Life: AD 159 – 238
- Name: Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus
- Born AD ca. 159.
- Consul AD ca. 223.
- Became emperor in 19 March AD 238.
- Wife: Fabia Orestilla; (two sons; Marcus Antonus Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus; unknown; one daughter; Maecia Faustina).
- Died in Carthage, 9 April AD 238.
- Deified AD 238.
Marcus Gordianus was born in ca. AD 159 as the son of Maecius Marullus and Ulpia Gordiana. Although 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’s.
Also there appears to have been the 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 was 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.
Gordian was impressive looking character, stocky in build and always elegantly dressed. He was kind to all his family and apparently had a great liking of bathing. Also he is said to have slept very often. He had a habit of falling asleep when dining with his friends, though never saw any need for feeling embarrassed about it thereafter.
Gordian held a series of senatorial offices, before becoming consul at the age of 64. Later he governor 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.
During his time in Africa, one of Maximinus’ procurators was squeezing the local landowners for all the taxes he coudl 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.
Gordian’s duties were clear. He was obliged to restore order and crush this tax revolt. The people 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 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. Thereafter the senate confirmed the two Gordians as emperors.
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.
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 neighbouring Numidia.
Capellianus remained loyal to Maximinus, perhaps only to spite them. Attempts were made to remove him from office, but they failed.
But, decisively, the province of Numidia was home to the Third Legion ‘Augusta’, which therefore fell under Capellianus 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.
Why they did not flee to Rome, when faced by impossible odds and being in one of the Mediterranean’s most famous harbours 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.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.