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Philip the Arab |
Wine flows and spectacles dazzle as Rome marks a thousand years

Philip the Arab is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 250, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Wild animals are slain in their thousands, the mobs are gorged with food because the emperor Philip the Arab knew how to throw a great party

Philip the Arab - Wine flows and spectacles dazzle as Rome marks a thousand years

Philip the Arab - Wine flows and spectacles dazzle as Rome marks a thousand years
An elephant is shown being led aboard ship in a detail from a mosaic in the Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. A fabulous collection of exotic beasts–including thirty-two elephants– was collected for games to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of Rome’s founding in A.D. 248. All were loosed in the arenas during the festivities, and most were slaughtered for the crowd’s entertainment.

Whatever else he achieved during his five years as emperor of Rome, one thing can be said for certain of Philip the Arab: he threw a great party.

The occasion was the Roman millennium, held in April of a.d. 248–the official celebration of Rome’s one thousandth anniversary. Even in Philip’s time, no one knew for sure when Rome was founded, but 752 b.c. seemed as good a guess as any, and once the date was declared it stood, just as the year 2000 would later be hailed worldwide, even though that new millennium didn’t really begin until 2001.

Philip, recognizing that such a milestone demanded not just ceremony but spectacle, used every promotional device the third century could contrive. Heralds went out to summon the citizenry from far and wide. Coins that would be cherished by collectors centuries later were struck, stamped with images of the elephants, lions, giraffes, and other wild animals that would meet a bloody death during the millennial games. Platforms and stages and other facilities arose everywhere, food was piled high with an appropriate deluge of wine.

Everyone in the city and the surrounding countryside joined enthusiastically in the affair. There was so much to see and do that many Romans went entirely without sleep for three nights–not that there was any possibility of sleep anyway, the city’s inns having filled to the brim and the streets overflowing with visitors and noise.

What specifics history would record of the festivities come secondhand, but the accounts are given credibility by records of earlier, lesser events. The millennial celebration, for instance, was the occasion of Ludi Saeculares, the Secular Games, which had been held before, most magnificently in 17 b.c. when, among other things, the Roman poet Horace led a chorus of fifty-four young noblemen and noblewomen in the singing of a hymn that he had composed for the occasion. Upwards of a million spectators had poured into Rome for that session of the games, and when the millennium’s time arrived, the crowd was far greater.

Revelers massed upon the city’s rolling hills, illumined after dark by the flames of thousands of handheld torches. The Quindecemuiri, the sacred college of fifteen men who guarded the holy Sibylline Books, lent appropriate gravity to the opening ceremonies, and Philip himself presided, as along the river Tiber amid the smoke and heat and blaze of the torches, priests sacrificed a bellowing stream of steers, heifers, lambs and sows to the gods.

Carefully selected white bulls were slaughtered to honor Jupiter, the patron god of Rome; and the goddess Ilithyia, credited with aiding childbirth, was worshiped with overflowing offerings of cakes and incense. All over the city, athletes tossed and raced and wrestled, theatrical troupes staged specially commissioned plays, competition-ready chariots rumbled, musicians played, wine flowed freely, and great quantities of wheat, barley, and beans were distributed ceremonially to all.

Spectators thronged, of course, to the Colosseum, where each day brought new spectacles of pageantry and death. In between the energetic jugglers and dancers and clowns, prisoners whose executions had been postponed for the festival were brought out in hordes to die, some in cages with poisonous snakes, some set afire, some gored or trampled. Gladiators stabbed and killed each other in battle as the ecstatic audience feasted and placed bets.

Gordian III, Philip’s predecessor, had been collecting exotic animals for the event from the far reaches of the empire, dispatching teams of adventurers into Africa and India to bring back fabulous beasts in cages and chains. The Historiae Augustae records that he had accumulated thirty-two elephants, ten elk, ten tigers, seventy lions, thirty leopards, ten hyenas, six hippopotamuses, one rhinoceros, ten giraffes, twenty wild asses, and vast herds of other animals. All were loosed in the arenas at one time or another during the festival, and most were slaughtered for the crowd’s entertainment.

The Australian history writer Tony Perrottet offers a colorful summary of Philip’s three-day spectacular: “To imagine a modern equivalent, we would have to combine Australia’s 1988 Bicentennial festivities with the Olympic Games, High Mass at the Vatican, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and a Nuremberg rally.”

If Philip had hoped to distract an unsettled populace with bread and circuses, he succeeded–but only briefly. Barely a year later, rebellion erupted, Philip died either in battle or at the hands of his own men, and the Roman general Decius took the throne. Perhaps because the cost was so great and the political outcome was so poor, the Secular Games were never held again.

This is the end of the Philip the Arab category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 250, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Philip the Arab from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at