The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 27

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Marcus Julius Philippus.

Marcus Julius Philippus

philipthearabMarcus Julius Philippus rose from obscure origins to rule for five and one-half years as Rome’s Emperor. Only sketchy details of his life and reign have survived in historical records.

Marcus Julius Philippus, called Philip, seems to have been born sometime during the reign of Septimius Severus. Little is known of Philip’s father except for the name Julius Marinus, which indicates that the family held Roman citizenship and must have been locally prominent. Nothing is known of his mother.

At some point, in the 230s, Philip married Marcia Otacilia Severa. A son was born by 238 and named Marcus Julius Severus Philippus. Philip’s early career is also obscure, though it was undoubtedly helped by that of his brother, Julius Priscus, who was named Praetorian Prefect by Gordian III and quickly rose through the ranks, holding a number of different appointments.

After a successful campaign in Upper Mesopotamia in 242, Priscus’ brother Philip joined him as Praetorian Prefect. The brothers remained the young emperor’s most powerful deputies during the disastrous campaign against the Persians in 243-44. On the retreat back up the Euphrates after the Roman defeat at Misikhe, Gordian was killed. Most sources state that Philip was involved in Gordian’s death; some claim that Philip engineered a mutiny by diverting the grain that was supposed to feed Gordian’s troops.

Philip was acclaimed the new Emperor and was firmly in control by late winter 244. Like his predecessor Macrinus, Philip faced, as his first important task, the problem of ending a war in the East. Philip was more fortunate in his negotiations than Macrinus had been. Philip made a peace treaty with Persian King Shapur which enabled the new Emperor to travel westward to Rome. It remains unknown why Philip was named the new emperor instead of his more accomplished brother Priscus, but Priscus went on to have extraordinary power in the East during the new regime.

The following year, the Carpi, a people native to the northern bank of the lower Danube, crossed the river and attacked settlements in the Roman province of Moesia. Fighting lasted several years and may have spread westward into Pannonia because of incursions by German tribes. Victory was proclaimed in 248, but the legions in Moesia and Pannonia were dissatisfied with the war’s results. The armies there revolted, proclaiming Tiberius Claudius Marinus Pacatianus as Emperor. While Philip could point to some success on the Danube frontier, he could not claim victory in his battles with the Moors.

Despite growing instability in the provinces, Romans in the year 248 were fascinated by the magnificent celebrations of the 1,000th anniversary of their city’s founding. Author Asinius Quadratus honored the event by writing his Thousand-Year History.

Within six months of the beginning of his reign, Philip had appointed his son as Caesar and heir. Three years later, in the summer of 247, the boy was named Augustus and co-ruler, even though he was probably not yet 10 years old. Nothing is known of the Emperor’s brother Priscus after the outbreak of a revolt led by Iotapianus. It seems likely that he died either naturally or as a result of the uprising.

Iotapianus was eventually defeated and killed in the East, as was Pacatianus along the Danube. To restore discipline among the Danubian troops, Philip sent Decius as the new commander, a native of the region. The appointment proved a dangerous blunder. The disgruntled soldiers, still eager for decisive leadership and victories, revolted yet again in 249 and proclaimed Decius Emperor. Philip marched out from Rome to face the approaching troops of Decius. In late summer, the two armies met outside Verona. Philip’s troops were beaten and the Emperor either died in the battle or was assassinated by his troops. When news of Philip’s defeat and death reached Rome, the Praetorian Guard murdered Philip’s son and colleagues.

Philip remains an enigmatic figure because different authors evaluated his reign with wildly divergent interpretations. Christian authors of late antiquity praised the man they regarded as the first Christian Emperor. Pagan historians saw Philip as indecisive, treacherous and weak. A lack of detailed knowledge about the reign makes any analysis highly speculative. Nonetheless, Philip’s provincial and administrative background represents continuity with features of Severan government. In the struggle to maintain legitimacy, Philip faced revolts and upheavals in several corners of the empire. He was able to overcome these challenges for half a decade. The empire remained fundamentally sound and stable during his reign. The great disruptions of the third century were yet to come.



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