Emperor Gordian I

Life: AD 159 – 238

Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus - "Gordian I"
  • Name: Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus
  • Born AD ca. 159.
  • Consul AD ca. 223.
  • Became emperor on 19 March AD 238.
  • Wife: Fabia Orestilla; (two sons; Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus; unknown; one daughter; Maecia Faustina).
  • Died in Carthage on 9 April AD 238.
  • Deified AD 238.

Early Life

Marcus Gordianus was born in ca. AD 159 as the son of Maecius Marullus and Ulpia Gordiana. Even though the names of this parentage are in doubt, in particular, his mother’s supposed name, Ulpia, stems most likely from Gordian’s claim that she was a descendant of Trajan.

Also, there appears to have been an attempt by Gordian to assert that his father was descended from the famous Gracchi brothers of the republican days of the empire. But this, too, appears to have been a bit of hereditary engineering to improve his claim to the throne.

There were, though, some family connections to Roman status and office, although not of the scale of Trajan or the Gracchi. The famous Athenian philosopher Herodes Atticus, consul in AD 143, was related to the wealthy landowning family of Gordian.

Emperor Gordian I
emperor gordian i 4

Becoming a Consul

Gordian was an impressive-looking character, stocky in build and always elegantly dressed. He was kind to all his family and apparently had a great liking for bathing. Also, he is said to have slept very often. He had a habit of falling asleep when dining with his friends, though he never saw any need to feel embarrassed about it afterward.

Gordian held a series of senatorial offices before becoming consul at the age of 64. Later, he governed several provinces, one of which was Lower Britain (AD 237-38). Then, at the advanced age of eighty, he was appointed governor of the province of Africa by Maximinus. It may well have been that Maximinus, deeply unpopular and suspicious of possible challengers, saw the old Gordian as a harmless old dodderer and, therefore, felt he was a safe candidate for this position. And the emperor might well have been right had not circumstances forced Gordian’s hand.

Tax Policies and People’s Revolt

During his time in Africa, one of Maximinus’ procurators was squeezing the local landowners for all the taxes he could get out of them. The emperor’s military campaigns were costly and consumed vast amounts of money. But in the province of Africa, things finally boiled over. Landowners near Thysdrus (El Djem) revolted and rose up with their tenants. The hated tax collector and his guards were overcome and killed.

Emperor Gordian I

Gordian’s duties were clear. He was obliged to restore order and crush this tax revolt. The Tax Policies and Peoples Revoltpeople of the province had only one chance of avoiding Rome’s wrath. And that was to incite their governor to revolt. And so they proclaimed Gordian an emperor. At first, their governor was reluctant to accept, but on 19 March AD 238, he agreed to his elevation to the rank of Augustus, and only a few days later, having returned to Carthage, he appointed his son of the same name as co-emperor.

A deputation was at once sent to Rome. Maximinus was hated, and they were certain to find widespread support with the senate. The senators would obviously prefer the patrician Gordian and his son to the common Maximinus. And so the deputation carried several private letters to various powerful members of the senate.

But one dangerous obstacle needed to be removed quickly. Vitalianus was the emperor’s undyingly loyal praetorian prefect. With him in command of the praetorians, the capital would not be able to defy Maximinus. And so a meeting was requested with Vitalianus, at which Gordian’s men set upon him and simply murdered him. After that, the senate confirmed the two Gordians as emperors.

Goridans’ Policies

Next, the two new emperors announced what they sought to do. The network of government informers and secret police, which had slowly arisen throughout the reign of successive emperors, was to be disbanded. They also promised an amnesty for exiles and – naturally – a bonus payment to the troops. Severus Alexander was deified, and Maximinus was pronounced a public enemy.

Any supporters of Maximinus were rounded up and killed, including Sabinus, the city prefect of Rome. Twenty senators, all ex-consuls, were each appointed a region of Italy which they were to defend against Maximinus’ expected invasion. And Maximinus was indeed very soon on the march against them.

Third Legion ‘Augusta’

However, events in Africa now cut short the reign of the two Gordians. As a result of an old court case, the Gordians had an enemy in Capellianus, the governor of neighboring Numidia. Capellianus remained loyal to Maximinus, perhaps only to spite them. Attempts were made to remove him from office, but they failed.

Emperor Gordian I

But, decisively, the province of Numidia was home to the Third Legion ‘Augusta,’ which therefore fell under Capellianu’s command. It was the only legion in the region. So when he marched on Carthage with it, there was little the Gordians could put in his way. Gordian II led whatever troops he had against Capellianus, trying to defend the city. But he was defeated and killed. On hearing this, his father hanged himself.

Gordian I Death

Why they did not flee to Rome when faced with impossible odds and being in one of the Mediterranean’s most famous harbors is unknown. Perhaps they thought it dishonorable. Perhaps they indeed intended to depart if things could not be halted, but the younger Gordian’s death prevented this from happening. In any case, theirs was a very brief reign, lasting only twenty-two days. They were deified shortly after by their successors Balbinus and Pupienus.

People Also Ask:

Who was the shortest-term Roman emperor?

Since he died before his father, Gordian II had the shortest reign of any Roman emperor, at 22 days.

What did each Roman emperor do?

The emperor held ultimate power in political, legal, financial, military, and religious matters. While the Senate continued to function and played a significant role in the administration of Rome and the empire, authority was firmly in the hands of the emperor.

What happened in 238 AD?

In AD 238, a group of landowners in Africa, discontented with imperial taxation, rebelled, killed their tax collectors, and proclaimed the aged Gordian emperor. The revolt was soon suppressed by the governor of Numidia.

Which Year had the most Roman emperors?

The Year of the Six Emperors was the year AD 238, during which six men made claims to be emperors of Rome.