Philip the Arab, a tale of two cities

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by GinoLR, Mar 17, 2023.

  1. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    Philip the Arab is very common on coins, Roman and provincial, but some historians think we know very little about him. Probably it’s because he has no personal biography in the Historia Augusta, and the other late Roman biographers like Aurelius Victor do not tell much more about him.

    tetradrachme philippe.jpg
    Philippus I (244-249 AD). AR Tetradrachm, 249 AD, Antiochia ad Orontem, Syria (now Turkey).
    Obv.: AVTOK M IOYΛI ΦIΛIΠΠOC CЄB, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, seen from behind.
    Rev.: ΔHMAPX EΞOYCIAC YΠATO Δ, eagle standing left with wings spread, wreath in beak; below, ANTIOXIA / S C.
    Prieur 444. Photo taken in the open, sorry for the brutal solar lighting...

    All we know is that he was called Philip the Arab, he was a Praetorian Prefect under Gordian III, elected emperor by the army after Gordian’s death during a war in Mesopotamia, and reigned 5 years from 244 to 249. He is said having made a humiliating peace with Shapur I, king of kings of the Sassanid Persian Empire; and having celebrated in Rome the Millenium of the city founded by Romulus on April 21th 753 BCE. We also know that Eusebius’ Church History mentions him as a Christian. He was eventually toppled and assassinated with his son by mutinous soldiers.

    But more can be said. He was born c. AD 204, his full name was Marcus Julius Philippus, he had a father, Julius Marinus, a brother, Gaius Julius Priscus, a wife, Marcia Otacilia Severa, and a son, Marcus Julius Philippus like his father. He is currently called “Philip the Arab” because it is his origo. His father Marinus (or Marinos in Greek) had an Aramaic name: Maren or Marin means “Our Lord” in Aramaic. Being a “Julius” means he was given Roman citizenship by some “Julius” or “Julia”: he was one of these innumerable 3rd c. “Aurelii” and “Julii” who acquired citizenship in 212 thanks to the edict of Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) and his mother Julia Domna. Since the age of 8 Philip was a Roman citizen, but he had no local civic citizenship, because he was not born in a city with a polis status like Damascus, Bostra, Palmyra, Emesa… He was born in Saba (today Shahba), a small town South of Damascus. It was not a polis, had no Greek institutions like a boule (senate) or magistrates, no mint… It was just an indigenous town of the province of Arabia, and its inhabitants were just registered as “Arabs”.

    In their young years Philip and his brother Priscus had the opportunity to be introduced to a powerful personality, Timesitheus. In 218 this man was procurator of the province of Arabia and in 218 and 222 he even assumed the governor’s office. In 222 Philip was aged 18, the age for joining the army and start a career. Because many years later we find Philip and his brother Priscus holding positions very close to Timesitheus, we can suppose they were admitted in the Equestrian Order and attached to Timesitheus' staff at Bostra, the capital of Arabia, 40 km from Shahba, as soon as 222.

    In the early 3rd c. Christianity was already widespread in Arabia, particularly in its capital Bostra. In 214 the governor had written to the bishop of Alexandria, kindly asking for his help for quelling unrest among the local Christians. Later, Origenes, head of Alexandria’s Christian school, was received at the court of the empress Julia Mamaea (a Syrian born lady), when she was in Orient. It would then be no surprise if Philip and his brother had been Christians: this religion was perfectly accepted among Syrians and Arabs.

    Timesitheus had a great carrier under Severus Alexander, with important responsibilities, mostly of fiscal or financial nature. He reached his climax when he was made a Praetorian Prefect under the young Gordian III and even married his daughter Tranquillina to the emperor. When Gordian III left Rome to make war against the Persians, he appointed a second Praetorian Prefect who was none other than Priscus, Philip’s brother. The two prefects had different roles : Priscus commanded the Praetorian Guard on the field, Timesitheus was in charge of finances and logistics, with Philip as his aide. The campaign was doing well, the Romans were victorious at Rhesaina (Ras al-‘Ayn, Syria), retaking cities that had fallen to the Persians, but in 243 Timesitheus fell ill and died. He was immediately replaced by his top aide Philip the Arab.

    Shapur I dirham.jpg
    Shapur I, AR dirham
    Obv.: Pehlvi legend meaning "The Mazda worshipper, the divine Shapur, King of Kings of Iran, heaven descended of the Gods", bust r., wearing diad. and mural crown with korymbos.
    Rev.: Pehlvi "The fire of Shapur", fire altar flanked by attendants.

    In 244 at Misikhe (Falluja today, in Iraq) a part of the Roman army was defeated by Shapur. Many were taken prisoners, and Shapur in a famous inscription says there was among them a Praetorian Prefect, obviously Priscus. The emperor Gordian retreated with the rest of his troops along the Euphrates, but he died and was buried at Zaitha, near Doura Europos. The army needed an emperor and immediately elected the Praetorian Prefect Philip the Arab. Not because he was a great warrior or strategist, he was never reputed as such, but more probably because he had the keys of the imperial war treasure and was the only person in position of paying the soldiers and negotiate their comrades’ ransoms. Band of brothers… and, after all, his own brother was probably prisoner too.

    Shapur accepted to negotiate. The Roman army that had retreated after Misikhe was still powerful, and the Persian king thought it wiser to declare victory now and end the war. The new Caesar Philip liberated the prisoners for 500,000 aurei, but kept the cities retaken the year before. Philip had also a large quantity of silver antoniniani minted in some Oriental military mint (they are not from Antioch): on these coins he claims the title of PM which is not Pontifex Maximus but “Persicus Maximus” and the reverse figures Pax, the Peace, with the never seen before legend “Pax fundata cum Persis”: Peace made with the Persians. They are not rare at all; I shall buy one some day.

    (not my coin)

    The two emperors, the Persian and the Roman, agreed on several other points. Philip would withdraw to Antioch and establish official relations with Shapur. It was an important point for the latter: his father Ardashir and himself had toppled the Arsacid dynasty twenty years ago, which was not accepted yet by many. Several Oriental kings could seek the Romans’ help to restore the Arsacids. Severus Alexander and Gordian III had not recognized Ardashir and Shapur, but Philip did. To materialize this new diplomacy, Shapur would build in Persia a city that would bear his own name, Bishapur, and do it thanks to the expertise of Roman craftsmen sent by the Caesar Philip. In the same time Philip would do the same in his land, build a new city that would bear his own name.

    It was done. Shapur built Bishapur near Kazerun, Iran. It is not at all a traditional circular city like the Parthians or even Shapur’s father Ardashir used to build, it is a Roman style city:

    Bishapur.jpg Remains of Bishapur, Iran. City-planning is typically Hellenistic-Roman.

    A rock relief nearby commemorates the legitimacy of Shapur:

    relief bishapur followinghadrianphotography dot com blog.jpg
    Shapur (right) is facing the god Ahura Mazda (left) giving him the symbol of power. Mazda’s horse walks on the dead body of the evil god Ahriman while Shapur’s horse tramples the body of the Caesar Gordian III. Between them a kneeling Caesar Philip begging for clemency. There is no captured Valerian on this relief, and this is evidence it predates 260 and records only the triumph of Misikhe in 244. (photo

    Philip built a similar city in Shahba, his native town. He called it Philippopolis, granted it colonial status with a city-mint. All visible structures seem to have been erected under his reign. It is now a Druze city named Shahba again (and lucky enough to have been spared by the civil war):

    Shahba.jpg Shahba, Syria, same scale as the Bishapur view. Most of Shahba is now occupied by modern buildings but the Roman plan is conspicuous. The city walls, the North and South gates, the theatre, the thermae are still visible on the ground, and it seems that all dates back to Philip's reign. Architects and archaeologists noticed the theatre masonry had much in common with the masonry of the Anahita temple in Bishapur, suggesting the same teams may have worked on both sites.

    Please feel free to post your Philip the Arab or Shapur I coins !
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2023
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  3. Pickin and Grinin

    Pickin and Grinin Well-Known Member

    Great write up Gino.
  4. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Philip I (244 - 249 A.D.)
    O: IMP M IVL PHILIPPVS AVG, Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right, from behind.
    R: LIBERALITAS AVGG II, Liberalitas standing left, counting board in right, cornucopia in left.
    RIC IV 38b, RSC IV 87 SRCV III 8937

    Philip I (244 - 249 A.D.)
    Syria, Seleucis and Pieria. Antioch
    Billon Tetradrachm
    O: ΑΥΤΟΚ Κ Μ ΙΟΥΛΙ ΦΙΛΙΠΠΟC CΕΒ, Radiate and cuirassed bust left seen from the front.
    R: ΔΗΜΑΡΧ ΕΞΟΥCΙΑC ΥΠΑΤΟ Γ, Eagle standing right, wings spread, head right, wreath in beak.
    ANTIOXIA/S C in two lines below.
    Antioch Mint, Stuck Year 3 246/247 A.D.
    Prieur 359

    Very Rare

    Shapur I (241-272 A.D.)
    AR drachm
    O: Bust of Shapur I right, wearing diadem and decorated tiara terminating in eagle head.
    R: Fire altar flanked by two attendants wearing diadems and mural crowns.
    Göbl type I/1
  5. John Anthony

    John Anthony Ultracrepidarian

    Great reading Gino, thank you! I have two offerings: an ant of Philip with Annona reverse, and a Syrian tetradrachm of his son, Philip II with an odd pastel green patina (I guess is apropos for St. Patrick's Day)...

    Philip I.jpg Philip II.jpg
  6. expat

    expat Remember you are unique, just like everyone else Supporter

    Good additional info, great reading. I have 1 Phillip the Arab
    Phillip I AR Antoninianus.jpg
  7. Cherd

    Cherd Junior Member Supporter

    Nice writeup! Lotta great detail there that I didn't know previously. Leaves me fantasizing about what a payment in 500,000 aurei would even look like!! :greedy: Here are my related coins:

    Philip the Arab

    Philip II

    Otacilia Severa

    During the auction where I bought the Severa above, I lost track of my purchases during the Provincial portion and accidentally bought an antoninianus of hers during the Imperial portion. I would say that more is always better, but considering my budget, I can't make these kinds of mistakes very often! :inpain:

    Edit: Corrected denarius to antoninianus, thanks @GinoLR
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2023
  8. John Anthony

    John Anthony Ultracrepidarian

  9. The Meat man

    The Meat man Well-Known Member

  10. John Anthony

    John Anthony Ultracrepidarian

    Yes. Part of the Trier Gold Trove.
    The Meat man likes this.
  11. philologus_1

    philologus_1 Supporter! Supporter

    Just one of each in my collection:


  12. Limes

    Limes Well-Known Member

    Fantastic write up, thanks for sharing!
    expat likes this.
  13. The Meat man

    The Meat man Well-Known Member

    Wow. Unbelievable!
  14. The Meat man

    The Meat man Well-Known Member

    Great article @GinoLR ! Thanks for posting.
    By a curious coincidence it was just yesterday that I received my first coin of Philip the Arab - an inexpensive but decent addition to my sub-collection of big game animals on Roman coins:

  15. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    Nice coin ! :) but it's not a denarius, it's an antoninianus of Otacilia Severa. Her bust is on a crescent...
    Edessa and Cherd like this.
  16. Cherd

    Cherd Junior Member Supporter

    Thanks for correcting that blunder. When I look at a picture of an early antoninianus (actually silver instead of washed), my brain sees a denarius :confused:

    Didn't help that this was literally the decade when denarii were being phased out. I don't think that Severa had them, but Philip I and Philip II did. And, so far as I know, these were the last ones ever produced. (Could be wrong)
    ancient times and Edessa like this.
  17. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    This sum is mentioned on a monumental trilingual inscription of Shapur, at Naqsh-i Rustam near Persepolis. There is a Greek, a Persian and a Pehlvi version. In Greek it is π[ε]ντακοσίαν χειλιάδα δηναρίων, in Persian and Pehlvi dēnār panzsad-hazār, literally "five hundred thousand denarii".

    The first translators, André Maricq and Julien Guey, thought these "denarioi" or "dēnār" were mere denarii, and that it was a very moderate sum. But we now know that the coin the Greeks called denarios and the Persians dēnār was the aureus. In Latin its full name is denarius aureus... The simple silver denarius was called in Greek drachma, in Persian drahm. The Arabic language borrowed the terms from the Persian, and in Arabic the silver coin is a dirham, the gold coin a dinar.

    The ransom Philip paid amounted to 500,000 gold coins. The sum may seem enormous, but a Roman emperor could afford it. Usually, on their accession, new emperors gave a donative to the Praetorians who were 4,500 to 8,000 men. Claudius in AD 41 and Nero in AD 54 had given 150 aurei to each man: 150 x 4,500 = 675 000 aurei (heavier than in Philip's time). In AD 161 Marcus Aurelius gave 5,000 silver denarii to each man, that is 200 aurei, and the Praetorians were 8,000 men at that time, thus the AD 161 donative amounted to a total of 1,600,000 aurei ! In AD 193 each man of the 8,000-strong Praetorian Guard received 3,000 denarii from Pertinax and 7,250 from Didius Julianus, that is 410 aurei, an insane total of 3,280,000 aurei ! No wonder Didius Julianus reduced the weight of the aureus by 8%...

    500,000 aurei was an astronomic sum for Shapur, but probably not for Philip who may have had much more in cash, thanks to the good management of the late Timesitheus...
    Factor, ancient times, Edessa and 3 others like this.
  18. Cherd

    Cherd Junior Member Supporter

    Wow, you are a fountain of ancient knowledge! These examples really help put things into perspective.

    But, I guess my perspective issues weren't really about the wealth of the emperor or the state, but more about the physical aspects of such a payment (Couldn't just write him a check back then!).

    I was wondered if it is like when people envision what $1,000,000 dollars cash looks like, but are surprised when they actually see that amount in $100 bills (Could fit it in a backpack). I was curious, so I came up with an extremely rough approximation. (I entertain myself in strange ways o_O)

    I found a YouTube video where a guy had a 5 gallon bucket of change (mostly pennies) and took it to a Coinstar machine. This is what fit in his 5 gallon bucket:

    32 Halves
    8 Quarters
    88 Dimes
    657 Nickels
    15127 Pennies = ~ 16,000 coins (pretty much all pennies)

    Based on this, 500,000 aurei would represent something like 32 x 5-gallon-buckets full. Aurei tended to be a 1-2 mm larger than pennies, plus the extra relief compared to modern coins would have caused them to take up more space...... So I'm guessing something like 40 5 gallon buckets.

    This type of volume (200 gallons is about 27 ft3, so 3x3x3 ft), would fit in an ox cart, but then there is the weight! Assuming 4.7 grams each, that would be over 5,000 lbs (2,350 kg). That'd probably be to much for an ox cart, or the oxen to transport.

    So, the total volume would have been something like a large chest, and could have been hauled by 4-5 ox carts or something like that.

    I guess the biggest challenge would have been finding enough people to work in moving this type of load across the countryside without having the cargo go missing! :jimlad:
    ancient times and Edessa like this.
  19. cmezner

    cmezner do ut des Supporter

    This issue was truck during or shortly after the Ludi Saeculares, which coincided with the 1000th anniversary of Rome’s foundation. In April 248 AD Philip had the honor of leading these.

    Tetradrachm, Seleucia in Pieria, Antiochia ad Orontem, 248 AD
    26 x 27 mm; 11.719 g
    McAlee 934, Prieur 445; BMC 518; RPC VIII, (unassigned) 28991

    Ob.: AYTOK K M IOYΛI ΦIΛIΠΠOC CЄB (Imperator Caesar Marcus Iulius Philippus Augustus) laureate with 3 dots above, draped and cuirassed bust to r. seen from rear
    Rev.: ΔHMAPX ЄΞOYCIAC YΠA TO Δ (Tribunician Authority Consul for the 4th Time By Resolution of the Senate, Δ is 4); eagle standing to r., head right, wreath in beak, tail left, wings spread; ANTIOXIA / S C below

    From the Al Kowsky collection at AMCC3 auction

    upload_2023-3-17_23-37-44.png upload_2023-3-17_23-37-57.png
  20. Mr.MonkeySwag96

    Mr.MonkeySwag96 Well-Known Member


    PHILIP I THE ARAB AR silver antoninianus. Rome mint. IMP PHILIPPVS AVG, radiate, draped bust right. Reverse - SAECVLARES AVGG, cippus inscribed COS III. RIC 24c, RCV 8961. 23mm, 4.2g.
  21. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    If you want to figure what 500,000 aurei could mean, let's do some maths
    c. AD 244, the Gordian III aureus was an average 5 g gold coin.
    500,000 of these are 2,500 kg of gold
    Today 1kg of gold is c. 64,000 USD, thus:
    2,500 kg gold = 160 Million USD

    ... not so much, for an empire at war!

    That's not all. Yann Le Bohec, in his book The Roman Army, calculated the annual military budget of the Empire. From Caracalla to the end of the 3rd c. the wages of the military (legionaries, auxiliaries, sailors, praetorians, and of course the officers) amounted to a total of 195 Million denarii per year. It's 7.8 Million aurei...
    ... and these are only the regular wages, not including the occasional donatives, the equipments (the state paid for half the cost), other expenses... Let's roughly evaluate the total per annum military budget at c. 9 Million aurei. The ransom paid by Philip was only 5.6% of the annual military budget of the Empire !
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2023
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