MARIA OTACILIA SEVERA
wife of Philip I  "The Arab"
Roman Emperor AD 244-249

MARCIA OTACILIA SEVERA was the daughter of Severus, a Governor of Pannonia. Nothing is known of her early life, but she married Marcus Julius Philippus (the future Philip I) in approximately 234. She gave birth to their son, also named Marcus Julius Philippus (the future Philip II), in about 237. She and Philip also had a daughter, but nothing is recorded of her. Otacilia is universally accepted as having been the first Christian Empress, although nothing is known of the circumstances or date of her conversion.

By late 243 Philip was deputy to Timesitheus, the Praetorian Praefect under Gordian III, and was engaged in Gordian's Sasanian campaign. When Timesitheus sickened and died in late 243, rumors spread that Philip had a hand in it. However, Gordian III appointed Philip to be the new Praetorian Praefect, either being intimidated by him or disbelieving the rumors.

According to some sources, Philip immediately contrived to disrupt the Roman supply system so that the troops began to grumble, and Gordian's death soon followed. The circumstances of Gordian's death in Mesopotamia are murky, but three main stories persist:
    1) Gordian died of disease (possibly with a poisonous assist from Philip).
    2) Gordian died of wounds received at the Battle of Misiche.
    3) Philip inspired the legions to revolt by stressing their lack of supplies so deep in enemy territory, and insinuating that only a man like himself, not a youth like Gordian, was necessary to be in command.

A story is told that Gordian addressed the troops and offered to make Philip co-Augustus, but they only jeered. He offered to become Caesar to Philip, but they still jeered. He then asked to be made Praetorian Praefect, and met with the same response. He finally was reduced to begging for his life, whereupon Philip ordered Gordian to be killed.

The most likely scenario is that he died of disease on February 25, 244. That is what Philip reported to the Senate, which promptly deified Gordian III. Philip arranged a proper funeral and had the young Emperor's ashes escorted back to Rome. He also raised a cenotaph near Zaitha, the city where Gordian died, but he was never able to clear himself of suspected implication in Gordian's death. Otacilia was supposed by some to have also been a party to the deed.

Philip professed the greatest respect for the Senate and had no trouble being confirmed by them, as well as having Otacilia made Augusta and their son raised to the rank of Caesar. Philip had no doubt seen the problems which Maximinus had because of his refusal to visit Rome after becoming Emperor, and he resolved to return to Rome as quickly as possible. He therefore arranged a hasty peace with the Sasanians (and issued coins proclaiming "PAX FVNDATA CVM PERSIS"), thus ending a campaign in which the Romans were enjoying quite a bit of success. He and his family began their journey back to Rome almost immediately, arriving by July, 244. The suspicion that Philip and Otacilia had something to do with Gordian's death caused penance to be imposed on them by the Christian bishop of Antioch, Babylas, during their journey back to Rome. It is recorded that Otacilia fulfilled her penance.

Philip appointed his brother Gaius Julius Priscus to be Governor of Mesopotamia and his brother-in-law Severianus to be governor of Moesia, appointments which he was to regret. He declared an amnesty, gave donatives to the people, outlawed male prostitution, and in general seems to have ingratiated himself with the "Senate and the People of Rome". He became Consul for the first time in 245. Continued unrest along the Danubian frontier caused him to go to his brother-in-law's assistance in late 245.

His campaign on the Danube, lasting throughout 246, was very successful and resulted in his assuming the appellations of 'Germanicus Maximus' and 'Carpicus Maximus' in 247. He had his son declared 'Augustus' soon after his arrival back in Rome, even sharing the title 'Pontifex Maximus' (which indicated an association of equals rather than any subordinate relationship). He and his son were both declared consuls for 247, an honor which was repeated the following momentous year.
The traditional founding of Rome was April 21, 753 BC, which put the 1,000 anniversary in 248 since there was no year 'zero' (by our reckoning - the Romans used AUC (from the founding of the city) for their reckoning). The event was celebrated lavishly as the opening of a new age, hence the associated games were known as the 'Saecular Games' even though properly the next Saecular Games would not have been held until 314. Since by then the empire was being Christianized the games in 248 are the last 'Saecular Games' known to have been held. The festivities were spectacular, with another donative to the people of Rome, and thousands of men and beasts meeting their doom in gladiatorial contests.

In the provinces, however, it had been life as usual, and discontent under both Priscus (who had been promoted to 'Praetorian Praefect and Ruler of the East') and Severianus had risen to the point of rebellion. In Syria a usurper named Marcus Fulvius Rufus Jotapianus (see JOTAPIAN) arose long enough to issue coins, but he was murdered by his own men early in 249. Likewise along the ever-troublesome Danube a Roman officer named Claudius Marinus Pacatianus (see PACATIAN) was hailed by his legions as Augustus. Pacatian had the distinction of issuing one of the most unique coins of the Roman series, an antoninianus which proclaimed 'ROMAE AETER AN MILL ET PRIMO' - the "thousand and first year of eternal Rome". Pacatian was also eventually struck down by his own men. However, the ever-alert barbarians along the Danube took advantage of the events to launch more raids, and Philip's confidence was shaken by the revolts (a third in Gaul, under Silbannacus, may have also occurred at this time).

Philip offered to abdicate, but the Praefect of Rome, Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, wisely countered that rebellions such as these would quickly extinguish themselves. However, the situation along the Danube did demand that Severianus be replaced, and Philip convinced a hesitant Decius to take command.

Decius went and within six months had the situation under control. Unfortunately his troops then forced the title of Augustus upon him. Decius sent word to Philip that he would abdicate when he was safely back in Rome, but Philip believed that was merely a trick to allow Decius to approach Rome unmolested. Accordingly he set out to meet Decius, and the armies met at Verona in August, 249. Philip seems to have been killed by his own men in the battle, although he may have perished fighting. Some sources indicate that Philip II died with him, although the prevailing opinion is that Philip II had remained in Rome with Otacilia, who, fearing Decius, took refuge in the Praetorian camp upon hearing the news from Verona. Unfortunately the Praetorians decided for Decius and the twelve-year-old Emperor was slain in his mother's arms. Otacilia Severa was not regarded as a threat by the Praetorians and survived only to sink into obscurity. Nothing further is recorded of her.

In general the reign of Philip and Otacilia was mild and benevolent. The faith, or lack thereof, of Philip has been a source of controversy throughout the ages. However, it is generally conceded that Otacilia was the first Christian Empress, and hence the Christian Church saw no persecution during the reign of Philip. The next reign, of Decius, saw the absolute reversal of that enlightened policy.

Copyright 1999-2008, Numus. All rights reserved.

Thank you to Tom Schroer and his Moneta software for permission to reproduce the above write-up. For more information on his software, link to www.numus.com.

Want to learn about
Ancient Coins?
Visit the ACM.

Home