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The Late Roman bridge at Tarsus. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Late Roman bridge at Tarsus
Tarsus (Greek Ταρσός or Ταρσοί): capital of ancient Cilicia.

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., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Second-century gate of Tarsus. Photo Jona Lendering.
Gate from the second century CE. According to a local tradition that can, on chronological grounds, not be true, this was the site of Marc Antony's meeting with Cleopatra (41 BCE)

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 (Nabonidus Chronicle, i.7). 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).

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 (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 14.8.3). In 171, the city unsuccessfully revolted because king Antiochus IV Epiphanes had given it as a present to his concubine, Antiochis (2 Maccabees, 4.30).

Mosaic of Bion and Tryphe, third century. Archaeological Museum of Antakya (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic of Tryphe and Bios (luxury and life), third century (Archaeological Museum of Antakya)
Mosaic of Ganymedes. Archaeological Museum of Antakya (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic of Ganymede (Archaeological Museum of Antakya)

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 (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 47.26.2). It played a role in the civil wars and at some stage, all inhabitants were awarded with the Roman citizenship.

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" (Oration 34.7). 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:

Roman road in Tarsus. Photo Jona Lendering.
Roman road

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.
[Life of Apollonius, 1.7; tr. Conybeare]

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.

Mosaic of Orpheus. Archaeological Museum of Antakya (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic of Orpheus (Archaeological Museum of Antakya)

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 (Procopius, Buildings, 5.5.14-20).

The town was captured by the Muslims in the seventh century, recaptured by the Byzantines in 964,

A satellite photo of the "Gate of Cleopatra" can be seen here.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 11 Aug. 2013
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