The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 25
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Gordian I and II, a father and son team that did not rule Rome for long.
Gordian I and II
Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus, 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, though there is no reliable evidence that the family belonged to the highest levels of the senatorial elite.
The historian Augusta claims that the young Gordian wrote an epic poem titled the Antoniniad, which chronicled the reigns of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius in thirty books. This has 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.
Nevertheless, Gordian I’s 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. He did eventually serve as a consul, probably under Elagabalus, while Gordian was in his early 60s. 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.
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 enact 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. The landowners then approached Gordian, who happened to be residing in Thysdrus and proclaimed him emperor.
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. 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.
The governor of the neighboring province of Numidia, however, was a senator named Capelianus. He 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. 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. 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. Gordian’s reign lasted but three weeks.
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.