The Reign of Gordian III
(Speculative Musings of the Curious)
As a collector of ancient coins, I began a small collection of emperor Gordian III. The coins are available in abundance and affordable for most collectors. As that collection continued to grow, so did my curiosity about this boy emperor. Searching the Internet turned up little in the way of information, just small snippets of information that are repeated pretty much on other sites with some variation. Researching the possibility that the history was in written form not readily available or referenced on the Internet, led me to basically the same point; little is known of the reign of Gordian III and what is known is open to interpretation. Only when I began to research the period between 235-285 A.D., did I begin to understand this lack of historical data, although it has done little to satisfy my curiosity. As I have been able to continue researching both Gordian III and his coinage, those "little snippets" of information began to take shape into a story that combines the little truths we know, with logic as to why and what may have occurred. This article should more appropriately be labeled "speculative" history. The reader should keep this in mind in determining the validity of the information presented. Hopefully as I acquire additional research, this story can grow into a less speculative piece.
The reign and assassination of Maximinus at Aequileia and subsequent appointment of Balbinus and represents the beginning of a period, 235-285 A.D., marked by secessionist empires, civil and foreign warfare lasting for a half a century. It has been noted that during this period, there are few reliable accounts of events and probably with good reason. The constant upheaval in the Empire likely made the role of historian a difficult and futile effort. The history of Rome is filled with accounts of glorifying "good" emperors and vilifying bad" ones for political reasons. Was Constantine I a good emperor as he is often credited to be? Credited with the raising the establishment of Christianity within the empire, Constantine is also remembered as having his son, Crispus, and second wife, Fausta, murdered. Does Nero deserve the all the contempt that history has bestowed on him?
This period is one of relative silence in recording events for posterity. With the exception of the Roman Emperors Gordian III, Philip I, Valerian I, Gallienus, Aurelian, and Probus and the Gallic Secessionist emperor Postumus, few of the thirty plus emperors and usurpers of this fifty-year period ruled for longer than a three-year period (Table 1
). Most in fact, ruled one or two years before dying of disease, assassination or in battle, with a few strange deaths thrown in for good measure. Consistently, the detailed backgrounds of most the emperors and usurpers of this period are scarce. Most seem to have risen from military commands and were somewhat obscure until they were declared emperor.
The primary source of the period, Historia Augusta, is considered a combination of fact and fiction. Written during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine in the fourth century, the authors took great liberties with combining facts with fantasy to recreate history. Were these ancient authors in the dark, as we are today, of the actual events during this tumultuous half century? Byzantine historians also attempted to recreate history with similar results. Seemingly, ancient precursors to the modern day spin doctors.
Standard doctrine about Gordian III indicates the early years of his reign appeared to be a fairly orderly time, although little detail of the exact workings of the government are documented. On the other hand, coinage issued during the approximately 5 ½ year reign is widely available today. We are left with trying to research the history of Gordian III through the few historical accounts available and his coinage. With the available information at hand, I consider this article to be the musings of a curious mind, not a serious study in which little can be factually documented.
The Rise to Emperor
To understand the elevation of Gordian III to emperor, it may be beneficial to look at what is known of his family. Marcus Antoninus Gordianus, known in English as Gordian III, was born to Antonia Gordiana, daughter of Gordian I, and the sister of Gordian II, in ca 225. The name of his father is unknown in history although it has been suggested he held a position in the senate or imperial government. Most historians consider the reference to Junius Balbus and Maecia Faustina, in the Historia Augusta, as the father and mother of Gordian as unreliable. Gordian's birth name is unknown until he took his grandfather's name in 238 A.D.
But how is it that young Gordian III rose to the throne at such a young age? The answer of how the boy emperor rose to the purple at such a young can be tied to the Africa province uprising by Gordian I and II against Maximinus. Gordian I, serving as governor of the Africa province, was declared Augustus by the local population under less than ideal circumstances. Local wealthy youths manipulated a crowd to murder the local procurator, who it was claimed was corrupt, and then persuaded a reluctant Gordian I to assume the title of Augustus at the age of 80. In accepting the title, Gordian I stipulated that his son, Gordian II, be declared co-emperor. The senate, which had earlier grudgingly endorsed Maximinus as emperor, endorsed Gordian I and II and declared Maximinus a rebel essentially beginning a civil war. Even though specifics, as usual, are scare, it has been accepted that the Gordian family was a prominent wealthy family that was generally well regarded by the populace and the endorsement appears to have been a popular decision with the people, who saw the Gordian's as peace loving and faithful Romans. Still, it was unusual for the senate to appear to have "changed their minds" as to who was considered emperor. Maximinus had not exactly endeared himself with the populace or portions of the senate by supplementing the stipends of the military in the west at the expense of the general public and the eastern armies. The eastern armies would later take exception to the favored treatment of the western armies in supporting revolts against Maximinus. In any event, the Africa revolt was ended in a short period of time as the ragtag forces assembled up by the Gordians were no match for the Third Legion, resulting in the deaths of both Gordian I and II.
The death of his uncle, Gordian II, and suicide of his grandfather, Gordian I, led the senate to make an unusual appointment in the form of Balbinus and Pupienius as co-Augusti with equal powers. Neither was proclaimed or assumed the role of "senior" Augustus, as was the norm during most previous reigns of co-Augusti. Both Balbinus and Pupienius were elderly and reportedly had no heirs to which they would have been able to pass the throne to. Perhaps the desire was to proclaim these two unlikely men as "interim" emperors until Gordian III was of age to assume the throne. In retrospect, it may explain why at the beginning of the Gordian Africa revolt, assassins sent by Gordian I, murdered Vitalianus, the loyal prefect of Maximinus in Rome. Gordian I and II must have realized the futility of their revolt. With no organized army to defend their claim and their opponent being the Third Legion, they had little chance of success. It would not defy logic that they saw the only hope for a Gordian to rise to the throne in Rome, as desired by the populace, would be Gordian III and eliminated the threat in the form of Vitalianus, who surely would have executed the remaining Gordian family members in Rome.
The unpopular appointment of Balbinus and Pupienius as co-Augusti led to the appointment of Gordian III, as Caesar, to appease the masses demand that a member of the Gordian family be named emperor. Despite the appointment of Gordian III as the heir apparent to the throne, rioting in Rome occurred in 238 A.D. with sections of the city being burned. The praetorian guard, fearful of reprisals by Balbinus and Pupienius for not controlling the unrest and dissatisfied by their alienation by Balbinus and Pupienius, stormed the imperial palace during the summer festival, captured the two Augusti and murdered the pair. Gordian III was nominated emperor by the praetorian guard with the approval of the senate on July 20, 238 A.D. and was to rule the empire for a five and a half period until his mysterious death on February 25, 244 A.D.
The Early Years
Elevated to the throne at the age of 13, Gordian III appears to have been little more than a figurehead for the first few years. Control of Rome was largely maintained through the aristocratic families, which had considerable influence in the senate. Some have suggested that a Severan era style of government was in place during this period. This presumption makes sense, as families prominent during the Severan era, which ended only 5 years earlier with the assassination of Severus Alexander, were likely to have continued to control offices and key commands during Gordian III's reign, although details of the working of the government are not known for certain. Due to Gordian III's age, his mother and key household eunuchs also exerted considerable influence in the imperial administration apparently using their influence in the abusing Gordian III's early reign.
Perhaps it was a combination of factors that led to this early period being considered as a time of relative order with minimal civil unrest. One of the few personal descriptions, put forth by ancient authors, described Gordian II as a cheerful and good-natured boy. The Gordian family wealth allowed for bonus payments to the people, which certainly would have enhanced Gordian III's reputation. The first donative likely occurred while he was Caesar during the reign of Balbinus and Pupienius and a second payment to the masses occurring in A.D. 240. Gordian III's age, wealth and demeanor probably allowed the boy emperor to separate the duties of the throne, in the eyes of his subjects, from the administrative duties that had plagued other emperors. Those factors plus an "orderly" government could account for this short time of calm and acceptance of the boy emperor.
The influence of the praetorian guard on the administration and the separation of the military and civil administrations became more pronounced in the early part of Gordian III's reign. In that the prefects in the early third century were constantly in attendance to the emperor, it became part of the norm for the emperor to delegate certain functions to the prefects to decide. In the process the prefects evolved from the role of the emperor's bodyguards to include becoming important legal officials and interpreters of the civil law.
While order was noted in Rome, trouble from Germanic tribes, Africa, and the Persians plagued the borders. In 238, German tribesmen crossed the Danube after Maximinus left the region undermanned in his attempt to invade Rome. The governor of Lower Moesia, Tullus Menophilus who was evidently later executed for treason, was able to restore peace in the region through the use of force and bribes. In 240, an uprising by the governor of Africa was put down by the governor of Maurentania without the aid of the Third Legion, which had been disbanded by Gordian III for their part in the deaths of Gordian I and II. Dealing with the Persians had to wait.
The Emergence of the Boy Emperor
Where the first years are marked with an utter lack of detail, 240 A.D. beckons a period in which Gordian III began to take some control of his reign. In late 240 or early 241, Gordian III had the good fortune in the appointment of Gaius Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus as commander of the praetorian guard. Timesitheus has been described as a highly competent capable administrator of humble Eastern origins. He managed to advance from a distinguished career to fulfill a number of high offices. By all accounts, he was a loyal prefect, able to provide the guidance that Gordian III needed to assert himself as emperor. Two letters, noted by Gibbons, between Timesitheus and Gordian III, tells of Timesitheus congratulating Gordian for freeing himself of the influence of the eunuchs and the manner in which he did so, with Gordian acknowledging the errors and inexperience of his past and the reality of a reign in which the truth was often withheld from him. Timesitheus, by virtue of his title, may have been responsible for many of the imperial rulings attempting to limit administrative abuses and reorganize the administration into a more efficient mechanism. While more than likely the real power behind the throne during these years, Timesitheus appears content to having served behind the inexperienced emperor, being teacher, counselor and father figure to the young emperor. An unusual prefect indeed. Under Timesitheus' guidance and encouragement, Gordian III began to grow and emerge from the silence of his early years. Gordian III, under Timesitheus' tutelage, was to make him a relatively popular and emperor from all appearances. Futhermore, Timesitheus' daughter Sabina Tranquillina was to marry Gordian III, in 241, cementing the relationship between Gordian III and Timesitheus.
Timesitheus' rise to prefect was a stroke of good timing for the Empire. In the East, the Persians under King Ardashir invaded northern Mesopotamia, reportedly capturing Carrhae and Nisibis, in 238 during the reign of Maximinus. Accounts of the reasoning behind the invasion vary from the Persians being incited by religious zealots, to versions that Persia was reclaiming territory lost to Alexander the Great by the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, to retribution for Roman aggression. The capture of Carrahae and Nisibis effectively cut off Hatra, leading to its downfall in 239/240 or 240/241. Some reports suggest Antioch also fell as the mint ceased production between 240 and 242 A.D., but nothing substantiates that claim. Even Persian history makes no mention of the taking of Antioch, a curious omission if in fact the city had been in Persian hands. Gordian III is noted as riding through Antioch to "relieve" the city, but no accounts of a battle to retake the city have been documented. The mint may have been temporarily closed as a precaution, due to the initial thrust of the Persian army and the delay in a Roman response, preventing the Persians from gaining access to the gold and silver the mint would have had. Under normal circumstances, it would have been expected the Roman Empire would have mounted an immediate counterattack to regain the region and protect the eastern boundaries of the empire. However, Timesitheus was forced to deal with an incursion on the Danube before being able to look towards the Persians.
The Persian War
After the death of Ardashir in 241/242, his son, Shapur I, ascended as king of the Persians. Shapur I continued the aggressive stance of the Persian Empire towards the Romans. Shapur I would be a major thorn in the Romanís hide for many years to come. In 260, the army of Shapur I captured Valerian I in battle, the only Roman emperor ever captured by a foreign enemy. Some accounts reported that Shapur had Valerian executed and stuffed as a trophy. Other reports are that Valerian died or was executed in captivity. It is not known how accurate any of these reports are.
Finally in 242, Gordian opened the gates of the temple of Janus for the last time in recorded history and the Roman army began its campaign to confront the Persians and Shapur I. Sadly, to reinforce just how poor the recorded history of this period was, little documentation exists on the exact events of this important three-year campaign. It is recorded that Gordian III, alongside Timesitheus, led the Roman forces into battle and routed the Persians at Rasaina, between Carrhae and Nisibis, in 242 or 243. From this point, history is even less precise. The victory in northern Mesopotamia and the continued advance of the Roman army in pursuit of the Persians was heralded in Rome as proof of Gordian's and Timesitheus' initial success. The Roman fortune was not to continue, that is known. Timesitheus died under mysterious circumstances in 243. Whether he died of fever, as reported, or was poisoned, as suspected, is not factually recorded. In either case, the change in prefects was to alter the campaign significantly. Timesitheus was replaced by M. Julius Phillippus, better known as Philip I, who was by chance the brother of C. Julius Priscus, Timesitheus' joint prefect. Philip, known not to have the loyalty to Gordian III exhibited by Timesitheus, would prove to have higher ambitions for the throne.
Under Philip, the Roman army advanced and met the Persians again in battle at Misiche, near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Here the events of what transpired run amok depending on whether the Persian, Roman or later historians account is perceived as accurate or even resembling anything close to the truth. Shapur I made claim that the Roman were thoroughly defeated and Gordian III was killed in battle when a horse fell on him. Although ancient translations have at times led to questioning of the content of the translation, a carving of Gordian III under the hooves of Shapur Iís horse leaves little doubt of the Persian version. The Roman versions make no mention of Gordian being killed in battle and suggests the magnitude of the defeat was not as extensive as claimed by Shapur I. Some Roman accounts make no mention of the battle at all. Roman history does record that Gordian III, died of fever, some 250 miles upstream on the Euphrates from Misiche after concluding a successful campaign. Stranger still is why the Romans would have been encamped at this point when it would not have been a normal path for a return to Rome if the battle at Misiche occurred as alleged. Logically, the battle occurred south of Misiche, closer to the Euphrates. A Roman defeat and subsequent retreat towards Rome, along the Euphrates where Gordian III died would now make sense. It is taken for granted that Gordian died and his tomb erected between Sircesium and Dura, presumably near Zaitha. While we will never know for certain, of the many versions of Gordian IIIís death the most accepted version is one of Philip being involved.
The Death of Gordian III
Interestingly, the widely accepted version of Gordian III's death at the instigation of Philip, while not well documented, is perhaps the most logical. Logical in terms of what is known, the location of Gordianís death and Philip's actions both before and after the emperors death. It is fairly well accepted that Gordian III didn't die in battle at Misiche as claimed by Shapur I. After the Roman defeat against Shapur I, Gordian III and the army likely retreated towards Rome along the Euphrates. The path along the Euphrates had been used in prior campaigns in northern Mesopotamia and it's not out of the question to believe Gordian's troops used it also. Whether Gordian was involved in the battle at Misiche has not been established. Is it possible that while a skirmish did occur, it was not against the main Roman army, but a smaller Roman unit sent by Philip? Many accounts of Philip's actions indicate he, either actively or discretely, spread discord among the army fighting the Persians. Problems, real or conceived, with supply lines serving the troops during the winter months did little to instill confidence in Gordian's abilities and inexperience. Yet, on the other hand, would not Philip's role as prefect meant that he would have had responsibility for arranging for supplies for the army? And why was the army conducting a campaign in that region of the empire during the winter months?
Those few historical accounts existing, all point to Philip, while perhaps not directly murdering Gordian, being behind the events leading up to Gordian's death. The story of Philip causing discord among the troops over the handling of the campaign and problems with the supply lines eventually led to Gordian being murdered by his own troops. The location of Gordian's tomb between Circesium and Sura points to his death occurring there, not in battle at Misiche. The fact that reports sent back to Rome indicated Gordian died of an illness although rumors soon surfaced that Gordian died a violent death. The theory that Philip's ambitions were to sit on the throne as emperor and not serve under Gordian is a mainstay of many accounts of Gordian's demise. As Philip had a son, Philip II, he had the means of establishing a dynastical lineage of his own and didnít need Gordian III, alive or even in a subjugated role as Caesar if Gordian abdicated his throne as is told in some versions.
Philip's actions after the death of Gordian also lend to the mystery and speculation, but strengthen the case against Philip. Immediately after Gordian's death, Philip I was hailed as emperor by the army and negotiated a hurried peace with the Persians, supposedly on terms not favorable to the Romans, in his haste to return to Rome and enforce his claim to the throne. In my mind the most damning actions of Philip was: 1) his objection to Gordian III's deification by the senate although he allowed it to occur to appease the population and avoid civil unrest. Why?; and 2) Later sources noted that he never denied the accusations of his involvement in Gordian III's death. Hardly the actions of a man who came to the throne on legitimate pretenses. A later historian was to note that the emperor, Julian, stopped at the tomb on the way to meet the Persians in battle and noted that Gordian was struck down by Philip and his followers, ending a reign that left unanswered the question of what might have been.
Even with the lack of detail about the reign of the boy emperor, Gordian III, it is not difficult to understand that his reign was unusual and full of promise. Guided by what appears to be an unusually strong, faithful, competent, and ethical prefect, Timesitheus, Gordian III may have in time been able to slow or delay the decline of the empire of old, re-instilling pride and order from chaos. It has been noted that the Persian War prevented Gordian from several building projects in Rome he had planned including colonnades at the Campus Martius and summer baths bearing his name. It has even been speculated that the grandeur of the 1000th anniversary of Rome, including the vast array of animals used, was in part due to the early planning of the administration of Gordian III.
Timesitheus, in his own right, may have had the makings of an emperor had he outlived Gordian III and no heir apparent present. His vision of what was right was badly needed in the empire and he was a man who chose the sovereignty of the empire over any personal ambitions. Instead, this reign of mystery was just one of many during a period that would set the stage for the fall of the Roman Empire over 200 years later.