Tarsus was the capital of the Roman Province of Cilicia, situated between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. The Province of Cilicia varied between 30 to 60 miles wide and was about 300 miles long. The city of Tarsus was about 10 miles inland of the Mediterranean on the alluvial plain, watered by the Cydnus and may have had as many as one half million inhabitants in the time of St. Paul. Ramsey described the city as about 70 feet above sea level on a level plain.
The lower Cyndus was made navigable and a port had been built to carry goods to and from the sea. A major road lead to the north where the famous mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates lay less than 29 miles inland. Sir William Ramsey described the pass as one of the most famous and important passes in history.
The origins of the city are shrouded in mystery, but it appears the city was a native Cilician town taken over by Ionian settlers of antiquity. Josephus attributes the city to the Tarshish of Genesis 10:4, but this is by no means certain. It is mentioned several places in historical record with certainty. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser says this city was taken by the Assyrians (mid C9 BCE). Xenophon passed through in 401 BCE, and found the ruler to be a local. Alexander found the rulership in the hands of the Persians, and he replaced the ruler (334 BCE).
Coins found in excavations of the region make no claim of autonomy until after the defeat of Antiochus the Great at the hands of the Romans (189 BCE). Syria appears to have undergone some reorganization at this time, allowing autonomy in some of the regions. Tarsus appears to have grown into autonomy at this time establishing a constitution as a free city. The city became part of the Roman Empire with the arrival of Pompey the Roman General and the defeat of the pirates that often harassed the city by about 64 BCE.
Some scholars speculate that St. Paul may be a descendant of some of those who were promised free citizenship if they moved to the Cilician city in 171 BCE. Another claim for the citizenship ancestry of St. Paul can be found in some who raise the possibility that St. Paul's father or grandfather helped Marc Antony (and thus Rome) during Cleopatra's renowned visit to Tarsus in 41 BCE.
The historian Strabo mentions the splendor of the event, as Cleopatra sailed her gilded barge in the Cyndus into the city. In addition, there is reason to believe that Antony and Octavian used some resources of the city in their struggle against Brutus and Cassius, who they later defeated at Philippi in Macedonia. Some have even suggested that a tent maker's gift could have been repaid in citizenship (cp. Acts 18:3), though this is mere speculation.
Autonomy meant that Tarsus was able to govern itself under its own laws, impose import taxation and a variety of other freedoms. Strabo mentions that the city was excited by education, and was home to the third largest university, after Athens and Alexandria. One teacher or note that came from Tarsus was the famous Athenodorus, a Stoic Philosopher that tutored Augustus at Apollonia, and later became his advisor from 44 to 15 BCE.
This probably accounts for August's favor on the city. Athenodorus returned to Tarsus and established a reform to the city in15 BCE. Along with the reforms, he established a patrician class that probably included the family of St. Paul, who boasts of his association with the city (Acts 21:39).
In addition to being the hometown of St. Paul (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), it was also the city St. Paul returned to after his escape from Jerusalem (Acts 9:30). Barnabas found St. Paul in the city and enlisted him to service at Antioch (Acts 11:25ff). St. Paul may well have visited on the Second and Third Mission Journeys (Acts 15:41; 18:22-23).