Who is Philip the Arab and what links him to the Maltepe mound

The keen interest in the video report by Archaeologia Bulgarica from the excavations near the village of Manole, Plovdiv municipality, provoked us to post a sequel to the topic. Is there really a Roman Emperor buried in the Maltepe Mound and can the huge tomb be built precisely for Philip I Arab (244-249)?

There is no way we can be sure, before the team of Assoc. Prof. Dr. Kostadin Kisyov (Director of Regional Archaeological Museum – Plovdiv) opens the grave, and this will probably happen next year. Still, the excavation materials point to a 3rd century dating. And at the meeting between the team leader and the epigraphyst Nicolay Sharankov (Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”), shot by Archaeologia Bulgarica, an interesting and well-founded hypothesis was discussed about who of the high-ranking persons from the same period might be the reason for the elevation of the 22-meter stone structure.

The newly discovered inscription from Plovdiv

It sharply differs from the background of local architectural traditions, but there are parallels in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire and especially in Syria. According to Nicolay Sharankov, if it really is an imperial tomb, the facility might have been built by an order of Iulius Priscus who originated from these lands, Governor of the province of Thrace after AD 248 and a relative of Philip I the Arab (respectively and his protégé). We remind that the full name of this emperor is Marcus Iulius Philippus and that he was born about 90 km from Damascus in the family of Iulius Marinus, a distinguished Roman from the equestrian order. The emperor had a brother named Iulius Priscus. So the relative who had the most important post in Thrace was either this same brother, either a more distant relative. The clarification is impossible so far, because the first name of the provincial governor of Thrace is not mentioned in the historical sources and is preserved only as an abbreviation on a column with a Greek inscription from the Sofia district of Slatina. But on the exact place the stone is slightly damaged and it can not be said for sure if the letter is “T” (Titus) or “G” (Gaius). Even more uncertain is the first name of the Emperor’s brother – in all the inscriptions and even in an official document on papyrus, resolved by Priscus himself as governor of Mesopotamia, he invariably appears with only two names: Iulius Priscus. The name Gaius is the result of an inaccurate transcript from the late 19th century of an inscription from Syria – according to this copy, supposedly the letter “C”, abbreviation for Gaius (Caius in Latin), is seen outside the main text of the inscription; later, however, the same inscription was studied by specialists, who found that there was no such letter and the text has only “Julius Priscus”. But the name Gaius had already entered history books… So is it an accident that Philip the Arab‘s brother – Julius Priscus – disappears mysteriously from the historical sources at the end of AD 248, just when the provincial governor Julius Priscus appears in Thrace?

A new inscription from Plovdiv, erected by the General Assembly of the Province of Thrace in honor of the Empress Otacilia Severathe wife of Philip the Arab, confirms the thesis put forward by Boris Gerov, that the governor of Thrace was member of Emperor Philip’s family. Whatever the kinship between Iulius Priscus and Iulius Philippus was, it is evident that the provincial governor, who remained on his post even after the death of the emperor, apparently had the means to build a magnificent tomb – on the eve of the most massive Gothic attacks on the peninsula.

Nicolay Sharankov adds information from two inscriptions from the province of Thrace – on pedestals for statues of Philip Junior, the son of Emperor Philip. There the boy, prepared for heir and raised to “Augustus“, that is, a co-emperor, is called “The New Sun”. One of the inscriptions was found a few kilometers from the Maltepe mound, in the neighboring village of Belozem.

Two years ago an expedition of the National History Museum under the leadership of Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ivan Hristov found another valuable monument during the excavations at the Roman road station Sostra near the village of Lomets, Troyan municipality – a milestone with an inscription in honor of Philip Arab and his son. Nicolay Sharankov dates it to AD 244, when the emperor crossed the Balkans on his road to Rome. It is interesting to note that Thrace was the first European province, in which the new ruler of the empire entered. Perhaps one of his first official visits as Emperor was in the Roman colony of Deultum (near today’s village of Debelt, Burgas municipality), where five statues were erected for Philip the Arab and his wife Otacilia Severa. Their pedestals can be seen today at the Debelt Museum. The importance of Thrace for the new Emperor is also emphasized by the fact that upon his ascension to the throne, he placed his father-in-law Severianus to rule Thrace and the rest of the Balkan provinces. There is another interesting detail: some late antique and medieval reports explicitly associate Philip the Arab with our Philippopolis – though now this is interpreted as a mistake on their part.

There are still many unclear facts around the personality and the rule of Philip the Arab, and researchers all over the world are working to reveal them. But for all of us who are excited about whether the tomb in the Maltepe mound could have been built for him, the key question is where exactly he died. It is known that this happened in a battle with the new contender for the throne Decius Trajan, who was sent with a military mission to the Lower Danube, where the troops declared him an emperor. But whether the two collided near Verona (Italy) or Beroia – and this can be what we call today’s Veria in Greece or Bulgarian Stara Zagora? The ancient chronicers differ in their allegations, but some current historians are inclined to prefer the second version due to the fact that the province of Thrace was the most important theater of combat operations in the Roman Empire in the middle of the stormy 3rd century. And if Philip the Arab died near Stara Zagora, there would be no logic to transport his body to Rome and give him honors there since he has already been overthrown. That is why, he should have been buried nearby, with the care from his kinsman (Julius Priscus), who had the power and resources to do it.

Well, in the turbulence of these changes, there is always the probability that the emperor’s body could not reach the burial chamber and the building was used for another person, or even that it has been broken and plundered afterwards. But obviously the hypothesis, that it may have been built for Philip the Arab, rests on sufficiently stable grounds.

Please follow and like us: