A Tetradrachm of Philip “the Arab”

Philip I tetradrachmMarcus Julius Verus Philippus had a checkered past. According to Edward Gibbon (“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”), Philip was “an Arab by birth, and…a robber by profession.” Whether robber or no, his Arabic background is factual, as he was the son of an Arab chieftain named Marinus, and hailed from the provincial Arab town of Trachonitis.

As a deputy praetorian prefect in the army of Gordian III, in 243 he purposely roused the army against Gordian by blaming him for a scarcity of food. Gordian’s death followed these allegations and Philip was promptly hailed as the next emperor by the eastern troops. Questions quickly arose as to Philip’s role in Gordian’s demise, but Philip’s insistence to the Roman Senate that Gordian died of natural causes, as well as his proposal that Gordian be deified, established a friendly relationship with the Senate which proceeded to recognize his claim to the throne.

After concluding a hasty peace with Shapur I of Persia, Philip quickly proceeded to Rome where he was well received by the Senate and the populous. He wasted no time in establishing his legitimacy. His son Philip II was declared Caesar, his wife Otacilia Severa was granted the title of Augusta, and Philip’s late father Marinus was venerated on a series of coinage.

For the next three years (245-247) Philip was occupied by numerous invasions by the Carpi and German tribes on the Danubian frontier. At about the time the above coin was minted, Philip celebrated a crushing victory over the Dacian Carpi and began preparations for the 1000th anniversary celebration of the founding of Rome.

The glory was short lived. Philip’s empire was besieged by pretenders to the throne. On the Danube, Pacatian arose to claim the purple, and in the east, Jotapian had won the hearts of the army. Philip became deeply alarmed, lost confidence in his own ability to rule, and called the Senate to offer his resignation. Though both Pacatian and Jotapian were soon murdered by their own men, Philip remained unable to act.

To restore order, Philip promoted the city prefect Trajanus Decius to commander in chief of the forces of Moesia and Pannonia. Decius established control over the frontier by the end of 248. As a result his troops demanded his accession to the throne. Decius protested but Philip was soon on the march to put him down. In poor health, Philip fell in battle at Verona along with his son in June of 249.


This coin is a nice representation of the principal denomination in the eastern Roman provinces of the third century, the tetradrachm. This denomination originally contained a small percentage of silver, enough to give it the appearance of a silver coin. However, all traces of precious metal had long since disappeared by the time this coin was produced and was now composed mainly of copper with some tin or even lead present.

Notice that the inscriptions surrounding the obverse and reverse devices are in Greek rather than Latin. It was common practice for the Roman provinces to retain their native language and customs, including their own local religious practices. Provincial Roman coins frequently depict Greek, Syrian, and other local deities. The subject matter on Roman provincial coinage is very diverse and can provide years of challenge and enjoyment for little cost!

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