or province, called Decapolis. Damascus, of course, was too far away to make the cut, though it was still a Decapolis city. This province of the Decapolis was an irregular shape, spanning from the south eastern shore of Galilee to the south and east. It included a small portion west of the Jordan River (to Scythopolis and surrounding land) and ran further south than Philadelphia on the east. It only incorporated the Jordan River until a bit south of Pella and Scythopolis, but otherwise was east of the province of Peraea which ran immediately east of the Jordan down to the Dead Sea.

Despite the political merger of Samaria, Judea and Idumea in 6 A.D.,
 common usage among the Jews still often referred to Samaria as a separate region/people.


The term Decapolis became more widely used during this early Roman period, often associated with the defined region immediately encompassing nine of the ten cities. By the time of the emperor Trajan, in the second century, new political and territorial realities had the cities allocated to different provinces. The cities retained their individual Decapolis style and remained culturally important to the empire, even though the regional term Decapolis then fell out of use.

During the Roman period, and certainly the time of Jesus, each of these cities functioned as a city-state (polis) within the overall empire of Rome. Each city was granted jurisdiction over an area of countryside surrounding it. Though never a formal federation or economic union, it is likely that the cities were commercially associated, joined by Roman roads making trade easier. The view within each city was that it was "free" or "autonomous" - as noted on some of their coins - yet they were truly semi-autonomous. As long as their allegiance was to Rome, they enjoyed the limited freedom they were granted in their own self-governance. Undoubtedly the cities were supportive of Rome and easily adopted Roman cultural aspects which merged nicely with their Greek foundation. Each of the Decapolis cities was again rebuilt using a Roman layout, having a standard central cardo (north-south road) and decumanus (east-west road). Roman temples became common, as did worship of the Roman emperor.

A larger Decapolis city may have also jointly shared, or controlled, some territory with a smaller neighboring Decapolis city. Certainly neighboring areas beneficial to trade and commerce would have had some type of joint administration wherein it could be used to benefit both centers.

The Bible directly refers to both the Decapolis region (perhaps province) and its cities, including a few by name. Showing the isolation of Damascus, and the reality that it was outside of the Decapolis province, the Bible writers, while referencing it, never directly referred to it as Decapolis.

Matthew 4:23-25 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. (NIV)

This passage, in Matthew chapter four, emphasized how widespread the knowledge of Jesus had become. Galilee could be a reference to the Roman province or to most of the populated region around Galilee, which would especially include Bethsaida in the western part of Gaulanitis. The reference to Syria would include Damascus, the isolated Decapolis city and perhaps part of Gaulanitis (showing how old names still sometimes superseded newer Roman designations). Judea most likely is in reference to the expanded Roman province as the next reference encompasses all the territory east of it, across the Jordan, namely Perea. The remaining Decapolis cities and territory surrounding them, also the Roman province of the same name, is included by reference to the Decapolis.

Mark 5:18-20 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. (NIV)

Jesus, himself, sent the first homegrown missionary into the Decapolis cities, an unlikely candidate who had formerly been demon possessed. Certainly his testimony, in contrast to his former notoriety, was an amazing witness to the power of Jesus Christ. This was the beginning of the end for the Decapolis cities as pagan Greco-Roman cities. In the centuries which followed and certainly by Byzantine times, Christianity rapidly spread throughout these cities, with some being more receptive than others. Pella was said to be a base for some of the earliest church leaders; the church historian Eusebius even reported that all the believers fled there to escape the Jewish revolt that lead to the destruction of the temple (circa 70 A.D.).

But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men. (Church History of Eusebius, Book III, Chapter 5, section 3)

Notice that by the time of Eusebius, he says that Pella was part of Perea, rather than a part of the province called Decapolis. Pella, which was just north of the first century border of Perea, most certainly was incorporated into an expansion of that province (during the aforementioned realignment by Trajan).

Another Bible passage further shows that Jesus traveled in the primarily Gentile provinces surrounding Galilee. Here he is shown to have traveled through Phoenicia (Tyre and Sidon), then through the western side of Gaulanitis, into the Decapolis - clearly stated to be the region, not specifically any one city.

Mark 7:31-37 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. 33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means, "Be opened!"). 35 At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. 36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. "He has done everything well," they said. "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak." (NIV)

As mentioned, by the Byzantine era most of the Decapolis cities had a strong Christian presence and were home to key churches and bishops. Natural disasters and successive conquests by Muslims led to the abandonment and/or destruction of most of these cities - Damascus and Amman (Philadelphia) being notable exceptions.


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