We are so used to east and west being opposed to each other that we forget that Rome had an Arab emperor. More than that, he was the empire’s first Christian ruler and celebrated the city’s millennium. And all in five years.
Marcus Julius Philippus, dubbed Philippus Arabus, Philip the Arab, was born in Shahba, south of Damascus, in the Province of Arabia in c.204 AD and was the son of a local citizen Julius Marinus. The cognomen Julius suggests one of his ancestors was given citizenship under one of the Julian dynasty. During his reign Philip had the Senate deify Marinus, a rare occasion where someone other than an emperor or empress received the Romano-Greek ceremony of Apotheosis. Possibly Philip was cocking a snook at the whole process, if he were himself a Christian.
Philip was helped in his reign by his elder brother, Gaius Julius Priscus, who received the title Rector Orientis, a quasi-emperor. Later he probably would have been made eastern emperor, but the bad example of Caracalla and Geta fresh in senatorial minds probably precluded that. Priscus had however held several imperial posts before this.
What we are seeing is an attempt to consolidate Arab power within the empire. Caracalla was half-Syrian through his mother, Julia Domna. This brings up the question as to whether the two families were linked. Julia Domna was descended from the priest-kings of El-Gebal at Emesa (modern Homs); these were a Bedouin dynasty who had ruled in that area for several hundred years. El-Gebal (God of the Mountain) was worshipped by a black holy stone, foreshadowing Islam, and possibly linked to the lapis niger in the Roman Forum. The priest-kings of Emesa took the Roman names Gaius Julius in AD14, perhaps to mark Augustus who died that year, added to which was their personal name; one has ‘Asiscus’, that is, Aziz.
Roman coins exist showing the black stone topped by an eagle, showing an effort to align the symbolism of Rome and Emesa. Clearly the best known emperor was Elagabalus, who has been a favourite since a comic description of him by Gibbon.
|Antoninus coin of Uranius Alexander, showing Black Stone of El-Gabal on the reverse.|
Philip’s brother, Gaius Julius Priscus, carries the same name as the priest-kings of Emesa; ‘priscus’ means ‘pure’, just the sort of cognomen a religious man might adopt. Modern Homs is quite close to the sea, but a man might receive a cognomen of ‘Marinus’ if he came back to it from military service in the Roman navy or from simply living for a while by the sea. In a previous posting, I discussed a ‘St Marina’ and a ‘St Pelagia’ of Syria who seem to be the same person.
So I speculate that the family of Philip the Arab were (or claimed to be) related to the former imperial family. Shahba is in modern Jordan and was only a modest village; the emperor turned it into Philippopolis and endowed it with the sort of buildings a major city would expect to have. This was a vast expense and may ultimately have hastened his overthrow.
Certain family names crop up in the royal family of Emesa which had an impact on the wider empire: Iotapus/ Iotapa; Bassianus/ Bassiana; Iamblicus; Balbillus/ Balbilla.
Caracalla was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus, and the real name of Elagabalus was Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, while his cousin Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus ruled as Alexander Severus. It does show that the Bassianus clan of Syria was as important as or even more important than the Severus name.
Iotapus/ Iotapa is a name from Commagene, the area discussed in my previous posting. Balbillus/ Balbilla is a Syrian name, and the family of Julia Balbilla, the sister of Philopappos, mentioned repeatedly in her poems.
Iamblichus was an Emesene writer, author of the Babyloniaka, written in Greek, a romantic novel, but deriving from Babylonian stories. It was written towards the end of the second century AD. He was a relative of the empress Julia Domna, and may have been part of the salon of writers she developed. He was also a cousin of Gaius Julius Sohaemus, who had been a Roman senator and allegedly consul (though I can’t find this name on the consular lists) before becoming King of Armenia 144-61 and 163-86. It does show how flexible identity had become, and how layered.
There were probably other Babylonian stories floating around the Graeco-Roman world in the early empire. Ovid has the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the Metamorphoses. It’s the only one of his stories to have no known precursor, so it’s likely to come from a Syrian original (there is a river Pyramos in ancient Syria). Other well-known myths such as Venus and Adonis and Diana and Actaeon derive from Syrian sources (discussed in Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox, Penguin 2008).
The double, parallel nature of local identity within the eastern part of the empire is shown by the usurper who sought to overthrow Severus Alexander. His real name was Sampsiceramus and he was a priest of El Gebal at Emesa, and was related to its royal family. He took the name Lucius Julius Aurelius Sulpicius Severus Uranius Antoninus, but is generally known as Uranius Alexander. There is a tendency throughout history that the longer and more grandiose the name, the weaker the link to power.
His coins show only Greek lettering and portray the temple of El-Gebal with its pre-Islamic black stone, but are dated according to the system of the Seleucid kingdom, a Hellenistic creation, not to the local, Greek or Roman systems. This is an interplay of various norms, as if he was feeling his way how best to balance various benefits and liabilities. Although of course, Rome has its own lapis niger, which was in turn given aetiological interpretation.
Finally, Zenobia, the famous queen of Palmyra who weakened Roman rule in the middle east, claimed descent from Julia Domna, although she also claimed descent from Cleopatra and even Dido Queen of Carthage, who is a myth.
|Painting of Julia Domna, with her distinctive Syrian hairstyle.|
A lot clearly turns on Julia Domna, who was born in AD170 in Emesa and married the future emperor Septimius Severus when she was just seventeen, five years before he became emperor; according to the Historia Augusta, she married the widower general on the basis of a favourable horoscope. Her entourage included Philostratus, author of the Life of the Sophists and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a first century wonder worker performing miracle in Palestine at the same time as Christ. She committed suicide at 47 after the murder of Caracalla by Macrinus; apparently she went on hunger strike.
Returning to Philip, he does show the continuing level of involvement of Arabs in the empire beyond the Severans. Besides deifying his father and making his brother almost joint emperor, and spending taxpayers’ money embellishing his home village, he made his infant son co-Augustus, with the intention of him succeeding. The failure of dynasty in the third century crisis seems to have been a clash between the public taste for stability versus the ambitions unleashed when dynasties imploded.
Philip increased his popularity by celebrating the millennium of the foundation of Rome; by tradition, it had been founded in 753BC, so AD247 marked its millennium. Philip used the Secular Games and repackaged the resources intended to be the triumph of Gordian III against the Persians (Gordian had died). To some extent the Millennium Games in Rome were intended to distract the Roman masses from the Persian failure.
Whether or not Rome had actually reached its millennium, the Romans thought it had. Claudius had held Secular Games in AD47, to mark Rome’s 800th anniversary, in 148 under Antoninus Pius and so Philip was just doing what emperors did. Modern commentators have argued that since the Secular Millennial Games would have involved pagan sacrifices and as a Christian Philip would have been forbidden to do so. The only recent sacrifice was a batch of ritual cakes, and the games lasted just three days. As the Church was then undercover and papal supremacy had not yet been established, Philip’s approach might have been heterodox, but there was no mechanism to consider him a heretic.
|Coin with a bearded Philip the Arab, showing the secular games column on the reverse|
The imperial biographer and chronicler Eusebius, writing during the reign of Constantine, claims that Philip was a Christian, and that he tried to celebrate Easter at Antioch, but was turned away as a sinner by St Babylas, a powerful Antiochene bishop whose memorial church was a hundred and ten years later seen as a block to the temple of Apollo at Daphne, which was destroyed by Christian fanatics under Julian. The same story about Babylas making Philip wait with the common people features in a homily by John Chrysostom. Modern scholars have claimed this as untrue, but given that Eusebius was born in nearby Caesarea in AD260 to an eastern Christian family, this snub of an emperor would have been spoken of in his youth, since it had happened only twelve years before.
|An unbearded Philip the Arab, in a classical bust at St Petersburg|
The doubt about whether Philip was a Christian may be shown by his imagery: his coins show him bearded, as all adult emperors had been since Hadrian, but the statue shown above, which is in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, shows him clean shaven. Other than him, and child-emperors, emperors were always portrayed bearded until Constantine, after which they were universally clean-shaven, except for the pagan Julian, who wrote his famous rant Misopogon (the Beard Hater) while in at Antioch in Syria.
|Persecution of Babylas, medieval painting|
The man who made Philip wait, archbishop Babylas of Antioch, was martyred in 253 at the instigation of the emperor Valerian as a result of a crackdown on Christians following Philip’s assassination in AD249. Babylas was thrown into prison in Antioch in 250 and died three years later. Philip was overthrown by the Urban Prefect Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, who managed to vanish in the Danube swamps while losing Dacia to the Goths in 251. Decius and his successor Valerian appear in Lactantius’ book On the Deaths of the Persecutors, written in the reign of Constantine. While he ignored Trebonianus Gallus (emperor 251-3), Lactantius made Decius and Valerian the first persecuting emperors since Domitian 150 years previously, and rejoiced in their juicy deaths.
|The emperor Trajan Decius (r.249-251)|
The persecutions of Decius only lasted a year and were mainly in Carthage, where surviving transcripts of investigations by magistrates show a reluctance to grant Christians the martyrdom they sought. All anyone had to do was obtain a certificate (libellus) that they had sacrificed to the traditional gods, and knowing how prone the empire was to fraud, this could have been faked up easily enough. All religions, except Jews were targeted, and while many were killed, the Plague of Cyprian, which raged at the same time, killed a hundred times as many every day. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was beheaded, and much of the death tolls seems to have been in Egypt and Africa.
The Decian persecution of Christians lasted only eight years and had been preceded by 150 years of tolerance. Valerian’s son and successor Gallienus (r.253-68) oversaw the forty year ‘Little Peace of the Church’ in which Christianity thrived following imperial edicts which recognised the religion, its places of worship and property. While this was ended in the west by Maximian, Christianity was in a much stronger position thanks initially to Philip the Arab.
The focus of persecuting regimes on harming people in Africa, Syria, Egypt and away from Europe does seem to show a desire to rid the Roman Empire of a powerful oriental element. Never after this would a non-European hold power in the empire.