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DECAPOLIS (dē-kăp'ô-lĭs, Gr. deka, ten and polis, city). A region east of Jordan that had been given to the tribe of Manasseh (Num.32.33-Num.32.42). A league of ten cities, consisting of Greeks who had come in the wake of Alexander’s conquests, was established after the Romans occupied the area (65 b.c.). According to Ptolemy, the number was later increased to eighteen. They had their own coinage, courts, and army. Ruins of temples, theaters, and other buildings tell of the high degree of culture that developed in these cities. Jesus drove the demons into swine near Gadara, one of these cities (Mark.5.1-Mark.5.20), and became popular in the Decapolis (Matt.4.24-Matt.4.25; Mark.7.31-Mark.7.37).

DECAPOLIS dĭ kăp’ ə lĭs (Δεκάπολις, G1279). The Decapolis, as its name implies (Gr. deka: “ten,” polis: “city”), was, in NT times, the area of the ten towns. In such significance the term occurs in Matthew (4:25), Mark (5:20; 7:31), Pliny (Natural History V. 16, 17) and Josephus (War III. ix. 7). Its original meaning may have been political rather than geographical, signifying the league of ten towns that prob. took shape in the period between Herod’s domination of the area and Rome’s stabilization of the eastern frontier in the early days of imperial rule. The area E of the Jordan and Galilee, where nine of the ten allied communities were located, was exposed to the open and unpacified desert, and a military alliance was sound policy for a group of predominantly Gr. cities, which in characteristic Gr. fashion set some value on autonomy and political independence.

The complex of Gr. communities in eastern Pal. was a phenomenon of the Hel. diaspora, that deep penetration of the whole of the eastern Mediterranean by Gr. immigrants that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great. Two of the ten Decapolis towns, Pella and Dion, both Macedonian names, were prob. founded by Alexander’s own veterans in the mid-4th cent. b.c. Almost as ancient were Philadelphia (the site of Rabbath-Amman of the OT and Amman, capital of modern Jordan) and Gadara. They were both important strongpoints by the end of the 3rd cent. b.c. Gerasa (whose extensive ruins are one of the great sights of Jordan) together with Hippos, do not seem to have attained strength and eminence until Rom. times. Most northerly of the ten towns, according to Pliny, was Damascus, one of the most ancient of the world’s cities. Josephus, however, seems to exclude Damascus, calling Scythopolis the largest of the ten.

A tradition of free government was established by the Gr. immigrants, and though the cities lost such autonomy in the days of Maccabean domination, Pompey recognized the spirit of the territory when he established Rom. control in 64-63 b.c. In the words of Josephus, he “restored the cities to their citizens.” Josephus, in this connection, mentions Gadara, Pella, Dion, and Hippos; but Philadelphia also dates coinage by Pompey, and must therefore have been a recipient of his beneficence. Such freedom meant that the cities of the area elected their own councils, possessed the privileges of coinage and asylum, the right of property and administration in adjacent territory, and the right of association for defense and commerce. The area was nevertheless under the overall control of the governor of the province of Syria, who was empowered to supervise political administration, law, and foreign affairs, and to levy imperial taxes. It was a system typical of Rome’s multilateral concept of government and the empire’s readiness to adopt and adapt indigenous forms and patterns of rule and control.

The Gr. communities of the Decapolis would undoubtedly have regarded Rome as protector and benefactor. The league, from Rome’s point of view, would strengthen the desert frontier where the great caravan routes and highways of trade bent around the inner curve of the Fertile Crescent. Security was a pressing need. Information is fragmentary, but an inscr. of a.d. 40 speaks of grave menace to the town of Hauran from Bedouin incursion from the desert. Rome’s long effort to stabilize her vast frontiers, and the extreme vulnerability of the desert borders in the E are facts that must be considered in the study of imperial history in Pal. Whereas it is on record that two of the Decapolis cities, Hippos and Gadara, were given by Augustus to Herod, it it possible that the League as a defensive unit, did not emerge until after Herod’s death in 4 b.c., but it is as probable that it took shape sixty years earlier—as part of Pompey’s reorganization of the whole of the eastern area of the Mediterranean.

Trade and commerce originally determined the pattern and progress of the Gr. communities of eastern Pal. The widest gateway to the Jordan Valley from the Mediterranean is the great fertile plain of Esdraelon. Traffic to the territories E of Jordan and the Lake of Galilee necessarily passed between the high country to the S and the lake; hence the importance of the fortress of Beth-shan (or Scythopolis, its Gr. name) and the inevitable association of the place with the ten towns that spread fanwise along the highways further E. Scythopolis is the only one of the ten to lie W of the Jordan. Israeli Beth-shean, as the ruins of the ancient town are called today, is the only Decapolis site in Israel, and not Jordanian or Syrian territory, so persistent is the shape of history in that ancient land. Scythopolis covered E-W communications between the sea and the Decapolis. On the three roads that branch eastward from this nodal point, all the remaining cities of the Decapolis were situated, except for those that lie on the N-S route from Damascus to Arabia along the edge of the desert, which forms the terminal line of all the other highways. Across the Jordan—Gadara, Hippos, and Pella marked the beginning of the three roads. From Pella, a highway ran SE to Philadelphia through Gerasa. The central road ran from Gadara, NE by E to Raphana, whose precise location is not yet established, and on to Kanatha, most easterly of the Decapolis cities, at the foot of Jebel Hauran. The third road ran N to Damascus. To these ten towns—Scythopolis, Pella, Dion, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Gadara, Raphana, Kanatha, Damascus, and Hippos—others joined themselves. Ptolemy, the geographer, listed eighteen names, omitting Raphana of the original ten. Abila and Kanata (a town apparently distinguished from Kanatha) are the most important additions.

Each of the Decapolis cities controlled surrounding territory and perhaps separated enclaves of land. This prob. accounts for the confusion between the various readings “Gadarenes,” “Gerasenes,” or “Gergasenes’ in various texts of Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 8. There is no reason why Gerasa should not have controlled a section of lakeside territory in an area geographically associated with Gadara. Generally, around Hippos was Hippene territory and villages, and around Gadara, Gadarene land (Mark 5:1 KJV). Gadara’s long aqueduct reveals the extent to which the community of Gadara must have controlled territory necessary to its life, commerce, and convenience. G. A. Smith, the great Palestinian geographer, wrote, “The Decapolitan region, as Pliny calls it (V. 15), ‘the borders of the Decapolis,’ as it is styled in the gospels, was, therefore, no mere name, but an actual sphere of property and effective influence” (Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 9th ed., p. 601). The Decapolis formed a solid belt of territory along Galilee and Jordan, deeply permeated with Gr. influence, but cosmopolitan by reason of commerce, history, and geographical position. Cultural life was as vigorous as commercial activity. Gadara produced Philodemus, the Epicurean philosopher, in the middle of the 1st cent. b.c. The same town was the birthplace of Meleager, the epigrammatist; Menippus, the satirist; and Theodorus, the rhetorician tutor of Tiberius. Gerasa was also renowned for its teachers.

Of chief interest to the student of the NT is the impact of the Decapolis on Galilee. “The Decapolis,” writes Smith (op. cit. p. 607), “was flourishing at the time of Christ’s ministry. Gadara, with her temples and her amphitheatres, with her art, her games and her literature, overhung the Lake of Galilee, and the voyages of its fishermen.” Across the lake, five to eight m. wide, the farmers of Galilee could see a Gentile world. That world had a bridgehead in their territory at Scythopolis; and the roads, converging on that center and radiating thence must have exercised an attraction on many Jews. Perhaps the story of the Prodigal illustrates the fact with the “far country” remote only in outlook and way of life. Swine, a Gentile food, was among the farmstock of the Gadarene territory, and the wanderer of the story, trapped and ruined by an alien society, may have been no more than a hard day’s journey from home. Contact between the two areas was separated only by the tenuous barrier of the river and the lake. Large crowds from the Decapolis followed Christ at an early period of His ministry (Matt 4:25). He visited the area when He returned from Tyre and Sidon, reaching the eastern shore of the lake through Hippos. The healed lunatic of Gadara, the first “apostle to the Gentiles,” was sent to proclaim his blessing there (Mark 5:20). The multitudes of the later visit (8:1) were the fruit of this witness.

The Jewish church withdrew to Pella at the time of the Great Rebellion and the siege of Jerusalem, a.d. 66-70. G. A. Smith concludes: “We cannot believe that the two worlds, which this landscape embraced, did not break into each other. The many roads which crossed Galilee from the Decapolis to the coast, the many inscriptions upon them, the constant trade between the fishermen and the Greek exporters of their fish, and the very coins—thrust Greek upon the Jews of Galilee. The Aramaic dialect began now to be full of Greek words. It is impossible to believe that our Lord and His disciples did not know Greek. But at least in Gadara, that characteristic Greek city overhanging the Lake of Galilee, in the scholars it sent forth to Greece and Rome we have ample proof that the kingdom of God came forth in no obscure corner, but in the very face of the kingdoms of this world” (op. cit. p. 608).


G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 9th ed. (1902).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The name given to the region occupied by a league of "ten cities" (Mt 4:25; Mr 5:20; 7:31), which Eusebius defines (in Onomastica) as "lying in the Peraea, round Hippos, Pella and Gadara." Such combinations of Greek cities arose as Rome assumed dominion in the East, to promote their common interests in trade and commerce, and for mutual protection against the peoples surrounding them.

This particular league seems to have been constituted about the time of Pompey’s campaign in Syria, 65 BC, by which several cities in Decapolis dated their eras. They were independent of the local tetrarchy, and answerable directly to the governor of Syria. They enjoyed the rights of association and asylum; they struck their own coinage, paid imperial taxes and were liable to military service (Ant., XIV, iv, 4; BJ, I, vii, 7; II, xviii, 3; III, ix, 7; Vita, 65, 74). Of the ten cities, Scythopolis, the ancient Bethshean, alone, the capital of the league, was on the West side of Jordan. The names given by Pliny (NH, v.18) are Scythopolis (Beisan), Hippos (Susiyeh), Gadara (Umm Qeis), Pella (Fahil), Philadelphia (`Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Dion (Adun?), Canatha (Qanawat), Damascus and Raphana. The last named is not identified, and Dion is uncertain. Other cities joined the league, and Ptolemy, who omits Raphans, gives a list of 18. The Greek inhabitants were never on good terms with the Jews; and the herd of swine (Mr 5:11 ff) indicates contempt for what was probably regarded as Jewish prejudice. The ruins still seen at Gadara, but especially at Kanawat (see Kenath) and Jerash, of temples, theaters and other public buildings, attest the splendor of these cities in their day.