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ASIA. Proconsular Asia in NT times was the Roman province that contained the SW part of Asia Minor, and in particular “the seven churches in the province of Asia” addressed in the first three chapters of Revelation. In the NT the word “Asia” occurs nineteen times and always refers to this division, not to the whole continent, nor even to Anatolia. Its capital was Ephesus, where both Paul and John labored. Most of its cities have disappeared, but Smyrna (Rev.2.8-Rev.2.11) remains a great city even now (called Izmir, in modern Turkey). Philadelphia remained till the Middle Ages.


ASIA ā’ zhə (̓Ασία, G823). Asia in the NT is invariably the Rom. province of that name which comprised nearly one-third of the W and SW end of the blunt peninsula known as Asia Minor. To the NE lay Bithynia, to the E were Galatia, Lycaonia, and Pisidia, to the SE Lycia. Such a description is geographical, rather than political, for the grouping of these areas within the Rom. provincial system varied from time to time.

Asia was the richest and best endowed part of the great peninsula. It contained the whole western coastline and the adjacent islands. Its great cities were ancient seats and centers of Hellenic and Hel. civilization, with its science, philosophy, and lit. Its hinterland extended back over the old river valley trade routes to the heights of the Anatolian plateau. It was an area rich in natural resources and established industry. Its woolen fabrics, particularly from Laodicea, were world famous. It had great harbors like that of Smyrna, and from remote times had controlled the western termini of great arteries of trade and commerce which drew wealth from the central highlands and the depths of continental Asia.

Asia became a Rom. province by an unexpected series of events. The western end of Asia Minor had always been subject to change. From the imperial days of the Hittites, to the heyday of Persia and the Seleucid successor empire of Antioch, authority centered further E had found it difficult to control the European end of the peninsula. The independent Gr. communities, with sympathies across the Aegean, may have been a factor in this unstable situation. The Athenian support of the Ionian revolt against Persia is an illustration from the middle of the 5th cent. b.c. But simple remoteness from the seat of power is sufficient explanation. The revolt of Cyrus, described in Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the troubles of Nehemiah described in the OT are illustrations of this principle of imperial government. Edmund Burke dilated upon it in a speech urging moderation in dealing with the American colonists.

Out of the changing patterns of control and independence which the situation produced, the kingdom of Pergamum emerged in the 4th cent. to give something like two hundred years of comparative political stability. Under the Attalid line of kings, Pergamum was strong, prosperous and firmly governed. Its rulers in the 2nd cent. were called upon to make fateful decisions. The eastern end of the Mediterranean was becoming aware of the growing power and significance of Rome. In her long quest for a stable frontier, Rome had been drawn into the Gr. peninsula only to find that the Aegean Sea was no surer frontier than the Adriatic had proved. Antiochus III of Syria was as acutely aware of the fact as the Romans. He had watched the fall of the buffer area of metropolitan Greece with anxiety and was alarmed at the eastward flow of Rom. power. Hence, he made a preventive thrust into Greece to anticipate Rome’s establishment in old Hellenic territory as early as 190 b.c. With characteristic determination Rome met and frustrated his attack, followed up, and finally defeated the king at Magnesia, deep in his own domains.

But it was obvious enough to the Rom. Republic that Asia Minor was a broad land bridge reaching ominously W toward Europe. It was clear, too, that the stable frontier she sought was still elusive. After Magnesia, Rome overawed the kingdoms of Bithynia, Galatia, and Pergamum which lay uncomfortably between the two rival powers, immunized the naval power of Rhodes which, in a maritime sense, lay in a similar position of peril, and made her presence and her pressure felt along the whole tract of territory E of the Hellespont and the Bosporus. Rome was moving inevitably E. She had far to go.

In 133 b.c., Attalus III, last of the kings of Pergamum, recognizing the drift of history, solved his vexed problem of a successor by bequeathing his kingdom to the Rom. people. He stipulated that Pergamum and other Gr. cities in his realm should be free from tribute, but the wealth of the area still made it worthwhile for Rome to take up the legacy with alacrity. It was constituted the province of Asia. This was the worst period of Republican moral decadence, and the Rom. officials and publicani fell on the rich land like vultures. After half a cent. of suffering, a white-hot hatred of Rome found sanguinary expression when Mithridates rose against the Republic in 88-84 b.c. Over 80,000 Italian residents of Asia were massacred in one day. This situation explains the relief with which Asia accepted the rule of the emperors, when Rome’s recurrent constitutional crises brought from the ruins of the Republic and its broken system the disguised, and finally patent, autocracy known popularly as the Empire, but more accurately as the Principate. Under the convenient fiction of partnership in authority, by which the provinces were divided into imperial and senatorial, Asia became a senatorial province with a proconsul, resident at Ephesus, as its governor.

Tranquility returned, and no part of the Rom. world was more dedicated to the power that made such comparative peace possible. Asia enthusiastically took up the state cult, the worship of the emperor and Rome. For the first two centuries of the Christian era, Asia was perhaps the most prosperous part of the Empire. Fine monuments and noble ruins, together with the eulogies of Dio Chrysostom and Aelius Aristides, and a wealth of significant coinage survive as evidence. The 3rd cent. brought decadence and a reorientation of the province, portentously, toward Constantinople rather than toward Rome. Roman history was moving E in another sense.

Asia was a complex of city territories, some of them maintaining the independence which they had held since the days of the Pergamene kingdom. Urban councils and magistrates under a governor managed their affairs, often with the help of an officer appointed by the emperor. Nine administrative districts appear to have functioned, and unity was served by a Koinon or commune Asiae, a general assembly of all the cities in the province, which met consecutively in the chief urban centers each year and provided for the maintenance of the cult of Rome and Caesar.

Paul’s work at Ephesus established the Christian Church in the province and secured the primacy of Ephesus. It was from Ephesus that John administered the group of Christian communities to which he wrote his cryptic letters. This primacy of the great center of Artemis worship was illustrated in a.d. 431 when the Third General Council of the church met in Ephesus, no doubt in the building whose ruins still stand near the great theater. Besides the seven churches of the apocalyptic letters, other Asian churches are mentioned or implied in the NT, e.g., at Troas, Colosse, and Hierapolis. The number increased greatly in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.


A. H. M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (1937), 28-95; Pliny, NH. 5.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A Roman province embracing the greater part of western Asia Minor, including the older countries of Mysia, Lydia, Caria, and a part of Phrygia, also several of the independent coast cities, the Troad, and apparently the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Patmos, Cos and others near the Asia Minor coast (Ac 16:6; 19:10,27). It is exceedingly difficult to determine the exact boundaries of the several countries which later constituted the Roman province, for they seem to have been somewhat vague to the ancients themselves, and were constantly shifting; it is therefore impossible to trace the exact borders of the province of Asia. Its history previous to 133 BC coincides with that of Asia Minor of which it was a part. However, in that year, Attalus III (Philometer), king of Pergamos, bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman Empire. It was not until 129 BC that the province of Asia was really formed by Rome. Its first capital was Pergamos, the old capital of Mysia, but in the time of Augustus, when Asia had become the most wealthy province of the Empire, the seat of the government was transferred to Ephesus. Smyrna was also an important rival of Ephesus. The governor of Asia was a pro-consul, chosen by lot by the Roman senate from among the former consuls who had been out of office for at least five years, and he seldom continued in office for more than a single year. The diet of the province, composed of representatives from its various districts, met each year in the different cities. Over it presided the asiarch, whose duty it was, among other things, to offer sacrifices for the welfare of the emperor and his family.

In 285 AD the province was reduced in size, as Caria, Lydia, Mysia and Phrygia were separated from it, and apart from the cities of the coast little remained. The history of Asia consists almost entirely of the history of its important cities, which were Adramyttium, Assos, Cnidus, Ephesus, Laodicea, Miletus, Pergamos, Philadelphia, Sardis, Smyrna, Thyatira, Troas, etc.

E. J. Banks

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