31 January 2008

Philip the Arab Sets His Sights on Septimius

The promised story of the emperor Philip 'the Arab' (244-249 AD) is once again postponed. My apologies but I'm travelling until Monday and have run out of time.

To keep thoughts riveted, meanwhile, on this almost entirely forgotten emperor, on the right is a fragment of the Septizodium once on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The drawing (made by Martin van Heemskerk between 1532 and 1536) shows all that was then left of this massive structure and its endlessly bubbling fountains. It was built by Septimius Severus in honour of himself around the year 203 AD. Septimius, you may recall, was the husband of our First Uppity Woman, Julia Domna.

The Septi-zodium supposedly got the 'Seven' in its name from its dedication to the seven planetary deities: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the Moon, and the Sun. A statue of Septimius Severus may have stood at the very centre of the monument, with the emperor portrayed as the deified Sun (and Julia Domna as Venus?). No statues survive to prove or disprove the planetary theory. But, anyway, there's another intriguing idea that I like better.

Before the emperor's accession in 193 AD, as Cassius Dio tells us, the gods had sent him seven omens predicting his rise to imperial power. These signs appeared to the emperor in dreams. In his third dream, he saw water gushing from his hand, as from a spring, while he slept. One can easily picture a colossal statue of Septimius with the emperor holding a bowl or jug from which water flows into a basin on the level below. This would have instantly reminded those gathered around the statue's feet of the divine omens foretelling -- and justifying -- his rule. It would be fun to imagine images appropriate to the other six divine signs. If anyone would like to try their hand at this, the reference is Dio 74.3.

What has the Septizodium to do with Philip the Arab?

Although Septimius was Libyan-born, his wife was a Syrian and she spawned a more or less Syrian dynasty. Philip was born in the heart of the Syrian badlands, that infinitely depressing area of black basalt, the Trachon and Hauron regions which today straddle the Syrian-Jordanian border. True, his village was then in the province of Arabia (hence, he's known to history, as 'the Arab'; how he thought of his own ethnic background is a complete unknown), but the Four Julia's from Emesa in Syria would have been his nearest royal neighbours.

Philip had dynastic pretensions, too, and it seems natural in hindsight for him to have turned to Septimius as his role model. That may be why he imitated the Septizodium, building a group of unusual temples ( the so-called Kalybe temples) across the 'Basalt Land', intended especially for the worship of the emperor. The first, reconstructed above, was in the city he founded and named after himself – Philippopolis (today called Shahba). Within a relatively short time, seven Kalybe temples were erected, all within less than 50 km (30 miles) of Philippopolis, all in ‘the badlands', and all of horrible black basalt.

It wasn't enough.

He was perhaps a little bit like Septimius but he didn't have Septimius' luck to die in bed.

Buon viaggio to me. The story of Philip's five years as a god will appear next week.


  1. Can't wait for the Boy from Emesa to come on the scene.

  2. If you mean Elagabalus, he's already played his part on the Empress' stage:






    Will that do as a start? :-)

  3. Good day:
    While our emperor's official name is "Philip the Arab" there's a strong suggestion that his family name is derived from the Arabic-Semetic word"Sabath" "سبط" which means "branch from a tribe".


Blog Archive