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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
2. Foundation Legends
3. Tarsus under Oriental Power
4. Tarsus under Greek Sway
5. Tarsus in the Roman Empire
6. The University
7. The Tarsian Constitution
8. Paul of Tarsus
9. Later History
The chief city of Cilicia, the southeastern portion of Asia Minor. It lay on both banks of the river Cydnus, in the midst of a fertile alluvial plain, some 10 miles from the seacoast. About 6 miles below the city the river broadened out into a considerable lake called Rhegma (Strabo xiv. 672), which afforded a safe anchorage and was in great part fringed with quays and dockyards. The river itself, which flowed southward from the Taurus Mountains with a clear and swift stream, was navigable to light craft, and Cleopatra, when she visited Antony at Tarsus in 38 BC, was able to sail in her richly decorated barge into the very heart of the city (Plut. Ant. 26). The silting-up of the river's mouth seems to have resulted in frequent floods, against which the emperor Justinian (527-65 AD) attempted to provide by cutting a new channel, starting a short distance North of the city, to divert the surplus water into a watercourse which lay to the East of Tarsus. Gradually, however, the original bed was allowed to become choked, and now the Cydnus flows wholly through Justinian's channel and passes to the East of the modern town. Two miles North of Tarsus the plain gives way to low, undulating hills, which extend to the foothills of Taurus, the great mountain chain lying some 30 miles North of the city, which divides Cilicia from Lycaonia and Cappadocia. The actual frontier-line seems to have varied at different periods, but the natural boundary lies at the Cilician Gates, a narrow gorge which Tarsian enterprise and engineering skill had widened so as to make it a wagon road, the chief highway of communication and trade between Cilicia and the interior of Asia Minor and one of the most decisive factors in Anatolian history. Eastward from Tarsus ran an important road crossing the Sarus at Adana and the Pyramus at Mopsuestia; there it divided, one branch running southeastward by way of Issus to Antioch on the Orontes, while another turned slightly northward to Castabala, and thence ran due East to the passage of the Euphrates at Zeugma. Thus the fertility of its soil, the safety and convenience of its harbor and the command of the main line of communication between Anatolia and Syria or Mesopotamia combined to promote the greatness of Tarsus, though its position was neither a healthful or a strong one and the town had no acropolis.
2. Foundation Legends:
Of the foundation of the city various traditions were current in antiquity, and it is impossible to arrive any certain conclusion, for such foundation legends often reflected the sympathies and wishes of a city's later population rather than the historic facts of its origin. At Anchiale, about 12 miles Southeast of Tarsus, was a monument commonly known as the tomb of Sardanapalus, king of Assyria, bearing an inscription "in Assyrian letters" stating that that monarch "built Anchiale and Tarsus in a single day" (Strabo xiv. 672; Arrian Anab . ii. 5). The statement of Alexander Polyhistor, preserved by Eusebius ( Chron . i, p. 27, ed Schoene), that Sennacherib, king of Nineveh (705-681 BC), rounded the city, also ascribes to it an Assyrian origin.
On the other hand, the Greeks had their own traditions, claiming Tarsus as a Greek or semi-Gr foundation. Strabo says that it owed its rise to the Argives who with Triptolemus wandered in search of Io (xiv. 673), while others spoke of Heracles or Perseus as the founder. It must be admitted that these tales, taken by themselves, give us little aid.
3. Tarsus Under Oriental Power:
Ramsay believes that Tarsus existed from time immemorial as a native Cilician settlement, to which was added, at some early date unknown to us, a body of Ionians, which migrated from the western coast of Asia Minor under the auspices and direction of the oracle of Clarian Apollo near Colophon. The earliest historical record of the town is found on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, about 850 BC, where it figures among the places captured by that king. It is thus proved that Tarsus already existed at that remote date. For many centuries it remained an oriental rather than a Hellenic city, and its history is almost a blank. After the fall of the Assyrian empire, Cilicia may have regained its independence, at least partially, but it subsequently became a province of the Persian empire, paying to the Great King an annual tribute of 260 white horses and 500 talents of silver ( Herodotus iii. 90) and contributing considerable fleets, when required, to the Persian navy. From time to time we hear of rulers named Syennesis, who appear to have been vassal princes in a greater or less degree of dependence upon the oriental empires. Two clear glimpses of the city are afforded us, thanks to the passage through it of Hellenic troops engaged upon eastern expeditions. Xenophon ( Anab . i. 2,21 ff) tells how, in 40l BC, Cyrus the Younger entered Cilicia on his famous march against his brother Artaxerxes, and how some of his Greek mercenaries plundered Tarsus, which is described as a great and prosperous city, in which was the palace of King Syennesis. The king made an agreement with Cyrus, who, after a delay of 20 days, caused by the refusal of his troops to march farther, set out from Tarsus for the Euphrates. Again, in 333 BC, Alexander the Great passed through the Cilician Gates on his way to Issus, where he met and routed the Persian army under Darius III. Arsames, the satrap of Cilicia, failed to post a sufficient force at the pass, the garrison fled without resistance and Alexander thus entered the province without striking a blow. The Persians thereupon set fire to Tarsus, but the timely arrival of the Macedonian advance guard under Parmenio saved the city from destruction. A bath in the cold waters of the Cydnus which Alexander took while heated with his rapid advance brought on a fever which all but cost him his life (Arrian Anab . ii. 4; Q. Curtius Hist. Alex . iii. 4 f) For two centuries Tarsus had been the capital of a Persian satrapy, subject to oriental rather than to Hellenic influence, though there was probably a Hellenic element in its population, and its trade brought it into touch with the Greeks. The Cilician coins struck at Tarsus confirm this view. Down to Alexander's conquest, they ordinarily bear Aramaic legends, and many of them show the effigy of Baal Tarz, the Lord of Tarsus; yet, these coins are clearly influenced by Greek types and workmanship.
4. Tarsus Under Greek Sway:
Alexander's overthrow of the Persian power brought about a strong Hellenic reaction in Southeastern Asia Minor and must have strengthened the Greek element in Tarsus, but more than a century and a half were to elapse before the city attained that civic autonomy which was the ideal and the boast of the Greek
5. Tarsus in the Roman Empire:
6. The University:
It is under the rule of Augustus that our knowledge of Tarsus first becomes fairly full and precise, Strabo, writing about 19 AD, tells us (xiv. 673 ff) of the enthusiasm of its inhabitants for learning, and especially for philosophy. In this respect, he says, Tarsus surpasses Athens and Alexandria and every other university town. It was characterized by the fact that the student body was composed almost entirely of natives, who, after finishing their course, usually went abroad to complete their education and in most cases did not return home, whereas in most universities the students were to a large extent foreigners, and the natives showed no great love of learning. Alexandria, however, formed an exception, attracting a large number of foreign students and also sending out many of its younger citizens to other centers. In fact, adds Strabo, Rome is full of Tarsians and Alexandrians. Among the famous men who learned or taught at Tarsus, we hear of the Stoics Antipater, Archedemus, Nestor, Athenodorus surnamed Cordylion, the friend and companion of the younger Marcus Cato, and his more famous namesake (called Canaanites after the village of his birth), who was the tutor and confidant of Augustus, and who subsequently reformed the Tarsian constitution. Other philosophers of Tarsus were Nestor, a representative of the Academy, and tutor of Marcellus, Augustus' nephew and destined successor, and of Tiberius, Plutiades and Diogenes; the latter was also famous as an improvisatore, and indeed the Tarsians in general were famed for their ease and fluency in impromptu speaking. Artemidorus and Diodorus the grammarians and Dionysides the tragic poet, a member of the group of seven writers known as "the Pleiad," complete Strabo's list of eminent Tarsians. A less attractive view of the life in Tarsus is given by Philostratus in his biography of Apollonius of Tyana, who went there to study in the early part of Tiberius' reign (14-37 AD). So disgusted was he by the insolence of the citizens, their love of pleasure and their extravagance in dress, that he shook the dust of Tarsus off his feet and went to Aegae to pursue his studies in a more congenial atmosphere ( Vit. Apollon . i. 7). But Strabo's testimony is that of a contemporary and an accurate historian and must outweigh that of Philostratus, whose work is largely tinged with romance and belongs to the early years of the 3century AD.
7. The Tarsian Constitution:
Strabo also tells us something of an important constitutional reform carried out in Tarsus under the Emperor Augustus, probably about 15-10 BC. Athenodorus Canaanites, the Stoic, returned to his city as an old man, after some 30 years spent at Rome, armed with authority from the emperor to reform abuses in its civic life. He found the constitution a democracy, swayed and preyed upon by a corrupt clique headed by a certain Boethus, "bad poet and bad citizen," who owed his position partly to his ready and persuasive tongue, partly to the favor of Antony, whom he had pleased by a poem composed to celebrate the victory of Philippi. Athenodorus sought at first to mend matters by argument and persuasion, but, finding Boethus and his party obdurate, he at length exercised his extraordinary powers, banished the offenders and remodeled the constitution, probably in a timocratic mold, restricting the full citizenship to those possessed of a considerable property qualification. On his death, his place as head of the state was taken for a while by the academic philosopher Nestor (Strabo xiv. 674 f). Next to Strabo's account our most valuable source of information regarding Tarsus is to be found in the two orations of Dio Chrysostom addressed to the Tarsians about 110
8. Paul of Tarsus:
Such was Tarsus, in which Paul was born (Acts 22:3 ) and of which he was a citizen (Acts 9:11; Acts 21:39 ). Its ancient traditions and its present greatness explain and justify the pride with which he claimed to be "a citizen of no mean city" (Acts 21:39 ). It is probable that his forefathers had been among the Jews settled at Tarsus by Antiochus Epiphanes, who, without sacrificing nationality or religion, became citizens of a community organized after the Greek model. On what occasion and for what service Roman civitas had been conferred on one of Paul's ancestors we cannot say; this only we know, that before his birth his father had possessed the coveted privilege ( Acts 22:28 ). It is a fascinating, but an elusive, quest to trace in Paul's life and writings the influence of his Tarsian ancestry, birth and early life. Jerome, it is true, claims that many Pauline words and phrases were characteristic of Cilicia, and some modern scholars profess to find traces, in the apostle's rhetoric and in his attitude toward pagan religion and secular learning, of Tarsian influence. But such speculations are likely to be misleading, and it is perhaps best to admit that, save in the trade learned by Paul, which was characteristic of his birthplace, we cannot with any precision gauge the effects of his early surroundings. At the same time it is certain that the character of his native city, its strong oriental element, its Greek constitution and speech, its position in the Roman Empire, its devotion to learning, must have made an impression upon one who, uniting Jewish nationality with membership of a Greek state and Roman citizenship, was to be the great interpreter to the Greco-Roman world of a religion which sprang from the soil of Judaism. How long Paul remained at Tarsus before beginning his studies in Jerusalem we cannot say. His own declaration that he was "born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city" (Acts 22:3 ) seems to show that his training at Jerusalem began at an early age, and is inconsistent with the supposition that he was one of those Tarsian students who, after studying at their native university, completed their education abroad. During his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, plots were formed against his life, and he was induced to return to Tarsus (Acts 9:30 ), where, according to Ramsay's chronology, he remained for some 8 years. Thither Barnabas went to seek him when he felt the need of a helper in dealing with the new problems involved in the growth of the Antiochene church and the admission into it of Gentiles in considerable numbers (Acts 11:25 ). Tarsus is not again mentioned in the New Testament, but Paul doubtless revisited it on his second missionary journey, when he "went through Syria and Cilicia" (Acts 15:41 ), and traveled thence by way of the Cilician Gates into Lycaonia, and again at the beginning of his third journey when, after some time spent at Antioch, "he departed, and went through the region of Galatia, and Phrygia, in order" (Acts 18:23 ).
9. Later History:
This is not the place to discuss in detail the later history of Tarsus, many passages of which are obscure and difficult. It remained a focus of imperial loyalty, as is indicated by the names Hadriane, Commodiane, Severiane and others, which appear, isolated or conjoined, upon its coins, together with the title of metropolis and such epithets as "first," "greatest," "fairest." Indeed it was chiefly in the matter of such distinctions that it carried on a keen, and sometimes bitter, rivalry, first with Mallus and Adana, its neighbors in the western plain, and later with Anazarbus, the chief town of Eastern Cilicia. But Tarsus remained the capital of the district, which during the 1st century of the empire was united with Syria in a single imperial province, and when Cilicia was made a separate province Tarsus, as a matter of course, became its metropolis and the center of the provincial Caesar-worship, and, at a later date, the capital of "the three eparchiae,"Cilicia, Isauria and Lycaonia. Toward the close of the 4th century Cilicia was divided into two, and Tarsus became the capital of Cilicia Prima only. Soon after the middle of the 7th century it was captured by the Arabs, and for the next three centuries was occupied by them as their northwestern capital and base of operations against the Anatolian plateau and the Byzantine empire. In 965 it was recaptured, together with the rest of Cilicia, by the emperor Nicephorus Phocas, but toward the close of the following century it fell into the hands of the Turks and afterward of the Crusaders. It was subsequently ruled by Armenian princes as part of the kingdom of Lesser Armenia, and then by the Memluk sultans of Egypt, from whom it was finally wrested by the Ottoman Turks early in the 16th century. The modern town, which still bears the ancient name in the slightly modified form
The best account of Tarsus will be found in W. M. Ramsay, The Cities of Paul (London, 1907), 85-244; the same writer's articles on "Cilicia, Tarsus and the Great Taurus Pass" in the Geographical Journal , 1903,357 ff, and on "Tarsus" in
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Tarsus'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/t/tarsus.html. 1915.