Every Roman commander in Asia Minor in the late Republic conferred Roman citizenship on selected local supporters, and each of them took the commander’s names as his own, usually tacking on his original name as his cognomen. So there are plenty of Pompeii, Julii, and Antonii in the east, and rather fewer of those of other less generous or less prominent men; the Antonii normally had the praenomen and nomen Marcus Antonius.
A Roman’s citizen name, at least in the elaborating form which became all too common in the early Empire, describes his ancestry. So a Marcus Antonius in the third century ad was descended from a Marcus Antonius who had been awarded the Roman citizenship by Mark Antony in the 30s BC. It had become common, at least among the wealthy and senatorial classes, to include also a reference to his maternal family, so a Sempronianus had a grandfather called Sempronius (and a mother called Sempronia). A further cognomen might describe a physical peculiarity (Rufus for a man with red hair, for example), or it might indicate his geographical origin – ‘Gallus’ for a man from Cisalpine Gaul, for example. So M. Antonius Sempronianus Gordianus Romanus was descended from a man who was given the Roman citizenship in the 30s BC by Mark Antony, his maternal family name was Sempronius, with the cognomen Romanus, as an emphasis on his citizenship, perhaps, and his second cognomen Gordianus indicates that he came from Gordion in Galatia. Too many Roman families’ names are common with too many others – there were tens of thousands of Julii, the family name of Julius Caesar and Augustus, both very free with their awards of citizenship, so individuality mandated still more elaborate cognomina to distinguish oneself from others of the same name. ‘Gordianus’ was virtually unique in the names of prominent men of the empire, though it was not uncommon in Asia Minor; ‘Romanus’ was the proclamation of an ancestor’s loyalties in Asia Minor where Roman citizenship was rare and adhesion to Rome equally so.
As if to make up for this deficiency, three men of that name appear in the records in the short period between 238 and 244. The first, or eldest, had a long slow career as a Roman official. He was born a little before 160, and commanded the legio IV Skythica in Syria, possibly during the reign of Septimius Severus (by which time he was almost 50 years old – the normal age for such a command would be the early 40s), and was serving as the propraetorian governor of Britannia in 216. The delay in reaching the legionary command could have been due to dislike by the Emperor Commodus (180–192); his promotion to the post by the Emperor Septimius Severus could be because the emperor wanted a man of little energy or ambition in a sensitive area. He was suffect consul during the reign of Elagabalus, between 218 and 222, long past the normal age for the post. He was governor of Africa in 238 at the age of eighty, which would almost certainly have been his final post – but he surprised everyone.1
He had clearly been caught up in a violent changes in Roman imperial politics which came after the accession of Commodus; his offices were mainly held under Severan emperors (Septimius and Elagabalus), and his last (but one), as governor of Africa, was reached automatically. His politics would seem to be revealed in his career.
The governorship of Africa was a post to which ex-consuls went in rotation, if they lived long enough, and so it was an honour, not necessarily a working post but then, after such a slow and less-than-distinguished career, Gordian suddenly had himself proclaimed as emperor, along with his eldest son, also Gordian (II).2 The precise personal reason or reasons for his action is not known, but the general political condition would be detestation of the Emperor Maximinus Thrax. This coup set off an extraordinary series of events during which, in 238, the Roman Empire had six emperors, five of whom died violently, leaving Gordian’s teenage nephew, Gordian III, as the sole surviving emperor. The political reverberations of Gordian’s rising then lasted for over thirty years, until a new soldier emperor, Diocletian, clamped his iron grip on the empire and began a new sequence of political and administrative changes.
Gordian himself was a cultured man, the author of a long epic poem addressed to the Emperor Caracalla, though Caracalla was hardly the most suitable recipient for anything cultural, and one doubts he ever read it. Philostratus in turn dedicated his Lives of the Sophists to one of the Gordians, presumably as a recognition of the future emperor’s cultural eminence.3
From his name Gordian’s family came from Galatia. It seems very likely that he was born there, and his mother is recorded in an inscription from Ankyra.4 He would need to move to Rome in his teens to pursue his political career; his father is said to have been a senator, reaching the rank of praetor, but he died young. He was therefore rich, and possessed large estates, probably in Galatia, but also no doubt in Italy if he was to qualify for the Senate. He was connected in various ways with other families in the region, with Herodes Atticus, for example, and the rhetor Aquila, who was perhaps Sempronia’s father.5 He was, that is, a member of the Asian aristocratic network. His career was cautious and careful, subject to the interruptions due to the political perturbations of the times. He would be eligible for the consulship (having been through the preliminary stages of aedile (during which he gave public games of a memorable extravagance) and praetor by about the year 200, but he did not reach the consulship until, probably, shortly before 222. In his governorship of Britain he was still at praetorian rank. In fact, he does not seem to have actively sought administrative posts, though to qualify for the governorship of Britain he must have had some experience beyond holding the offices in the city of Rome and commanding a legion for a couple of years. One source says he had been governor of several provinces, but apart from those in Britain and Africa none are securely known.6 This is not a man one would expect to grasp at the imperial office under any circumstances, still less from the base in a province which had no Roman troops stationed in it, other than the governor’s own bodyguard. At a guess he was progressively disgusted at having to serve under such emperors as Commodus, Elagabalus, and Maximinus Thrax, and took the opportunity of a riot in his province to make a final damaging protest. However, it is also possible he was part of a conspiracy which stretched into the Roman Senate, which reacted suspiciously quickly to his pronunciamento.
It ended in tears for Gordian and his son within three weeks. The commander of the legio III Augusta in the neighbouring province of Numidia, a man called Capellianus, was a personal enemy (though he is not known of in any other way). He seized the opportunity to invade Africa; illegally – he was not supposed to leave his own province – unless he had instructions to do so from the Emperor Maximinus. He moved with such speed that the younger Gordian was killed in the subsequent fight, and then the elder Gordian committed suicide.7
This was a period, after the eastern expedition of the Emperor Julius Verus in the 160s, when the eastern provinces of the empire were bestirring themselves. For the first time they began producing men who took an active part in the imperial government.8 Easterners reached the level of the imperial family with Septimius Severus’ wife Julia Domna from Emesa in Syria, and so their son Caracalla was half-Syrian. From Caracalla’s succession in 211 to the death of Philip the Arab in 249, all the emperors but one came from an eastern province. Gordian I therefore was part of a clear pattern, and it may well be that it was in part this atmosphere of eastern revival which propelled him up the career ladder, even though he seems for a long time to have been reluctant, or at least unambitious. It certainly brought him to imperial power – and to his death.
So far as can be seen, he, his son, and his nephew, were the only men from Galatia ever to become emperors. They were hardly shining monuments of decision or the exercise of power, but the old man and his son were directly instrumental in bringing about a political earthquake. It is unfortunate, however, that there is nothing in their Galatian ancestry to suggest that it had anything to do with this result. But this Galatian family, at least, was clearly thoroughly Romanized.