Gordian II (238 A.D.)

numismatic image of the Emperor Gordian II (c)2001, VCRC

As a legate assisting his elderly father then serving as proconsul of Africa, Gordian II was proclaimed emperor in 238 along with his father,Gordian I, as a result of an uprising against Maximinus Thrax by the province’s overtaxed landowners. Although warmly welcomed as emperor in Carthage, Gordian II found his reign to be nasty, brutish and short. Within three weeks of being proclaimed emperor, Gordian II lay dead on a battlefield outside Carthage in a failed attempt to defend the city against an army loyal to Maximinus.

As emperor, Gordian II shared the official names of his father, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus. Gordian II seems to have been born around the year 192.[[1]] His father, whose family may have originated in Asia Minor, would eventually have a successful senatorial career.[[2]] The name of his mother is unknown.[[3]] If Gordian II is the dedicatee of Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists,, his mother might have been the granddaughter of the second-century sophist Herodes Atticus.[[4]]  Little is reliably known about Gordian II’s life and career before the uprising in Africa that elevated him to the purple.[[5]] The source providing the most information, the biography of the three Gordians in the Historia Augusta, cannot at all be trusted.[[6]]

The Historia Augusta claims Gordian II was a student of the homonymous son of the Severan-era author Serenus Sammonicus, but modern historians are extremely skeptical of not only the claim, but even the existence of the younger Serenus Sammonicus.[[7]] The extensive career provided by the Historia Augusta — quaestor under Elagabalus, praetor and suffect consul under  Severus Alexander — is not entirely improbable but cannot be proved.[[8]]   If he is the dedicatee of Philosotratus’ Lives of the Sophists, Gordian II may also have served as commander of the Legio IV Scythica stationed near Antioch, and as praetorian governor of Achaea.[[9]] Gordian II was a suffect consul before joining his father’s staff in Africa in 237, most likely at the very end of Alexander’s reign or under the reign of Maximinus Thrax. Although it was unusual for a former consul to serve as a legate to another governor, sons regularly served in the provincial staffs of their fathers. In this particular situation, with a father who was nearly 80 years old, having his consular son assist him was probably a beneficial idea.[[10]]

It is not certain whether Gordian II was in Thysdrus (modern El Djem in Tunisia) on the late-winter or early-spring day in 238 when Maximinus’ procurator was assassinated and Gordian I acclaimed emperor.[[11]] In the biography of Maximinus Thrax and his son in the Historia Augusta, Gordian II is said to have been publicly declared emperor along with his father in Thysdrus before the pair departed for Carthage.[[12]] In the biography of the three Gordians, however, the author of the Historia Augusta claims that Gordian II became emperor a few days later in Carthage.[[13]] One fragmentary papryus from Egypt may indicate that Gordian II’s acclamation was not simultaneous with his father’s, but the interpretation is highly speculative.[[14]]  The contemporary author Herodian does not mention Gordian II in the description of events in Thysdrus at the onset of the revolt, but Herodian indicates that when the uprising was announced in Rome several days later, father and son were declared emperors together by the senate.[[15]] Connected to his elevation to the purple, Gordian II received (as did his father) the cognomen  Africanus.[[16]]

Despite the enthusiastic support of the residents of Carthage and the success in Rome that greeted news of the revolt, Gordian II and his father faced an immediate danger. Capelianus, the governor of the neighboring province of Numidia, was a personal enemy of the elder Gordian, and Capelianus had a large number of troops at his disposal. Upon learning of Gordian’s proclamation as emperor, Capelianus gathered his soldiers together, renewed their loyalty to Maximinus, and marched on Carthage.[[17]] Gordian II, was made commander of the ragtag forces (including volunteers among the residents of Carthage) available to defend the city.[[18]] The Carthaginians were no match, however, for the experienced troops under the command of Capelianus. In the ensuing battle, Gordian II was killed. His body was never recovered.[[19]] Carthage was captured by Capelianus, and the elder Gordian committed suicide, bringing to a close a reign of only three weeks.[[20]]

Gordian II would not be the last of his father’s descendants to be hailed as emperor. The uprising against Maximinus Thrax continued in Rome, with the senators Pupienus and Balbinus proclaimed emperors, and Gordian II’s sister’s son Gordian III proclaimed Caesar. By the end of 238, Gordian III would be universally recognized as sole emperor of the Roman world. Gordian II would be deified by his nephew, gaining a legitimacy in death that he failed to achieve in life.


[[1]] Historia Augusta, Gd 15.2 indicates he was 46 when the uprising began in 238.

[[2]] Birley, “Origins of Gordian I,” pp.56-60.

[[3]] The name given in the Historia Augusta, Gd 17.3, Fabia Orestilla, is false; Syme, pp.100-101.

[[4]] Barnes, p.587; such a view does not have wide acceptance, with more scholars believing that Philostratus’ dedicatee was Gordian II’s father, Gordian I; see Anderson, pp.297-298.

[[5]] All of the primary evidence on Gordian II is assembled by Dietz, pp.74-77.

[[6]] The author of the Historia Augusta was far more interested in padding his biography with fictional accounts of Gordian II’s pleasures and passions, such as Gd 19.3, which, coupled with Gd 18.2, provided the source for Edward Gibbon’s famous aperçu concerning Gordian II: “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation”; Gibbon, p.153.

[[7]] Syme, pp.10-11, 184; literary scholars seem not to be so troubled, and willingly continue to identify this younger Serenus with the Quintus Serenus named as the author of the late-antique medical textbook in verse titled the Liber medicinalis,
e.g., Conte, p.613.

[[8]] Historia Augusta, Gd 18.4-5.

[[9]] Based on Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, preface; see Leunissen, pp.264-265, 296.

[[10]] Barnes, pp.591-592.

[[11]] Perhaps near the end of March, see Peachin, p.28.

[[12]] Historia Augusta, Max 14.3.

[[13]] Historia Augusta, Gd 9.6.

[[14]] Rea, pp.105-106.

[[15]] Herodian 7.7.2.

[[16]] Herodian 7.4-5.

[[17]] Herodian 7.9.2-3.

[[18]] Herodian 7.9.4-6.

[[19]] Herodian 7.9.7-11.

[[20]] Twenty days, according to the Chronographer of 354; twenty-two days according to Zonaras 12.17.



Herodian 7.4-9 (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)

Historia Augusta, Life of the Three Gordians 1-16 (not trustworthy; available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)

Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists preface (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)

Secondary Sources:

Graham Anderson, Philostratus (London: Croom Helm, 1986)

Timothy D. Barnes, “Philostratus and Gordian,” Latomus 27 (1968), 581-597

Anthony R. Birley, “Origins of Gordian I” in Michael G. Jarrett and Brian Dobson, eds., Britain and Rome (Kendal: Wilson, 1966), 56-60.

André Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994), pp.691-743

Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: a History, tr. Joseph B. Solodow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994)

Karlheinz Dietz, Senatus contra principem (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1980)

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1 (New York: Modern Library, n.d.)

Paul M. M. Leunissen, Konsuln und Konsulare in der Zeit von Commodus bis Severus Alexander (180-235 n.Chr.) (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1989)

Xavier Loriot, “Les premières années de la grand crise du IIIe siècle: De l’avènement de Maximin de Thrace (235) à la mort de Gordien III (244),” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.2 (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1975), pp. 657-787

Michael Peachin, Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology, A.D. 235-284 (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1990)

John R. Rea, “Gordian III or Gordian I?”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 76 (1989), 103-106

Ronald Syme, Emperors and Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971)