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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tarsus

TARSUS, now Ṭarsús, an ancient city in the fertile plain of Cilicia, lay on both sides of the Cydnus, whose cool and swift waters were the pride of the city (Dio Chrys., vol. ii. p. 2, Reiske’s ed.; Vita Apollon., i. 7), and bore traffic to and from the port of Rhegma, In the time of Xenophon (Anab., i. 2. 23) Tarsus was already great and flourishing, and was the residence of the vassal king of Cilicia. Its civilization at this time seems to have been mainly Semitic, as was to be expected from the geographical relations of Cilicia, which have generally associated its history with that of Syria. We have coins of Tarsus (תרז) of the Persian period, bearing Aramaic inscriptions; and the deities of the town, known in later times as Heracles, Perseus, Apollo, Athena (Dio Chr., ii. 22), seem to have been akin to those of the Phœnicians and Syrians (see below). The Semitic influence was doubtless very ancient; indeed, the Assyrians invaded Cilicia in the 9th century B.C., at which date Tarsus is perhaps mentioned on the monuments under the name of Tarzi (Schrader, Keilinschr. und Gesch., 1878, p. 240; the reading is not certain). After Tarsus was Hellenized the citizens learned to boast that they were Argives sprung from the companions of Triptolemus (Strabo, xiv. 5. 12; Dio Chr., ii. 20), and the town became the seat of a famous school of philosophy which was frequented almost exclusively by natives, but sent forth teachers as far as Rome itself.[1] More than one of these philosophers, notably Athenodorus the teacher of Augustus, and Nestor the teacher of Marcellus, held the chief magistracy of the city. Athenodorus and his predecessors were Stoics, but Nestor was an Academic (Strabo, xiv. 5. 14),[2] so that the Platonic philosophy is that with which Paul would probably have come in contact if he gave heed to the Greek wisdom of his native city. Presumably, however, he formed no higher opinion of the culture of Tarsus than did his contemporary Apollonius of Tyana, whose testimony as to the character of the citizens (Vit. Ap., i. 7) is confirmed by Dio Chrysostom. Tarsus had made rapid material progress since Cilicia became Roman (66 B.C.). It was the capital of a rich province, and had received freedom from Antony, and from Augustus the dignity of a metropolis and important immunities for its commerce (Dio Chr., ii. 36). The inhabitants were vain, effeminate, and luxurious, more like Phœnicians than Greeks. Their sensuous Eastern religion in these golden days of affluence had more attraction for them than the grave philosophy of the Porch; and the legend supposed to be graven on the statue of Sardanapalus, at the neighbour city of Anchiale, “let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” which Paul quotes in 1 Cor. xv. 32, might have been the motto of the mass of the townsmen.[3] At Tarsus the emperor Tacitus died, and Julian was buried. The city was deserted and lay waste during the frontier wars of Greeks and Arabs in the first century of Islam; a Moslem general, who saw the ruins, estimated its former population at 100,000 (Beladhorí, p. 169). It was rebuilt and settled as a military colony and frontier post by Hárún al-Rashíd in 787 A.D., and became a starting point of forays against the Christians. On such a campaign the caliph Ma'mún died, and was buried at Tarsus (833), having caught a fever, like Alexander the Great, by bathing in the cold Cilician waters. Tarsus was temporarily recovered to Christendom by Nicephorus Phocas, and again by the crusaders under Baldwin. Finally it remained in the hands of the Turks.

The Heracles of Tarsus was the Cilician god Sandan. Dio Chrysostom calls him the ἀρχηγός of the Tarsians (ii. 23), and he may be identified with the Baal of Tarsus named on the coins already spoken of. He was worshipped by the periodical erection of “a very fair pyre” (ibid.), a rite presumably analogous to that described in the De Dea Syria, ,ch. 49; and the remarkable ruin of Dönük-tash, a vast court with massive walls enclosing two lofty platforms of concrete, probably marks the site of his sanctuary (see Perrot and Chipiez, Hist, de l'Art, iv. 536 sq., and Langlois, Voyage dans la Cilicie, p. 266 sq.). A tradition making Sandan the founder of Tarsus is given by Ammianus (xiv. 8. 3); and, as the Greeks appear to have taken elements of the myth of Sandan (including the pyre) into their legend of Sardanapalus, this explains the current story that Sardanapalus founded Anchiale and Tarsus in one day (Arrian, ii. 5, 2; Athen., xii. p. 629 sq.). On Sandan, see K. O. Müller, in Rhein. Mus., 1829, and E. Meyer, in Z. D. M. G., 1877, p. 736 sq. Another account in Ammianus makes Perseus the founder of Tarsus, and it appears from Dio Chr. that he was almost or quite as much honoured. The footprint of Pegasus was shown at Tarsus (Avienus, 1031 sq.; comp. Dio, ii. 24), and his ταρσός (wing?) was said to have fallen there (Alex. Polyh. in Steph. Byz., s.v.). This worship reappears at Joppa. Apollo "with the trident” had a sacred sword at Tarsus, which could be cleansed only by the water of the Cydnus (Plut., Def. Orac., 41), and is probably the same as the harpe shown on coins of Hadrian’s time; if so, he is presumably a differentiated form of Perseus. The worship of Athena may he connected with the statement of Athenodorus (the famous philosopher of Tarsus) that the ancient name of the city was Parthenia (Fr. Hist. Gr., iii. 487); Abydenus in Eusb., Chron., p. 35, ed. Schöne) ascribes the foundation of her temple with its brazen columns and of the city itself to Sennacherib. Thus with the Baal of Tyre there was worshipped an unmarried goddess, as in so many shrines of Syria and Asia Minor. Dio Chr., ii. 2, speaks also of Titans as lords of the city. The reference is to Japetus (Japhet?), grandfather of Cydnus (Athenodorus, ut. sup.)


  1. To Strabo’s list must be added Zeno, the successor of Chrysippus.
  2. Lucian, Macrob., 21, makes him a Stoic and teacher of Tiberius.
  3. Athensæus, v. p. 216, tells of an Epicurean philosopher, Lysias, who, becoming priest of Heracles, became tyrant of the city, taxing the rich to provide largesses for the poor. The fact is probable, the date quite uncertain.