Gordian I
White statue of Gordian I
Roman emperor
Reignc. March – April 238[2]
PredecessorMaximinus Thrax
SuccessorPupienus and Balbinus
Co-emperorGordian II
Bornc. 158
possibly Phrygia
DiedApril 238 (aged about 80)
Carthage, Africa Proconsularis
SpouseUnknown, possibly Fabia Orestilla[3]
Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus[4]
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus Augustus[5]
FatherUnknown, possibly Maecius Marullus[6] or Marcus Antonius[7]
MotherUnknown, possibly Ulpia Gordiana[6] or Sempronia Romana[7]

Gordian I (Latin: Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus; c. 158 – April 238 AD) was Roman emperor for 22 days with his son Gordian II in 238, the Year of the Six Emperors. Caught up in a rebellion against the Emperor Maximinus Thrax, he was defeated by forces loyal to Maximinus, and he committed suicide after the death of his son.

Family and background

Little is known about the early life and family background of Gordian I. There is no reliable evidence on his family origins.[8] Gordian I was said to be related to prominent senators of his time.[9] His praenomen and nomen Marcus Antonius suggested that his paternal ancestors received Roman citizenship under the triumvir Mark Antony, or one of his daughters, during the late Roman Republic.[9] Gordian's cognomen ‘Gordianus’ also indicates that his family origins were from Anatolia, more specifically Galatia or Cappadocia.[10]

According to the Historia Augusta, his mother was a Roman woman called Ulpia Gordiana and his father was the senator Maecius Marullus.[6] While modern historians have dismissed his father's name as false, there may be some truth behind the identity of his mother. Gordian's family history can be guessed through inscriptions. The name Sempronianus in his name, for instance, may indicate a connection to his mother or grandmother. In Ankara, Turkey, a funeral inscription has been found that names a Sempronia Romana, daughter of a named Sempronius Aquila (an imperial secretary).[9] Romana erected this undated funeral inscription to her husband (whose name is lost), who died as a praetor-designate.[8]

French historian Christian Settipani identified Gordian I's parents as Marcus Antonius (b. ca 135), tr. pl., praet. des., and wife Sempronia Romana (b. ca 140), daughter of Titus Flavius Sempronius Aquila (b. ca 115), Secretarius ab epistulis Graecis, and wife Claudia (b. ca 120), daughter of an unknown father and his wife Claudia Tisamenis (b. ca 100), sister of Herodes Atticus.[7] It appears in this family tree that the person who was related to Herodes Atticus was Gordian I's mother or grandmother and not his wife.[9]

Also according to the Historia, the wife of Gordian I was a Roman woman called Fabia Orestilla,[3] born circa 165, whom the Historia Augusta claims was a descendant of emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius through her father Fulvus Antoninus.[3][11] Modern historians have dismissed this name and her information as false.[8]

With his wife, Gordian I had at least two children: a son of the same name [12] and a daughter, Antonia Gordiana (who was the mother of the future Emperor Gordian III).[13] His wife died before 238 AD. Christian Settipani identified her parents as Marcus Annius Severus, who was a Suffect Consul, and his wife Silvana, born circa 140 AD, who was the daughter of Lucius Plautius Lamia Silvanus and his wife Aurelia Fadilla, the daughter of Antoninus Pius and wife Annia Galeria Faustina or Faustina the Elder.[7]

Early life

Gordian steadily climbed the Roman imperial hierarchy when he became part of the Roman Senate. His political career started relatively late in his life[8] and his early years were probably spent in rhetoric and literary studies.[9][9] As a military man, Gordian commanded the Legio IV Scythica when the legion was stationed in Syria.[9] He served as governor of Roman Britain in 216 AD and was a Suffect Consul sometime during the reign of Elagabalus.[8] Inscriptions in Roman Britain bearing his name were partially erased suggesting some form of imperial displeasure during this role.[14]

While he gained unbounded popularity on account of the magnificent games and shows he produced as aedile,[15] his prudent and retired life did not excite the suspicion of Caracalla, in whose honor he wrote a long epic poem called "Antoninias".[16][17][18] Gordian certainly retained his wealth and political clout during the chaotic times of the Severan dynasty which suggests a personal dislike for intrigue. Philostratus dedicated his work Lives of the Sophists to either him or his son, Gordian II.[19]

Rise to power

Gordian I on a coin, bearing the title AFR, Africanus. Inscription: IMP. CAES. M. ANT. GORDIANVS AFR. AVG. / VICTORIA AVGG. S C.

During the reign of Alexander Severus, Gordian I (who was by then in his late sixties), after serving his Suffect Consulship prior to 223, drew lots for the proconsular governorship of the province of Africa Proconsularis[8][20] which he assumed in 237.[21] However, prior to the commencement of his promagistrature, Maximinus Thrax killed Alexander Severus at Moguntiacum in Germania Inferior and assumed the throne.[22]

Maximinus was not a popular emperor and universal discontent increased due to his oppressive rule.[23] It culminated in a revolt in Africa in 238 AD (the exact month is unknown).[24] After Maximinus' fiscal curator was murdered in a riot, people turned to Gordian and demanded that he accept the dangerous honor of the imperial throne.[4] Gordian, who was about 80 years according to Herodian, eventually yielded to the popular clamour and assumed both the purple and the cognomen "Africanus".[20]

According to Edward Gibbon:

An iniquitous sentence had been pronounced against some opulent youths of [Africa], the execution of which would have stripped them of far the greater part of their patrimony. (...) A respite of three days, obtained with difficulty from the rapacious treasurer, was employed in collecting from their estates a great number of slaves and peasants blindly devoted to the commands of their lords and armed with the rustic weapons of clubs and axes. The leaders of the conspiracy, as they were admitted to the audience of the procurator, stabbed him with the daggers concealed under their garments, and, by the assistance of their tumultuary train, seized on the little town of Thysdrus, and erected the standard of rebellion against the sovereign of the Roman empire. (...) Gordianus, their proconsul, and the object of their choice [as emperor], refused, with unfeigned reluctance, the dangerous honour, and begged with tears that they should suffer him to terminate in peace a long and innocent life, without staining his feeble age with civil blood. Their menaces compelled him to accept the Imperial purple, his only refuge indeed against the jealous cruelty of Maximin (...).[25]

Due to his advanced age, he insisted that his son be associated with him. A few days later, Gordian entered the city of Carthage with the overwhelming support of the population and local political leaders.[26] Gordian I sent assassins to kill Maximinus' praetorian prefect, Publius Aelius Vitalianus,[27] and the rebellion seemed to be successful.[28] Gordian, in the meantime, had sent an embassy to Rome, under the leadership of Publius Licinius Valerianus,[29] to obtain the Senate's support for his rebellion.[28] The Senate confirmed the new emperor and many of the provinces gladly sided with Gordian.[30] This event is sometimes dated to 2 April, but this is only based on a passage of the Historia Augusta, nowadays considered highly unreliable, that told about an eclipse presaging the imminent fall of the Gordians.[2]

Opposition came from the neighboring province of Numidia.[4] Capelianus, governor of Numidia and a loyal supporter of Maximinus Thrax, held a grudge against Gordian[30] and invaded the African province with the only legion stationed in the region, III Augusta, and other veteran units.[31] Gordian II, at the head of a militia army of untrained soldiers, lost the Battle of Carthage and was killed,[30] and Gordian I killed himself by hanging himself with his belt.[32] The Gordians had ruled only 22 days, the shortest reign of any Roman emperor.[33][34][35] Gordian was the first emperor to commit suicide since Otho in 69 during the Year of the Four Emperors.


Gordian's positive reputation can be attributed to his reportedly amiable character. Both he and his son were said to be fond of literature, even publishing their own voluminous works.[25] While they were strongly interested in intellectual pursuits, they possessed neither the necessary skills nor resources to be considered able statesmen or powerful rulers. Having embraced the cause of Gordian, the Senate was obliged to continue the revolt against Maximinus following Gordian's death, appointing Pupienus and Balbinus as joint emperors.[36] Nevertheless, by the end of 238, the recognised emperor would be Gordian III, Gordian's grandson.[36]

Family tree

Maximinus Thrax

Gordian I
∞ (?) Fabia Orestilla

Gordian II
Antonia Gordiana(doubted)
Junius Licinius Balbus
consul suffectus
praetorian prefect
Philip the Arab

Gordian III
TranquillinaPhilip II


  1. ^ This bust was made about a decade before his accession to the throne.
  2. ^ a b The exact chronology of events is unknown. See: Rea, J. (1972). "O. Leid. 144 and the Chronology of A.D. 238". ZPE 9, 1-19.
  3. ^ a b c Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 17:4
  4. ^ a b c Southern, p. 86.
  5. ^ Cooley, Alison E. (2012). The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy. Cambridge University Press. p. 497. ISBN 978-0-521-84026-2.
  6. ^ a b c Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 2:2
  7. ^ a b c d Settipani (2001), Continuité gentilice et continuité sénatoriale dans les familles sénatoriales romaines à l'époque impériale
  8. ^ a b c d e f Meckler 2001.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Birley 2005, p. 340.
  10. ^ Peuch, Bernadette, "Orateurs et sophistes grecs dans les inscriptions d'époque impériale", (2002), pg. 128
  11. ^ Krawczuk, Aleksander (1998). Poczet cesarzowych Rzymu. Warszawa: Iskry. p. 147. ISBN 83-244-0021-4. Archived from the original on 7 July 2018. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
  12. ^ Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 17:1
  13. ^ Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 4:2
  14. ^ Birley 2005, p. 339.
  15. ^ Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 3:5
  16. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  17. ^ Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 3:3
  18. ^ Kemezis, Adam M (2014). Greek Narratives of the Roman Empire Under the Severans: Cassius Dio, Philostratus and Herodian. Cambridge University Press.
  19. ^ Grant, Michael (1985). The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, 31 BC–AD 476. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 140. ISBN 0-684-18388-9.
  20. ^ a b Herodian, 7:5
  21. ^ Birley 2005, p. 333.
  22. ^ Potter, pg. 167
  23. ^ Cope, Geoffrey. Gordian I, 2, & 3 (238AD-244AD).
  24. ^ Herodian, 7:4. "After Maximinus had completed three years as emperor [after 22 March 238], the people of Africa first took up arms and touched off a serious revolt for one of those trivial reasons which often prove fatal to a tyrant."
  25. ^ a b Gibbon, Vol. I, Ch. 7
  26. ^ Herodian, 7:6:2
  27. ^ Laale, Hans Willer (2011). Ephesus (Ephesos): An Abbreviated History from Androclus to Constantine X. WestBow Press. ISBN 978-144-971-618-9.
  28. ^ a b Potter, pg. 169
  29. ^ Zosimus, 1:11
  30. ^ a b c Potter, pg. 170
  31. ^ Herodian, 7.9.3
  32. ^ D'Epiro, Peter (2010). The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events, from Caesar Augustus to the Internet. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 978-030-747-666-1.
  33. ^ Filocalus, Chronograph of 354, Part 16: "The two Gordians ruled for 20 days. They died in Africa."
  34. ^ Laterculus Imperatorum Malalianus (7th century): "Gordian ruled 22 days."
  35. ^ Zonaras (c. 1120) Epitome xvii.17: "According to some they reigned about twenty-two days, but according to others not quite three months". A confusion with Balbinus and Pupienus (cf. Symeon Logothete, Chronographia, CSHB, 75)
  36. ^ a b Southern, p. 87.


Ancient sources

Modern sources

Regnal titles Preceded byMaximinus Thrax Roman emperor 238 With: Gordian II Succeeded byPupienusBalbinus