The Decapolis cities, located to the east and northeast of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, were a group of ten cities in the Roman period, which may have been semi-autonomous. The name is derived from the number and description in Greek: deca (ten) polis (city). Most of the cities were originally founded during the Hellenistic period after Alexander the Great had conquered the region in ca. 323 BC. Eventually these cities gained a measure of independence after the Romans under Pompey conquered the region in ca. 64 BC and they were released from the authority of the Hasmoneans which had resulted in cultural and religious tensions between Judaism and Hellenism. However, both Hippos and Gadara were included in the kingdom of Herod the Great, and all of the cities must have had governmental oversight through a regional authority that led back to Rome. Inscriptions, coins, and historical writings demonstrate that the region of the Decapolis came into being after Rome conquered the area, but possibly as late as the early 1st century AD. Ancient city lists of the Decapolis come from writings of Pliny the Elder, Josephus, Ptolemy, Eusebius, Epiphanus, and Stephan of Byzantium. The ten cities of Pliny, perhaps the original ten, were Damascus, Canatha, Hippus, Dion, Raphana (also known as Abila?), Gadara, Scythopolis, Pella, Gerasa, and Philadelphia (Pliny the Elder, Natural History). Raphana is sometimes identified as Abila, which is a city name found on later lists. All of these cities except Scythopolis were located on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and Sycthopolis (formerly Beth-Shean) was apparently also the largest city of the Decapolis (Josephus, Wars, 3.446). A combination of the different lists shows an eventual total of 17 or 18 cities, since the additional cities of Helopolis, Abila (Raphana?), Saana, Hina, Abila Lysanius, Capitolias, Edrei, and Samulis may have gained a semi-autonomous status and joined the group over time (Ptolemy, Geography, 5.14-22). The earliest literary mention of the Decapolis is actually found in the New Testament where the term “Decapolis” is recorded, although the specific cities are not listed (Matthew 4:25; Mark 5:20; Mark 7:31). Mark also mentions the country of Gerasenes, which appears to be the area of the Decapolis city of Gerasa or Jerash (Mark 5:1). An inscription from the time of Emperor Hadrian in about 134 AD, found near Palmyra, mentions Abila of the Decapolis (Parker, “The Decapolis Reviewed”). Therefore, “the Decapolis” was clearly an actual grouping of cities in the area east of Galilee during the Roman period.
While no evidence exists that these cities formed any type of formal coalition or league, they were informally connected by their independent status, geography, and shared Hellenistic culture. Many of the coins from the cities mention concepts such as freedom, autonomy, and sovereignty, indicating that they exercised a degree of independence in their governing status at a local and regional level (Spijkerman, The Coins of the Decapolis and Provincia Arabi). An inscription on a coin issued by Scythopolis, rather than mentioning the Senate or Pompey, honored the general Gabinius who had helped free and then rebuild the city. This is in contrast to Judea Province, which had Roman coins issued under the prefects and then procurators. While maintaining a degree of autonomy, the cities were still ultimately under the authority of the Roman Empire and attached to various provinces or kingdoms depending on the time period, such as the Herodian kingdom, Syria Province, Arabia Petraea, and Syria Palaestina, although they appear to have functioned in a way similar to city-states on the local level. One inscription from around 90 AD and the reign of Emperor Domitian mentions a Roman administrator of equestrian rank, such as a prefect or procurator, in Decapolis of Syria, suggesting that the region had its own separate Roman administrator within Syria Province, similar to Judea (Isaac, “The Decapolis in Syria, a Neglected Inscription”). Therefore, debate exists as to whether or not the Decapolis should be considered only a geographical term referring to a group of cities in the region which shared a common Hellenistic culture and had a degree of autonomy or a subsection of a province that existed as a more distinct administrative unit. However, prior to 106 AD when the Decapolis cities were split between multiple provinces and likely the term became geographical, the Decapolis may have been a separate administrative and semi-autonomous area.
The Decapolis cities were usually located on major roads and often at crossroads, had natural fortifications, and were supplied with significant water sources. These attributes contributed to their economic prosperity and their ability to retain at least a degree of autonomy. During the Roman period, the cities also had their layout redone according to the style of Roman cities with a grid style street system built around a central cardo (main north-south street in a Roman city), and typical Roman structures such as stadiums, theaters, agoras, temples, Roman baths, and aqueducts were built (Segal and Eisenberg, “Sussita-Hippos of the Decapolis: Town Planning and Architecture of a Roman-Byzantine City”).
The Decapolis cities were extremely Hellenistic in their culture and religion, although they were also influenced by the ideas of the surrounding local Semitic populations. However, most of the influence was pagan and polytheistic, and these were not cities in which those practicing Judaism would typically live. While it is known that Jesus preached and performed miracles in the Decapolis region, the Gospels never record any problems with the authorities or with religious leaders from that area. In light of the polytheistic Hellenistic culture of the day which was rapidly adopting gods from regions all over the Empire, the religious community likely would not have had a problem with Jesus performing miracles or claiming to be God, or a god as they would initially interpret Him due to their polytheistic worldview. Without personally witnessing the miracles or without further clarification of the message of Jesus, those with a Hellenistic worldview would usually have thought of Jesus merely as another “god” to add to the pantheon or as demi-god, magi, holy man, or priest. Yet, the message and miracles of Jesus appear to have significantly affected the Decapolis region and paved the way for the early Church in the area. According to Eusebius, during the beginning of the First Judean Revolt against Rome and prior the destruction of Jerusalem in the time of the early Church (just before 70 AD), many Christians fled from Judea Province and the surrounding regions into the Decapolis, and in particular to the city of Pella (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History). In later years, Pella was a major center of Christianity and the entire region of the Decapolis became predominantly Christian as evidenced by early Church writings and the many Byzantine period church buildings that have been discovered in the ruins of those ancient cities (Menninga, “The Unique Church at Abila of the Decapolis”; Mare, “Abila of the Decapolis Excavations”). The Decapolis began as a group of 10 politically affiliated Hellenistic, pagan cities during the Roman period, expanded to as many as 18 cities, and eventually transformed into a Christian region by the Byzantine period.