Philip the Arab

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Philip the Arab

Marcus Julius Philippus or Philippus I Arabs (c. 204 - 249), known in English as Philip the Arab or formerly (prior to World War II) in English as Philip the Arabian, was a Roman Emperor from 244 to 249. He became a member of the Praetorian guard under Alexander Severus in 243. When Gordian II died in 244, Philip claimed the throne; his Ascension was later confirmed by the Senate. His young son was declared co-ruler and heir. Following a successful campaign in Germanica in 245-6, Philip and his family were awarded many additional titles and honors. In 248, Philip presided over the celebrations marking Rome's one thousandth anniversary. The following year, his brief but mainly peaceful reign ended when a revolt broke out. He was killed in battle; his son was assassinated. Philip was the first and last Arab Emperor of Rome. Philip saw himself as memner of the Severus dynasty, although he was unrelated by blood and added "Severus" to his son's name.

Later Roman literature was unkind to Philip and to Arabs, depicting Philip as uncouth and Arabs as barbarian. This may be an early example of Culture War. There is, however, evidence that Philip was an educated, cultured, and enlightened ruler, a phihellene who deeply respected Rome's traditions and heritage. Much discussion surrounds whether Philip, not Constantine I, was the first Christian emperor. Those who argue that Philip was not a Christian point to his participation in pagan ceremonies. Others say that he was a Christian but continued to honor and respect the religion of the majority of Roman citizens. Certainly, it was Constantine and not Philip who legalized the faith. Philip appears to have exercised a policy of religious tolerance, separating his private faith from his politics. Philip's Christianity was a matter of the heart, not of the state. What developed, sometimes referred to as Constantinian Christianity, would be associated with power. Philip, unlike Constantine, did not feel the need to elevate one version of Christianity over others or to persecute anyone because of their beliefs. Philip's Christianity, too, may have been more tolerant of pluralism inside as well as outside the Church.

Birth and family

Little is known about Philip's early life and political career. He was born in Shahba, about 55 miles southeast of Damascus, in the of Syria. Philip has the nickname "the Arab" because he had family who had originated in the Arabian peninsula, believed to be distant descendants of the Baleed family of Aleppo. Philip was the son of a Julius Marinus, a local Roman citizen, possibly of some importance. Many historians agree that he was of Arab descent who gained Roman citizenship through his father, a man of considerable influence. Ball refers to a story that Philip's father was a bandit, which he attributes to "later Roman anti-Arab prejudice."[1] Many citizens from the provinces took Roman names upon acquiring citizenship. This makes tracing his Arabic blood line difficult. However, it is documented that Rome used the Ghassan tribe from the Azd of Yemen as vassals to keep the neighboring northern Arabs in check. Arabic oracles speak of a local Sheikh, Uthaina, who was reported to have risen from the ranks to command the Eastern armies of the Roman Empire. This strengthens the possibility of Philip's Arab descent to some degree. Zahran describes Philip as an educated and "cultivated man" who admired Greek learning and was probably influenced by the Sophists."[2]

The name of Philip's mother is unknown, but sources refer to a brother, Gaius Julius Priscus, a member of the Praetorian guard under Gordian III (238–244). In 234, Philip married Marcia Otacilia Severa, daughter of a Roman Governor. Zahran says that Otacilia's name suggests that her family enjoyed some association with the imperial dynasty. She "Otacilia admired and felt close to the Severan empresses" and later enjoyed "as many honours as they" had.[3] They had two children: a son named Nisbis (later Marcus Julius Philippus Severus) (Philippus II), in 238, and a daughter called Singara (later known as Julia Severa or Severina).[4] Inclusion of "Severus" in Philip's heir's name indicates his "attachment to the Severan dynastsy."[5]

Philip became a member of the Pretorian Guard in 243 during the reign of the emperor Alexander Severus, who was a Syrian.[1] In ancient Rome the Pretorian Guard was closely associated with the emperor, serving among other tasks as the emperor's bodyguard.

Coin of Marcia Otacilia Severa, wife of Philip. The Greek legend states she received the title of Augusta.

Political career

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Shapur I (on horseback) with Philip the Arab and (perhaps) Emperor Valerian.

In 243, during Gordian III's campaign against Shapur I of Persia, the Praetorian prefect Timesitheus died under unclear circumstances. At the suggestion of his brother Priscus, Philip became the new Praetorian prefect, with the intention that the two brothers would control the young Emperor and rule the Roman world as unofficial regents. Following a military defeat, Gordian III died in 244, under circumstances that are still debated. While some claim that Philip conspired in his murder, other accounts (including one coming from the Persian point of view) state that Gordian died in battle. Commenting on the leisurely way that he traveled to Rome, Zahran writes that this, "is not the action of a man rushing to placate the Senate and conceal a crime."[6] Whatever the case, Philip assumed the purple following Gordian's death with the support of the army. According to Edward Gibbon:

His rise from so obscure a station to the first dignities of the empire seems to prove that he was a bold and able leader. But his boldness prompted him to aspire to the throne, and his abilities were employed to supplant, not to serve, his indulgent master.[7]

Philip was not willing to repeat the mistakes of previous claimants, and was aware that he had to return to Rome in order to secure his position with the senate. He thus traveled west, after concluding a peace treaty with Shapur I, and left his brother Priscus as Rector Orientalis (extraordinary ruler) of the Eastern provinces.[8] In Rome, he was confirmed Augustus, and nominated his young son, Caesar, and heir. As was the custom, Philip "published his decrees in the joint names of himself and the Caesar."[9]

Philip's rule started with yet another Germanic incursion on the provinces of Pannonia and the Goths invaded Moesia (modern-day Serbia and Bulgaria) in the Danube frontier. They were finally defeated in the year 248, but the legions were not satisfied with the result, probably due to a low share of the plunder, if any. However, in 247, when Philip returned to Rome after campaigning in the Germanic region, he was awarded the titles "Carpicus Maximus" and "Germanicus Maximus," his father was deified, his son's status as Caesar confirmed and Otacilia also received additional honors.[10] During his reign, he elevated Bosra and other towns in Syria to metropolitan status; he raised Damascus to colonial rank.[11]

Rebellion soon arose and Tiberius Claudius Pacatianus was proclaimed emperor by the troops. The uprising was crushed and Philip nominated Gaius Messius Quintus Decius as governor of the province. Future events would prove this to be a mistake. Pacatianus' revolt was not the only threat to his rule: in the East, Marcus Jotapianus led another uprising in response to the oppressive rule of Priscus and the excessive taxation of the Eastern provinces. Two other usurpers, Marcus Silbannacus and Sponsianus, are reported to have started rebellions without much success.

Cippus commemorating Roman Millennium.

In April 248, Philip had the honor of leading the celebrations of the one thousandth birthday of Rome, which according to tradition was founded in 753 B.C.E. by Romulus. He combined the anniversary with the celebration of Rome's alleged tenth saeculum. According to contemporary accounts, the festivities were magnificent and included spectacular games, ludi saeculares, and theatrical presentations throughout the city. In the coliseum, more than 1,000 gladiators were killed along with hundreds of exotic animals including hippos, leopards, lions, giraffes, and one rhinoceros. The events were also celebrated in literature, with several publications, including Asinius Quadratus's History of a Thousand Years, specially prepared for the anniversary. (This did not survive except for a few fragments.) Philip's use of pagan ceremonial during the celebrations is one reason why some scholars have questioned his Christian faith.

100 Syrian pound note with Philip the Arab.

Despite the festive atmosphere, discontent in the legions was growing. Decius (249–251) was proclaimed Emperor by the Danubian armies in the spring of 249 and immediately marched to Rome. Philip's army met the usurper near modern Verona that summer. Decius won the battle and Philip was killed, either in the fighting or assassinated by his own soldiers who were eager to please the new ruler. When the news of Decius' success reached Rome, Philip's eleven year old son and heir was also murdered.

Religious beliefs

Some later traditions, first mentioned in the historian Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, held that Philip was the first Christian Roman emperor. This tradition seems to be based on reports in Eusebius that Philip allegedly had once entered a Christian service on Easter, after having been required by a bishop to confess his sins.[12] Later versions located this event in Antioch.[13] Philip is also said to have corresponded with Origen; Zahran says that they were acquainted.[14] Historians usually identify the later Emperor Constantine I, baptized on his deathbed, as the first Christian emperor. Philip's adherence to Christianity has been regarded as dubious, because non-Christian writers do not mention the fact, and because throughout his reign, Philip to all appearances (coinage, participation in pagan ceremonies) continued to follow the state religion. Critics ascribe Eusebius' claim as probably due to the tolerance Philip showed towards Christians. Walker says that Philip was "known for his sympathy towards Christians."[15] Sartre says that it is unlikely that Philip was a Christian.[16] Ball suggests that Philip was a Christian but that this was for him a private not a public matter. He also comments that later tradition minimized his Christianity in order to emphasize Constantine's, who legalized the faith for what may have been mainly political reasons.[17] Prejudice surrounding his Arab origin may also be relevant here; as Christianity became Rome's new religion, with Rome the official center of what became the Roman Catholic Church, whose chief bishop, the Pope claimed temporal and spiritual leadership based on Constantine's last testament, the Roman not Arab identity of the first Christian emperor gained significance.[18]

Zahran also points out that Philip "did not try to involve the state in his belief."[2] She offers a different opinion; not only was Philip a Christian, as was his wife, but he had been raised as a Christian; "Philip … was born a Christian" she says.[19] She suggests that there is no contradiction involved in Philip building pagan shrines and participating in pagan ceremonies because he was "first and foremost an emperor of all the Romans" and was also concerned with upholding tradition. She also points out that Alexander Severus had kept images of "Abraham and Christ as well as pagan heroes and teachers in his shrine."[20] The deification of Philip's father, too, was linked with the desire to establish dynastic bone-fides: "That Philip followed strictly the pagan rituals and ancient rites of Roman religion, together with the holding of games, was due to his insistence that his regime should follow the traditions and authority of the Roman past."[20] His use of the title Pontifex Maximus, she says "also carries little conviction: The title continued to be used by Roman emperors after Christianity became the official state religion and survives even today as the title of the Pope!"[21] She also stresses his toleration; he was "open-minded and respected the religion of the majority." "Philip was," she says "Emperor of all and Christian to himself." Zahran speculates that Philip's openness may have been influenced by Origen's universalism.[22] Saint Quirinus of Rome was, according to a legendary account, the son of Philip the Arab.[23]


Philip was the "the first and last Arab to occupy the imperial throne," which is sufficient to earn him a place in history.[24] Ball describes Philip's brief reign as a period of stability in a century of instability. He also says that Philip's reign was "remarkable" because it saw an Arab ruling the Romans "not as a conqueror" but as "one of their own." It was remarkable, too, that as an Arab, he presided over the Millennium celebrations as "the embodiment of Roman civilization."[1] He suggests that an Arab's elevation to the purple made a lasting impact on the Arab world, signifying their entry onto the world-stage, even preparing the way for their later conquests, when Islam swept across the Middle East from the seventh century on.[17] Ball suggests that if an Arab could become Emperor of Rome, then Arabs could hold their up heads with pride. Philip's image is on the Syrian one hundred pound note, which shows that his legacy is honored in the Arab world. While Ball does refer to Roman anti-Aran prejudice he does not emphasize this aspect of Philip's legacy, unlike Zahran. Zahran says that the prefix "The Arab" to Philip's name was itself a "a term of abuse."[25] She cites Zosimus, "writing in the fifth century" for whom the elevation of an Arab to the purple represented the barbarization of the Empire; for him, Arabia was a "wicked country." St Jerome on the one hand described Philip as the first Christian Emperor but added that he had been a "robber by profession" in his early life.[26] Such references to Philip are examples of historical revisionism. Describing Philip as "a tolerant and cultivated man" she says that he did "not engage in the pursuit of pleasure, nor in the exercise of tyranny."[2]

The prejudice against Philip appears to gave developed after his own time. Zosimus wrote in the fifth century while "modern Western writers have far outdone classical authors in their denigration of Philip and the Arabs," says Zahran with copious quotations. For example, one writer had it that Philip was "uncouth, ill-bred, arrogant and ruthless" which more or less reverses her own description.[27] This raises the issue of how Philip was perceived in his own time. There may have been some resentment against Philip due to his ethnic origins but it is also true that people from many backgrounds acquired Roman citizenship and that many rose to prominent positions. On the other hand, Isaac traces the roots of racism and zenophobia to the Greeks and Romans, who had their "prejudices, phobias and hostilities towards specific groups of foreigners."[28] Philip's own policy appears to have been enlightened; he did not persecute or privilege people because of their beliefs. If his policy of toleration had continued, Christian attitudes towards the religious other as well as the history of Church-state relations might have been different. However, since he did not take the step of actually legalizing Christianity, that task remained for Constantine. Although it was later that Christianity replaced paganism as the state religion, it was under Constantine that imperial patronage of the church began. What developed, sometimes referred to as Constantinian Christianity, would be associated with power. This did not hesitate to persecute those who dissented. Philip's faith had more to do with matters of the heart than with power and coercion. This type of Christianity may have been more tolerant of pluralism inside and outside the Church. Philip, unlike Constantine, did not feel the need to elevate one version of Christianity over others.

Preceded by:
Gordian III
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by: Decius


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ball (2000), 417.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Zahran (2001), 117.
  3. Zahran (2001), 74.
  4. Zahran (2001), 120.
  5. Zahran (2001), 73.
  6. Zahran (2001), 62.
  7. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Online Library of Liberty. Retrieved January 23, 2009.
  8. Zahran (2001), 67.
  9. Zahran (2001), 78.
  10. Zahran (2001), 95.
  11. Zahran (2001), 70; 78.
  12. C.F. Cruse (trans.), Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, ISBN 9781565633711), 220-221.
  13. Michael L. Meckler and Christian Körner, Philip the Arab and Rival Claimants of the later 240s, De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors. Retrieved January 23, 2009.
  14. Zahran (2001), 107-108.
  15. Walker (1985), 96.
  16. Sartre (2005), 339.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Ball (2000), 418.
  18. Fordham University, Donation of Constantine, Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved January 23, 2009.
  19. Zahran (2001), 107.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Zahran (2001), 75.
  21. Zahran (2001), 114.
  22. Zahran (2001), 109.
  23. S. Baring-Gould, The Lives of the Saints (London: John C. Nimmo, 1897), 456.
  24. Zahran (2001), 22
  25. Zahran (2001), 18.
  26. Zahran (2001), 19.
  27. Zahran (2001), 20.
  28. Isaac (2006), 37.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ball, Warwick. 2000. Rome in the East the Transformation of an Empire. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780203159422.
  • Isaac, Benjamin H. 2006. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691125985.
  • Sartre, Maurice. 2005. The Middle East under Rome. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674016835.
  • Swift, Louis J. 1966. The Anonymous Encomium of Philip the Arab. Durham, NC: Duke University.
  • Walker, Williston. 1985. A History of the Christian Church. New York, NY: Scribner. ISBN 9780684184173.
  • Zahran, Yasmine. 2001. Philip the Arab: A Study in Prejudice. The Arabian library. London, UK: Stacey. ISBN 9781900988285.

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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