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Gordian I

(c. 159 - 238 CE)

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Gordian I

Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus

Ruled as

Imperator Caesar Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus Senior Augustus


22 March – 12 April 238 CE


c. 159 CE


12 April 238 CE

Coin of Gordian I

Gordian I was born around 159 CE and had the names Marcus Antony Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus. Together with his son Gordian II, he was emperor for one month in 238 CE – the so-called “Year of the Six Emperors”. He was elected during the reign of emperor Maximinus Thrax.

Origin and family

Little is known about his early life and the Gordian family. According to sources, his family was wealthy and of an Equestrian origin, with numerous connections with senators. Of the Gordian lineage, Herodes Attic distinguished himself, who at the court of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius was a famous intellectual and state dignitary.

His primenomen. and nomen – Marcus Antonius suggests that his paternal ancestors obtained citizenship under the Triumvir Mark Antony or one of his daughters in the late Republic. Cognomen, in turn, Gordianus indicates that his lineage may have come from Anatolia (present-day Turkey), more precisely from Galatia or Cappadocia.

According to The story of Augustus his mother was Ulpia Gordiana and his father was the Roman senator Maecius Marullus. Modern researchers, however, have refuted fatherhood. The story of August also states that Gordian’s wife was a woman named Fabia Orestilla, born around 165 CE, who was to be descended from Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. However, modern researchers have also refuted this thesis.

Gordian and his wife (whatever her name was) had two children: a son named Gordian and daughter Antonia Gordiana (mother of the future Emperor Gordian III). His wife died before 238 CE.


Gordian studied rhetoric and literature at an early age. Apparently, in his youth, Gordian was to commit an epic in thirty books praising the emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. However, the lack of success in poetry encouraged him to focus on the art of speaking. He explored the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil. His friend was Serenus Sammonika, an expert on Latin grammar. Apparently, after his death, a huge inheritance of the intellectual (60,000 volumes of books) bequeathed to Gordian.

Gordian naturally joined the army, where he gained a high rank over time. This gave him the opportunity to take command of the IIIIScythica legion in Syria. Gordian’s political career began relatively late. During the reign of Caracalla, he became an edile. It was then that, thanks to numerous games and games, it gained popularity. However, he was careful and calm, which did not arouse the Emperor’s suspicions. Moreover, at the behest of the ruler, Gordian wrote the long poem Antoninias. Gordian survived the turbulent times of the Syrian Dynasty, which proved that he was a controlled person and kept away from any intrigue and political connotations. During this time, Gordian met the Philostrat in Antioch, who dedicated his work Lives of the Sophists to him or his son. The Greek thinker was guided by the fact that Gordian was a descendant of the famous sophist Herodes Attica. Moreover, he recalls talking to Gordian at the Temple of Apollo in Daphne.

Gordian then served as governor of Britain in 216 CE, and in the reign of Elegabalus took the post of consul. Gordian had numerous ties to senators during his career.

Rising to power

During Alexander Sever (222-235 CE), in the year 223 CE left consulate and began seeking election in Africa Proconsularis. He achieved this in 237 CE after the Emperor was murdered at Moguntiacum, Lower Germania.

The new emperor was Maximinus Thrax, who was unpopular from the outset and considered a barbarian. Moreover, one of his prosecutors (a provincial tax-collecting official) levied very high taxes in Africa and imposed heavy fines for not following the guidelines. The local aristocracy was also falsely accused by the imperial collectors. This eventually led to a rebellion in Africa in 238 CE. Procurator was killed and representatives of the African aristocracy asked Gordian I to assume the Roman throne. Gordian initially protested, arguing that he was already old – he was almost 80 years old. Ultimately, however, he agreed, adopted the purple and the nickname Africanus. This was on March 22, 238 CE.

Due to his “serious” age, Gordian insisted that his son Marcus Antony Gordianus be appointed co-emperor, who thus became himself Gordian II. A few days later, the usurper triumphantly entered Carthage with the cheers of the crowd and the support of local upper classes. Statues of Maximinus began to be overthrown in the city, and the new emperor was greeted with great respect. Moreover, in Rome, Maximinus’ trusted man, the praetorian prefect, was murdered. Gordian also sent a legation under the leadership of Publius Licinius Valerianus to the capital to enlist the senate’s support for himself. The Senate approved the Gordian purple on April 2, and many provinces sided with him.

There was euphoria in Rome itself, compounded by the news of the death of the hated Maximinus Trax. The people hated the ruler and his tax collectors who were looking for any way to get money. As Herodian reports, at that time the streets of Rome were full of lynchings on informers, judges, and collectors. This is how the Greek historian described those times:

The fact is that all peoples are eager for a change of government, but the Roman mob, because of its tremendous size and diverse elements, is unusually prone to instability and vacillation. […] Acts of civil war were committed in the name of freedom and peace and security.

Herodian, Roman history, VII.7

The Fall

Despite initial successes, unexpectedly, troops from Numidia marched from the local governor, Capelianus, a loyal supporter of Maximinus. Only one legion of III Augustus and troops of veterans took part in the invasion. Father and son could only count on the local militia and untrained infantry. In the Battle of Carthage, the defense was commanded by Gordian II, who was killed. Upon hearing of this, Gordian I committed suicide by hanging himself from his belt. There is also a version of the events that says that Gordian I took his own life upon hearing of the Capelianus march because he did not believe in victory. Father and son ruled for only 21 days.


Gordian, based on sources, was a gentle person. He and his son were well-educated and were passionate about writing. In their governments, however, both of them focused more on the intellectual sphere. This compels us to say that they did not show the characteristics of a good leader and politician.

The Senate, continuing the rebellion against the rule of Maximinus Thrax, appointed Pupien and Balbin as emperors. Moreover, at the end of 238 CE Gordian III – grandson of Gordian I – will be proclaimed emperor.

  • Herodian, Roman history
  • Historia Augusta
  • Gibbon Edward, Zmierzch Cesarstwa Rzymskiego
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzowych Rzymu, Warszawa 2001

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