The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 26
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Gordian III, the last emperor of the Severan dynasty.
Relatively few details are known about the five year reign of the teenage emperor Gordian III. 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 in 225. His mother was a daughter of Gordian I and his father was undoubtedly a senator, although his name is today unknown.
After the deaths of the boy’s grandfather (Gordian I) and uncle (Gordian II) were announced in Rome, a group of senators decided upon two of their own, Pupienus and Balbinus, as new emperors. Not all senators were pleased with the selections and they immediately stirred up their clients to prevent a public proclamation of the new emperors. The grandson of Gordian I made a perfect candidate 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.
Emperors Pupienus and Balbinus were deposed mere months after taking the throne. During a summer festival, soldiers of the Praetorian Guard became unruly, stormed the imperial complex and captured, tortured and killed the emperors. The young Caesar was then proclaimed emperor by both the soldiers and the senate.
Little reliable information is available about the first few years of Gordian III’s reign. The families prominent during the Severan dynasty continued to control offices and commands with a teenage emperor on the throne.
In late 240, Gordian III appointed Timesitheus as Pretorian prefect. Timesitheus had a long career in the imperial service as a procurator in provinces ranging from Asia to Germany. 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.
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. The aggressive expansion of the renewed Persian Empire under Ardashir I continued under his son and successor, Shapur I. The focus of that expansion was in Upper Mesopotamia, much of which had been under direct Roman control for more than a generation. In 240, the ailing Ardashir made his son Shapur co-regent. During this year, Hatra, the location of Rome’s easternmost military garrison, was captured by the Sassanians.
Planning for a massive Roman military counterattack was soon underway. Soldiers traveled from the west during the following year when Carrhae and Nisibis were taken and the Romans won a decisive victory at Resaina. 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. The surviving Praetorian Prefect, C. Julius Priscus, convinced the emperor to appoint his brother M. Julius Philippus, who would succeed Gordian III as emperor. The campaign against the Sassanians continued as the Roman army proceeded to march down the Euphrates.
Early in 244, the Roman and Sassanian armies met near the city of Misiche. Shapur’s forces were triumphant and the city was renamed Peroz-Shapur or “Victorious Shapur.” Shapur commemorated his victory with a sculpture and inscription that claimed that Gordian III was killed in the battle.
Roman sources do not mention this battle, indicating instead that Gordian III died near Circesium, along the Euphrates. M. Julius Philippus is universally blamed 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.
However Gordian III died, it seems unlikely to have been as a direct result of the battle. 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. Gordian III was deified after his death and the positive portrayal his reign was reinforced by the negative portrayals of his successor, Philip.