Antoninianus depicting the head of Philip the Arab and the she wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (248 CE)



248 CE




Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
American Numismatic Society. Id: 1948.19.636.
Name of Ruler: 

Philip the Arab

Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust of Philip I looking right


Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: She-wolf standing left, suckling Romulus and Remus


Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

RIC IV/3, Philip I, no. 15, p. 70.

This antoninianus minted in 248 CE at Rome, depicts on the obverse the head of Philip the Arab and on the reverse the she wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The inscription on the obverse refers to Philip the Arab as imperator, Philippus, Augustus. The inscription on the reverse, saeculares Augustorum, advertizes the celebration of the Secular Games, held in 247-248 CE at Rome by Philip and his son and heir, Philip II, who on the occasion was elevated to the rank of Augustus. On the obverse, the most basic titles are emphasized. Therefore, Philip the Arab is presented as imperator, or commander in chief of the Roman army, chosen and elected by his soldiers. The title Augustus served to emphasize the emperor sacral standing. Philip was born around 204 CE, in Trachonitis, which was part of the Provincia of Arabia. Hence, the nickname Philip the Arab. His father, Julius Marinus, held Roman citizenship. His brother Gaius Julius Priscus was a member of the praetorian guard. His equestrian cursus honorum is unknown. His standing was enhanced by the fact that he got married to Marcia Otacilia Severa, who was the daughter of the Roman governor of an unknown province, in 234 CE. In 243 CE, he succeeded to Timesitheus, the praetorian prefect of Gordian III, through the offices of his brother. Thus, when the young Gordian III was murdered in 244 CE, he was acclaimed emperor by the praetorian guard. He immediately concluded a peace treaty with the powerful Sassanian ruler Shapur I. Although Armenia passed under the control of the Persians, and the Romans had to pay a huge indemnity, Osroene and Mesopotamia remained in the hands of the Romans (Southern, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, p. 71). By the end of 244 CE, back in Rome, he was conferred the title of Augustus by the senate.

This issue is an antoninianus. First minted under the rule of Caracalla, in 215 CE, the antoninianus was a double denarius. From the reign of Caracalla onward, as in this case, the obverse of the antoninianus depicted the head of the emperor crowned by the radiate crown. In 248 CE, Philip the Arab celebrated the Secular Games in Rome, as emphasized on the reverse of this issue. These games were an ancient Roman holiday, which was celebrated during the Republic in 249 and 140 BCE. Augustus revived this celebration: the Secular Games were held in 17 BCE, and were planned to take place once more in 22 CE (Suetonius, Life of Domitian 4.3). These games, celebrated for three days, consisted in theatrical shows and included sacrifices to the gods of the netherworld, both Dis Pater and Proserpina. However, this time the Secular Games coincided with the one thousandth anniversary of the foundation of Rome. Thus, on the 21 of April 248 CE, supposedly one thousand years after the foundation of Rome by Romulus, Philip I opened the festivities. Therefore, the reverse depicts the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the most important myth associated with the birth of Rome (Livy, History of Rome I.4; Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities I.84). By then, this foundation myth of Rome was well known, as the writings of Dionysus of Halicarnassus and of Plutarch clearly demonstrate. Even the Rabbis were aware of a quite precise version of the myth (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.11, 71b/c; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 56b). Therefore, the scene depicted on this issue would have been recognized everywhere. Yet, there is another dimension to all these coins, as the emperor was associated with the myths dealing with the creation of Rome, albeit indirectly. The message conveyed by this issue bears a variety of meanings. First, the depiction of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus served to associate the idea of Rome with the provincial elites, insofar as the myth was presented as a common, shared heritage. Second, the issue associates the emperor with the foundation of Rome, and presents him as the heir of Romulus. Last, but not least, the issue celebrates games and donatives. Indeed, in the Coliseum, Philip I organized magnificent gladiatorial games, which included battles between gladiators, as well as venations, the hunting of exotic animals. Therefore, the message forwarded emphasizes the emperor's benevolence, which was directed to all the western elites (Noreña, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West, p. 80-90).

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