17 February 2008

The Short, Sad Dynasty of Philip the Arab

April 21, 248 AD

There were thirty-two elephants at Rome ..., ten elk, ten tigers, sixty tame lions, thirty tame leopards, ten hyenas, a thousand pairs of imperial gladiators, six hippopotami, one rhinoceros, ten wild lions, ten giraffes, twenty wild asses, forty wild horses, and various other animals of this nature without number. All of these Philip presented or slew at the secular games ... consisting of both gladiatorial spectacles and races in the Circus, that were celebrated on the thousandth anniversary of the founding of the City, when he and his son were consuls.

Rome had existed for 1,000 years ((actually 1001 years, counting from the city's legendary foundation in 753 BC). Hurrah! It must have been quite a party. I'm not sure the thousand dead gladiators enjoyed it, but everyone else surely did -- a festival of theatrical and musical events, games in the Circus and the amphitheatre, literary and artistic displays. Philip should have been a very happy man.

But he doesn't look very happy; does he?

True, he hadn't an auspicious beginning to his reign (as told in Little Gordian Goes to War). First, Philip was accused -- rightly or wrongly -- of murdering his predecessor, the Praetorian Prefect Timesitheus. That foul deed was followed (according to Roman and Greek sources) by his having treacherously destroyed the emperor Gordian III as well. The reward of his villainy was that, after their defeat by the Persians, the remnant of the Roman army raised Philip to the purple.

But Shapur King of Kings wasn't done with the Roman invaders yet. You see Philip (below) on his knees, begging for mercy from his conqueror. True, that was better than the fate of Gordian III, whose crushed head appears between the forelegs of Shapur's horse. Philip managed to trade his life and his surviving soldiers for what was literally a king's ransom

Then Philip Caesar came to us [Shapur] for terms, and to ransom their lives, gave us 500,000 denarii, and became tributary to us.

And so it came about that an 'Arab' was on the throne when Rome celebrated its 1,000th birthday.

So who was Philip?

Probably not an 'Arab' at all (no more than Zenobia was Arab ... though both are claimed). In these post-colonial times, it's daring to deny anyone their pseudo-ancestral heroes. Yasmine Zahran, for example, champions Philip the Arab as "a moderate, humane and just man, alone in his struggle against the odds." * And a scholar who should know better writes that he was "important for anticipating the rise of the Arabs to domination" -- four hundred years later! And also imagines that Philip's portraits show "the features and tight curly hair that one sees in Syria even today." * Really?

Phooey. 'Arab' was not an ethnic tag in the 3rd century. At best, it described someone from the former kingdom of Nabataea which had been transformed into the Roman province of Arabia. The earliest description by far of Philip simply refers to him as 'coming from Syria'. He was born, in fact, just outside the province of Arabia, near today's Syrian-Jordanian border. By the second century and afterwards, all inscriptions from this region are in Greek. Sometime around the year of his birth (ca. 200 AD) the district may have been lopped off 'Syria Phoenice' and been joined to 'Arabia'.** That's as close as he got.

In truth, the fourth century and later writers who tagged him as 'the Arab' didn't really care whether he was from Syria or Arabia: he was an 'Oriental' and that was bad enough.

In their eyes, that also meant 'low-born,' a nonsensical charge when you consider that both he and his elder brother Priscus entered the Imperial service and rose through equestrian military careers to become Praetorian Prefects. Their father, Julius Marinus, was clearly a Roman citizen, most probably a substantial land-owner, and surely Greek-speaking. It's strange that we don't even know his mother's name. No trace of her at all. You'd think an emperor would boast or boost both his parents; wouldn't you? Oddly enough, one of Philip's first acts as emperor was to deify his father, even though he had never been Emperor. This was unprecedented. Normally, imperial upstarts tried to manufacture a family tree that connected them to one or another previous emperor.

I wonder why he didn't connect himself to Septimius Severus, perhaps through Julia Domna.

I would almost have believed him! He certainly imitated Septimius.

Just as Septimius embellished his home town (Lepcis Magna in Libya), Philip tried to turn his birthplace, the village of Shahba (55 miles [90 km] southeast of Damascus) into a replica of Rome itself. He built a completely new city in the middle of nowhere, named after himself, Philippopolis -- adorning it with palaces and temples, triumphal arches and public baths, paved streets, a theatre, with a great wall surrounding it. His father got his own temple, where he received due divine honours. In short, it was the Graeco-Roman ideal of a city on the edge of the Syrian steppe. It was also a great white elephant and almost uninhabited until recent times.

In 234, while serving in the Praetorian guards, Philip married Marcia Otacilia Severa, the daughter of an aristocratic Roman family. A son was born by 238 and named Marcus Julius Severus Philippus (the future Philip II) and a daughter Julia Severa, about whom nothing is known. Philip's early career is also obscure, though he was undoubtedly helped along by his brother, Julius Priscus. Priscus was appointed Praetorian Prefect by Gordian III , having previously served as prefect of the Roman province of Mesopotamia.

Once he came to the throne, Philip lost no time in establishing a dynasty exactly as Septimius had done. His wife received the title of Augusta and his six-year old son was made Caesar. He promoted his brother Priscus to rector Orientis -- 'Ruler of the East' -- who then exercised supreme power over eastern armies and provinces from his headquarters in Antioch. Otacilia's father (or perhaps her brother) Severianus was made governor of the ever-troublesome province of Moesia on the south bank of the Danube River (today, northern Bulgaria).

Defence of the Empire was his first priority. In 246-7 he fought the barbarian Carpi and Quadi on the Danube, taking the titles Germanicus and Carpicus maximus. That ought to mean he won hands down, but he had a bad record when it came to battle honours: he had declared himself, if briefly, Persicus maximus and Parthicus maximus in 244 when, as we saw in the picture above, he was kneeling before the King of Kings. In any case, no more than the usual mayhem ensued on the frontiers, with two revolts by army commanders breaking out in the Danubian and Syrian legions. Still, Philip must have felt strong enough to stop paying subsidies to the Goths in 248. The Goths got mad as was their wont, united, and invaded Moesia and Thrace.

↵ Why didn't Philip go himself to fight the Goths?

The wars along the Danube weren't go well. Severianus was unable to put down the army mutiny while the Goths went on rampaging through the Balkans. Philip may have originally planned to tackle the Goths himself. In the summer of 247 -- again following the model of Septimius -- he elevated Philip II to Augustus and made him co-ruler, even though he wasn't yet ten years old. This surely was meant to ensure the succession passing down without interruption (presumably if he died on campaign) but civil war, not titles, would decide the matter.

At this critical point, Philip seems to have lost his nerve. According to a Byzantine historian, he offered his resignation to the Senate -- an offer they felt able (or wiser) to refuse. Perhaps Philip realized that the mutinous troops would not obey him. He may rightly have feared them. So, instead of leading the army himself, he entrusted the defence of Moesia to Senator C. Messius Quintus Decius, a native of the region. It wasn't a great idea. Although Decius put down the revolt, the Balkan legions declared him the new emperor, confident that he was more than a match for Philip (and much more promising for them in terms of loot):
For this purpose they clothed Decius in purple, and ... compelled him to assume the supreme authority. Philip therefore, on hearing that Decius was made emperor, collected all his forces to overpower him. The supporters of Decius, though they knew that the enemy had greatly the advantage in numbers, still retained their confidence, trusting to the general skill of Decius in warfare. And when the two armies engaged [in the north of Italy, near Verona] ... a great number of Philip's partisans were slain and he himself among them, together with his son, on whom he had conferred the title of Caesar. Decius thus acquired the empire.
It's doubtful that the boy Philip II was with the army at Verona. More likely, as another version has it, he was slaughtered by the Praetorians in Rome when the news of Philip's defeat reached them.

So it goes.

Philip 'the Arab' had first arrived in Rome in July 244. By September 249, he was dead. Half a decade of power. And Philippopolis was left less than half finished, a black-stone city where nobody lived.

Next (unless further distracted by Saudi witches): Was Philip a secret Christian?

* Y. Zahran: Philip the Arab, a Study in Prejudice. London 2001; W. Ball: Rome in the East. The Transformation of an Empire. London/New York 2000.

** Whoops, I skidded on this in Philip the Arab Sets his Sights on Septimius : it isn't certain that the Shahba region had become part of Arabia even by ca. 200.

My thanks to Livius Picture Archive for the photograph of Philip kneeling in front of Shapur's horse.

↵ A revolving film image of this recently discovered head of Philip recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Corsica on the ARASM site.


  1. Philip kneeling before Shapur offers an interesting study. A cosmopolitan Roman, personally encompassing that which is regarded as both Western and historically Semitic (Oriental), unsuccessfully opposed to the military might of an eastern Aryan.

  2. I like the "cosmopolitan Roman" description but, of course, we have no idea how he structured his own ethnicity. That's the biggest "known unknown".

    Fergus Millar, at the end of his The Roman Near East, 31 BC - AD 337 can only say: "If we seek to know who the inhabitants of the Roman Near East in these centuries really 'were', and what identity cities and communities there attributed to themselves, we must be content after all with ambiguous answers."

    Too true. And one reason that the study of this time and place is so fascinating.

  3. That is not just Philip the Arab , if it is Philip the Arab at all .. Shapur's victory over the Roman Valerian in 259. Philip the Arab was dead by then

  4. Karla, this is a detail from Shapur's rock relief at Bishapur, recounting his victory over the Romans in 244: it shows Gordian dead under the king's horse with Philip kneeling before him and begging for his life. Perhaps you are thinking of the later relief from Naqs-i Rustam which celebrates Shapur's victory over Valerian (who is held by the hand)and also reminds the viewer of the previous 'submission' of Philip. For the first, see http://www.livius.org/be-bm/bishapur/bishapur_relief_ii.html; the second can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shapur_I


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