Roman Emperors Dir Gordian I

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Gordian I (238 A.D.)

Michael L. Meckler
Ohio State University

numismatic image of of the Emperor Gordian I (c)2001, VCRC

Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus, the emperor known to history as Gordian I, was the focus of aspirations for a short-lived uprising in Africa against the emperor Maximinus Thrax early in the year 238. Little is reliably known about the life of Gordian I before he was proclaimed emperor.  Although the uprising was crushed within a month and led to the more widespread revolt that caused the downfall of Maximinus later that year, the eventual success of the revolt and the ascendancy to the purple of his grandson Gordian III enabled Gordian I to be deified and reckoned among the legitimate emperors of Rome..

The future emperor Gordian I was born around the year 159 and he came from a well-to-do family,[[1]] though there is no reliable evidence that the family belonged to the highest levels of the senatorial elite.[[2]]   By the end of his life, however, Gordian was said to be related to other prominent senators.[[3]]  Gordian's praenomen and nomen (Marcus Antonius) suggest that the family received Roman citizenship in the late republic from Mark Antony. The unusual cognomen Gordianus suggests a family origin in Asia Minor, especially Galatia and Cappadocia. A woman named Sempronia Romana, the daughter of a one-time imperial secretary ab epistulis Graecis named Sempronius Aquila, erected an undated funerary inscription in Ankara to her husband (whose name is lost) who died as a praetor-designate (IGRR 3.188). The woman's names, mirrored in Gordian's cognomina, may indicate a connection  to the future emperor's mother or grandmother.[[4]]

The future emperor may be the proconsul Antonius Gordianus who is the dedicatee of Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists. Philostratus writes that his dedicatee was a descendant of the prominent second-century sophist Herodes Atticus.[[5]] The date of Gordian's birth and what is known about the children of Herodes make the connection unlikely, but it has been argued that Philostratus' dedicatee is Gordian's son, Gordian II. This interpretation means that Gordian I was married to a granddaughter of Herodes.[[6]] Others, however, have argued that Philostratus was referring to an academic pedigree (teacher as "father") rather than biological descent, and the elder Gordian could well have studied with a student of Herodes Atticus.[[7]] Gordian was the father of at least two children: a son, Gordian II, who would be proclaimed emperor with his father; and a daughter, whose own son would become the emperor Gordian III.[[8]]

The untrustworthy Historia Augusta claims that the young Gordian wrote an epic poem, titled the Antoniniad, that chronicled in thirty books the reigns of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.[[9]] Such a claim cannot be substantiated, but this notice, coupled with the dedication of Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists, have led some scholars to claim that Gordian was an intellectual figure whose career in Roman government, like those of others in the age of the Second Sophistic, may well have been aided by literary or rhetorical achievements.[[10]]

His political career was certainly late-blooming and characteristic of an individual not born into the senatorial elite. Inscriptions from Britain seem to indicate that Gordian served as praetorian governor of Lower Britain in 216, which would indicate that Gordian had not yet risen to the consulship even though he was already in his late 50s.[[11]]   He did eventually serve as a suffect consul, probably under Elagabalus, while Gordian was in his early 60s.[[12]] Gordian may also have served as governor of Syria Coele or commander of the Legio IV Scythica stationed near Antioch, and as praetorian governor of Achaea.[[13]]

In the final year of Maximinus Thrax's reign, when Gordian was
nearly 80, he served as proconsul of Africa, one of the most prestigious
appointments for a senator and former consul, though the appointment fell
to him by lot. The expenses of maintaining a drawn-out war along the Danubian frontier compelled Maximinus to exact greater and greater revenue from the Roman aristocracy. Procurators felt this pressure to bring in more money, and some were quite willing to make false judgments to exact steep fines and confiscate property. One such unscrupulous procurator in the province of Africa provoked local landowners to form a conspiracy which led to the arming of their peasants and the assassination of the procurator in the city of Thysdrus (modern El Djem in Tunisia). The landowners then approached Gordian, who happened to be residing in Thysdrus, and proclaimed him emperor, adding to his names the cognomen Africanus.[[14]] The uprising began in late winter or early spring of 238.[[15]]

Within a few days, Gordian left Thysdrus and entered the major port city of Carthage, where he was enthusiastically welcomed by both the residents and the few troops stationed there. Arrangements were made for the assassination in Rome of Maximinus' praetorian prefect Vitalianus, after which the uprising was publicly announced in the capital and the senate quickly acknowledged Gordian as emperor.[[16]] The ease and speed with which the revolt was able to proceed have led some scholars to suspect extensive organization and planning by African senators, though officially Gordian presented himself as the reluctant choice of a spontaneous uprising.[[17]]

The governor of the neighboring province of Numidia, however, was a senator named Capelianus. Capelianus hated Gordian because of an earlier legal dispute, and Capelianus had a large number of troops at his disposal. Upon learning of Gordian's proclamation as emperor, Capelianus gathered his soldiers together, renewed their loyalty to Maximinus, and marched on Carthage.[[18]]  Gordian's son, Gordian II, was made commander of the ragtag forces (including volunteers among the residents of Carthage) available to defend the city. If Gordian II had not initially been proclaimed emperor along with his father, he was by now.[[19]]  The Carthaginians were no match, however, for the experienced troops under the command of Capelianus. Gordian II died in the ensuing battle; Carthage was captured; and the elder Gordian committed suicide, reportedly by hanging himself with his belt.[[20]] Gordian's reign lasted but three weeks.[[21]]

Gordian's death, however, did not end the senate's desire to rid themselves of Maximinus Thrax. The revolt continued in Rome, with the senators Pupienus and Balbinus proclaimed emperors, and Gordian's grandson Gordian III proclaimed Caesar. By the end of 238, Gordian III would be universally recognized as sole emperor of the Roman world.



Herodian 7.4-9 (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)

Historia Augusta, Life of the Three Gordians 1-16 (not trustworthy; available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library).

Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists preface (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)


Graham Anderson, Philostratus (London: Croom Helm, 1986)

Timothy D. Barnes, "Philostratus and Gordian," Latomus 27 (1968), 581-597

Anthony R. Birley, "Origins of Gordian I" in Michael G. Jarrett and Brian Dobson, eds., Britain and Rome (Kendal: Wilson, 1966), 56-60..

________,  The Fasti of Roman Britain (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981)

Glen W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969)

André Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994), pp.691-743

Karlheinz Dietz, Senatus contra principem (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1980)

Paul M. M. Leunissen, Konsuln und Konsulare in der Zeit von Commodus bis Severus Alexander (180-235 n.Chr.) (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1989)

Xavier Loriot, "Les premières années de la grand crise du IIIe siècle: De l'avènement de Maximin de Thrace (235) à la mort de Gordien III (244)," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.2 (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1975), pp. 657-787

Vivian Nutton, "Herodes and Gordian," Latomus 29 (1970), 719-728

Michael Peachin, Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology, A.D. 235-284 (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1990)

John R. Rea, "Gordian III or Gordian I?", Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 76 (1989), 103-106

Ronald Syme, Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968)

________, Emperors and Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971)

Prescott W. Townsend, "The revolution of A.D. 238: the leaders and their aims," Yale Classical Studies 14 (1955), 49-105


[[1]] Herodian 7.5.2.

[[2]] The untrustworthy Historia Augusta biography gives Gordian a Roman pedigree, claiming his parents were a senator named Maecius Marullus (descended from the family of the Gracchi) and his wife Ulpia Gordiana (related to the emperor Trajan), but both the names and the ancestry are obvious fantasies; Syme, Ammianus and the Historia Augusta, pp.160-163. Gordian's family, however, may well have been connected to prominent families from the Greek East whose scions came to hold high political office in the course of the second century; on these families, see Bowersock, pp.17-29. All of the primary evidence on Gordian I is assembled by Dietz, pp.56-73.

[[3]] Herodian 7.6.3, but Herodian may have exaggerated Gordian's nobility for greater contrast with Maximinus' low social origin.

[[4]] Birley, "Origins of Gordian I," pp.58

[[5]] Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, preface.

[[6]] Barnes, p.587.

[[7]] Nutton, pp.725-728; summary of scholarly views in Anderson, pp.297-298.

[[8]] The Historia Augusta, Gd 4.2, claims Gordian had another son, a claim that can neither be confirmed nor denied. The names provided for Gordian's wife (Fabia Orestilla, Gd 17.4) and daughter (Maecia Faustina, Gd 4.2) are clearly fictitious; Syme, Emperors and Biography, pp.100-101.

[[9]] Historia Augusta, Gd 3.3.

[[10]] Cf. Bowersock, pp.43-58.

[[11]] One might compare the career of the sophist Aelius Antipater, who was adlected to consular rank in his early 50s by Septimius Severus and sent to govern Bithynia and Pontus, Leunissen, p.261; Barnes, pp.593-594, argued that Gordian's political career may have stalled under Septimius Severus because Gordian was on the wrong side of the civil wars that broke out after Pertinax's murder.

[[12]] The claim of the Historia Augusta, Gd 4.1, that Gordian held two consulships, one with Caracalla as colleague and the other as colleague to Severus Alexander, is false.

[[13]] Based on Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, preface; see Leunissen, pp.264-265, 296.

[[14]] Herodian 7.4-5.

[[15]] Perhaps near the end of March: see Peachin, p.28.

[[16]] Herodian 7.6.

[[17]] Townsend, pp.58-65; cf. Dietz, pp.315-322.

[[18]] Herodian 7.9.2-3.

[[19]] Herodian 7.9.4-6; Herodian 7.7.2 indicates that the senate in Rome simultaneously proclaimed both Gordian I and Gordian II emperors; Historia Augusta, Gd 9.6 indicates that Gordian II was proclaimed emperor in Carthage after Gordian I's acclamation in Thysdrus; one fragmentary papryus may indicate that Gordian II's acclamation was not simultaneous with his father's, Rea, pp.105-106, but no firm evidence exists to dispute the simultaneous elevation to the purple of father and son.

[[20]] Herodian 7.9.7-11.

[[21]] Twenty days, according to the Chronographer of 354; twenty-two days according to Zonaras 12.17.

Copyright (C), Michael L. Meckler. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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