Gordian III (238-244  A.D.)

A bust of the Emperor GordianIII

Relatively few details are known about the five-and-a-half year reign of the teenage emperor Gordian III. Continuity with the Severan era seems to have marked both the policy and personnel of his government. Security along the frontiers remained the most pressing concern, and the young emperor would die while on campaign against the expanding Sassanian empire and its energetic leader, Shapur I.

The future emperor was born in Rome on 20 January 225. [[1]] His mother was a daughter of the senator Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus (known later to historians as Gordian I). His father was undoubtedly a senator, but the name of his father is today unknown. [[2]] The father was already dead before the start of the African uprising, involving the boy’s grandfather, against the emperor Maximinus Thrax in early 238. At the time of the revolt, Maximinus was in Pannonia leading military campaigns to protect the Danube region. Maximinus’ representative in Rome was a loyal Praetorian Prefect, Vitalianus. Gordian I’s 13-year-old grandson faced no hardships as a result of the revolt, because Vitalianus was assassinated by agents sent by Gordian I before the African uprising was revealed in Rome.[[3]]

Senators in Rome quickly acknowledged Gordian I as emperor, but the revolt in Africa was soon suppressed. After the deaths of the boy’s grandfather (Gordian I) and uncle (Gordian II) were announced in Rome, probably near the end of April 238, [[4]] a select group of 20 senators decided upon two of their own, Pupienus and Balbinus, as new emperors who would continue to  lead the uprising against Maximinus. [[5]] Not all senators were pleased with the selections, and they immediately stirred up their clients and dependents to prevent a public proclamation of the new emperors. Pupienus, moreover, had been an unpopular urban prefect, and many ordinary Romans were quite willing to take part in rioting against his accession. [[6]]  The grandson of Gordian I made a perfect focal point to represent the concerns of the critics of Pupienus and Balbinus. The 13-year-old was brought from his home, named Marcus Antonius Gordianus after his grandfather, and proclaimed Caesar and imperial heir by the senate. [[7]]

After the death of Maximinus at the siege of Aquileia, perhaps in early June 238, [[8]] conflicts between the two emperors Pupienus and Balbinus, and among the emperors, soldiers and ordinary Romans, came to the fore. Sometime during the summer, soldiers of the Praetorian Guard became unruly during a festival, stormed into the imperial complex on the Palatine, and captured, tortured and killed the emperors. The young Caesar was then proclaimed emperor by both the soldiers and the senate. [[9]]

Little reliable information is available about the first few years of Gordian III’s reign. Pupienus and Balbinus suffered damnatio memoriae, though it is difficult to ascertain how many other members of the senatorial elite (if any) were either dismissed from their posts or executed by the new regime. The families prominent during the Severan dynasty, and even some families prominent under the Antonines, continued to control offices and commands with a teenage emperor on the throne. [[10]] In 240, an uprising again originated in the province of Africa, with the proconsul Sabinianus proclaimed emperor. Like the uprising of Gordian I in Africa two years earlier, this uprising was quickly suppressed, but unlike the events of 238, the revolt of Sabinianus failed to gain support in other parts of the empire. [[11]]

In late 240 or early 241, Gordian III appointed Timesitheus as pretorian prefect. Timesitheus, who was of Eastern origin, had a long career in the imperial service as a procurator in provinces ranging from Arabia to Gaul and from Asia to Germany. [[12]] Timesitheus’ proven abilities quickly made him the central figure in Gordian III’s government, and the praetorian prefect’s authority was enhanced by the marriage of his daughter, Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, to the young emperor in the summer of 241. [[13]]

Maintaining security along the frontiers remained the emperor’s most serious challenge. Difficulties along the Danube continued, but the greater danger was in the East. [[14]] The aggressive expansion of the renewed Persian empire under the Sassanian emperor Ardashir I continued under his son and successor, Shapur I. The focus of that expansion was in upper Mesopotamia (in what today is southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq), much of which had been under direct Roman control for more than a generation. Ardashir may already have captured Nisibis and Carrhae during the final months of Maximinus’ reign. [[15]] In 240, the ailing Ardashir seems to have made his son Shapur co-regent. During this year Hatra, the location of Rome’s easternmost military garrison, (today in northern Iraq roughly 55 miles south of Mosul), was captured by the Sassanians. [[16]]

Planning for a massive Roman military counterattack was soon underway. Soldiers travelled from the West during the following year, when Carrhae and Nisibis were retaken, and the Romans won a decisive victory at Resaina. [[17]] Gordian III joined his army in upper Mesopotamia for campaigning in 243, but during the year the emperor’s father-in-law, Timesitheus, died of an illness. [[18]] The surviving Praetorian Prefect, C. Julius Priscus, convinced the emperor to appoint his brother M. Julius Philippus — who would succeed Gordian III as the emperor Philip the Arab — as Timesitheus’ successor. The campaign against the Sassanians continued as the Roman army proceeded to march down the Euphrates during the fall and early winter. [[19]]

Early in 244, the Roman and Sassanian armies met near the city of Misiche (modern Fallujah in Iraq, 40 miles west of Baghdad). Shapur’s forces were triumphant, and the city was renamed Peroz-Shapur, “Victorious [is] Shapur.” Shapur commemorated his victory with a sculpture and trilingual inscription (at Naqsh-i-Rustam in modern-day Iran) that claimed that Gordian III was killed in the battle. [[20]]

Roman sources do not mention this battle, indicating instead that Gordian III died near Circesium, along the Euphrates some 250 miles upstream from Peroz-Shapur, and that a cenotaph was built at a location named Zaitha. [[21]] Philip is universally blamed in these sources for causing Gordian III’s death, either directly or by fomenting discontent at the emperor by cutting off the troops’ supplies. Philip, who was proclaimed Gordian III’s successor by the army, seems to have reported that the 19-year-old emperor died of an illness. [[22]]

However Gordian III died, it seems unlikely to have been as a direct result of the battle at Misiche/Peroz-Shapur. The emperor’s Persian campaigns were promoted within the Roman Empire as a success. Other than the loss of Hatra, the Sassanians gained control over no additional territory as a result of the war, and Shapur did not disturb Roman interests in upper Mesopotamia for nearly eight years. [[23]] Gordian III was deified after his death, [[24]] and the positive portrayal his reign received was reinforced by the negative portrayals of his successor, Philip.

Gordian III was a child emperor, but his reign was not perceived as having been burdened by the troubles faced by other young emperors (such as NeroCommodus and Elagabalus). Competent administrators held important posts, and cultural traditions appear to have been upheld. Gordian III’s unlikely accession and seemingly stable reign reveal that child emperors, like modern-day constitutional monarchs, had their advantage: a distance from political decision-making and factionalism that enabled the emperor to be a symbol of unity for the various constituency groups (aristocrats, bureaucrats, soldiers, urban residents) in Roman society. The paucity of information about Gordian III’s reign makes it difficult to know whether the young emperor truly lived up to such an ideal, but the positive historical tradition about him gives one the suspicion that perhaps he did.


Herodian 7.6-8.10 (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)

Historia Augusta, Life of the Three Gordians 17-34 (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)

Zosimus, New History, 1.16-19 (available in English translations of Ronald T. Ridley [Canberra: Australian National University, 1982]; James J. Buchanan and Harold T. Davis [Austin: University of Texas, 1967])

Aurelius Victor, Lives of the Caesars 27 (available in English translation in the Liverpool series Translated Texts for Historians).

Eutropius, Breviarium 9.2 (available in English translation in the Liverpool series Translated Texts for Historians).

Epitome de Caesaribus 27.

Zonaras, Epitome 12.17-18.

George Syncellus, Ecloga Chronographia,  ed. Alden A. Mosshammer (Leipzig: Teubner, 1984), p.443.

Secodary Sources:

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

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

Erich Kettenhofen, “The Persian Campaign of Gordian III and the Inscription of Sahpuhr at the Ka’be-ye Zartost,” in Stephen Mitchell, ed.,  Armies and Frontiers in Roman and Byzantine Anatolia  (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International Series 156, 1983), pp.151-171

Frank Kolb, Untersuchungen zur Historia Augusta  (Bonn: Habelt, 1987)

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

Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East: 31 BC-AD 337 (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1993)

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

Hans-Georg Pflaum,  Les carrières procuratoriennes équestres sous le Haut-Empire romain (Paris: Geuthner, 1960)

David S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Maurice Sartre, “Le dies imperii de Gordien III: une inscription inédite de Syrie,” Syria 61 (1984) 49-61

[[1]] Chronographer of 354 (date); Epit. de Caesaribus 27.1 (location).

[[2]] The names given by the Historia Augusta, Gd  4.2 for Gordian III’s parents, Junius Balbus and Maecia Faustina, are pure fantasy; Syme, Emperors,  p.169; Epit. de Caesaribus 27.1 describes Gordian III’s father as clarissimo.

[[3]] Herodian 7.6.4-9.

[[4]] Peachin, pp.27-29, in contrast to the earlier dating of Loriot, pp.721-722.

[[5]] Herodian 8.10.3-5; Dietz, pp.326-340.

[[6]] Herodian 8.10.6-7.

[[7]] Herodian 8.10.8-9.

[[8]] Peachin, p.27;cf. Loriot, p.721.

[[9]] Herodian 8.8.3-7; the festival was the quadrennial games dedicated to Capitoline Jupiter and first instituted by the emperor Domitian, Suetonius, Dom. 4.4; cf. Historia Augusta, MB14.2; Aur. Vict. 27.7; Sartre proposes an early May date, but the name chiseled out of the inscription he discusses must have been that of Maximinus, not Gordian III.

[[10]] Dietz, pp.337-340; Potter, pp.29-31

[[11]] Loriot, p.734.

[[12]] ILS 1330; Pflaum, v.2, pp.320-321, suggested Syria or Arabia as Timesitheus’ homeland; Loriot, p.736, proposed Greece or Asia Minor.

[[13]] Kolb, p.99; Loriot, p.738, dates the marriage to early in the year, but his dependence upon several supplements to the fragmentary Acta Arvalium (CIL 6.2114) make his argument unreliable; cf. Sartre, p.55.

[[14]] On troubles along the Danube frontier, see Loriot, pp.753-757; Potter, p.35.

[[15]] George Syncellus, Mosshammer p.443 (= Dindorf, p.681); Zonaras 12.18; Millar, p.153, discounts these Byzantine authors, maintaining that Nisibis and Carrhae were more likely captured by Shapur in 241 after the capture of Hatra.

[[16]] The Cologne Mani Codex, 18.2-12, credits the Sassanian capture of Hatra to Ardashir (called “Dariardaxar” in the text) and places the event in the same Seleucid year in which Shapur received imperial authority, a year which ran from mid-April 240 until late-March 241; Kettenhofen, p.152; Potter, p.190.

[[17]] Historia Augusta, Gd 26.6 (recapture of Carrhae and Nisibis), though the comment that Antioch had also fallen to the Persians was false; Potter, pp.192-193, accepts the Historia Augusta’s 242 date for the recapture of Carrhae and Nisibis, but Kettenhofen, pp.153-154; Loriot, pp.767-769; and Millar, pp.153-154, date these events to 243. Also in this same year must have been the battle of Resaina mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus 23.5.17.

[[18]] Historia Augusta, Gd 28.1, 29.1 (giving the year 243); Zosimus 18.2; Kolb, pp.122-129, suggests Timesitheus died in the final days of 242, but Chastagnol, p.736 n.2, pointed out that the Historia Augusta’s 243 date is firm.

[[19]] Kettenhofen, pp.155, 171 (map).

[[20]] Kettenhofen; Millar, p.154.

[[21]] Ammianus Marcellinus 25.3.7; Eutropius 9.2.3; Zosimus 3.14.2; cf. Epit. de Caesaribus  27.3, which locates the  death at Ctesiphon but the cenotaph prope fines Romani Persicique imperii; Potter, pp.202-203; the date of death was at the very end of January or in early February, Peachin, pp.29-30.

[[22]]On the sources for Gordian III’s death, see Loriot, pp.770-774; Potter, pp.204-212. Byzantine chroniclers state that Gordian III died in battle after a horse fell on him, but the statement has little credibility. Historia Augusta, Gd 31.2, Zosimus 1.19.1 report Philip’s claim that Gordian died of an illness.

[[23]] Millar, pp.154-159.

[[24]] Historia Augusta, Gd 31.3, Eutropius 9.2.3.