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Tarsus

Tarsus (Greek Ταρσός or Ταρσοί): capital of ancient Cilicia.

Persian (?) statue of a man
Persian (?) statue of a man
Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, situated on the banks of the river Cydnus and commanding the road from the Mediterranean Sea to Central Anatolia through the Cilician Gate. Hittite texts from the fifteenth century BCE age already refer to "Tarša" as the residence of the lord of Kizzuwatna. Later, the city may have belonged to the realm of Mopsus of Karatepe, and in 713, the Assyrian king Sennacherib added the city to his possessions. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612, Cilicia became independent and Tarsus was the capital of the king, the syennesis.

He had to cope with invasions from Babylonia, like the failed attack by king Neriglissar in 557/556 mentioned in the chronicle known as ABC 6. Later, however, the syennesis appears to have become a vassal of the Babylonian Empire - in 555, king Nabonidus marched through Cilicia without meeting any opposition.note The syennesis was certainly the vassal of the Achaemenid kings who had succeeded the Babylonian rulers of the eastern world empire. After 401, the country was ruled by a satrap, who resided in Tarsus. The city also served as a mint (e.g., for Pharnabazus).

The so-called Gate of Cleopatra. According to a local tradition, this was the site of Marc Antony's meeting with Cleopatra (41 BCE)
The so-called Gate of Cleopatra. According to a local tradition, this was the site of Marc Antony's meeting with Cleopatra (41 BCE)
In 333, Alexander the Great occupied the city, and stayed there while recuperating from an illness (text). After the death of the Macedonian conqueror, Tarsus became part of the Seleucid Empire under the new name of Antioch on the Cydnus. Becoming hellenized, Tarsus started to claim that it had been founded by Perseus.note In 171, the city unsuccessfully revolted because king Antiochus IV Epiphanes had given it as a present to his concubine, Antiochis.note

When the Seleucids went down in a series of dynastic conflicts, Tarsus was the capital of the northern part of the empire, until the Roman general Pompey the Great added Cilicia to the Roman Empire (66 BCE). The city got its old name again, although after the death of Julius Caesar, it was briefly called Juliopolis.note It played a role in the civil wars and at some stage, all inhabitants were awarded with the Roman citizenship.

An excavated street
An excavated street
This was the age of Tarsus' greatest prosperity, and it may be noted that Dio Chrysostom calls the city "the greatest of all towns in Cilicia and a metropolis from the outset".note A beautifully paved Roman street with an unusual drainage system, of which some 60 meters have been excavated, proves that there was money to spend. Envy of Tarsus' wealth may behind the description of the city in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, which, in this section, is based on a text written by someone from Tarsus' neighbor and rival, Aegae:

Ancient church, converted to a mosque
Ancient church, converted to a mosque
Apollonius found the atmosphere of the city harsh and strange and little conducive to the philosophic life, for nowhere are men more addicted than here to luxury; jesters and full of insolence are they all; and they attend more to their fine linen than the Athenians did to wisdom; and a stream called the Cydnus runs through their city, along the banks of which they sit like so many water-fowl.note

During the Empire, the city was an important center of the cults of Mithras and the emperor, but it also appears to have been open to cult reformers like Apollonius of Tyana. Tarsus' most famous son was the apostle Paul, a Pharisaic Jew who converted to Christianity and spread the Gospel to the Pagans. The well that is nowadays shown to tourists as "Paul's Well" is of course fake.

Byzantine bridge
Byzantine bridge
The city was captured by the Sasanian king Shapur I after the defeat of the Roman emperor Valerian in 260. Although the city was reconquered by the Romans, it was now slowly eclipsed by nearby Adana. However, the town was still important in Late Antiquity, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian a bridge was constructed and invested much money to give the Cydnus a new course.note

The town was captured by the Muslims in the seventh century.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 12 April 2014.