Ruins of ancient Tarsus
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.). It 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 several times (Acts 9:11, 30, 11:25, 21:39, 22:3). The Life and Epistles of Paul by Conybeare and Howson states the following regarding the apostle's place of birth.
"Situated near the western border of the Cilician plain, where the river Cydnus flows in a cold and rapid stream, from the snows of Taurus to the sea, was the city of Tarsus, the capital of the whole province, and "no mean city" (Acts 21:39) in the history of the ancient world. Its coins reveal to us its greatness through a long series of years:- alike in the period which intervened between Xerxes and Alexander, - and under the Roman sway, when it exulted in the name of Metropolis, - and long after Hadrian had rebuilt it, and issued his new coinage with the old mythological types . . .
"Strabo says that, in all that relates to philosophy and general education, it (the city) was even more illustrious than Athens and Alexandria. From his description it is evident that its main character was that of a Greek city, where the Greek language was spoken, and Greek literature studiously cultivated. But we should be wrong in supposing that the general population of the province was of Greek origin, or spoke the Greek tongue. When Cyrus came with his army from the Western Coast, and still later, when Alexander penetrated into Cilicia, they found the inhabitants "Barbarians." (chapter 1, section "Tarsus and Cicero")
Paul's reference to the place of his birth and the Roman citizenship it made possible helped him avoid being WHIPPED by the Romans (Acts 22:22 - 29). He 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).