(63 BCE - 324 AD)
The Roman period in Jordan began in 63 BC when General Pompey occupied the regions northwest of the Nabataean Kingdom. Afterwards, northern Jordan became part of the Roman ‘Province of Syria’ that was established in the first century AD.
Similar to the previous Hellenistic kingdoms, the Roman presence was not only military but also cultural, and the spread of the Graeco-Roman culture resulted in a fusion of the local and incoming cultural elements. This is best illustrated in the League of the Decapolis (Ten Cities) founded soon after the Roman invasion.
Although much of the evidence of Roman rule has long been ruined and replaced, today there still stand a handful of fascinating sites that still recall the time of the Roman Empire in Jordan. Perhaps the largest and best preserved of these sites is the ancient Roman city of Jerash which was one of the greatest provincial cities in Rome’s empire and has been described as the best preserved sites of Roman architecture outside of Italy. Colonnaded streets, amphitheatres, bath houses, grand plazas and arches can be seen in excellent condition within the remaining city walls of Jerash, making the site one of Jordan’s most popular destinations for visiting tourists.
Further afield in the Northern most point of the country near the city of Irbid, is the wonderfully atmospheric ancient Greco-Roman town of Umm Qais. With spectacular views across Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights, Umm Qais was once a popular holiday hot spot for the ancient Romans. Today a considerable part of the city has survived including the original Roman amphitheatre, an impressive colonnaded street which was once the town’s commercial centre and the remains of the great Basilica, a mausoleum, a hippodrome and public baths. Nearby Pella, with its widespread Roman ruins and evidence of 6000 years of human settlement, has also long been a popular site of historical importance – and its location in the lush green Jordan Valley makes it a particularly pleasant place to visit in spring.
Once one of the ten cities that made up the famed Decapolis, the Jordanian capital of Amman is not without its Roman treasures. Many tourists to the capital don’t leave without first visiting the ancient Roman amphitheatre of Philadelphia – a magnificently restored three-tiered theatre built in the 2nd century AD during the reign of Antoninus Pius (AD 138–61).
The term ‘Decapolis’ (Greek “Deca”=10; “Polis”=town or city) is mentioned in the Gospel whilst referring to the territory of Gerasa (Jerash today). It was an administrative district within the Province of Syria and founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC, probably to serve as a buffer zone against the Nabataean (Arab) and the Hasmonean (Jewish) kingdoms which were feuding over sovereignty.
We know from other ancient texts that a Roman prefect ran the Decapolis in 50 AD. We lack information about its administrative nature and composition, but we know that at least six of its cities were in modern Jordan: Gadara (Umm Qaهs), Abila (Qweilba), Capitolias (Beit Ras/Irbid), Pella (Tabaqat Fahl), Gerasa (Jerash) and Philadelphia (Amman). Most of these towns were founded as Greek cities by successors of Alexander the Great who, like the Seleucids in Syria or Ptolemies from Egypt, created their kingdoms. The distinguishing feature of these cities is their “Greekness” under the political umbrella provided by Rome. This dual cultural heritage manifests itself in their monuments, official language and religion. The coinage bears images identifying these cities but also pays homage to Roman imperial protection.
After 106 AD, when Trajan had attached Gerasa and Philadelphia to the Province of Arabia and annexed the Nabataean kingdom of Petra, the Decapolis seems to have been remembered only as a geographical entity. It was no doubt the «Pax Romana» which encouraged the exuberant urban growth in the first two centuries AD.
The local trades prospered, but the cities were nonetheless affected by the general political and economic decline of the Roman empire towards the middle of the 3rd century. This made itself felt in Gerasa where ambitious 2nd century civic programmes were abandoned and the buildings left unfinished.
12In the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion. The Decapolis experienced an economic boom and the cultural revival in the Byzantine period ensured the continuation of Graeco-Roman traditions.
Province of Arabia
In AD 106, Trajan, the first non-Italian emperor, occupied the Nabataean Kingdom and established the Province of Arabia. Nabataea and the Decapolis territories formed this new province, which was the most southeasterly extent of the Roman Empire. Bostra (Busra), the last Nabataean capital became the capital of this province; while Gerasa (Jerash), a Decapolis city, was the financial centre. Jordan thrived during both Trajan’s rule (AD 98 - 117) and his successor Hadrian (AD 117-138), who spent most of his time travelling in the provinces. The triumphal arch (Arch of Hadrian) in Gerasa was built to commemorate his visit to the city.
The Roman government took a number of military and administrative measures that helped in stimulating the economy and creating a cultural and architectural boom in the second and early third centuries. These measures included building roads, maintaining security, urban development, and spreading the Graeco-Roman culture. Trade flourished in Jordan because of its geographic position, and agricultural products such as grains, olive oil and wine, were exported. Regional production of everyday objects, especially pottery and metalwork, also existed.
It is also called Via Nova Traiana, ancient thoroughfare that connected Syria and the Gulf of Aqaba by way of what is now Jordan. Mentioned in the Old Testament, it is one of the world’s oldest continuously used communication routes.
The King’s Highway was an important thoroughfare for north-south trade from ancient times. The Roman emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117 CE) renovated the road in order to improve transportation and communications between the regional capital, Bostra, and Al-ʿAqabah. The renovated road was known specifically as the “Via Nova Traiana” to distinguish it from another road that Trajan constructed, the Via Traiana in Italy. The King’s Highway was also an important thoroughfare during the Crusades, and numerous fortified castles remain along its route.
The development of similar routes—including the Pilgrimage Route, and, later, the Hejaz Railway and the Desert Highway—largely eclipsed the King’s Highway. Nevertheless, it is promoted as a tourist attraction and is a picturesque means of exploring parts of the Jordanian countryside. The road links some of Jordan’s most important historical sites, including those at Mādabā, Al-Karak, Al-Ṭafīlah, Al-Shawbak, and Petra, and also traverses important natural sites, including Wadi Al-Mawjib, wherein lies the 124-square-mile (320-square-km) Ḍānā Biosphere Reserve.
Turbulent 3rd century
The third century was a critical time for the Empire when many disturbances took place. In Syria, Zenobia the Queen of Palmyra revolted against Rome and went on in 269 to occupy parts of Egypt, most probably passing through Jordan. After the Romans suppressed Zenobia's revolt, they made several changes to the Province of Arabia, culminating in the reforms of Emperor Diocletian in 295 whereby the provinces of the region were reconfigured, new provinces got established, and the frontiers were fortified.
Spread of Christianity
The Roman Period is considered to end with the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who officially permitted and promoted Christianity in 324. Although the empire continued to be called Roman, the cultural changes that followed permit the designation of a new era - the Byzantine Period.