Background of Asia Minor
Chapter 18

Questions?    -    Our Newsletter
The life of Apostle Paul being that of a traveler, and our purpose being to give a picture of the circumstances by which he was surrounded, it is often necessary to refer to the geography, both physical and political, of the countries through which he passed. This is the more needful in the case of Asia Minor, not only because it was the scene of a very great portion of his journeys, but because it is less known to ordinary readers than Palestine, Italy, or Greece.

We have already described, at some length, the physical geography of those southern districts which are in the immediate neighborhood of Mount Taurus. And now that the Apostle’s travels take a wider range, and cross the Asiatic peninsula from Syria to the frontiers of Europe, it is important to take a general view of the political geography of this part of the Roman Empire. Unless such a view is obtained in the first place, it is impossible to understand the topographical expressions employed in the narrative, or to conjecture the social relations into which Apostle Paul was brought in the course of his journeys through Asia Minor.

Our purpose is to elucidate the political subdivisions of Asia Minor as they were in the reigns of Claudius and Nero, - or, in other words, to enumerate the provinces which existed, and to describe the boundaries which were assigned to them, in the middle of the first century of the Christian era. The order we shall follow is from West to East, and in so doing we shall not deviate widely from the order in which the provinces were successively incorporated as substantive parts of the Roman Empire.

We are not, indeed, to suppose that Luke and Apostle Paul used all their topographical expressions in the strict political sense, even when such a sense was more or less customary. There was an exact usage and a popular usage of all these terms. But the first step towards fixing our geographical ideas of Asia Minor, must be to trace the boundaries of the provinces. When this is done, we shall be better able to distinguish those terms which, about the year 50 A. D., had ceased to have any true political significance, and to discriminate between the technical and the popular language of the sacred writers.

Fascinating trivia on Paul!
Location of New Testament churches
New Testament Roman Provinces

Province of Asia

There is sometimes a remarkable interest associated with the history of a geographical term. One case of this kind is suggested by the allusion which has just been made to the British islands. Early writers speak of Ireland under the appellation of "Scotia." Certain of its inhabitants crossed over to the opposite coast: their name spread along with their influence: and at length the title of Scotland was entirely transferred from one island to the other. In classical history we have a similar instance in the name of "Italy," which at first only denoted the southernmost extremity of the peninsula: then it was extended so as to include the whole with the exception of Cisalpine Gaul: and finally, crossing the Rubicon, it advanced to the Alps; while the name of "Gaul" retreated beyond them.

Another instance, on a larger scale, is presented to us on the south of the Mediterranean. The "Africa" of the Romans spread from a limited territory on the shore of that sea, till it embraced the whole continent which was circumnavigated by Vasco di Gama. And similarly the term, by which we are accustomed to designate the larger and more famous continent of the ancient world, traces its derivation to the "Asian meadow by the streams of the Cayster," celebrated in the poems of Homer.

This is the earliest occurrence of the word "Asia." We find, however, even in the older poets, the word used in its widest sense to denote all the countries in the far East. Either the Greeks, made familiar with the original Asia by the settlement of their kindred in its neighborhood, applied it as a generic appellation to all the regions beyond it: or the extension of the kingdom of Lydia from the banks of the Cayster to the Halys as its eastern boundary, diffused the name of Asia as far as that river, and thus suggested the division of Herodotus into "Asia within the Halys" and "Asia beyond the Halys." However this might be, the term retained, through the Greek and Roman periods, both a wider and a narrower sense; of which senses we are concerned only with the latter.

The Asia of the New Testament is not the continent which stretches into the remote East from the Black Sea and the Red Sea, but simply the western portion of that peninsula which, in modern times, has received the name of "Asia Minor." What extent of country, and what political significance, we are to assign to the term, will be shown by a statement of a few historical changes.

The fall of Croesus reduced the Lydian kingdom to a Persian satrapy. With the rest of the Persian empire, this region west of the Halys fell before the armies of Alexander. In the confusion which followed the conqueror’s death, an independent dynasty established itself at Pergamus, not far from the site of ancient Troy. At first their territory was narrow, and Attalus I. had to struggle with the Gauls who had invaded the peninsula, and with the neighboring chieftains of Bithynia, who had invited them. Antagonists still more formidable were the Greek kings of Syria, who claimed to be "Kings of Asia," and aimed at the possession of the whole peninsula. But the Romans appeared in the East, and ordered Antiochus to retire beyond the Taurus, and then conferred substantial rewards on their faithful allies.

Rhodes became the mistress of Caria and Lycia, on the opposite coast; and Eumenes, the son of Attalus, received, in the West and North-west, Lydia and Mysia, and a good portion of that vague region in the interior which was usually denominated "Phrygia," - stretching in one direction over the district of Lycaonia. Then it was that, as 150 years since the Margraves of Brandenburg became Kings of Prussia, so the Princes of Pergamus became "Kings of Asia." For a time they reigned over a highly-civilized territory, which extended from sea to sea.

The library of Pergamus was the rival of that of Alexandria: and Attaleia, from whence we have lately seen the Apostle sailing to Syria (Acts 14:25, 26) and Troas, from whence we shall presently see him sailing to Europe (Acts 16:11), were the southern and northern (or rather the eastern and western) harbors of King Attalus II.

At length the debt of gratitude to the Romans was paid by King Attalus III., who died in the year 133 B. C, and left by testament the whole of his dominions to the benefactors of his house. And now the "Province of Asia" appears for the first time as a new and significant term in the history of the world.

Province of Bithynia

Next to Asia, both in proximity of situation and in the order of its establishment, was the province of Bithynia. Nor were the circumstances very different under which these two provinces passed under the Roman scepter. As a new dynasty established itself after the death of Alexander on the north-eastern shores of the Aegean, so an older dynasty secured its independence at the western edge of the Black Sea. Nicomedes I. was the king who invited the Gauls with whom Attalus I. had to contend: and as Attalus III., the last of the House of Pergamus, paid his debt to the Romans by making them his heirs, so the last of the Bithynian House, Nicomedes III., left his kingdom as a legacy to the same power in the year 75. It received some accessions on the east after the defeat of Mithridates; and in this condition we find it in the list given by Dio of the provinces of Augustus; the debatable land between it and Asia being the district of Mysia, through which it is neither easy nor necessary to draw the exact frontier-line.

Stretching inland from the shores of the Propontis and Bosphorus, beyond the lakes near the cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia, to the upper ravines of the Sangarius, and the snowy range of Mount Olympus, it was a province rich in all the changes of beauty and grandeur. Its history is as varied as its scenery, if we trace it from the time when Hannibal was an exile at the court of Prusias, to the establishment of Othman’s Mohammedan capital in the city which still bears that monarch’s name. It was Hadrian’s favorite province, and many monuments remain of that emperor’s partiality. But we cannot say more of it without leaving our proper subject.

We have no reason to believe that Apostle Paul ever entered it, though once he made the attempt. (Acts 16:7) Except the passing mention of Bithynia in this and one other place, (1Peter 1:1) it has no connection with the apostolic writings. The first great passage of its ecclesiastical history is found in the correspondence of Trajan with its governor Pliny, concerning the persecution of the Christians. The second is the meeting of the first general council, when the Nicene Creed was drawn up on the banks of the Lake Ascanius.

Province of Pamphylia

This province has been already mentioned as one of the regions traversed by Apostle Paul in his first missionary journey. But though its physical features have been described, its political limits have not been determined. The true Pamphylia of the earliest writers is simply the plain which borders the Bay of Attaleia, and which, as we have said, retreats itself like a bay into the mountains. How small and insignificant this territory was, may be seen from the records of the Persian war, to which Herodotus says that it sent only thirty ships; while Lycia, on one side, contributed fifty, and Cilicia, on the other, a hundred. Nor do we find the name invested with any wider significance, till we approach the frontier of the Roman period.

A singular dispute between Antiochus and the king of Pergamus, as to whether Pamphylia was really within or beyond Mount Taurus, was decided by the Romans in favor of their ally. This could only be effected by a generous inclusion of a good portion of the mountainous country within the range of this geographical term. Henceforward, if not before, Pamphylia comprehended some considerable part of what was anciently called Pisidia.

We have seen that the Romans united it to the kingdom of Asia. It was, therefore, part of the province of Asia at the death of Attalus. It is difficult to trace the steps by which it was detached from that province. We find it (along with certain districts of Asia) included in the military jurisdiction of Cicero, when he was governor of Cilicia. It is spoken of as a separate province in the reign of Augustus. Its boundary on the Pisidian side, or in the direction of Phrygia, must be left indeterminate. Pisidia was included in this province: but, again, Pisidia is itself indeterminate: and we have good reasons for believing that Antioch in Pisidia was really under the governor of Galatia.

Cilicia was contiguous to Pamphylia on the east. Lycia was a separate region on the west, first as an appendage to Rhodes in the time of the republic, and then as a free state under the earliest emperors; but about the very time when Paul was traveling in these countries, Claudius brought it within the provincial system, and united it to Pamphylia: and inscriptions make us acquainted with a public officer who bore the title of "Proconsul of Lycia and Pamphylia."

Province of Galatia

We now come to a political division of Asia Minor, which demands a more careful attention. Its sacred interest is greater than that of all the others, and its history is more peculiar. The Christians of Galatia were they who received the Apostle "as if he had been an angel," - who, "if it had been possible, would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him," - and then were "so soon removed" by new teachers "from him that called them, to another Gospel," - who began to "run well," and then were hindered, - who were "bewitched" by that zeal which compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, - and who were as ready, in the fervor of their party spirit, to "bite and devour one another," as they were willing to change their teachers and their gospels. (Galatians 4:15, 1:6, 5:7, 3:1, 1:7, v 15).

It is no mere fancy which discovers, in these expressions of Apostle Paul's Epistle, indications of the character of that remarkable race of mankind, which all writers, from Caesar to Thierry, have described as susceptible of quick impressions and sudden changes, with a fickleness equal to their courage and enthusiasm, and a constant liability to that disunion which is the fruit of excessive vanity, - that race, which has not only produced one of the greatest nations of modern times, but which, long before the Christian era, wandering forth from their early European seats, burnt Rome and pillaged Delphi, founded an empire in Northern Italy more than co-extensive with Austrian Lombardy, and another in Asia Minor, equal in importance to one of the largest pachalics.

For the "Galatia" of the New Testament was really the "Gaul" of the East. The "Epistle to the Galatians" would more literally and more correctly be called the "Epistle to the Gauls." When Livy, in his account of the Roman campaigns in Galatia, speaks of its inhabitants, he always calls them "Gauls." When the Greek historians speak of the inhabitants of ancient Prance, the word they use is "Galatians." The two terms are merely the Greek and Latin forms of the same "barbarian" appellation.

That emigration of the Gauls, which ended in the settlement in Asia Minor, is less famous than those which led to the disasters in Italy and Greece: but it is, in fact, identical with the latter of these two emigrations, and its results were more permanent. The warriors who roamed over the Cevennes, or by the banks of the Garonne, reappear on the Halys and at the base of Mount Dindymus. They exchange the superstitions of Druidism for the ceremonies of the worship of Cybele. The very name of the chief Galatian tribe is one with which we are familiar in the earliest history of France; and Jerome says that, in his own day, the language spoken at Ancyra was almost identical with that of Treves.

The Galatians were a stream from that torrent of barbarians which poured into Greece in the third century before our era, and which recoiled in confusion from the cliffs of Delphi. Some tribes had previously separated from the main army, and penetrated into Thrace. There they were joined by certain of the fugitives, and together they appeared on the coasts, which are separated by a narrow arm of the sea from the rich plains and valleys of Bithynia. The wars with which that kingdom was harassed, made their presence acceptable. Nicomedes was the Vortigern of Asia Minor: and the two Gaulish chieftains, Leonor and Lutar, may be fitly compared to the two legendary heroes of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Some difficulties occurred in the passage of the Bosphorus, which curiously contrast with the easy voyages of our piratic ancestors.

But once established in Asia Minor, the Gauls lost no time in spreading over the whole peninsula with their arms and devastation. In their first crossing over we have compared them to the Saxons. In their first occupation they may be more fitly compared to the Danes. For they were a movable army rather than a nation, - encamping, marching, and plundering at will. They stationed themselves on the site of ancient Troy, and drove their chariots in the plain of the Cayster. They divided nearly the whole peninsula among their three tribes. They levied tribute on cities, and even on kings. The wars of the East found them various occupation. They hired themselves out as mercenary soldiers. They were the royal guards of the kings of Syria, and the mamelukes of the Ptolemies in Egypt.

Like the Western Gaul, this territory was a part of the Roman empire, though retaining the traces of its history in the character and language of its principal inhabitants. There was this difference, however, between the Eastern and the Western Gaul, that the latter was more rapidly and more completely assimilated to Italy. It passed from its barbarian to its Roman state, without being subjected to any intermediate civilization. The Gauls of the East, on the other hand, had long been familiar with the Greek language and the Greek culture.

Apostle Paul's Epistle was written in Greek. The contemporary inscriptions of the province are usually in the same language. The Galatians themselves are frequently called Gallo-Graecians; and many of the inhabitants of the province must have been of pure Grecian origin. Another section of the population, the early Phrygians, were probably numerous, but in a lower and more degraded position.

The presence of great numbers of Jews in the province, implies that it was, in some respects, favorable for traffic; and it is evident that the district must have been constantly intersected by the course of caravans from Armenia, the Hellespont, and the South. The Roman itineraries inform us of the lines of communication between the great towns near the Halys and the other parts of Asia Minor. These circumstances are closely connected with the spread of the Gospel, and we shall return to them again when we describe Apostle Paul's first reception in Galatia.

Province of Pontus

The last independent dynasties in the north of the Peninsula have hitherto appeared as friendly or subservient to the Roman power. Asia and Bithynia were voluntarily ceded by Attalus and Nicomedes; and Galatia, on the death of Amyntas, quietly fell into the station of a province. But when we advance still farther to the East, we are reminded of a monarch who presented a formidable and protracted opposition to Rome. The war with Mithridates was one of the most serious wars in which the Republic was ever engaged; and it was not till after a long struggle that Pompey brought the kingdom of Pontus under the Roman yoke.

In placing Pontus among the provinces of Asia Minor at this exact point of Apostle Paul's life, we are (strictly speaking) guilty of an anachronism. For long after the western portion of the empire of Mithridates was united partly with Bithynia and partly with Galatia, the region properly called Pontus remained under the government of independent chieftains.

Before the Apostle’s death, however, it was really made a province by Nero. Its last king was that Polemo II. who was alluded to at the beginning of this work, as the contemptible husband of one of Herod’s grand-daughters. In himself he is quite unworthy of such particular notice, but he demands our attention, not only because, as the last independent king in Asia Minor, he stands at one of the turning-points of history, but also because, through his marriage with Berenice, he must have had some connection with the Jewish population of Pontus, and therefore probably with the spread of the Gospel on the shores of the Euxine.

We cannot forget that Jews of Pontus were at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, (Acts 2: 9) that the Jewish Christians of Pontus were addressed by Peter in his first epistle, (1Peter 1:1) and that "a Jew born in Pontus" (Acts 18:2) became one of the best and most useful associates of the Apostle of the Gentiles.

Province of Cilicia

A single province yet remains, in one respect the most interesting of all, for its chief city was the Apostle’s native town. For this reason the reader’s attention was invited long ago to its geography and history. It is therefore unnecessary to dwell upon them further. We need not go back to the time when Servilius destroyed the robbers in the mountains, and Pompey the pirates on the coast.

And enough has been said of the conspicuous period of its provincial condition, when Cicero came down from Cappadocia through the great pass of Mount Taurus, and the letters of his correspondents in Rome were forwarded from Tarsus to his camp on the Pyramus. Nearly all the light we possess concerning the fortunes of Roman Cilicia is concentrated on that particular time. We know the names of hardly any of its later governors.

One of the few allusions to its provincial condition about the time of Claudius and Nero, which we can adduce from any ancient writer, is that passage in the Acts, where Felix is described as inquiring "of what province" Apostle Paul was. The use of the strict political term informs us that it was a separate province; but the term itself is not so explicit as to enable us to state whether the province was under the jurisdiction of the Senate or the Emperor.

With this last division of the Heptarchy of Asia Minor we are brought to the starting-point of Apostle Paul's second missionary journey. Cilicia is contiguous to Syria, and indeed is more naturally connected with it than with the rest of Asia Minor. We might illustrate this connection from the letters of Cicero; but it is more to our purpose to remark that the Apostolic Decree, recently enacted at Jerusalem, was addressed to the Gentile Christians "in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia," (Acts 15:36) and that Paul and Silas traveled "through Syria and Cilicia" (Acts 15:41) in the early part of their progress.

Previous  -  Next

List of all Sections

Additional Study Materials
When Paul and Timothy good friends?
How did the Romans help Paul?
What was Paul's thorn in his flesh?

The Life and Epistles of Apostle Paul
Bible Translations used

Holy Bible, a Faithful Version

© The Bible Study Site