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This Week In History

Marcus Antonius Gordianus – January 20, 225 AD

Marcus Antonius Gordianus, commonly called Gordian III, was born on January 20, 225 AD to Maecia Faustina (or possibly named Antonia Gordiana) and an unknown Roman senator. Gordian I was his maternal grandfather and Gordian II was his uncle. When elevated to the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 238, he was 13 years old and the youngest legitimate ruler of the entire duration of the empire. You will find more examples of Gordian coins at the end of this post.

Gordian III medallion

The year 238 was chaotic, opening with the rebellion in North Africa by some of the nobles, who were being taxed at an extreme rate by the current emperor, Maximinus I Thrax, as the method to pay for the emperor’s long, but successful campaigns. The taxes were supposedly so burdensome, they would have immediately bankrupted some of the nobility. Instead of paying, they murdered the local procurator and convinced the governor of North Africa, Gordian I, to proclaim himself and his son, Gordian II as co-emperors. The Gordians went to Carthage and took the name Africanus and sent a letter of intent to Rome with one of their agents, along with tasking him to assassinate the praetorian prefect, Vitalianus – loyal to Maximinus. The coup was successful, much to the relief of the Senate, and after word was posted in the Forum, riots broke out where the citizens then began to slaughter the informants, officials and tax collectors of Maximinus.

The emperor was in Sirmium when he received word of what was transpiring in Rome and began plans to invade Italy. It was then the Gordians made a critical mistake – they demanded the governor of Numidia resign, which he refused. Instead, he gathered his forces and marched on Carthage, not only defeating Gordian II in battle, but also massacring his unprepared army, which resulted in Gordian I committing suicide.

News reached Rome about the deaths of the Gordians and the senate rightfully panicked. Maximinus was marching through Italy, so the senate decided to elevate two members of a council they created to deal with this crisis. Chosen were Balbinus and Pupienus – Balbinus assigned administrative duties and Pupienus given the task of organizing forces to defend Italy. The senate also elevated Gordian III to the rank of Caesar, since the citizens still thought the Gordian line was the rightful rulers. It helped that Gordian III was also famously wealthy, thanks to his grandfather’s long, successful career.

When Maximinus reached Aquileia, he was dragged into a prolonged siege, thanks to the quick-acting Pupienus. The blockaded roads gave Pupienus time to exact his plan to turn the troops to his cause, while being starved of supplies. The armies didn’t want to wage war on its own people in the first place and went along with a plot. Maximinus, and his son, Maximus, were both assassinated and decapitated in camp after being woken up from a mid-day nap. The army of Maximinus and the forces in Aquileia met without incident and disbanded.

This turn of events didn’t help matters much in Rome, however. Balbinus and Pupienus were co-emperors, but they didn’t get along. On top of that, non-Roman forces were already on the move. The Germanic tribes were assaulting the Rhine and Danube, while the Sassanians invaded Euphrates and the Persians stormed Mesopotamia. Pupienus planned to go after the Sassanians, while Balbinus was to deal with the Goths. But, before any plans could even begin, the praetorian guards, fearing they would be replaced by the Germanic bodyguards of Pupienus, stormed the palace, dragged the emperors into the street and murdered and mutilated them, near the end of July. At this time, Gordian III was elevated to the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. In 241, he married Sabinia Tranquillina, who was given the title Augusta. The Roman Empire was lead by Gordian III until 244, when he was killed on campaign against the Sassanians at Zaitha, possibly at the hands of the next emperor, Philip I, the Arab.

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