Day 78 Politics and culture of a Mediterranean city

Tarsos in Cilicia – best known today as the birth place of the Apostle Paul – was one of the most important administrative, political and cultural centres of ancient Asia Minor. The city asserted its supremacy among the cities of eastern Cilicia vying for political and economic power amid ever-changing political conditions and shifting power structures from the Persian conquest to late antiquity.

The Via Tauri was the only major road through the Taurus Mountains in Cilicia, and connected Syria with central Anatolia. The pass through the Cilician Gates was controlled by Tarsos (Photo: Sophia Bönisch-Meyer, DAI)

The postdoctoral research project at the DAI’s Commission for Ancient History and Epigraphy explores this phenomenon and the underlying conditions, and also considers the question of the emergence and shaping of local urban identity and how it was perceived. Important information is provided by the substantial coinage of Tarsos, e.g. concerning the city’s cults and foundation myths and its strategies of self-presentation in general.

The philosopher and orator Dion of Prusa, who visited the city towards the end of the 1st / beginning of the 2nd cent. AD, gave a speech in public (or. 33, 47) in which he mentions that a pyre is to be erected as part of ritual celebrations of   Sandan-Herakles, a divinity venerated in Tarsos. Images on the reverse of coins minted in Tarsos, like the  bronze coin from the reign of Emperor Trajanus Decius (249–251 AD) reproduced above, show this pyre in the form of a pyramid; in the interior is a cult image of the god standing on a mythical creature (British Museum Collection, Object no. L1899,01/02.81, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0; BMC 305). The legend refers to the titles πρώτη, μεγίστη, καλλίστη (“first, greatest, fairest”) – abbreviated to AMK – which Tarsos held during the imperial period and were intended to communicate its prestige.