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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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TARSUS , the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia ( Acts 22:6 ) in the S.E. of Asia Minor, and the birthplace of St. Paul, is a place about which much more might be known than is known if only the necessary money were forthcoming to excavate the ancient city in the way that Pompeii, Olympia, Pergamum, and other cities have been excavated. It would be impossible to exaggerate the value which would accrue to the study of St. Paul’s life and writings and of Christian origins, if such a work were satisfactorily carried out. It may be commended to the whole Christian Church as a pressing duty of the utmost importance. Tarsus, as a city whose institutions combined Oriental and Western characteristics, was signally fitted to be the birthplace and training ground of him who was to make known to the Gentile world the ripest development of Hebrew religion.

Tarsus (modern Tersous ) is situated in the plain of Cilicia, about 70 to 80 feet above sea level, and about 10 miles from the S. coast. The level plain stretches to the north of it for about 2 miles, and then begins to rise gradually till it merges in the lofty Taurus range, about 30 miles north. The climate of the low-lying city must always have been oppressive and unfavourable to energetic action, but the undulating country to the north was utilized to counteract its effects. About 9 to 12 miles north of the city propel there was a second Tarsus, within the territory of the main Tarsus, in theory a summer residence merely, but in reality a fortified town of importance, permanently inhabited. It was to periodical residence in this second city among the hills that the population owed their vigour. In Roman times the combined cities of Tarsus contained a large population, probably not much less than a million.

The history of the Maritime Plain of Cillcia was determined by the mutual rivalries of the three cities, Mallus on the Pyramus, Adana on the Sarus, and Tarsus on the Cydnus. The plain is mainly a deposit of the second of those rivers, and contains about 800 square miles of arable land, with a strip of useless land along the coast varying from 2 Timothy 3 miles in breadth. The site of Mallus is now unknown, as it has ceased to have any importance; but the other two cities retain their names and some of their importance to the present day. In ancient times Mallus was a serious rival of Tarsus, and was at first the great harbour and the principal Greek colony in Cilicia. The struggle for superiority lasted till after the time of Christ, but the supremacy was eventually resigned to Tarsus. The river Cydnus flowed through the middle of the city. This river, of which the inhabitants were very proud, was liable to rise very considerably when there had been heavy rains in the mountains, but inundation in the city was in the best period very carefully guarded against. Between a.d. 527 and 563 a new channel was cut to relieve the principal bed, which had for some time previously been insufficiently dredged, and it is in this new channel that the Cydnus now flows, the original channel having become completely choked. About five or six miles below the modern town the Cydnus flowed into a lake; this lake was the ancient harbour of Tarsus, where were the docks and arsenal. At the harbour town, which was called Aulai, all the larger ships discharged, and in ancient times buildings were continuous between the north of this lake and the city of Tarsus. Much engineering skill must have been employed in ancient times to make a harbour out of what had been a lagoon, and to improve the channel of the river. A great deal was done to conquer nature for the common benefit, and it was not only in this direction that the inhabitants showed their perseverance. This city also cut one of the greatest passes of ancient times, the ‘Cilician Gates.’ Cilicia is divided from Cappadocia and Lycaonia by the Taurus range of mountains, which is pierced from N.W. to S.E. by a glen along which flows the Tcbakut Su. This glen offers a natural road for much of its course, but there are serious difficulties to overcome in its southern part. The Tarsians built a waggon road over the hills there, and cut with the chisel a level path out of the solid rock on the western bank of the stream. The probable date of this engineering feat was some time between b.c. 1000 and 500.

It is possible (but see Tarshish) that Tarsus is meant by the Tarshish of Genesis 10:4 , and that it is there indicated c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 2000 as a place where Greeks settled. The difference in the form of the name need cause no difficulty in accepting this identification. The name is originally Anatolian, and would quite easily be transliterated differently in Greek and Hebrew. All the evidence is in harmony with the view that at an early date Greeks settled there among an originally Oriental community. Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, captured Tarsus about the middle of the 9th cent. b.c.; afterwards kings ruled over Cilicia, with the Persian kings as overlords. In b.c. 401 there was still a king, but not in b.c. 334, when Alexander the Great entered the country. He found a Persian officer directly governing the country. Of the character of the kingdom we know nothing. Thus for about five centuries Tarsus was really an Oriental city. Greek influence began again with Alexander the Great, but made very slow progress. During the fourth century Tarsus was subject to the Greek kings of Syria of the Seleucid dynasty. It continued during the third century in abject submission to them. The peace of b.c. 189 changed the position of Cilicia. Previous to that date it had been in the middle of the Seleucid territory. Now it became a frontier country. About b.c. 175 164 Tarsus was re-organized by Antiochus iv Epiphanes as an autonomous city under the name Antioch-on-the-Cydnus (cf. 2Ma 4:30 f., 2Ma 4:36 ). It is extremely probable that the exact date of this re-foundation was b.c. 171 170; the new name lasted only a few years. Not only Tarsus, but a number of other Cilician cities also were re-organized at this time, but Tarsus received the most honourable treatment.

The population of this re-constituted Tarsus, in addition to what remained of the earlier population, consisted of Dorian Greeks from Argos. That the Greek element in the population was mainly Dorian is proved by the fact that the chief magistrates bore the Dorian title damiourgos . A mythology was invented to prove that this Dorian element was much earlier. It is almost certain that, in accordance with the regular Seleucid practice, a large body of Jews also was added to the population by Antiochus. These would be incorporated as citizens in a new tribe by themselves, to enable them to practise their own religion unhindered. There may have been some Jews resident in Tarsus as strangers, but the majority must have been citizens with full burghers’ rights. St. Paul, and probably the ‘kinsmen’ of Romans 16:7; Romans 16:11; Romans 16:21 , were citizens of Tarsus enrolled in the Jewish tribe. The later hostility of Antiochus to the ultra-Jewish party in Palestine cannot be alleged as an adequate reason against the view that he constituted, in b.c. 171 170, a large body of Jews citizens of Tarsus in a tribe by themselves. At that earlier date he regarded himself as the best friend of the Jews, and was so regarded by the more educated among themselves. As the Seleucid empire decayed, the Greek element in Tarsus became weaker, and the Asiatic spirit revived. About b.c. 83 its influence swept over Cilicia with the armies of Tigranes, king of Armenia, under whose power Tarsus fell. For about twenty years it continued under Oriental domination, till the re-organization of the East by Pompey the Great in b.c. 65 4. The Roman province Cilicia had been instituted about b.c. 104 or 102, but Tarsus was not then included in it. It was established mainly to control piracy in the Levant, and included the south and east of Asia Minor, but was not sharply defined in extent. In b.c. 25 the province Galatia (wh. see) was established by Augustus, and Cilicia in the narrow sense became a mere adjunct of Syria. Tarsus was the capital even of the large province Cilicia, and remained that of the smaller under the Empire, which brought many blessings to the provinces and their cities. Experience of the barbarian Tigranes caused a revulsion in favour of Hellenism, and the Tarsians were enthusiastic for the Empire, which carried on the work of Hellenism. Cassius forced them, in b.c. 43, to take his and Brutus’ side against Octavian and Antony, but they returned to their former loyalty on the earliest opportunity. Tarsus was made a free city (that is, it was governed by its own laws) by Antony, who met Cleopatra here. This privilege was confirmed by Octavian in or after b.c. 31. It is likely that Pompey, Julius Cæsar, Antony, and Augustus all conferred Roman citizenship on some Tarsians, and these would take new names from their benefactors: Gnæus Pompeius from Pompey, Gaius Iulius from Julius Cæsar or Augustus, Marcus Antonius from Antony. The Roman administration probably trusted more to the Jewish than to the Greek element. The latter was capricious, and was restrained by the Stoic Athenodorus, a Tarsian, who had the influence of Augustus behind him. The Oriental element seems to have thus become more assertive, and about a.d. 100 it was predominant. This Athenodorus lived from about b.c. 74 till a.d. 7. He was a Stoic philosopher, distinguished for his lectures and writings. He gained a great and noble influence over Augustus, who was his pupil, and he remained in Rome from b.c. 45 till b.c. 15 as his adviser; in the latter year he retired to Tarsus. There he attempted by persuasion to reform local politics; but, being unsuccessful, he used the authority granted him by Augustus, and banished the more corrupt of the politicians. A property qualification was now required for possession of the citizenship. (Among these citizens the Roman citizens formed an aristocracy.) Athenodorus was succeeded by Nestor, an Academic philosopher (still living a.d. 19). These men had influence also in the university, which was more closely connected with the city than in modern times. A new lecturer had to be recognized by some competent body. There was a great enthusiasm in Tarsus and neighbourhood for learning and philosophy, and in this respect the city was unequalled in Greece. It was here that St. Paul learned sympathy with athletics, and tolerance for the good elements in pagan religion. The principal deity of Tarsus corresponded to the Greek Zeus: he is the old Anatolian deity, giver of corn and wine. There was also a working Anatolian divinity, who was identified with Heracles, subordinate to the other. The former is represented as sitting on a chair, with left hand resting on a sceptre, and the right holding corn or grapes. The other stands on a lion, wears bow-case and sword, and holds a branch or flower in his right hand, a battleaxe in his left. Sometimes he is represented within a portable shrine.

A. Souter.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tarsus'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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