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Philip the Arab
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Bust of emperor Philippus Arabus - Hermitage Museum.jpg
Reign 244 - 249
Full name Marcus Julius Philippus (from birth to accession);
Caesar Marcus Julius Philippus Augustus (as emperor)
Born c. 204
Birthplace Shahba
Died 249 (aged 45)
Place of death Verona
Predecessor Gordian III
Successor Decius and Herennius Etruscus
Wife Marcia Otacilia Severa
Offspring Marcus Julius Philippus Severus (Philippus II, 238-249) & Julia Severa or Severina
Father Julius Marinus

Marcus Julius Philippus or Philippus I Arabs (c. 204–249), known in English as Philip the Arab or formerly (prior to World War II) as Philip the Arabian, was a Roman Emperor from 244 to 249.


Early life

Little is known about Philip's early life and political career. He was born in Shahba, about 55 miles southeast of Damascus, in the Roman province of Syria. Philip has the nickname "the Arab" because he had family who had originated in the Arabian peninsula, and who were believed to be distant descendants of the prestigious Baleed family of Aleppo. Philip was the son of a Julius Marinus, a local Roman citizen, possibly of some importance. Many historians[1][2][3] agree that he was of Arab descent and gained Roman citizenship through his father, a man of considerable influence. 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.

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. They had two children: a son named Marcus Julius Philippus Severus (Philippus II) in 238 and according to numismatic evidence they had a daughter called Julia Severa or Severina, whom the ancient Roman sources don't mention.

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

Political career

Coin of Marcia Otacilia Severa, wife of Philip. The Greek legend states she received the title of Augusta.
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. Whatever the case, Philip assumed the purple following Gordian's death. 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.[4]

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 travelled west, after concluding a peace treaty with Shapur I, and left his brother Priscus as extraordinary ruler of the Eastern provinces. In Rome he was confirmed Augustus, and nominated his young son Caesar and heir.

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. 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 A.D. 248 (April 1000 A.U.C.), Philip had the honour of leading the celebrations of the one thousandth birthday of Rome, which according to tradition was founded in 753 BC 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.[5] The events were also celebrated in literature, with several publications, including Asinius Quadratus's History of a Thousand Years, specially prepared for the anniversary.

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 sometime in September 249,[6] either in the fighting or assassinated by his own soldiers who were eager to please the new ruler. Philip's eleven-year-old son and heir may have been killed with his father and Priscus disappeared without a trace.[6]

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. Later versions located this event in Antioch.[7]

However, historians generally identify the later Emperor Constantine, baptised on his deathbed, as the first Christian emperor, and generally describe Philip's adherence to Christianity as dubious, because non-Christian writers do not mention the fact, and because throughout his reign, Philip to all appearances (coinage, etc.) continued to follow the state religion.[8] Critics ascribe Eusebius' claim as probably due to the tolerance Philip showed towards Christians. Saint Quirinus of Rome was, according to a legendary account, the son of Philip the Arab.[9]


  1. ^ Ball, Warwick (2000). Rome in the East: the transformation of an empire. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-24357-2.  
  2. ^ The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary of Biography, Houghton-Mifflin, London 2003: p1203
  3. ^ Riverside Dictionary Of Biography, Houghton-Mifflin, London 2004: p603.
  4. ^ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, p. 234, Edward Gibbon (The Online Library of Liberty). [1].
  5. ^ Graham, T. (Writer and Director). (2000). The Fall [Television series episode]. In T. Graham (Producer), Rome: Power and Glory. Military Channel.
  6. ^ a b Potter (2004), p. 241.
  7. ^ Philip the Arab and Rival Claimants of the later 240s
  8. ^ Cruse, C.F., translator. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, Hendrickson Publishers, 1998 (fourth printing, 2004), pp. 220-221.
  9. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: Sts. Quirinus". 1911-06-01. Retrieved 2009-02-17.  
  • Potter, David S. The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395, Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-10058-5

External links

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Gordian III
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by


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