The city has a history going back over 2,000 years. It was first ruled by the Hittites, then the Assyrians, then the Persian Empire. It was the seat of a Persian satrapy (which is a province or jurisdiction ruled by a Satrap (Persian governor) from 400 B.C. forward. Alexander the Great passed through Tarsus with his armies in 333 BC and nearly met his death here after a bath in the Cydnus.
The Roman general Pompey subjected Tarsus to Rome, where it became the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia (where the governor resided) in Asia Minor. It was made a free city by Emperor Augustus Caesar as a reward for its exertions and sacrifices during Rome's civil wars. Free cities in the Roman empire were permitted to use their own laws, customs and magistrates. They were also free from being subject to Roman guards. Those born in a free city (like the Apostle Paul) were considered Roman citizens with all its rights and privileges.
The city was also the place where Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony met for the first time and where they held celebrated feasts during the construction of their fleet (41 B.C.). Tarsus was well-known for its culture of Greek philosophy, literature and wealth. Its schools of learning rivaled and excelled even those found in Athens and Alexandria. Around 171 B.C. the city's library held 200,000 books, including a huge collection of scientific works.
The New Testament references the apostle Paul in relation to his hometown of Tarsus several times (Acts 9:11, 30, 11:25, 21:39, 22:3). His reference to the place of his birth and the Roman citizenship it made possible helped him avoid being WHIPPED by the Romans:
"And they (the crowd at the temple) listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, "Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!" Then, as they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air, the commander ordered him (Paul) to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him.
"And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?" When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, "Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman."
"Then the commander came and said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman?" He said, "Yes." The commander answered, "With a large sum I obtained this citizenship." And Paul said, "But I was born a citizen." Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him." (Acts 22:22-29, NKJV)
Paul also used his rights of citizenship, given to him in Tarsus, when he appealed to have a case against him (started by Jews) be heard in Rome by Caesar himself (Acts 25:10-12).