Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.13

Christian Körner, Philippus Arabs.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2002.  Pp. xv + 435.  ISBN 3-11-017205-4.  EUR 98.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Meckler, The Ohio State University (
Word count: 1289 words

Philip the Arab remains among the most enigmatic of Roman emperors. Widely divergent views of his life and reign may be found in the spotty references in late-antique sources, as well as in modern histories. Was Philip a tolerant, effective administrator whose five-year reign saw the culmination of the multicultural empire of the Severans? Or was he a bumbling schemer who could not manage the ever-growing military threats along the empire's frontiers?

Compounding these difficulties in interpretation is the recent interest in viewing Philip as a model for Arab interaction with the West. As Arabs today, wherever they may live, grapple with defining their identity in relation to Europe and America, Philip represents either a positive example of integration or a warning on the dangers of engagement. Christian Körner's study of Philip the Arab has appeared at a particularly opportune time.

The study developed out of Körner's dissertation at the University of Bern, and the book is very dissertation-like in its tone and presentation. Körner's work is neither biography nor narrative history. Instead, Körner has fourteen discreet chapters analyzing various aspects of Philip's life and reign (family, chronology, coins, legal decisions, and so forth), with the chapters themselves divided into sections which are further subdivided into subsections. Körner also includes three appendices (prosopography on senators and procurators, unknown and fictitious usurpers, and two plans from the emperor's hometown of Philippopolis). As seen in publications in the social sciences, each subsection is labeled with a number and title (such as " Fazit zu den Quellen," from the chapter on Philip's rise to power).

This method of organization is extremely helpful to the researcher who wants to focus upon a particular problem, and Körner is nothing if not thorough in the sifting of evidence and the gathering of scholarly opinions. The difficulty in such a diffuse presentation is that no comprehensive view of Philip appears. From the various chapter subsections a reader may piece together some of Körner's ideas about the man and his reign, and a summary may be found in Körner's concluding chapter (pp.323-328). Körner connects Philip to the models of Severan governance but finds the personally ambitious emperor overwhelmed by financial and military demands. Such ideas fit well within the scholarly consensus.

A useful way to review a book organized in this fashion is to examine Körner's answers to the three major questions that have consumed historians of Philip the Arab: 1) was Philip involved in the death of his predecessor, Gordian III? 2) was Philip a Christian?, and 3) what were the circumstances surrounding Philip's own death?

Gordian III died in late January or early February of 244, when the Roman army was on campaign in Mesopotamia against the Sassanian ruler Shapur. Around that time, a battle took place near the city of Misiche (roughly 40 miles west of modern Baghdad) in which Shapur's forces were triumphant, or so we are told on the famous relief and trilingual inscription Shapur had cut at Naqsh-i-Rustam in modern-day Iran. Shapur's monument claims that Gordian III was killed in the battle.

Roman and Byzantine sources do not mention this battle. Instead, these sources claim Gordian III died with the army in Mesopotamia, either on the way to Ctesiphon or, more specifically, near Circesium, along the Euphrates some 250 miles upstream from Misiche. Several of these sources also mention a cenotaph built at nearby Zaitha. Philip, one of Gordian's praetorian prefects, is often blamed for the emperor's death, which in these versions is said to have occurred at the hands of the soldiers. Philip either directly planned the assassination, or he fomented discontent at the emperor by cutting off the troops' supplies.

Körner suggests that Gordian III was murdered at Misiche in a plot hatched by Philip and that the murder took place before the battle. Körner further explains the location of the cenotaph by claiming that Zaitha was where the retreating Roman army first returned safely inside the borders of the empire (pp.89-90). This analysis fails to convince, on several grounds.

Roman emperors did not get killed by their own troops while the soldiers were on the march beyond the frontier and anticipating iminent battle with non-Roman forces. Although both Caracalla and Severus Alexander were murdered on campaign by some of their own troops, neither was killed with the army on the march. (Caracalla was murdered returning to winter camp from a visit to a religious site; Alexander was killed in winter camp for refusing to launch a military strike across the frontier.) It is unrealistic to believe that Roman troops would have participated in such a plot during a successful march hundreds of miles into Persian territory and facing the very present possibility of engagement. The discontent necessary for such a coup would have been far more likely during the long retreat that followed a military defeat.

Körner's reconstruction of events does not really follow any of the ancient sources. He does not accept the version in the monument of Shapur that has Gordian killed in battle, nor does he accept Roman versions that place Gordian's death near Circesium. Indeed, the most likely explanation for the cenotaph is precisely the one given by some late-antique sources, namely that it marked the location of Gordian's death.

Was Philip a Christian? Eusebius claimed so, and the claim was elaborated by later Christian authors. Non-Christian sources from antiquity, however, never mention anything unusual about Philip's religious views. Moreover, Philip appears indistinguishable from other third-century emperors in his use of pagan symbols and titles, and he made no improvements in the legal status of Christians or their religion.

On the question of Philip's Christianity Körner's judgment is far sounder (pp.260-276). He accepts the possibility that Origen wrote letters to Philip and his wife, as Eusebius claims; however, he is unwilling to go any farther in crediting the idea that Philip was a Christian. According to Körner, the persecution of Christians under Philip's successor, Decius, gave Christians a nostalgia for Philip's reign. This nostalgia, coupled with the letters known from Origen's correspondence, gave birth later in the third century to the legend of Philip's Christianity.

Philip's reign came to an end in 249 after Roman troops along the Danube revolted and proclaimed their commander Decius as emperor. Philip marched north with an army from Rome, while Decius traveled south with his Danubian troops. Late-antique Latin sources claim that Philip was killed in Verona, perhaps after a battle but certainly by his own troops, and that Philip's young son (who had received the title of Augustus from his father) was subsequently killed by the praetorian guard in Rome. Zosimus and Zonaras claim both Philip and his son were killed in a battle against Decius' troops, while John of Antioch has Decius' uprising originate in Rome and has Philip assassinated in Beroea in Macedonia.

Körner (pp.305-322) rightly accepts the version of events outlined in the Latin sources, and he refutes alternatives proposed by modern historians who wish to rely more heavily upon Byzantine accounts.

Many other aspects of Philip's reign are examined by Körner, including the celebrations of Rome's millennium in 248 (pp.248-259) and Philip's military campaigns along the frontiers (pp.120-157). In workmanlike manner, Körner regularly follows the pattern of listing and analyzing ancient sources, reporting modern scholarship, and finally providing his view of the evidence.

Although the need remains for a narrative history that would interpret Philip's life with sweep and scale, it is wrong to criticize Körner's book for what it is not. As a thorough study into the particulars of Philip's reign, Körner has fulfilled his task admirably. Historians of the mid third century will want to consult the book as a reference guide in preparing their own research on Philip the Arab.

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