Bust of Gordian I
|Emperor of the Roman Empire|
|Reign||22 March – 12 April 238 (jointly with Gordian II, |
and in competition with
|Successor||Pupienus and Balbinus|
|Died||12 April 238 (aged 79)|
Carthage, Africa Proconsularis
|Spouse||Unknown, possibly Fabia Orestilla|
|Issue||Gordian II, Antonia Gordiana|
|Father||Unknown, possibly Maecius Marullus or Marcus Antonius|
|Mother||Unknown, possibly Ulpia Gordiana or Sempronia Romana|
|Part of a series on Roman imperial dynasties|
|Year of the Six Emperors|
Gordian I (Latin: Caesar Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus Augustus; c. 159 AD – 12 April 238 AD) was Roman Emperor for 21 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.
Little is known about the early life and family background of Gordian I. There is no reliable evidence on his family origins. His family were of Equestrian rank. Gordian I was said to be related to prominent Senators of his time. 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. Gordian’s cognomen ‘Gordianus’ also indicates that his family origins were from Anatolia, more specifically Galatia or Cappadocia.
According to the Augustan History, his mother was a Roman woman called Ulpia Gordiana and his father, the Senator Maecius Marullus. 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). Romana erected this undated funeral inscription to her husband (whose name is lost) who died as a praetor-designate. Gordian might have been related to the gens Sempronia.
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. 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.
Also according to the Augustan History, the wife of Gordian I was a Roman woman called Fabia Orestilla, born circa 165, whom the Augustan History claims was a descendant of the Emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius through her father Fulvus Antoninus. Modern historians have dismissed this name and her information as false.
With his wife, Gordian I had at least two children: a son of the same name  and a daughter, Antonia Gordiana (who was the mother of the future Emperor Gordian III). 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.
Gordian steadily climbed the Roman imperial hierarchy when he became part of the Roman Senate. His political career started relatively late in his life and his early years were probably spent in rhetoric and literary studies. As a military man, Gordian commanded the Legio IV Scythica when the legion was stationed in Syria. He served as governor of Roman Britain in 216 AD and was a Suffect Consul sometime during the reign of Elagabalus. Inscriptions in Roman Britain bearing his name were partially erased suggesting some form of imperial displeasure during this role.
While he gained unbounded popularity on account of the magnificent games and shows he produced as aedile, his prudent and retired life did not excite the suspicion of Caracalla, in whose honor he wrote a long epic poem called Antoninias. 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.
Fabia Orestilla was the great-granddaughter of Antoninus Pius and the wife of Gordian I. She married him probably in 192 and had two sons and a daughter. Orestilla is only mentioned in the Augustan History. In part because the Augustan History also names the father-in-law of the oldest Gordian as "Annius Severus", modern historians do not believe that this is the name of his wife, and dismiss this name and her information as false. An alternative theory many believe is that his wife was the granddaughter of Greek Sophist, consul and tutor Herodes Atticus.
Rise to power
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 which he assumed in 237. However, prior to the commencement of his promagistrature, Maximinus Thrax killed Alexander Severus at Moguntiacum in Germania Inferior and assumed the throne.
Maximinus was not a popular emperor and universal discontent increased due to his oppressive rule. It culminated in a revolt in Africa in 238 AD. This was triggered by the actions of Maximinus’s procurator in Africa, who sought to extract the exorbitant taxes and fines to the extent of falsifying charges against the local aristocracy. A riot saw the death of the procurator, after which the people turned to Gordian and demanded that he accept the dangerous honor of the imperial throne. Gordian, after protesting that he was too old for the position, eventually yielded to the popular clamour and assumed both the purple and the cognomen Africanus on 22 March.
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 (...).
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. Meanwhile, in Rome, Maximinus' praetorian prefect was assassinated, and the rebellion seemed to be successful. Gordian, in the meantime, had sent an embassy to Rome, under the leadership of Publius Licinius Valerianus, to obtain the Senate’s support for his rebellion. The Senate confirmed the new emperor on 2 April and many of the provinces gladly sided with Gordian.
Opposition came from the neighboring province of Numidia. Capelianus, governor of Numidia and a loyal supporter of Maximinus Thrax, held a grudge against Gordian and invaded the African province with the only legion stationed in the region, III Augusta, and other veteran units. Gordian II, at the head of a militia army of untrained soldiers, lost the Battle of Carthage and was killed, and Gordian I took his own life by hanging himself with his belt. The Gordians had reigned only 21 days. 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. 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. Nevertheless, by the end of 238, the recognised emperor would be Gordian III, Gordian's grandson.
∞ (?) Fabia Orestilla
Junius Licinius Balbus
|Gaius Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus|
Philip the Arab
|Furia Sabinia Tranquillina||Philip II|
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- Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians, 6:4
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gordian". Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 247.
| Roman Emperor
Served alongside: Gordian II
Pupienus and Balbinus