Little is known about Gordian's early life of familiar background. He was from a modest, although extremely rich, equestrian family but climbed the hierarchy until he entered the Roman senate. Gordian had at least two children: Marcus Antonius Gordianus (Gordian II) and Antonia Gordiana, the mother of Gordian III.
Gordian's political career started relatively late in his life and probably his early years were spent in rhetoric and literary studies. As a military man, Gordian commanded the Legio IV Scythica when the legion was stationed in the Syria province. He served as governor of Roman Britain in 216 and was a suffect consul in the reign of Heliogabalus. While he gained unbounded popularity by the magnificent games and shows he produced as aedile, his prudent and retired life did not excite the suspicion of Caracalla, in whose honour he wrote a long epic poem called Antoninias. Gordian certainly retained his wealth and political clout during the chaotic times of the Severan dynasty, which suggest his personal dislike for intrigue.
During the reign of Alexander Severus, Gordian (who was already about 80 years old) threw the lots to the dangerous honours of government in Africa. In the middle of his proconsulship, Maximinus Thrax killed emperor Alexander Severus in Germania Inferior and assumed the throne. Maximinus was not a popular emperor and universal discontent roused by his oppressive rule culminated in a revolt in Africa in 238. Gordian yielded to the popular clamour and assumed both the purple and the cognomen Africanus on March 22. In respect to his advanced age, he insisted that his son, Marcus Antonius Gordianus (Gordian II), be associated with him. A few days later, Gordian entered the city of Carthage with the overwhelming support of the population and local political leaders. Meanwhile in Rome, Maximinus' pretorian prefect was assassinated and the rebellion seemed to be successful. The senate confirmed the new emperor and most of the provinces gladly sided with Gordian.
Opposition would come from the neighbouring province of Numidia. Cappellianus, governor of Numidia and a loyal supporter of Maximinus Thrax, renewed his alliance to the former emperor and invaded the Africa province with several veteran legions. Gordian lost the battle and his son, Gordian II was killed in the confrontation. In response to the death of his son, Gordian took his own life. They had reigned only thirty-six days.
Gordian had deserved his high reputation by his amiable character. Both himself and his son are men reported to be fond of literature and achieved great accomplishments, publishing voluminous works. But they were rather intellectual voluptuaries than able statesmen or powerful rulers. Having embraced the cause of Gordian, the senate was obliged to continue the revolt against Maximinus, and appointed Pupienus and Balbinus, as joint emperors. Nevertheless, by the end of 238, the recognised emperor would be Gordian III, his grandson.
This entry is adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Maximinus Thrax (235 - 238)
Pupienus and Balbinus (238)