Philippus Arabs
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Categories: Ancient, Modern, Uncategorized

Philippus Arabs

Emperor Maximilian’s memorial at the Hofkirche is one of the most impressive monuments of Innsbruck.  Being an early modern aristocrat, he made extravagant plans which could not be fully carried out after his death.  A number of bronze busts of Roman emperors, which my guidebook tells me were meant to be part of a set of 34, are relics of these early plans.  When I first saw them, I was surprised by some of his choices of emperors.

Some of the choices are no surprise.  Here is Julius Caesar, who had priority by age and military glory.

Bust of Julius Caesar

But we also have Nero, whom both pagan and Christian writers despised.


We have Hadrian, one of the few emperors who retains a good reputation today.

Bust of emperor Hadrian

Yet we also have Philip the Arab:

Bust of Philip the Arab

Philip the Arab was one of the long list of third-century emperors who took the throne upon his precessor’s violent death, spent a few years running around fighting fires, and then lost a battle to the next emperor.  He held Rome for more than five years, which was better than most claimants managed, and was said to have been a secret Christian, which would have endeared him to medieval readers.  (Critical historians have since observed that this idea first appears in the Christian historian Eusebius sixty years after Philip’s death, and that Philip’s public actions show no sign of a special sympathy to Christianity). He also lost a war to Shapur King of Kings and was forced to withdraw from Persian territory and pay tribute.  Roman writers were vague about the details, but since Maximilian’s day one of Shapur’s monuments commemorating his triumph has been published, and another inscription corraborates it.  Because it is so rare to have an account of a Roman defeat by one of Rome’s enemies, this inscription has become very famous and is strongly associated with Philp’s name.  A scholarly account of Philip’s reign is available at De Imperatoris Romanis, while Judith Weingarten has a thoughtful and colourful version on her blog.

What a difference a single new source can make.  I wonder whether one ancient emperor was as good as another to Maximillian, or if rumors of Christianity were enough to balance out assinuations of treason and a checkered military career.

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