Philip the Arab: Emperor of Rome
He reigned for five years during the 3rd century
Philip the Arab is so named because his family came from Syria. However, this background does not appear to have affected his behavior in office to any extent – there was nothing noticeably “un-Roman” in how he treated the role of Emperor.
Marcus Julius Philippus was born in around 204 at Shahba in Syria (now in Jordan), a city that he later spent large sums of money on improving and beautifying, and which was renamed Philippopolis as a result.
He became co-prefect alongside his brother Julius Priscus in the year 243. This was an important role, because the Emperor, Gordian III, was aged 18 and had only been in titular charge of the empire since unexpectedly becoming emperor at the age of 13 in 238. The prefects were the people who made most of the decisions.
A military defeat in Syria in February 244 led to Gordian being assassinated, and Philip may have been part of the conspiracy that carried this out. The defeat led to an ignominious peace settlement with Persia that involved the payment of half a million denarii.
As Emperor, Philip was perfectly happy to rule from Rome and do the things that emperors traditionally did, like spending huge sums of money on building projects, particularly in his home city as noted above.
Another huge drain on resources was the lavish celebration in 248 of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Rome, which was believed to be in 753 BC.
Philip had to take measures to restore the coffers. One of these was to widen the tax base by including more people in each community who were to be held personally liable for any shortfall in the overall annual tax payments. Another was to cut the loyalty-buying subsidies paid to tribes north of the Danube. This latter move was undoubtedly less than wise.
Philip realized that running a huge empire from Rome created many strains and pressures on the administration, and it was not possible for one man to be able to make all the major decisions. He therefore appointed men who were – in effect – deputy emperors in the regions. The first of these deputies were family members, including his brother Julius Priscus in the eastern empire.
The empire had had joint emperors in the past, but this was really the first experiment in regional devolution. Later emperors would take this process even further, leading eventually to the split of the Roman Empire into virtually independent eastern and western empires.
Threats, both external and internal
Although Philip had bought off the Persians for time being, trouble from external enemies was never far away. The Alemanni made an incursion across the Rhine, and the Carpi and Goths were constantly making life difficult in the Danube region, especially after Philip’s subsidy cuts mentioned above.
Philip also faced challenges from a whole string of would-be emperors who gained support in various parts of the Empire. These all had to be dealt with in turn.
Philip’s undoing came from one such challenger, Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, who had been sent to deal with the trouble on the Danube. After successfully doing so, Decius was persuaded by his troops to declare himself emperor and march on Rome.
Battle was joined near Verona in September 249 when Philip was killed and Decius took over.
Suggestions were made in later centuries that Philip was the first Christian emperor, although if that was the case he did little to advertise the fact. However, the later actions of Decius to reinforce the worship of pagan gods may just possibly have been a response to what he saw as a dangerous tendency by Philip to tolerate a new religion.