The province was walled off from the neighboring countries by a high barrier of mountains. They swept irregularly round it from Pompeiopolis and Rough Cilicia to the Syrian coast on the North of Antioch, with one pass leading up into the interior of Asia Minor, and another giving access to the valley of the Orontes. Cilicia was naturally the high road both of trading caravans and of military expeditions.
Through the province of Cilicia Cyrus marched to depose his brother from the Persian throne. It was here that the decisive victory was obtained by Alexander over Darius. This plain has since seen the hosts of Western Crusaders; and, in our own day, has been the field of operations of hostile Mohammedan armies, Turkish and Egyptian.
The Greek kings of Egypt endeavored, long ago, to tear Cilicia from the Greek kings of Syria. The Romans left it at first in the possession of Antiochus, but the line of Mount Taurus could not permanently arrest them. The letters of Cicero remain to us among the most interesting, as they are among the earliest monuments of when Cilicia was a Roman province.
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. It was 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 issued his new coinage with the old mythological types.
In the intermediate period, which is that of Apostle Paul, we have the testimony of a person from the Cilicia province, from which we may infer that Tarsus was in the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean. Strabo says that, in all that relates to philosophy and general education, it 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 Cilicia province was of Greek origin, or spoke the Greek tongue. When Cyrus the Great of Persia came with his army from the Western Coast, and still later, when Alexander the Great penetrated into Cilicia, they found the inhabitants "Barbarians." Nor is it likely that the old race would be destroyed, or the old language obliterated, especially in the mountain districts, during the reign of the Seleucid kings.
We must rather conceive of Paul's Tarsus as a city where the language of refinement is spoken and written, in the midst of a ruder population, who use a different language, and possess no literature of their own.