Philippus Arabs: The Years 244-249

Bust of Philippus Arabs (Vatican Museums).

Marcus Julius Philippus had been born in the small village of Thraconitis in the north of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.[1] This explains why he became known to posterity as Philip the Arab or Philippus Arabs. The emperor later had his place of birth completely rebuilt in grand style and renamed Philippopolis. But now that he had made peace with the Persian king Shapur in exchange for 500.000 gold coins, his first priority was to travel to Rome as quickly as possible to be formally accepted as Augustus by the Senate. His young son was later made a Caesar and would also serve as Augustus alongside his father. Philippus owed much to his older brother Gaius Julius Priscus, who would be rewarded with the title of rector Orientis, which basically made him governor of all the eastern provinces of the Empire. The Historia Augusta claims that Philippus’ predecessor Gordianus III was deified, and this may very well be correct: a DIVVS GORDIANVS is mentioned in the Chronography of 354.

Philippus’ reign

Reconstructing Philippus’ reign is notoriously difficult, and answering the question whether he was a successful emperor is even harder. In any case, the fourth century historian Aurelius Victor credits Philippus with attempting to abolish boy prostitution, although he admits the practice was still widespread in his own time, some one hundred years later. Our author also attributes construction of a reservoir on the other side of the Tiber (trans Tiberim) to Philippus and his son. Victor claimed that this part of Rome was often desperately short of water, but the reservoir may very well have been the Naumachia Philippi, which itself was possibly a restoration of Augustus’ Naumachia. This was basically a large artificial lake where mock naval battles were staged. Augustus had held such a battle to celebrate the inauguration of his Temple of Mars Ultor. The reason for Philippus to restore Augustus’ Naumachia would have been the upcoming 1000th anniversary of Rome, which was to be celebrated in April of the year 248.

Remains of the temple of Mars Ultor on the Forum of Augustus.

To celebrate Rome’s anniversary, Philippus organised Ludi Saeculares, that is, games to celebrate the passing of a saeculum. A saeculum was originally a period of 110 years, but Philippus shortened it to just 100, probably because it matched well with the year 1000 Ab Urbe Condita (since the founding of Rome). The extravagant festivities included theatrical performances, gladiatorial shows and chariot races, and they lasted for three days and three nights. The authors of the Historia Augusta claim that the emperor had all sorts of rare and exotic animals killed at the games. These had originally been intended for Gordianus III’s Persian triumph, but since Gordianus was dead and the Persians had not even been defeated (on the contrary!), Philippus’ decision to use the animals for his Ludi Saeculares seems entirely reasonable.

Foreign and internal threats

Although the Sassanid Persians respected the treaty made in 244, Philippus’ reign was not entirely peaceful. The emperor had to deal with other external threats to the Empire and seems to have campaigned extensively in the Danube area in 245-246. Zosimus claims his opponents were the Carpi, a tribe – possibly of Dacian stock – that had started raiding Roman territories. Although few details of the campaign have survived, it seems to have been a Roman success and Philippus started minting coins with the text VICTORIA CARPICA. The hostile tribes in the region were, however, far from defeated.

Although these tribes were certainly dangerous, the biggest threats to Philippus’ reign did not come from outside the Empire: they came from within. Some of the rebels that tried to wrest power from the emperor by revolting against him are very obscure indeed. Rebellions by Silbannacus in Germania and Sponsianus, probably in Pannonia, are attested only by coins (one for each to be exact). There is better evidence for two other rebellions, one in Moesia and one in Syria, where a combination of heavy taxes and Gaius Julius Priscus’ unpopularity had provoked unrest. The Moesian rebellion was led by one Tiberius Claudius Marinus Pacatianus, that in Syria by Jotapianus. Both rebellions were likely started in 248.

Bust of Decius (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Philippus could not be everywhere at the same time, so he ordered an experienced general to march east to Moesia and quell Pacatianus’ revolt. This general was Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, who had been born in the village of Budalia, not far from Sirmium in Pannonia Inferior (modern Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia). Decius had served as governor of Moesia Inferior 234 and of Hispania Tarraconensis in 238. In 248 he was the acting praefectus urbi or city prefect of Rome. As it turned out, when Decius arrived in Moesia, Pacatianus had already been killed by his own soldiers. There was still trouble in the region though, as several tribes had again started raiding Roman territories. It is unclear who they were: perhaps the Carpi again, but the Quadi and Sarmatians (likely the Iazyges) are also possibilities. It is not inconceivable that some of the invaders were Goths, a famous people that had by now entered the stage, having migrated to the region from the Ukrainian steppe.

Decius was able to fend off the invasion and as a result his popularity surged. By mid-June of 249 his soldiers offered him the purple and Decius accepted. He then quickly marched back to Italy, where he was confronted by Philippus at Verona. The legitimate emperor had a larger army, but Decius’ men were more experienced. In a bloody battle, probably fought in September, Philippus was defeated and killed. When news of the emperor’s death reached Rome, Philippus’ young son was killed by the praetorians. He had been staying in their camp, the Castra Praetoria, and cannot have been more than 12 years old. We do not know what happened to Gaius Julius Priscus, the emperor’s brother and rector Orientis. But since he is no longer mentioned in any source, he was probably killed as well.[2] Zosimus calls him ‘a man of an intolerably evil disposition’, so the population in the east was probably glad to be rid of him.

Philippus the Christian?

Church of San Babila in Milan.

As a native of Thraconitis, Philippus was from a region where Christianity was well-represented. His village of birth was in fact very close to the city of Bostra (or Nova Trajana Bostra), which had a bishop early on and where during the reign of Philippus two Christian church councils were held. This has given rise to the question whether Philippus was himself a Christian. The fourth century Christian writer Eusebius of Caesarea (died 339 or 340) certainly believed he was. In Chapter 34 of Book VI of his Historia Ecclesiastica, he reports that Philippus wanted to attend an Easter Vigil, but was refused entrance by the presiding priest, who ordered him to make his confession first and stand with the penitents.

Although Philippus and his alleged Christian faith are explicitly mentioned in Eusebius’ work, the place where the Easter Vigil was held and the name of the priest are not. However, by using the work of, among others, Saint Johannes Chrysostomos (ca. 349-407), we may be able to fill in the gaps. Chrysostomos wrote about Saint Babylas, the patriarch of Antiochia who had died a martyr’s death in prison in 253, and claimed that he had once denied an emperor entry to a church. If we combine the two stories, we may conclude that it was Babylas who blocked Philippus’ way when he wanted to enter a church, and that the event took place in Antiochia. That city certainly had a large Christian population in those days. It was in fact in Antiochia that, according to Acts 11:26, the word ‘Christian’ had been coined. Babylas made Philippus confess his sins, which may have included his involvement in the murder of Gordianus.

Saint Babylas in the church of San Babila in Milan.

And there is more interesting evidence regarding Philippus’ contacts with Christians. Saint Jerome (Hieronymus; ca. 347-420), the man responsible for the Vulgate, for instance wrote that Philippus and his mother received letters from Origenes, a Christian scholar who – like Babylas – became a victim of anti-Christian persecutions and died in ca. 253 as well. Jerome also firmly believed that Philippus was a Christian. So the evidence appears to be strong, and yet it fails to be wholly convincing. No non-Christian writers – such as Aurelius Victor or Zosimus – ever mention Philippus’ Christian faith. As emperor he was likely also the pontifex maximus and the celebration of the pagan Ludi Saeculares does not match very well with Christianity. There is no evidence that Philippus ever commissioned or built churches, nor that he gave preferential treatment to Christianity and tried to improve the position of Christians within the Empire.

It is probably better to accept that Philippus, hailing from a region where Christianity was firmly rooted, was sympathetic to Christians without ever converting to Christianity himself. In a sense he can be compared to Severus Alexander (222-235), who was said to have had a statue of Jesus Christ in his personal lararium (but also statues of Apollonius of Tyana, Abraham and Orpheus). One thing is certain though: Philippus’ successor Decius was not a Christian, and it would show.

Sources

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 94 and 99;
  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 97.

Notes

[1] Now the town of Shahba in Southern Syria.

[2] The ‘Lucius Priscus’ mentioned in Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 29, cannot be Philippus’ brother (whose name was Gaius, not Lucius). He is in fact Titus Julius Priscus, the governor of Thrace.

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